Interview by Clare Shearer
Images by Alexei Hay
“Yes, music is mysterious and sacred and unknowable,
ibut I also practice this goddamn craft like my life depends on it.”
Mitski is the stage name of Mitski Miyawaki, who has released four studio albums: Lush (2012), Retired from Sad, New Career in Business (2013), Bury Me at Makeout Creek (2014) and her forthcoming Puberty 2 (2016). She works closely with producer Patrick Hyland, and every instrument on Puberty 2 was played between the two. Mitski was born in Japan and raised internationally in The Democratic Republic of Congo, Malaysia, China, Turkey and more before moving to New York City, where she is currently based.
With her newest release, Puberty 2, Mitski gives a name to the second-wave adolescence of your 20s—still packed with questions of identity, love and belonging, but paired with the terrible mundanity of making rent and keeping clean. The LP is her fourth and, according to Mitski, a sequel to 2014’s Bury Me at Makeout Creek. Lyrically, Mitski continues to master the tension between morbid, incisive, funny and sincere—in short, charming without implying that her words aren’t also deliberate and crafted—while her guitar and lush arrangements underpin sometimes-screaming, sometimes-soft vocals.
Puberty 2 is perhaps best described by its own lyrics, which range from poetically self-aware (“I am the fire, and I am the forest, and I am the witness watching it”) to fractured and immediate (“I want to see the whole world / I don’t know how I’m going to pay rent / I want to see the whole world”). Born in Japan, Mitski grew up between Asia, Europe and Africa before relocating to the US. She inhabits the emotional world as vividly as that of society: confronting identity politics, patriarchy and racism while evoking the human experience—the fantasy and the fall. In Puberty 2’s opening bars, Mitski personifies Happiness, who comes for a short visit only to disappear: “I told him I’d do anything to have him stay with me / So he laid me down and I felt Happy come inside of me / He laid me down and I felt happy.”
Mitski talks a bit about Puberty 2 and how her art is too often infantilized. For more, her Twitter @mitskileaks is full of wit and wisdom.
Clare Shearer: The other day you tweeted, “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.” What’s your story of getting started as an artist?
Mitski Miyawaki: I started writing songs at around 17 or 18, which I’d say is pretty late compared to a lot of songwriters who do this for a living. I had studied music, mostly independently, since elementary school, but it never seemed like a real job that I could do when I grew up. Then at some point I realized I’m really not good at anything else—and I really don’t want to do anything else—so I went all-in and applied to conservatory to study composition. Since then the study of music has been an all-consuming endeavor, as it likely is for most, if not all, professional musicians.
That’s where I was coming from with that tweet. Yes, my music is emotional and evocative. The songs hit on real things in people’s lives, so maybe that’s why people imagine they come straight out of me with no filter or thought. But they are evocative and effective because I crafted them to be so. I think about every note, every word. I agonize over the composition, and I study and practice daily in order to arrive at these songs. I truly built them. None of them just “happened,” and I think that’s true for all composers! Yet somehow I keep being infantilized in my portrayal as an artist, keep being called “raw” as if music just happens to me and I’m simply an unconscious vehicle for it. It’s very gendered. Yes, music is mysterious and sacred and unknowable, but I also practice this goddamn craft like my life depends on it.
CS: Do you think your itinerant childhood informed the choice to become a musician?
MM: I don’t feel like I chose this lifestyle. I needed to make music and also needed it to become my profession. Once I got in, I realized what that really entailed. If I could just have a nice, healthy routine in my life, I would.
“I’ve become very aware of my body as
my instrument, and my top priority is to take care
of my instrument so it can keep making music.”
CS: How does life on the road shape you?
MM: I’ve become obsessed with maintaining my health, much more so than if I weren’t living such an inherently unhealthy lifestyle. If I catch a cold and can’t sing, that’s it—there go two to three shows. If I don’t have stamina, my body will break down mid-tour, and there goes my job. Most importantly, I won’t be flexible and durable, perform effectively or have the energy for my audience. I’ve become very aware of my body as my instrument, and my top priority is to take care of my instrument so it can keep making music.
CS: Do you imagine that these things will change if you stop moving?
MM: I don’t know because I’ll probably never stop moving.
CS: When your name is on your music, people conflate the two. Would you say that your music is your life?
MM: Music is my life, yes. But making my real name into my public “artist name” was less a conscious thing and more due to a lack of creativity. Sometimes I think I should’ve chosen a pseudonym because I don’t really like that strangers know my name and know things about me.
CS: What is your writing process like?
MM: Lyrics and the vocal melody usually come first, followed by a bass line. Harmony and the chords usually come last. A lot of musicians, especially bands, have told me they come up with the chord progressions first, and I get that—there’s the “jam until we hit on something good” process. But, personally, I don’t work well that way.
CS: In the press release, you mention that Puberty 2 is “kind of a two-parter… a direct growth” from Bury Me at Makeout Creek. How do they work together in your mind?
MM: They were both written on and for guitar, whereas my first two albums were written on and for piano. That’s how my records are divided in my mind. Puberty 2 has much more involved studio work, where I wasn’t as concerned with replicating the songs live as I was with Bury Me.
CS: What are your interests outside of your art?
MM: Haha! I have nothing else. I imagine many artists would say the same. I do enjoy tea, chocolate, books and ghost stories to unwind.
CS: What’s next for you?
MM: A US tour in the summer and Europe tour in the fall, then more things I can’t announce yet.