The Sound and Fury of Mitski

April 6, 2015

Photo by Rafia Santana

Comprised of ten distorted, snarling punk tunes focused on sadness, madness, and every overlap in-between, Mitski Miyawaki’s third album, Bury Me at Makeout Creek, put the 24-year-old singer-songwriter on music publication radars in 2014, while a stellar showing at this past SXSW brought her another wave of listeners drawn to her vivid lyrics, impassioned delivery, and delightful social media presence (on Twitter and Tumblr, especially).

With a Japanese name, an international upbringing, and a penchant for regularly calling out whiteness and  ignorant men, Mitski is as far away from every Asian girl stereotype as you can get. In the wake of her post-SXSW “discovery” and ahead of the re-release of Bury Me, she spoke to Hyphen about race, sex, perceptions of either and both, and how to make it in a genre composed of people bigger, whiter, but never again louder than her.

You mention your size a couple of times on your Twitter and other social media channels. Do you mind answering: How tall are you?

I think I’m either 5’3” or 5’4” because I haven’t measured myself since school, when you’re required to measure yourself. All I know is that I’m always looking up at people.

It was always interesting being a rock fan and then being that height, just because everybody else is taller than you at shows and in some places, it doesn’t matter, but for a rock show, you’re trying to see the performer, and it’s difficult when you can’t see them over a sea of heads.

Oh my gosh, I actually tweeted about that! Like, when people throw their hands up in the air at shows, I’m like “Noooo!!!”

The initial reason I reached out to you was because you mentioned on social media the surprise over the notion that this tiny Asian woman is making these sad punk songs.  How do you pick up from that kind of thing, and how do you deal with that?  

It’s usually quite direct. People would just ask me, “Who in the band makes the music?” And I don’t anymore, but I used to get a lot of emails saying, “Hey, I loved the production on your music, can you direct me to your producer?” or “Hey, who do you work with to write those songs? I’d like to work with them too.” A lot of other musicians or artists or businesspeople hitting me up about who I work with, assuming that I work with people. Every time I’d be like, “Actually, it’s just me!”

Or, especially when I had male band members, every time, at every show, people would bypass me and go directly to them asking them questions about the songs or the compositions or the gear. There’s that as well. It’s an accumulation of those sorts of interactions.

There’s no way around just being direct about it. When I’d get emails like that, or I’d have people reach out to me about who did what, I would tell them the truth. And at shows, I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t emotionally react anymore, but I have to put myself forward a little too much to compensate, to make sure people know… I don’t know! It doesn’t even matter if people know, but what used to bother me was when people would go directly to my male band members for confirmation or for permission to do things, or to make decisions. I would have to intervene and be like, “Actually, you have to talk to me about it, because I’m the one who booked the show,” or “I’m the one who owns the music,” or “I’m the one who makes those decisions.”

As an Asian American woman working in a still very primarily white, male rock space, what does it feel like moving and interacting with performers, crowds, press, and crew outside of your immediate circle? Going to someplace like SXSW, what do you find yourself doing differently when confronted with this overwhelming majority of people who don’t look or act like you?

I honestly haven’t figured out how to navigate that. You’d think that I’d know by now, but I still don’t really know. I’ve tried many different kinds of things, like being very assertive and very curt, to the point where people would call me the b-word, just to compensate because otherwise people wouldn’t hear me. But then I got tired of that because that takes up so much energy, and the thing about making music is that you really have to be vulnerable. You can’t make good music if you’re not making yourself vulnerable.

I shouldn’t call it a “technique,” but my coping mechanism is just to imagine myself being like water: You can’t cut running water no matter how many times you try to slice it. It just is, and it moves around whatever exists around, and it still holds its own. I try to be that way, even though sometimes it’s so hard. Overall, it’s just the total and complete awareness that you’re an outsider wherever you are.

Speaking of SXSW, you’re three albums into your career and you’re now just being “discovered.” How are you adapting to that larger profile?

It’s like that story about the frog: If you dip it right into boiling water, it’ll feel it, but if you slowly raise the temperature while it’s in there, it won’t know what’s going on. This is my third record, and I’ve been building very gradually and, in my mind, organically. It doesn’t feel like a sudden change; it just feels like I’m taking one step after the next. I’m trying to figure things out one day at a time, and taking things on one thing at a time.  

I was drawn to, in part, the really violent and sometimes disturbing imagery in your music. The songs have a self-aware sadness in them. When writing, have you ever had to step back and be, “Is this too much?” or do you find yourself going the opposite direction and amping up certain aggression?

For better or for worse, I’m really not thinking about “too much/too little” while I’m writing it. It’s very sincere, and I write what I think my emotions are at the time. When I’m editing, sometimes I think about those things but I try not to take away from my initial thoughts or reactions about it, because that would take away from the essence of what the song should be.

Sometimes I write a song, and when I’m editing, I think, This might elicit a strong, negative reaction, or This might be too much, but I don’t want to feel like I’m not doing the song justice or not letting it be what it needs to be. In a weird way, a lot of what I write doesn’t feel like it’s from me. They just come out, and they’re their own beasts and I don’t want to change what they’re meant to be. When you’re editing, you want to make it cohesive, but you also don’t want to change meaning or alter it in a way that would make people comfortable.

It’s great that you used the word “comfortable,” because your music isn’t. At the same time, the pop culture image of the Asian or Asian American woman is that of a certain submissiveness. (To say nothing of the connotations of “comfort women.”) Your music is almost a direct retaliation of that. How does your music buck against that stereotype?

Oh gosh… I don’t even know how I deal with it. I haven’t really figured it out, I just know that I’m not that stereotype and I refuse to be that stereotype. It’s not even my trying to be something or my not trying to be something, it’s just I am something. I can’t help but be that something, and it’s different from what’s expected. I can’t help myself; I can’t do anything about it. Honestly, my whole life, I tried to be what’s comfortable to other people, but there was a point where I just realized, I can’t do it, even if I wanted to. I’m quite clumsy in that way.

When I come across people who are like, “This isn’t what I thought an Asian woman would make,” I would always be shocked and reminded that that kind of thought process really exists. As I’m living my life, how I view the world, in my own body, I’m doing what a person would do, and I’m living how I think I should be living. But when I’m told “You’re not what I thought you were/You’re not what you’re supposed to be,” I’m reminded that I’m not considered what I’m supposed to be.

It’s very tempting to try and pick your battles about what you’re mad about and what you’re going to pursue. Then going into art, where supposedly anything is possible and all influences are welcome, it’s interesting to see what kinds of cultural exchange dynamics are actually happening. Because most of the time, it’s pretty one-sided, at least when it comes to cultural products.

Right! And, a lot of my very good artist friends use Japanese characters in their album art or their music art, and it’s totally innocent on their part because they see these pretty words and want to employ them in their art. It’s hard to bring up those discussions with people that you love and you know are good people.

I still haven’t figured out how to breach that. I’m friends with a lot of PC Music-genre people, and I know them personally and love their music, but they type everything in these Japanese characters that don’t even make sense and it’s like, “Aw man, why did you have to do that?”

You traveled around a lot as a child, but how did you negotiate your Japanese heritage and birth origin around the world, and how has that changed since you’ve set up in America?

It’s still a constant negotiation, and it made me a very angsty teenager. I didn’t grow up in Malaysia, but I spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia, and a lot of my formative years were in Malaysia. I lived in other countries too, but I identify strongly with Malay culture. That said, I can never own it as my identity because I’m not from there.  On the other side of the coin, I’m from Japan but I didn’t grow up there enough to be considered Japanese, and I still look different. I relate strongly to Japan because my mother’s side is all from there and I’m very close to my mother’s family, but when I go there, even when I speak “better” Japanese than local people because I worked that much harder to speak correctly and be considered Japanese, I’m still not considered fully Japanese. Japan can be very puritanical, like with that whole Miss Universe Japan thing.

The thing that really messed me up is that I didn’t know that it was something that could be talked about, or that a lot of these issues of feeling very different were because of my heritage or because of my gender. You just internalize it as “I, individually, am weird,” or “I, individually, don’t belong.” There were no words for these experiences yet, and kids of this generation get to grow up with these words and discussions available that they can find on the Internet and don’t know why. But for, not really my generation, but things happened so fast where so much of that alienation is internalized as your own personal flaws. It’s so much bigger than that.  

It still sometimes happens when you don’t feel your otherness, and to other people it’s such a visual, direct thing. But for you, when you’re coming from a place surrounded by not-white people, to come to America, what was that like?

I spent some of my high school years in America, but not many -- two out of my four -- and it was the first time I was surrounded by white people, and it was insane to me! I was like, “All of you are white and you don’t even realize that you’re white, you just think you’re normal.” And it was more insane to me that they thought I was not-white, coming to the US. In high school, kids didn’t have the vocabulary to see someone who was of a different heritage and acknowledge that they’re a different heritage. They would just see me from elsewhere and it rounded out as me being weird or different. It was very, very weird, but in other countries, I was still a foreigner, so in some ways, I expected to come to the US and finally be in my own country. The big shock was when I got here and I realized I still didn’t feel like I was one of the Americans.

Do you think that plays a large part in the music that you’re making, this perma-outsider identity, in terms of knowing exactly how you’re being seen?

It’s hard to analyze myself because I’m still within myself, and it’s hard to be objective about your own self, but what I’ve noticed is that because I’m always an outsider, I would see things differently or be good at observing things from the outside perspective while also being the subject of it. That helped in the process of writing and making music; you need that weird, complex relationship between subjectivity and objectivity, which came from being very aware of my presence, because everyone around me is always aware of my presence. I never blend in -- I’m always observed, and that triggered me and must affect a lot of people who have my kind of heritage and experience, to see yourself in the way others do.

Bringing it outside of the writing area, how conscious are you of the visual component of you playing with band members who don’t look like you, and work with tech and crew who don’t look like you?

I’m always conscious of it, and I’m working toward… It’s messed up that it’s something I have to work toward and not just something that can happen easily, but I’m trying to make everyone I work with a woman of color or just a non-cis male of color. The whole representation thing was important to me, and I feel like it must be important to people like me, so I’m trying to make as many people of color as visible as possible. Right now, I have two female band members but they’re both white, and that’s fine, but that’s the thing that’s hard to explain to your white friends. It’s almost like, “It’s not you, it’s me,” where you’re great, and I love you, but this is a thing that I have to do. This is bigger than me, and I’m trying to make some sort of statement.

It’s also weird to be a performer on stage, a woman of color, because sometimes people, namely white guys, see me and listen to my music, and are surprised that they relate to what I’m saying. When I’m on stage, sometimes I can tell that I’m not seen as a person, but rather as an “other,” and that creates a whole internal conflict, for people who have seen me as other but are also relating what I’m making. That’s probably good for them, right? I don’t care what’s good for them but, whatever.

It's good for them if they learn something, but in the end, you’re not doing this for them. But do you worry about your own work being used by these people to elevate themselves?

Oh, that’s the story of America. It’s all incorporated in order to benefit the majority.

Unfortunately, even though the actual US population majority leans toward not-white, it’s still a very suffocating culture of whiteness that’s here and is very, very present.

The whole word “majority” is messed up. We say majority, we think white, but the majority of people who are in power… that’s what it comes down to.

One last question: I noticed you’d posted a Princess Mononoke image on your Twitter. What is your favorite Studio Ghibli movie?

Oh my gosh. I have to say Princess Mononoke because that was the first Ghibli movie I saw. It has that place in my heart, but honestly, I’ve cried to every single one of those fucking movies. I grew up with them, and they definitely formed who I am. Sometimes I watch them -- I have a box set of everything in existence from that studio -- just because whenever I do, I remember who I am. 

Lilian Min is a culture writer and USC alum. Read her work and follow her on Twitter.


Lio Min

Lio Min writes about music.