Interview: Mitski, “I Spent a Lifetime as an Outsider”

After hearing the recent release of Japanese-American artist Mitski‘s new album Puberty 2, my anticipation to speak with the ambiguous artist was extraordinarily high. Having felt that Puberty 2 was one of the best albums of the year so far, I was excited to delve into its content with the intriguing woman behind it. However, not everything always goes to plan with interviews. No matter how excited and prepared you are, it’s still a two-way conversation and Mitski sounded tired, worn out and disinterested. Admittedly, this was deflating during the call. In retrospect, however, it only feels human – and this only furthered the mysterious, but profoundly human elements to Mitski’s artistry. All of the humanity I could feel coming through on Puberty 2 I could also sense in Mitski’s seeming shyness and desire to hold back. She presents herself as a mystery; a puzzle for her listeners to attempt to solve.

If nothing else, Mitski Miyawaki is as intriguing as her music is and that is something to be cherished. It was a privilege to talk with Mitski about her life, her art and the stories behind her stunning latest album.

Hey Mitski. I’ve listened to Puberty 2 a few times now and also got a chance to review it. I sincerely believe it’s one of the best albums I’ve heard this year. Congratulations.

Thank you very much.

How do you feel about the project now that it’s been officially released?

Well, I recorded it in January, so I’ve been sitting with the record for a while. I actually don’t even know how I feel about it anymore, but people are listening now which is good.

One of the things that really blew me away on this album was the lyrics and how you managed to beautifully craft the narrative and conjure up the images that you did. What inspires you when you’re writing your lyrics?

I just feel the need to write them, that’s essentially what inspires me. When I’m writing I’m not trying to do anything, I’m just doing what I feel I need to do.

I know you’ve spoken before about moving around quite a lot growing up, how do you feel that has impacted you as a person and an artist?

I guess I’ll never know for sure because I’ve never lived any other life, I just am who I am and this is it. I can’t know for sure how it’s affected me and how it’s affected my writing, but I assume that it’s made me a lot more able to look at myself and my emotions at a bird’s eye view, because I spent a lifetime as an outsider and I’ve become very good at looking at things from the outside and observing.

One of the tracks I particularly connected to on a personal level was Dan The Dancer, are you able to tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind that track?

An image came up in my head of someone hanging off a cliff, but also simultaneously living their life like it’s not a dire situation, and they’ve always been hanging off a cliff and they’re trying to pretend that it’s okay. And I imagined, what if that person who lived off a cliff fell in love with someone who’s not hanging off a cliff and how they would feel and what they would want to do. What if they want to hold that person’s hand, you know?

Out of curiosity, why wouldn’t my mother approve of the way your mother raised you (as in Your Best American Girl)?

It’s literal, but also metaphorical. Mothers represent where you come from, how you’ve been raised, what your culture is. I think I was just trying to describe viscerally the difference in upbringing and culture between two people.

I’ve seen you get a little bit of negative attention for the track Crack Baby and using the metaphor of drug addiction to sing about love, with some people accusing the track of being insensitive. What are your thoughts on that controversy and the track’s message itself?

In order to actually explain my point of view I would have to cross boundaries in terms of public and private life. I didn’t. All I can really say is that I wrote it when I was a teenager and in a bad place. I guess all I can do is apologise for the insensitivity, because in order for me to actually explain myself I would have to reveal things about my life and about things that I am just not that comfortable with putting out in public. The world is a big place with many opinions. That’s that.

There are so many extraordinary lyrics on the album, but the lyrics on Thursday Girl which go “I’m not happy or sad, just up or down, and always bad” really struck me more than any other. Would you be able to explain the story behind those lyrics and what they mean to you?

I guess it relates to the other song Happy where it occurred to me that happiness is also exhausting. Happiness is an up as opposed to sadness’ down and so both can equally be imbalances.

There’s such a variety of interesting sounds throughout the album, but I feel like I picked up on a punk vibe more than anything else and I’m curious what your thoughts are on that and what you can recall were your major musical influences for the album?

You know what, I’m not really sure. The reality is I think I’m influenced by everything, I wasn’t listening to any one artist while recording, I think it’s just a lifetime of listening to all sorts of music kind of coming out on the album.

The album seemed to end on a more uplifting note where you seem to reach a sense of peace. Do you feel like that was purposeful that you went through that narrative and you did find some peace with what you were dealing with?

Well, I don’t write albums as full albums, I write for the songs instead of albums. I write songs individually and I try to give each of them what they need. A lot of artists write albums thematically or they have an overarching narrative, but I don’t, it was just a collection of songs that I had which amounted to an album. I didn’t really have a message in mind, I think I just listened to the songs and figured out how they flowed best and used that to make the tracklist.

I’ve seen you labelled as ‘indie rock’ on platforms like iTunes, but it seems like there isn’t any one set genre to your music. How do you feel about those genre constructs and constraints, do you feel like that’s an outdated concept?

Yeah, I mean the thing is, I don’t know how I feel about it but if someone asked me what I would rather be called I wouldn’t know the answer to it. I think the whole genre thing is more a way of organising the whole giant world of music. It doesn’t really mean anything to me, but I know that iTunes needs me to put something in the genre section. I don’t really think about genre, but the business world and the marketing world need me to pick a genre.

You spoke recently about M.I.A. being a personal idol of yours, can you tell me a little more about what she means to you?

I randomly found her first album when I think I was 13 or 14. Her music was so different and I connected with it so strongly and immediately. I think she just continues to inspire me because she always seems to be doing exactly what she wants to do regardless of opposition. That’s not to say she’s trying to offend anyone, I don’t think she’s ever trying to do anything to be inflammatory, she’s just doing exactly what she feels is right or she thinks that she should do. It doesn’t really seem to matter to her whether people want her to do that or not, and I just find that so inspiring.

I know I saw you do a live cover of Calvin Harris’ How Deep is Your Love just recently, but I’m curious what music you’re listening to right now?

This makes me sound like an asshole but I’ve just been listening to jazz. I don’t think I can listen to anything remotely similar to myself and my music anymore because I start analysing it or I start listening to it as an artist. With jazz I can just fully appreciate it and absorb it as music, as a whole. And I think jazz is deep and beautiful, so that’s what I’ve been listening to lately.

Do you have plans to come out to Australia for some shows any time soon?

Nothing’s confirmed, but I would very much like to. The intention is there but I don’t have any confirmed dates.

What is next for Mitski?

I’m just going to be on the road and on tour for the next year. That’s my life.

Image: Youtube

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