There are three Asian women tattooed on Rina Sawayama’s wrist. Their bodies intertwine, and a central bare-breasted woman tugs on the ponytails of the pair who flank her. The design, Sawayama explains, is by the late Chinese photographer Ren Hang, whose images capture east Asian bodies in playful, polyamorous moments of joy. “I loved his representation of sexuality,” she says, sipping a soy latte in an east London café. “This one photo shows something that the West won’t perceive Asian woman as — and with this level of solidarity.”
As a Japanese-British artist, Sawayama wants to make it clear that her music is not J-pop, even as, at times, she draws from Shiina Ringo’s shape-shifting aesthetic and Utada Hikaru’s refashioning of millennial pop/R&B — in addition to lacing golden-era Max Martin sounds with a shimmering undercurrent of electronic chaos, courtesy of her collaborator Clarence Clarity. Last year, her independently released RINA EP ricocheted off the psychologist Sherry Turkle’s analysis of how technology both connects and divides us, with tightly coiled songs about racial prejudice and SSRI doses. Following this summer’s single “Cherry,” an early aughts Dior campaign come to life on which Sawayama came out as pansexual, British magazines started calling her pop’s new superstar.
Sawayama is making moves to cement that prophecy, but she’s also one of few artists who can wear khaleesi wigs, star in fashion campaigns, and still pull off an earnest, but relatable song lyric like “I’m just like you.” That’s partly because Sawayama gets what it’s like to stare at your phone’s blue light at a party all night, but mainly because of good-faith endeavors like Alone Together, a wristband project encouraging linkups between fans that come to her shows alone. A campaign for her irresistible new single “Flicker” involves a video callout for fans with “hard to pronounce” names. As the critic Sasha Geffen noted, pop stars can seem like wonder women; Sawayama, by contrast, feels closer to the good friend you really want to succeed.
Sawayama is gearing up for a killer 2019. At least, if her DMs from Grimes, Charli XCX, Kehlani — and planned collaborations with BTS and Bloodpop — are anything to go by. But Sawayama says she is “not interested” in hype. Her gaze is more firmly fixed on reaching global representation on her own terms. “I think everyone has an idea in their head about what a Japanese person looks like or should be like,” she says. “I want to break that with every song I do.”
For your single “Flicker,” you invited fans to send in video submissions speaking about their “hard to pronounce” names. What was the thinking behind that?
I wanted to make the casting call specific to names because that’s what my experience was. I have this really strong memory of when I was in English school in London, between 5 and 7. I remember my teacher doing the register and butchering my name completely. I said to her, “Can you please just say my first name?” And she refused. She did get it right in the end, but I was mortified by that. I wondered how that has come to inform my decision to keep my surname in my stage name. When you see a stage name that is Western and easily recognizable, which my first name is, I think it’s easier to get onboard quicker. But I wanted to leave my surname in there because it means a lot to my identity.
You came out as pansexual on a song this year, “Cherry,” which also talked about the pain of being closeted. Why say it in a song as opposed to, say, tweeting it?
I always wanna start the conversation with the music. “Cherry” was a nuanced record, and that was another point of anxiety. I think it’s really important to show that the LGBTQ community should be proud of ourselves at all times, but not enough people were talking about the shame that comes before the pride.
Have you battled with those feelings of shame?
Definitely. I have Asian parents who have a very racial idealizing of the LGBTQ community. So, like, a white gay guy might be okay to them, but then you think about someone who’s black and gay or Asian and gay, or some other thing that’s not as exposed in the media … I think that [lack of representation is] reflected in how accepting they are of different LGBTQ communities.
What does being queer mean to you?
To me it means family.
Is there any point in your life that your queer family has really uplifted you?
Definitely. One was when I was 17. I went out with a teacher. He was nearly 30, and I got slut-shamed so hard. The only person who was there for me was my friend Louie. He’d been out for a while by then, and he’d been bullied a lot. We understood what each other was going through. It was only recently that someone was like, “You do realize that that’s like a #MeToo thing, right?” And I was like, “Oh, right …” I’d internalized the blame so hard from that period. I’ve written a song about it for this album.
I noticed that BTS shared your music on Twitter. Have you been in touch with them?
I met RM [of BTS] backstage at his O2 gig [in London]. He was like, “Your music was being passed around our team and then I realized that you had a Japanese surname, so I was intrigued.”
When’s the BTS collab coming?
[Laughs.] When they come off tour! That’s why [RM] wanted to meet me, to talk about how we can work together musically. I would love to go to Korea and write with them. Whether it’s for his [solo] project or for BTS, I don’t really care.
Is there anything about the industry that has surprised you in the past year and a half?
That artists have just reached out to me. I thought, To get to these artists I have to go through a whole web of bureaucracy. All my favorite artists have hit me up on social media, on direct message: Charli [XCX], Kehlani, Marina and the Diamonds. Grimes — she’s got a lot of creative projects and ideas going on. Our plan was to write. Rita Ora did a swipe up on “Cherry.” She used to go to school really near my school, so I used to see her around. I really respect her hustle.
Rita Ora’s path has been so convoluted. As an independent artist, do stories like hers seem like a cautionary tale against major labels?
Definitely. I’ve got a two-single [deal] with PIAS at the moment. Right now I’m deciding what to do next. I just need a team that is fully motivated. I don’t care about the advance for myself, but I care about the amount of budget that they’re going to allocate to the project. Do they realize that a pop project’s going to cost a lot? I’m not happy with just going onstage with a mic. I’m gonna have custom shit made, and that’s what’s going to make it special.
Your recent show at Heaven [a 1,600 capacity London venue] involved multiple costume changes and stage setups. Is it your intention to create a scalable show?
I hope so. I don’t take it for granted. For me, the capacity of Heaven is as important for me as any size venue. I redid the same show in San Francisco for 400 people. I’ve been that person in London going to gigs. I stole money from my mum to go to indie shows. I know what it’s like for a show to uplift you. It’s a fucking tough time for the people that are my fans. A lot of them are LGBTQ or they’re Asian or POC, and I want them to come away from the show having felt a sense of love, community, and purpose.
RINA was a concept EP about navigating life in relation to the internet, but your newer singles seem to be more about identity. How do you see the evolution of your songwriting interests?
I used to not talk about myself because I didn’t want to explore my own truths. Since then I’ve been picking apart different aspects of my life. There’s a song [on my album] called “Model Minority,” which is about the path that is paved for east Asians specifically of what you should be like when we grow up. There’s a song called “Dynasty” that’s like t.A.T.u or Evanescence, with a crazy black metal guitar riff. I’m also researching my past. I really want to go to Japan, and ask my mum and my grandparents personal questions that I think, as an Asian family, you don’t really ask.
There was an incident where I was about 10 and I was with another girl. We were naked and kissing; just playing around. My mum came and literally dragged me out. And I felt … I still deeply feel that shame. I’m trying to use songs to heal, so I think it’s important that I ask my mum if she remembers. I’m really gonna go there.