Rina Sawayama Wants Her Success To Make Space For Asian Women In Pop Music

Jul 19, 2020
Originally published on July 19, 2020 4:36 pm

Rina Sawayama's self-titled debut album is a complex work of pop music, often calling to mind early 2000s R&B, nu-metal, and shuffling between genres in the same song. In the same way she flips through sounds, Sawayama also sings about a lot of complicated topics: her parents' messy divorce, her identity as Japanese British person and her burgeoning understanding of systemic racism, which she says she experienced while studying psychology, sociology and politics at Cambridge University.

"It was only in hindsight that I was like 'Oh, that's the phrase to explain what was going on. That's why the university kept checking my visa, even though I've lived here for 20 years. That's why I get put on the international student register when I'm a home student,' " she says. "All these things that made me feel very uncomfortable at the time and made me feel a little bit othered and like I wasn't deserving."

NPR's Michel Martin caught up with Rina Sawayama shortly after the release of her debut album, but before the death of George Floyd — a killing that led to international protests calling out racism and police violence in the United States. They spoke about Sawayama releasing her debut album later than the pop music industry standard, skewering racist tropes against Asian women in her music videos and how her mother feels about the album after cautioning her daughter about pursuing music. Listen to the radio version in the audio link above, and read on for highlights of the interview.


Interview Highlights

On Asian representation in pop music and her motivations

When I was starting out, I was very, very fixated on what I represented to people. At the time, I remember looking around being like "There's not a single Asian pop artist that I can name." Hayley Kiyoko was sort of coming in a bit, but I was like "I can't name people who have pushed their Asian-ness to the fore and made art out of it." Even just in the process of writing this album, there's so many artists now. I definitely felt the pressure for me to reach this next level of representation. I feel like the first step was me talking about the fact that there's no representation, and then the second step was just being as successful as possible doing something that I would be proud of. It is so stereotypical, but it is so fueled by thinking about what I and my mom would be proud of me doing. Because it was such a big risk to be a musician that I didn't want to sit around and do fluffy pop songs and hope it cut through. I knew that it took something like this to cut through, because there's just so much music out there now. Like so many things in life, it's driven by parental approval; so annoying.

YouTube

On "STFU" and channeling her everyday frustrations

It was honestly one of those songs that came very, very naturally. The hook and the difference between the metal elements and the sweet JoJo-y 2000s R&B elements, that was already there in the instrumental that me and [producer] Clarence Clarity did. It wasn't something that I was like "Oh, I really want to write this song." But I guess all that anger was stored up inside without me knowing. I'm sure a lot of people can relate, any marginalized people, like "Yeah, I guess I should dig up all those annoying things that happen to me every day that I have to suppress to keep going with my life."

On releasing her debut album later than the traditional pop star trajectory

I battle with inner demons of ageism every day, which sounds really stupid, but I'm turning 30 this year, and I just released my debut record. For a pop act, also female, I don't think that would have happened 10 years ago. I've always told myself "Oh I'm too old to do this" or "People don't reach success when they start this late." And I always looked at 17-year-olds like "Why can't I be like Britney [Spears]?" I feel like the vision of the record — and the music videos — has been helped by what I went through in my early-to-mid 20s.

YouTube

On "Dynasty" and exploring family trauma in her music

I wanted to write about familial pain, intergenerational trauma, and try to make it into a pop song. I really wanted to write an honest, damning portrait of my family that has been torn apart by money. On my dad's side, there's a lot of exchange of love with money and that sort of skews people's perspective of love, and I sort of didn't understand what love was for the longest time. I didn't understand that the parental love that you're supposed to get is not meant to be conditional on you doing something. It was a very mixed portrait when I was growing up. So I wanted to cut through the mustard and set the tone for the album. "Won't you cut the chain with me?" That's the question, that's the essay title of the record.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, who would think about setting themes like her parents' messy divorce, Japanese British identity and lame stereotypes of Asian women against a wild fusion of pop, metal and R&B? Well, that would be Rina Sawayama.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "XS")

RINA SAWAYAMA: (Singing) Hey, I want it all, don't have to choose. And when the heart wants what it wants, what can I do? So I'll take that one, that one - yeah, that one, too. Luxury and opulence...

MARTIN: That's "XS" from her debut album. The album is called "Sawayama." It is one of the best-reviewed albums of the year in both the U.S. and the U.K. And Rina Sawayama is with us now from her home in London to tell us more about it.

Rina, thanks so much for joining us.

SAWAYAMA: Thanks so much for having me. It's such a pleasure.

MARTIN: Well, congrats on the album. First of all, I'm guessing that you would have been touring right now in support of the album - is that right? - were it not for all of the circumstances, right?

SAWAYAMA: Yeah, I would have been back and probably celebrating a very - hopefully a very successful tour. But no. Instead, I just - I made some tempeh today, and I think I've over-fermented it, and I'm, like, a little bit drunk from it. So that's (laughter) what my life is reduced to.

MARTIN: Are you very disappointed?

SAWAYAMA: Well, you know what? This is, like, my - I'm going to say this was my fourth attempt at making tempeh because I was just, like, I really want to try...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

SAWAYAMA: ...And, like, make vegan meats. And I've, like, tried seitan. I just - I can't mess with seitan. I just can't do it anymore.

MARTIN: Well, I was really referring to the touring, if you were really - thanks for the update...

SAWAYAMA: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...On the tempeh. But important to know. Thanks for checking in. But I hope you don't mind sort of pointing out that I think one of the things that impresses people is that this is technically your debut album. You have released a mini-album before. But your sound is so polished and so complete and so you. I mean, it just seems hard to believe that this is your debut album.

SAWAYAMA: I come at it from a different angle. And I thank you for saying all those things because, I mean, I battle with inner demons of ageism, like, every day - which sounds really stupid. But, like, this - I mean, I'm turning 30 this year, and I just released my debut record. And for a pop act that's also female, I don't think that would have happened 10 years ago.

You know, I think - I've always told myself, oh, I'm too old to do this, you know? Or, like, people don't get - reach success when they start this late sort of thing. And I always looked at, like, 17-year-olds and, you know, like, why-can't-I-be-like-Britney kind of thing. But I feel like - perhaps like, you know, the vision of the record and also, like, the music video has been helped in part by sort of where I went through my early to mid-20s.

MARTIN: How do you think your experiences as, you know, coming from an immigrant background - I mean - it's kind of a dumb question because it obviously informs the work. But do you remember kind of being conscious of that feeling different, kind of needing to find a way to express that difference?

SAWAYAMA: Oh, yeah, fully. I mean, the first time I really felt as an adult was when I went to Cambridge. And that's when I kind of learned that there's, like, systemic racism. And I didn't - definitely didn't have the words to describe it at that time. It was only in hindsight that I was, like, oh, that's the phrase to, like, explain what was going on. That's why, like, the university kept checking my visa, like, even though I've lived here for, like, 20 years. And, like, that - oh, that's why, you know, I get put on the international student register when I'm a home student.

And, like, you know, all these things that made me feel very uncomfortable at the time and sort of made me feel a bit other and, like, that I wasn't deserving - those are so many questions that I never, ever thought about before I went to Cambridge. And so yeah. I mean, I think I got to process that after I left.

MARTIN: Well, I think one of the ways that you process - if you don't mind my using that - and I have the feeling that this is a song that's going to help other people process - it's called "STFU." And this being NPR and family-friendly, we're going to just have to let people figure out what that stands for.

SAWAYAMA: (Laughter).

MARTIN: But I will set the context. The music video for this song is quite something. At the start of the video, you're on a date with - forgive me, I'll just say it - a kind of white guy - your - you know, bearded plaid shirt guy. And I will play...

SAWAYAMA: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Just a bit of your back-and-forth with him.

SAWAYAMA: Amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STFU")

BEN ASHENDEN: (As character) So you're a singer. Yeah, no, I looked you up. I was, like, oh. I didn't realize - I was quite surprised you sang in English.

SAWAYAMA: Well, I grew up here, so...

ASHENDEN: (As character) You know what? I'm currently writing, like, a fan fiction piece but from the perspective of, like, a little Japanese woman. So it's kind of like a new-age "Memoirs Of A Geisha" - just kind of cool but with more action. I mean, I'm obviously indebted culturally to "Kill Bill." No. 1...

MARTIN: I'm sure there are people all over the country who were, like, basically throwing their shoes at the screen as they watch this.

SAWAYAMA: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Are you kidding me?

SAWAYAMA: (Laughter).

MARTIN: So - and I take it it's a bit of a documentary in the sense that these are all things...

SAWAYAMA: This is based on real life.

MARTIN: These are all things that you've heard. I want to say how did this come together, but I think it's just all too real for a lot of people. But how did you figure out that this could be a song?

SAWAYAMA: It just really flowed naturally. It wasn't something that I was like, oh, I really want to write this song. But I guess, like, all that anger was all stored up inside, yeah, without me knowing. And I'm sure a lot of, you know, people can relate, like any marginalized people are. Like, yeah, that's like - I guess I should dig up all those, like, annoying things that happened to me, like, every day that I just have to suppress this to keep going with my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STFU")

SAWAYAMA: (Singing) Silence finally in my head, but it's too late. You already left. You're preaching even though I'm dead. You're like the first time under my pride. How come you don't expect me to get mad when I'm angry? You've never seen it, though I know I'm not the only one.

MARTIN: Let's listen to another song from the album, and this is "Dynasty."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DYNASTY")

SAWAYAMA: (Singing) I'm losing myself in the darkness of the world. Catch me before I fall. Saving myself is all I really know. Seen it, been done before. I'm a dynasty. The pain in my vein is hereditary. Dynasty. Running in my bloodstream, my bloodstream.

MARTIN: Tell me about this song because, you know, if you're just kind of bopping along in your car, you could kind of glide past what it's saying. But what it's saying is something really profound.

SAWAYAMA: Yeah. I kind of just wanted to write about familial pain, intergenerational trauma and try and make it into a pop song, I guess, and also bring this sort of element of drama. And I guess I just really wanted to write a very, like, sort of honest, like, damning portrait of my family that has been really torn apart by money. And I hear that even, you know, just in any family that money is the biggest reason why people argue. And my parents argued a lot about money. And, you know, on my dad's side, there's a lot of sort of exchange of love with money and sort of that, you know, skews people's perspective of love.

And I sort of didn't understand what love was for the longest time. And I didn't understand the sort of parental love that you're supposed to get is not meant to be like conditional on you doing something. You know, it's just - it was a very mixed portrait when I was growing up. So yeah, I wanted to sort of cut through the mustard and just sort of set the tone for the album in terms of themes. Like, won't you cut the chain with me? Like, that is the sort of question that's like the essay title of the record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DYNASTY")

SAWAYAMA: (Singing) Mother and father, you gave me life. I nearly gave it away for the sake of my sanity. Hurting inside, no end in sight, passing it down. I'm not losing this fight. Mother and father, I know you were raised differently. Fighting about money and this infidelity. Now it's my time to make things right. And if I fail, then I am a dynasty.

MARTIN: Well, how do you feel now that you've got it all out? Not all of it. I'm sure there's always more. But how do you...

SAWAYAMA: It's like everything and more, I feel like.

(LAUGHTER)

SAWAYAMA: Yeah. No. I felt pleased when my mom was - I mean, she's obsessed with the album. And this is someone who was actually like, why can't you do music when you've done several years working as a banker in the city? Why can't you just do music after you've saved up? And we all know that's not how it works in real life. But she tried to trick me. And now she's obsessed with the record. She's just obsessed - because she reads the lyrics. And she was just like, wow. And almost, like, me and my mom went through so much together in such close proximity, like, my mom, I guess, I struggled financially, like, a lot.

So we - me and my mom, like, shared a bedroom until I was like 15, which is probably the most intense thing you can do when you're a teenager growing up in London, like, having your mom, like, literally sleeping in the same room as you. And that sort of continued for several years. And I think she feels very vindicated and very much like this is, you know, the truth. It was our truth. And so, yeah, she feels very strong from it, which is amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE ME 4 ME")

SAWAYAMA: (Singing) Babe, I've been telling you, if you can't love yourself...

MARTIN: That was Rina Sawayama talking about her debut album, "Sawayama." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.