May 24, 2016
What Comes Next: Mitski Is Poised to Take Over the Music World
Here is the best way to listen to Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl”: Put it on three times in a row. For the first listen, allow the song to perform open-heart surgery. Give yourself over to the fuzzed-out power chords that swell in the chorus and then crash into your ears like waves looking for a boat to capsize. Live through the emotions that the song’s electric denouement bubbles up; let them buffet against your chest and threaten to topple you over.
The second time, listen to the words. Realize that, at the moment this song blossoms into an arena-ready anthem, the 25-year-old Mitski Miyawaki (who goes by only her first name when she plays) is singing about how she has never really fit into the rock universe. As the music crests, so does her lamentation. Mitski wails over the chorus, winking at it, highlighting the fact that, while she can clearly write big, meaty American rock hooks, she isn’t the kind of artist the industry has historically celebrated for making them. “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me,” she belts. “And you’re an all-American boy/I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl.”
Mitski expresses her discomfort with fitting into traditional American rock tropes in the middle of a very traditional—but still transcendent—rock song. She is in on the joke, delicately pulling at the corners of what makes her different while confidently blasting out crunchy chords that shake the amplifiers and reverberate throughout a room.
Now listen to it again. Try to hold it all in your mind at once. Notice how Mitski straddles two worlds during these three minutes, struggling to reconcile her giant chords and delicate lyrics into a cohesive mission statement. She uses her words to talk about the frustrations of being not white and not male in a scene still dominated by white men, and then uses her guitar to dismantle any doubt that she belongs there.
“When you’re an adult, I’m learning, you can feel sad but still be a person. You know that your life is not over because you’re sad today.”
The first spin through the song proves that Mitski is a rock star. The second listen proves that she is a poet. The third listen shows that she is still learning to join those outsized talents together and carve out a space for herself in a world that hasn’t always accepted her. She knows exactly what the all-American boys are saying about her; and it still bothers her enough to wind its way into her lyrics. But when the song ends, the reverb of the final note sounds a lot like a last laugh. “Your Best American Girl” is the best American rock song of the year, and Mitski’s stunning new record, Puberty 2, is poised to make her a phenomenon. In calling attention to the ways she veers off the traditional rock trajectory while showing just how capable she is to steer it in new directions, Mitski has primed herself to become the kind of rock star we need now: open-hearted, full of questions, experimental, searching, funny, equally messy and wise, and most importantly, armed with pristine riffs that will blow out your speakers.
When I meet Mitski for matcha at Cha-An tea house in the East Village, she is quick to say that she designed “Your Best American Girl” to work on multiple levels. “I deliberately used a lot of indie rock cliches in that song,” she says. We met at Cha-An because Mitski has given up coffee for tea and doesn’t want to be tempted to backslide. It’s dark and cool and up a flight of stairs, a secret nook in the city. She is wearing an oversized navy sweatshirt with “Worst Behavior” on its front in puffy white block letters, a sartorial ode to Drake lyrics (“though creepy men on the subway give me weird looks, like, oh, I bet you are on your worst behavior,” she jokes). “‘Best American Girl’ is supposed to be tongue in cheek,” she continues. “A lot of critics were like, I’ve heard these chords before, and I was like, yes, that is the point! On the one hand, yes, the song is very emotional. On the other hand, it uses all these things that are already played out by white rock bands. I meant to do that. I do a lot of things that have been done before by white guys in order to express how I can’t fit into that. That I will never be that, but I am using it.”
Mitski is very deliberate about how she describes her music, speaking in neat, clean sentences that wrap themselves up in little bows. Classically trained—she studied music composition at SUNY Purchase—she speaks about her songwriting with the solemnity of someone who has spent years honing her skills in preparation for her big cultural break. She talks with such strong intention, in part, to ensure that people fully grasp the extensive technique she pours into each album; the blood and sweat of sitting down with a guitar and hammering out a verse over and over until it makes sense. Because, as is the case with so many women in rock, it is easy to obfuscate the work behind every Mitski record—Puberty 2 will be her fourth—with claims that she is harnessing something “confessional” and tender, that the songs just rush out of her mouth like secrets she has to tell. This is an essentially gendered way to write about music; it erases a woman’s effort. Mitski is not shy about her desire to counteract it. As she recently wrote on Twitter (a service she is addicted to and particularly adept at using, but more on that later): “F my constant portrayal as a fevered Chosen Girl, a simple medium for ‘raw’ music. like yes music is magic but also I study this f’ing craft.”
So to make things clear: Mitski is not a fevered Chosen Girl or the savior of all indie rock compacted into a 5’4” dynamo. What she is, however, is a brilliant musician who is using her very singular voice to speak truth to power, both in her lyrics and through her public persona, while writing some of the most compelling and beautiful songs to come out of the New York indie scene in a long time. She is neither a metaphor nor an artist that can be boiled down to a soundbyte, instead Mitski investigates and celebrates her prismatic, mercurial nature. One moment she sings about being full of joy, the next about sighing and mumbling to herself in her room alone; one minute she is calling for a “love that falls as fast as a body from the balcony,” and the next she is “holding my breath with a baseball bat.” She’s swooning, melancholy, numb, ebullient, cynical, hopeful, caustic, and gentle. In other words: She is a 25-year-old woman trying to be all the things, and singing about it when she falls short (as we all do).
“I tend to want to work alone when it’s my music. I don’t have to think about other people, I can just think about my vision.”
“There are fundamental definitions of happiness that are different in Japan and in America,” Mitski tells me when I ask her to describe her state of mind when she made Puberty 2. “In the U.S., I think happiness, the word happy is associated to a temporal ecstasy. It’s feeling happy in the moment. It’s more of a surface thing. In Japan, a word means happiness but it’s more about a baseline kind of contentment or fulfillment. I think in the Japanese sense of happiness, maybe I’m happy. Maybe in the American sense, I don’t feel happy or ecstatic all the time. I don’t want to go to parties all the time. There’s that up and down of happy, sad, happy, sad. That’s more of the happiness I’m trying to describe in my work.”
Puberty 2 opens with a song called “Happy” that perfectly encapsulates this feeling of bittersweet contentment—Mitski sings about a man who comes to visit her and have a romantic encounter, but after he leaves, she is just left with “all the cookie wrappers and the empty cups of tea.” She mentions hope and emptiness in the same song, even in the same breath, and then keeps going. “When you’re an adult, I’m learning, you can feel sad but still be a person,” she says. “You know that your life is not over because you’re sad today.”
Mitski’s path towards knowing adulthood spans many countries and potential detours. As the child of a parent in the army, Miyawaki moved all over the world with her family when she was young, including Japan (where she was born, after her mother took a last minute flight there to ensure that her half-Japanese child would have citizenship), the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Turkey, where Mitski spent her teenage years getting into trouble. She decided to return to the States for college, and initially chose to study film at Hunter College because New York was the biggest American city she had heard of. “Growing up abroad, you just think of cities in America and you think of New York,” she says. “But I didn’t have a romance around it. I didn’t come to New York City being like, oh god, I’m going to experience punk and the Velvet Underground and that whole scene. I hadn’t even heard punk music until college.” After transferring to Purchase to focus exclusively on music, Mitski initially pushed herself into a more classical direction. She made her first two albums—2012’s Lush and 2013’s Retired From Sad, New Career in Business—as final school projects, and took advantage of the resources afforded her at conservatory, including a 60-piece orchestra. The resulting albums are stuffed with both intimate piano ballads and sweeping cinematic efforts, as if Tori Amos and Björk got together to play Carnegie Hall (and also spent the the concert singing about chipped nail polish and living in the bathtub).
Mitski laughs off these early records, though she feels affection for them. “You can just hear me trying so hard on those first two records,” Mitski says as our neon green matcha arrives, accompanied by a rich red bean paste and cubes of glutinous mochi dusted in powdered sugar. “You can hear the effort, and I love that about them. There is so much searching and reaching.”
After college, Mitski moved to Brooklyn, and her writing quickly adapted to the sparseness of her new urban existence. She had no orchestra, no full band. Instead, she started writing short, quick punk-inflected songs, channeling the likes of young Patti Smith and Liz Phair. “The third record, Bury Me At Makeout Creek, was very [much about] minimizing and making it simpler and stripping it down,” she says of her 2014 album, which came out to rapturous critical praise. “That was when I didn’t have many resources and I was just using my environment, which was the punk scene in Brooklyn.” If Lush and Retired were Mitski getting her classical training out of her system, Bury Me at Makeout Creek was her final exorcism, a short 30-minute frenzy of hard strumming and vocal acrobatics. The record hit during a time when the New York scene was ready for a woman who could shred (Bury Me made year-end roundups alongside several other hard-edged female rock acts, like Savages, Warpaint, Speedy Ortiz, and Zola Jesus), and soon Mitski was both a festival and critical darling. She played dozens of SXSW showcases, an NPR Tiny Desk Concert, and sold out venues like New York’s Palisades and The Echo in Los Angeles. And yet, embedded in her intense sound on Bury Me were signs of the more multi-faceted approach she has taken on Puberty 2, a maturity of sound that could carry Mitski across the threshold to rock icon status this year.
“What I think everyone is looking for right now is to be able to be not good or not okay, and not have that devalue them in any way”
The third track on Bury Me at Makeout Creek is a haunting melody called “First Love/Late Spring,” in which Mitski allows her voice to go soft, cracking and lilting up into a falsetto as she sings the line, “Wild women don’t get the blues/but I find that lately I’ve been crying like a tall child.” There is a sweetness and wisdom to this lyric, a sign of what was to come. Puberty 2 is both Mitski’s strongest and most delicate record; musically she is embracing her classical past and fusing it with her punk education. She is allowing herself to speak about the issues that matter most to her.
“I think this most recent record is my most mature because I’m not trying to be anything,” she says, spearing her mochi with a tiny wooden utensil that looks like a Lilliputian pitchfork. “I’ve acquired a lot of different tools by now and I know how to use them. I feel instead of reaching to do things that maybe I can’t do yet, I’m finetuning what I can do.”
Suit ► M.Martin
Though Mitski admits that she will always love New York City (“At the end of the day, New York is the place I’ve lived longest. Whenever I come back it’s just like, oh yeah, that’s right. I love this place.”), she decided to vacate her apartment last year after the grueling demands of touring made her Brooklyn rent feel somewhat superfluous. Now, technically a full-time nomad, she splits her days between her parents’ house outside Philadelphia and crashing on friends’ couches around the country (when we spoke a second time, she was sleeping at her manager’s). She keeps her operation minimal. She recorded all of Puberty 2 with just one collaborator, her longtime friend and producer Patrick Hyland.
“I’ve always done this all by myself,” she says. “When I got to college and I saw people my age just putting on shows and being in bands without labels or without anything, I thought, I can do that.” She stops to take a sip of tea, then adds, “When I was in middle school I was really into soccer, and I played midfield because I felt like no one was doing their job, so I had to do their job for them. I think that’s a good metaphor for how I am. Just let me do it. Maybe I’m just not a good team player. But also, maybe I’m too good of a team player. When there are a lot of opinions or cooks in the kitchen, I tend to bring everyone together and value everyone’s opinion and make sure everyone is happy instead of voicing my own opinion. That’s why I tend to want to work alone when it’s my music. I don’t have to think about other people, I can just think about my vision.”
Allowing her own voice to be her guide has allowed Mitski to develop a truly unique perspective on the music industry, one that stands wryly off to the side of the business, like Daria piping in from the bleachers. She exercises this voice most effectively outside of her lyrics through her Twitter account, which is full of witty, koan-like observations about being young and trying to figure out how to be a person. (For example: “having strawberries w nutella while understanding darkly that this has nothing to do w strawberries the strawberries are a shameful excuse” or “strolling thru the chilly rain sans umbrella, feeling good, like a suburban dad rediscovering life, slightly performative, v American Beauty.”) She also uses the account to critique the gender dynamics in the industry and the scrutiny that women who try to play rock music receive on a daily basis. She posts tweets like: “whenever I almost get cocky I get asked at my own headlining show whether I “have an EP out or something.” Or, more recently: “now at 25 I recall all the men my age who made sexual advances towards me as a 9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16yr old+its fuckedness is rly setting in.” She is not afraid to use Twitter to show her fans that there is a real person behind her music, a person who has felt highs and lows and is often up against a great deal of institutional assumptions when she steps onto stage to play her music.
Dress ► Jonathan Cohen
Sandals ► Dear Frances
“I think a lot of people say stuff about artists because there’s not the acknowledgement that they’re a real person,” she says. “I think my Twitter has actually prevented a lot more hate because I get to be myself there. Having my own mouth piece is better than having people speak for me. It’s so shitty to not be seen as a person. That happened in the beginning. And it’s not that I want millions of people to get to know me, but it’s more like I want millions of people to know to leave me alone. If that makes any sense.”
What Mitski does with her social media is what so many twentysomethings in the public eye are doing now: violating a portion of their own privacy in order to gain the humanity to wrestle it back again. But she also realizes the need to remain vigilant and self-protective. “I had to quit Tumblr,” she sighs. “I started getting messages where teenagers would threaten to hurt themselves if I didn’t respond, and I realized that I didn’t want to be that accessible. I think when people hear something they strongly relate to in my song, they think, I’m not alone in this. Sometimes they think, Me and this artist are meant to be together. We’re the same person. And you have to know when to disengage.”
“Everything used to bother me. A troll in a basement in New Jersey telling me to die would bother me.”
She also is learning when not to engage with online vitriol in general. “Everything used to bother me. A troll in a basement in New Jersey telling me to die would bother me,” she says. “Now I just try to keep it light. The reality that if it’s not entertaining, then people won’t listen. That is my very cynical, severe reality. It’s not the place to be openly depressed. That’s why I delete a lot of tweets too, because some tweets are just, like, five minutes later I think, Oh, this is stupid. I don’t think this anymore.”
Fortunately, Mitski says, it is easier than ever for her to keep things buoyant as she heads into the summer; she is making the kind of music she wants to make, has an entire touring and publicity machine surrounding her rise, and she is singing about the subjects that mean the most to her.
“I’m not trying to be a representative of anyone,” she says, of singing about an “American Girl. “It’s just that, realistically, in my daily life, I think about representation every day, and I’ve actually started to try and think more about what it means when I say something. I think a lot of girls feel like they have to be great all the time, they have to be shining all the time. And what I think everyone is looking for right now is to be able to be not good or not okay, and not have that devalue them in any way. I really relate to that and I was happy that people are getting that out of my music”
Top ► Claudia Li
Skirt ► Claudia Li
In the music video for “Your Best American Girl,” Mitski appears on screen in a big cherry red suit from the designer Creatures of the Wind, making googly eyes at a blond adonis. Suddenly, a svelte white woman in full Coachella garb (short shorts, crop top, flower crown) swoops in to start making out with Mitski’s crush. Mitski is left to kiss and caress her own hand. For a moment, this seems like a sad defeat, the shy girl left alone in the corner at a party, wishing. But then, those power chords kick in, and Mitski jumps into frame in a sparkly gold mini-dress, woozily throwing her body all over the room as she communes with her guitar. While the happy couple sloppily kiss in her rearview, Mitski dominates the scene, and then literally drops the mic and swaggers out of the room, leaving gold sequins in her wake. She may not get the all-American boy, but she doesn’t need him. Mitski is the all-American rock star of the future, embracing her identity just as it is, reveling in what makes her different, graced with musical chops that can withstand even the toughest critic.
Go back and listen three more times. You are hearing the sound of what comes next. ♦
Photos by Daniel Dorsa
Stylist: Savannah White
Hair and Makeup: Stefanie Syat
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