On a bright November day, Mitski is waiting for me in my hotel lobby in Nashville. She’s dressed practically in a hunter-green fleece, jeans, and light-lavender sneakers. Her face is bare with spots of acne dotting her jawline; her hair is in a clean bob that sways above her shoulders. There’s an understated audacity to Mitski’s person. She’s deliberate and resolute in her decisions, including the hiatus that sent tremors through the Mitski fandom when she said her performance at Central Park’s SummerStage in 2019 would be her “last show indefinitely.” She had been planning on the break for a while, making sure she had enough money saved up before she pulled the plug.
Then she moved to Nashville. She wanted to live in a place that wasn’t New York or Los Angeles and still had ready access to music studios, but she’s spent the pandemic like most of us: in a hole. She hasn’t seen much of the city but has seen the fleets of honky-tonk bachelorette-party buses. She spent a year mixing the album that’s coming out February 4 — her sixth, Laurel Hell — and found it was too much time, because it allowed doubt to creep in. She watched a lot of TV. She baked vegan sweets. It might be the ordinariness of her regular life that makes her feel worlds apart from the movie stars she loves, like Julia Roberts and Nicolas Cage. That “It” factor? She claims not to have it. “I’m not a star. I can say that with confidence because I have met real stars. And I have cowered before them.”
Mitski recalls being backstage at a benefit concert attended by the likes of Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, St. Vincent, Blake Lively. “I started to get a headache and heart palpitations. My hands started to shake. I thought I was gonna throw up, I really did. I told my manager, ‘I need to get out of here,’ and I practically ran out. I remember Taylor Swift talking to me, but I don’t remember what I said back to her. I remember her saying, ‘Well.’ And then leaving.” She laughs. “I’m not the kind of person who gets starstruck, you know.”
“Is it stardom or is it power?” I ask.
“Maybe that’s what it is,” she says. “It was like all the people around them together emitted an energy that made me feel like I was on a bad high. I think you’re always conscious of something when you feel you don’t have it.”
I tell her a story about going to the Boiler Room, a gay bar in the East Village that smells of organic matter, in my 20s and being introduced to a semicircle of six-foot-four white men, blond or blond-seeming, built like college-crew captains. I had the same feeling — of dissociation and panic. I had to get out of there.
“Was it that they made you feel that way or just their collective existence made you feel that way?” Mitski asks. I say I’m not sure.
“When you’re not in the situation, you’d like to believe that you are someone who is above that,” she says. “But then when you find yourself in the situation, you’re right back where you were.”
We’re taking a trip to Mammoth Cave, the world’s longest known cave system. I’m driving — Mitski doesn’t drive. As we head north on I-65, I think about the opening lyrics to her song, “Lonesome Love”:
I call you, to see you again
So I can win, and this can finally end
Spend an hour doing my makeup
To prove something
Walk up in my high heels
All high and mighty
And you say, Hello
And I lose.
A Mitski song lasts about as long as it takes to poach an egg. They are small and will knock you out, like pearls slipped inside the left ventricle of your heart. She has suggested that the brevity of her songwriting comes from a pressure to make herself known upon entrance; an awareness that she only has a short time to make an impression. She has tried her hand at lengthier forms of prose but finds her attention flags. The song is the ideal vehicle for the emotional journey she wants to create: an economy of words suffused with an oversaturation of feeling. Her lyrics speak to the lonely hearts aching in the corner, waiting for a furious love to crush them.
At SummerStage, Mitski wore a cropped white tee, black biker shorts, and knee pads. She was accompanied by a four-person band; there was a white table and chair on the stage that she used in small repetitive gestures. She barely spoke, but when she did, she did so with characteristic concision: “Hello, my name is Mitski, and this is my band.” There is a corseted quality to her performances — good posture, fine diction, precise choreography — that barely contains the roiling fury, destructive impulses, humiliation, longing, heartache, and hunger of her lyrics. A straight back that suffers the tempests of life.
Mitski quit social media during that last 2019 tour, at a moment when many in her place might have doubled down. While she had accumulated a steady following with her previous rock albums, her fifth, Be the Cowboy — which grafted her songwriting onto disco, country, and pop — was pronounced one of the best of 2018. Later it was called one of the best of the decade. Despite her online absence, during the pandemic a new generation on TikTok discovered that her songs spoke to their anguished sense of self, memeing the couplet from her song “Washing Machine Heart”: “Baby though I’ve closed my eyes / I know who you pretend I am.” Her song “Nobody,” already popular, became an anthem of yearning for social contact. (And, in the timeless tradition of being over it, true fans have complained how the meme teens have diluted the meaning of her music.) The territorial relationship fans form with Mitski feels intense, and the irony of commercial success for an introvert might be encapsulated in how an entire crowd will drown her out when she sings, “My God, I’m so lonely.”
The greater her fame, the more people have tried to locate the originary hurts in her biography, the more she withdraws. By her own admission, her growing profile has made her paranoid. Even small talk can feel dangerous.
“Do you have any pets?” I ask as we drive.
“I have two cats.”
“What are their names?”
“Mmmm, I shouldn’t say. The kids on the internet now are very savvy. They could type in the names, figure out where I live.”
“Do your cats have Instagrams?”
“No, but they’re shelter cats. Usually they have microchips where they have their information. Or someone I love could just innocuously be like, ‘A and B, my favorite cats.’ And if people know what their names are, they can go, Oh, I see. And then they would see behind the picture of the cats, the interior of my house. And then they can pinpoint perhaps what that house is.”
“I see,” I say. “Do you live alone?”
“Mm,” she pauses. “I would rather not say that.”
“Here’s the thing,” says Mitski. “In terms of press out in the world, there’s no notion of consent, like the way that there’s consent in sexual situations. Once you say something, it’s public record. Anyone can ask you about it and demand an answer about it at any time. I remember my first press trip to Europe. I’m still traumatized by it. I was nobody, had no power. And because I was nobody, and also because I was an Asian woman, almost all white men, one after the other, would say the most racist, sexist things I have ever heard to this day. I got a lot of sexual harassment. And it wasn’t just one person. I felt like a toilet stall, where I just had to sit there and take shit. Just for another dude to come in and give me shit again. That’s a situation where I kept saying ‘yes’ because I didn’t know that I could say ‘no.’ The traumatic part wasn’t just having things said and done to me. The traumatic part was me sitting there allowing it, over and over.”
Mitski Miyawaki was born in Mie prefecture, located on the southeast curve of Japan. Her mother is Japanese, her father a white American. Even though Japanese was Mitski’s first language, her appearance attracted attention in their small town, a place where it was difficult to be different. Strangers gawked at her and followed her around in grocery stores; she could not assimilate the unassimilable. “I just burnt myself all up hating myself for not being beautiful and perfect,” she says. “I felt like if I could just be pretty, then someone would find me and take me to my life.”
She has lived in various countries — Malaysia, Turkey, the U.S. — and tried on various personas. She discovered she could do it and that all of those iterations were a part of her. She could make herself outgoing and be one of the popular girls, or become the ultimate loner and not speak to anyone, not a soul, then break herself open singing “I Will Always Love You” at the end-of-year talent show. This allows her a sociological perch from which to view humanity. She feels as though she could be anyone and live anywhere. And, actually, that anyone could be anyone. Put culture and circumstance into a jar and apply enough social pressure and anything can emerge: a diamond, an accountant, a rock star.
Now she would just say she’s American, although “I don’t think that’s allowed,” she says, laughing. She would not say she was Japanese, and the question of what her life might have been like if she had never left is too gruesome to imagine. She doesn’t necessarily think of herself as Asian American, although she says so “for the benefit of other people to explain who I am.” She’s uncomfortable with “Japanese American,” although it’s technically accurate, because she doesn’t want to infringe upon the history of internment. The category “person of color” is fraught too. When she appears on a listicle of badass women-of-color musicians, she experiences the same sensation that she does not quite belong. “It almost feels like including me in that list is like, ‘Look, here’s a pale person,’ ” she says.
Initially, Mitski had suggested we go spelunking. She has a sharp, fond memory of wriggling through the bowels of the earth during a high-school field trip in Alabama. She liked it so much she made her band do it too when they were on tour in New Zealand. The idea was nixed this time (too dangerous), but walking through the cave with a tour group of 50 children and their grandparents, I found myself craving dirt, solitude, the euphoria of what Mitski called a “squeeze hole.”
The cave metaphor is irresistible — maybe too apt for an artist whose music feels like being ushered into a private opera house of melodrama. Mitski first found solace as a singer-songwriter at the piano, then with the thrash of the guitar, and more lately in synth pop. Writing has always felt like her one true possession. “It was my little secret garden that I tended to. No one else was allowed in,” she says. “Things get lost or break or disappear. People come and go. But my songs, my writing, it was mine.”
Working in the music industry creates a paradox: Writing demands vulnerability, but capitalism dehumanizes her. “I put my most intimate feelings in a song and sold it,” she says. She demarcates boundaries around the process. After she went dark on her social-media accounts, she handed the passwords over to her management. No A&R people are ever allowed in the studio. “I would lose my shit,” she says. “I couldn’t take any criticism from the business people. I’d be like, ‘Who the fuck are you? What do you do? Show me your work.’ ”
She speaks placidly while lobbing bombs. “Every day, all the time, is exploitation,” she says. “You can’t be a human being. You have to be a product that’s being bought and sold and consumed, and you have to perceive yourself that way in order to function. Everything in the world has a cost: If I truly want the greatest magic in the world, the highest euphoria, the best thing, if I want to do that, I’m going to have to pay an equivalent price.” She accepts this, mostly.
Still, she wishes she hadn’t even released music under her name. It would have made the mental compartmentalization easier. She only uses her initials on her streaming accounts. “Seeing my name just reminds me of the world. It’s just not mine anymore,” she says. “I am a foreigner to myself now.”
Mitski and I are gazing upward at a ceiling inside of the caves’ Rotunda, a space as wide as an amphitheater. The overarching dome and walls are pure limestone — gray and dry and millennia old. An early explorer and cartographer of the caves, Stephen Bishop, called Mammoth Cave “grand, gloomy, and peculiar.” One feels like a supplicant entering the shrine of a disinterested god.
Desecration surrounds us. Ghostly white scratches crisscross the rock, proudly bearing the names of the offenders: Jack + Rose, Etta, Jerry. Older explorers marked their presence with the soot from a candlestick: John Newton, Landram’s Sax-horn Band Aug. 1855. Below us are the remnants of a vast saltpeter-mining operation: large leaching vats and pipes made of poplar, where enslaved Black people scraped the earth and mixed it into a slurry to be boiled into gunpowder for the nation’s war machine. The cave is a site of extraction, the sublime turned into profit.
“Is this the metaphor?” I ask as we survey the ruins.
“Yes,” she says, laughing.
Mitski may sing of unrequited love, but her most intimate dance partner is her own hand. She caresses herself, runs her fingers through her hair, ravishes her palm. Onstage, she captivates the audience by going inward. A flick of the boob elicits screams. Mitski has worked with Monica Mirabile, a performance artist and choreographer. She has studied up on theater, reading about Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, the Polish theorist Jerzy Grotowski, and The Empty Space by Peter Brook, a former director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, from whom she learned that theater is what happens when “a man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him.”
“What I got was that there doesn’t need to be a set,” Mitski says. “I don’t want to do pyrotechnics. I don’t want to do big LED screens. I want to make sure that everything onstage exists because it has to be there. I want the whole show to feel essential. I don’t want anything superfluous. Performance can be as deep as you wanna make it.”
“How deep is it for you?” I ask.
“It’s … It’s my everything. It’s my whole life. It’s all I wanna do. I’ll take anything just to get to perform. I feel like myself. In my daily life, my head is just crowded with thoughts, my past, the future. But when I’m onstage, it’s just that moment, and I feel so connected to other people and to the world and to myself. That’s when I know what I’m doing. That’s when I’m the creator of a world. I am God. It’s a combination of being in control, but also being free to not be in control. You’re just existing and Being with a capital B onstage.”
She pauses. “I sound like an asshole,” she says, laughing. “If someone heard what I was saying, didn’t know who the fuck I was, and didn’t care, they would truly be like, Who the fuck does she think she is? Why’s she talking like she’s fucking special?”
Mitski is quiet the deeper we descend, her fingers swirling through the chilled air, as though conducting a silent symphony. We keep to the periphery of the group as we go down a passageway named Broadway. The tour guide stops and turns on a lantern. Mitski edges along the grapefruit glow and looks out into the void.
Now that we’ve experienced lantern light, our guide suggests we should go one step further, and he snuffs the light out: true darkness. I put my hand out in front of me and flutter my fingers and, for a brief moment, feel as though I can see a flicker — a phantom bird flitting into my field of vision. But it’s just the brain groping for a ledge. I imagine myself unspooling into the void. I sense Mitski drifting away. Too quickly the light returns and breaks the spell.
“I’m sorry I left you all alone,” Mitski says, walking back toward me.
“I’m sad he turned the lights back on,” I say.
“I know,” she whispers. “I wanted to trip right here and be trampled. I wanted to fall down and be destroyed in this cave.”