London-based Japanese-American artist Rieko Whitfield is carving a space for herself in the music and art sphere, disrupting the scene with her self-described experimental pop witchcraft. Rooted in her Japanese heritage and experiences as a first-generation immigrant, Rieko's artistry transcends conventional boundaries, weaving together spirituality, collective healing, and a profound sense of interconnectedness.
At the heart of Rieko Whitfield's creative journey lies her EP Regenesis, a speculative mythology exploring themes of rebirth and collective healing. Her sound is entirely unique, deeply intimate and powerful, aided through the use of unconventional sampling; from water to tuning forks to meditative breathwork, the EP is a comprehensive healing journal in holistic therapies. With the world as her instrument, the stage has no limits either for Rieko, as her art film accompanying the track Ashes to Ashes reveals, in its mesmerising beauty. Her live performances also, which she tells us have moved audiences to tears, are entirely immersive experiences, incorporating dance, scent, and live reiki sessions, or even sound healing and automatic writing workshops as a precursory treat. More than simply a concert, Rieko offers a treat for all the senses, as she describes her “performances as acts of live magick.”
This mastery over the visual is also clear through her photography series with Vessel, as Rieko delves deeper into the realms of experimental pop witchcraft, embodying a contemporary aesthetic that celebrates dark feminine power, or as Rieko imagines “an alien who would “eat your husband, steal your wife.””
Forever seeking new horizons, Rieko is also director of Diasporas Now, a platform dedicated to community-building and collective empowerment within historically exclusionary spaces. Looking ahead, Rieko offers a glimpse into her upcoming projects and collaborations, including the release of her EP Zakuro and the creation of a music video for her single Fruit. With METAL, she shares an insight into her wonderful mind, and navigating the intersections of music, art, and spirituality.
Kimono OLIVER HAUS, nails SOMA FAITANIN, jewellery MUTTER.
You are a musician, an artist, and a self-described experimental pop witch; can you tell us a little bit more about this title, where it came from and what it means to you?
I’ve always loved this idea of songs as incantations, and with my interest in spirituality and collective healing, “experimental pop witch” just made sense. We are all more radically interconnected than we often allow ourselves to acknowledge. Witchcraft is just a term I use for rituals of embodied remembering.
This experimental pop witch title seems to be explored further in the photographic series by Vessel that you collaborated on, which is a hauntingly beautiful collection. What was your experience collaborating on this project like and the creative direction behind it?
Photographer Paris Seawell found me through my musical collaborator Luca Eck and came to see one of my live shows. He told me he “literally fell under a spell” and was moved to tears during my set, and from that moment he knew he wanted to work with me.
The images in this editorial are the result of our cosmic, and somewhat spontaneous first collaboration. Stylist Detroit Law had incredible loans on hand after London Fashion Week, and the Vessel team called me over to experiment with a few looks.
It was an afternoon of pure play, shimmering in make-up artist MV Brown’s collection of Isamaya Ffrench pigments while channelling a Jean-Paul Gaultier-esque femme-fatale in a Soma Faitanin corset, or an alien who would “eat your husband, steal your wife” (a phrase we kept repeating on set) in eerie coloured contacts and a latex kimono. Sometimes the best work comes from just having fun.
As a musician I love fashion as a way of engaging in adjacent cultural conversations – and experimental queens like Arca, Eartheater, and Caroline Polachek excel in this visual language. What I’m personally interested in developing is the aesthetic of contemporary witchcraft, and embodying that dark feminine power. I love co-creating this vision with other image makers and stylists, or up-and-coming designers I scout from places like Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art.
How do you find that understanding both art and music influences your work, particularly in the crossover between your performance art and music?
My professional music path began when I composed some songs for my performance art film as an MA student at the Royal College of Art. I was getting booked to perform constantly – first in galleries, then in proper music venues. It wasn’t until the last year or so that I started researching how to properly release those songs as an EP, and understanding how the music industry works.
Before I committed to a full-time art career, I worked for years as a creative strategist for non-governmental organisations around the world. Before that, I studied philosophy in university. I think my diverse background, but maybe more so the way my brain is wired, contributes to my ability to operate and reimagine on an infrastructural level. In my mind, the cultural silos between art and music are not that far apart – the difference is that music, both as a medium and in its modes of distribution, is more democratic. The reason I’m currently keen to move in this direction is that I want to make art more for the people than for the institutions.
Being a multi-skilled musician and artist, what does your creative process look like; is there a structured idea you begin, or do you find a particular way to tune into this creativity?
I think for the way I work, the big picture vision needs to be present from the very beginning. When the concept is strong, it helps me channel my emotions and lived experiences through the veil of metaphors.
I try to keep a healthy detachment between my ego and my art because I know I am only a medium for a source that is infinitely larger than me. This connection comes from meditation, from solitude, from receptivity, and the rest is just a translation of that message through my own lens and multidisciplinary skill sets. Creative expression is my personal form of prayer.
Your EP, Regenesis, is described as a speculative mythology of rebirth and collective healing. Can you share what it means to you to create a speculative mythology?
Speculative mythology is to me an immersive storytelling technique of rewriting traditional mythologies as a proposition for alternative futures. Both my debut EP Regenesis and my upcoming EP Zakuro draw from Shinto and Buddhist stories commonly told in Japan.
Especially as a first generation Japanese immigrant to the United States, and as someone who has moved across continents throughout my adult life, my entire identity has been something of a creation myth in constant revision. I think this is why I am drawn to speculative mythology on a personal level.
On a collective level, I believe history moves in cycles, and the pendulum always swings. The stories we tell, and what energies and intentions we choose to amplify when retelling them, hold influence. Especially for me when channelling messages that can often feel anachronistic, or before their time – the work requires quiet, honest introspection, and tuning out external noise to listen to intuition.
Regenesis EP has also been described as a world-building project and an opera. Could you talk a little more about the significance of the inspiration of the Shinto creation myth in this way of creating worlds, around a myth so tied to this idea of rebirth?
Specifically for Regenesis, the project began as a very DIY art film inspired by the Shinto creation myth of Izanami, a goddess who burned to purgatory while giving birth to the world, while her brother lived to rule the world. The rebirth element of the story is a narrative I made up. I wanted to give this deity a chance to revisit Earth sometime in the post-apocalyptic future, to heal her own creation which endured a similar fiery fate to hers.
When stories shape the way we see ourselves, I like to rewrite narratives as a way of reimagining what we can become as individuals and as societies.
This rebirth image does really seem to come to fruition in the art film that accompanies your track Ashes to Ashes. Could you tell us a little about the inspiration to create an art film to accompany this track, and the process of putting together this evocative piece?
The video for Ashes to Ashes was a collaborative effort with visual artist Deividas Vytautas. Prior to this project, I had performed in Deividas’ ritualistic art film Filled Up, Torn Open, where the energy on set and on screen was so powerful. Asking him to direct my first music video was a no-brainer.
As we were living together at the time, we spent our days conceptualising the film at the kitchen table to Lana Del Rey, and our nights dancing at queer raves to techno music. We both share this thirst for dark, intense experiences, while holding space for fantasy, beauty, and romanticism. All of these elements come through in our work together.
I think the film beautifully expresses the ethos of the song – a non-linear meditation on the cyclical nature of life and death, opening a portal to alternative states of existence.
Kimono OLIVER HAUS, nails SOMA FAITANIN, jewellery MUTTER.
Breathwork and meditative breathing seems to be a big part in your sound, notably on Mother Tongue. How do you incorporate these intentionally to create this sound?
Our connection to breath is everything. It is the core of stillness, of movement, of regulating our parasympathetic nervous systems.
As a vocalist, singing has always been a means for emotional catharsis. This might lend to why there is such a range of textures and tonalities in my vocal compositions. Singing is also often my first step in writing melodies, of which I then flesh out lyrics or translate to real or digital instrumentation. Whenever I feel stuck, I always remember to return to breath.
In your music, is there a particular reason that you find yourself drawn to these innovative mediums, like your work with water and tuning forks? What draws you to this as a medium of expression, and know how to use them together so seamlessly?
I am drawn to very tactile forms of making sound, as I’ve always had a haptic relationship with music. I grew up playing violin, piano, and guitar, and for each instrument there are infinite emotive nuances in the friction of the bow, the velocity of a key, or the vibrato of a string. I know when a guitar is in tune by feeling the resonance of the notes through the wood on my torso. Sometimes I compose music to how and where it hits in my body, more than I do for just how it sounds.
When I want to achieve more abstract sounds, my first instinct is to try and create something weird with something tangible. I recorded air blown through a straw into a glass of water, and slowed and reverbed that on my Regenesis EP.
My next EP Zakuro includes recordings of myself violently eating an apple, manipulated beyond recognition for the single called Fruit – a song about embracing vulnerability and empathy as a superpower in times of crisis.
Your performances are described as multisensory experiences, incorporating elements like dance, scent, and live reiki sessions. How do you approach crafting these immersive experiences?
I like to present my art in a way that is equally as multisensory as my creative processes. A recent example is a performance at Rupert in Lithuania, curated by Tautvydas Urbelis, where I hosted a sound healing and automatic writing workshop in the lead-up to my live music set.
Following my guided meditation and a sound bath using crystal bowls and looped guitar, each participant wrote on their most formative life experiences, and extracted a line of either an energy they wanted to release, or an energy they wanted to call in. We transcribed these onto pieces of paper and wrapped them into bundles using cotton thread soaked in frankincense oil. At the beginning of my set, I burned all of the bundles in an open fire at the front of the stage while performing Ashes to Ashes as my opening track.
I was also able to commission visual artist Kerolaina Linkeviča to create wearable porcelain sigils and matching CGI projections to bless my performance specifically for this show.
The ritual of setting the stage as a portal is just as important to me as the music. I really do see my performances as acts of live magic.
You’ve mentioned before that the aim is to make art that makes people feel; what or how do you imagine to be the visceral and emotional response when engaging with your art?
I’ve seen a lot of people cry at my shows. One of my first live performances of Regenesis was at my Royal College of Art MA degree show in 2021. Back then my sets were extremely simple – just my voice and a keyboard. A guy I had never met came for the exhibition, but after seeing my performance at the beginning of his visit, became too emotional to see the other artworks and had to go home. I think that is the power of music. It’s rare for other artistic mediums to stir that level of emotion.
I’ve also received messages that people find my art healing, empowering, and transformative – whether through my live shows or workshops. I’ve even found strangers on the Internet creating new work referencing me as an inspiration which is pretty cool.
You are the director of expanded performance platform Diasporas Now, can you tell us a little about the project, and its personal significance for you?
Diasporas Now is my act of service back to the culture, an expression of love through community-building. In addition to curating, producing, and promoting our performance events, I try as much as possible to share the tools for navigating institutions and art careers with everyone on our roster. My co-founders and fellow performance artists Paola Estrella, Lulu Wang and I started Diasporas Now as a live-streaming platform for artists of colour in 2021 at the Royal College of Art, and have since pivoted to live events between museum lates and nightlife, workshops, and artist panels. We just completed our most ambitious project yet: a national tour across three cities with over 20 artists working across what we call expanded performance: an amalgamation of performance art, music, dance, fashion, film, and experimental DJ sets.
The final stop of our tour was a recent sold-out show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts London. My favourite performances were an audiovisual set by Zein Majali using internet archives and AI, and an experimental classical music set by Tony Njoku. When I was interviewing our artists backstage before the show, Zein spoke on how political ideology has replaced religion, fuelled by algorithms warping our perceptions of reality. Tony spoke on the resurgence of classical music melding with experimental pop, made accessible by compositional technology democratising the genre. Especially as artists from non-Western backgrounds, I’m interested in challenging narratives around collective spiritual impulses within historically exclusionary spaces – from classical music and politics, to the art institution. When everything is a cult, what do we choose to deify and why?
So much interesting discourse goes on behind the scenes, so lately I’ve been looking to archive these conversations more, especially in the form of interviews, radio shows, and print publications. I really believe there is no lone genius, only a scenius, and I’m honoured to provide infrastructural support to facilitate this movement – specifically in this post-genre, post-disciplinary, expanded performance space.
You’ve spent a lot of time travelling around Europe and Japan; are there any places that particularly moved you to create or a standout experience that you find particularly inspiring that you can share?
I would say my years in Paris were the most formative as an early career artist.
My first public, large-scale artwork was in 2014 at the iconic American Church in Paris. I installed a ten metre cube out of scaffolds, and orchestrated a participatory performance art piece within it. I encased nine performers reclined in wax sculptures pre-moulded to their bodies, who would then get up and leave the cube at timed intervals. Almost 300 participants showed up on the opening night, not knowing if the bodies were real people or wax sculptures. As participants exited to the next room, it was revealed that their interaction with the work had been projected to all the other participants as a livestream linked to a CCTV camera hidden in the installation. The spectacle of perceiving and being perceived, and the subsequent feedback loop influencing participant behaviour was intended to be the art itself – the rest was just the scaffolding for this interaction.
I invited a cellist to perform classical music in the sanctuary and a friend to DJ experimental electronic music in the following room with the livestream projection, so the sonic bleedover of disparate genres resonated throughout the entire experience. It’s interesting to look back at this early work, because within the rawness of its expression and ambition, you can find all of the origins of my current artistic interests.
You said before even releasing Regenesis that your next EP Zakuro was already written, what can we expect to follow?
The first songs I wrote for Zakuro were first presented at Harlesden High Street gallery during London Frieze Week in 2021 as a live performance alongside L.A.-based movement artist Jas Lin – all within a multi-storey art installation I co-curated under Diasporas Now.
The most recent performance centred on Zakuro was at the Barbican Centre in January, presenting an art film, soundscape, and spoken word piece titled At the Heart of Grief is Love – the opening line to a track on the EP. This cinematic meditation was a commission for Visions from the Wake, an event on diasporic grief curated by Cici Peng.
Zakuro (pomegranate in Japanese) is inspired by the Buddhist tale of Kishibojin, a child-eating demon who undergoes a spiritual transformation to protect the vulnerable, consuming instead pomegranate seeds as the closest replacement to flesh. Zakuro is an expression of anticipatory grief, a reckoning with our progeny for the ravenous desires of our ancestors.
Ultimately, Zakuro is a reminder in times we feel buried to hold tenderness for ourselves and for each other – often we are only being planted.
Do you have any upcoming projects or collaborations you are excited for that you can tell us about?
I am so excited to start working on the music video for my single Fruit, directed by my dear friend, longtime collaborator, and fellow witch Jesse May Fisher from Agile Films. I just performed in her latest art film Lacrimony, so we can expect more of this signature dark, earthy, sexual power to carry over in Fruit.
I’m also wrapping up recording the rest of the tracks on the Zakuro EP, with some co-production by Mariano Sibilia (also known as Yraki). Funnily enough, I met Mariano through my mother when she was renting out a room in his flat down the road from me for a few days, and we realised we were both in lineups for the Futur.Shock performance series at FOLD, an East London club I frequented. My mother asked him for feedback on a demo of Regenesis, and from there we eventually started working together. I guess it goes to show that sometimes, you just have to trust a mother’s intuition.
In the meantime, you can catch me live with Eastern Margins and No Glucose Festival in Bologna, Italy on 29 March.
Full look SOMA FAITANIN, jewellery MUTTER.