For many, Rina Sawayama needs no introduction, and for those of you who don’t know her yet, you’re in for a treat. Rina is a modern pop princess with Beyoncé’s honied tones, Britney’s iconic music videos and Madonna’s penchant for pushing bound- aries. This being said, comparing Rina to these queens – although they are all fabulous – doesn’t do her justice. What Rina has brought to the world of pop and R’n’B has never been seen before: a genuine reforming agenda. In her newest record Sawayama, Rina attacks the patriarchy and gendered notions of confidence, the fetishisation of people of col- our, the absurd excess of her own industry, and the world at large.
Interview tak­en from METAL Magazine issue 44. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
Her most recent battle has been with The Brits and the Mercury Prize, who informed her that she wasn’t “British enough” to be nominated despite her recent album’s critical acclaim. She refused to take no for an answer, and persuaded BPI to change their outdated policy to allow artists who’ve lived in the UK for more than five years to participate in the awards, even without British citizenship. In calling out the exclusivist attitude these musical institutions have towards immigrants as othering and backward, Rina has created a space for celebration of UK artists who previously would have been shunned, forcing the industry to acknowledge and celebrate the diversity of Britishness.

But her music isn’t just about attack – it’s also about finding a home and creating solace through sonic storytelling. Sawayama provides a safe space for both the musician and her fans to revel in together. Her elevation to icon status has been well earned, filling the shoes with grace and inspiring people to cherish their identity, no matter their sexual orientation or heritage. Through her musical artistry, Rina inspires others to take agency over their own destiny, as she does with hers. This, in Rina’s words, is “Corny, but it’s true”, and we’re all in need of some corny in this day and age. By inserting herself into an industry that has traditionally peddled conservative attitudes, outdated values concerning regulating female sexuality and the minimizing of artist’s political agency, Rina queers this (largely) straight space as a proud pansexual woman, with catchy hooks tempered with her trademark British irony and wit. While heavy with heartfelt feeling and anger, Sawayama is a story of joy, of the power of self-acceptance and the acceptance of others. Rina is the new-age pop star: queer, confident and clever. And we’re here for it.
This edition of METAL is all about anti-hate; and we are talking to amazing individuals like yourself who use their platform to speak out against all kinds of hatred and microaggressions. I was wondering if, like other artists, you have turned to making art in order to protect yourself from hate.
I’m not sure, really! A lot of musicians don’t really make art that is talking about their politics. The kind of music I like is pop music, and not a lot of pop people write directly about politics, it’s usually about love or something else. I’ve been really enjoying listening to Alanis Morissette at the moment just because she really captured the female anger. But yeah! It’s not like band aid, before where we made songs about saving the world. That’s not considered cool anymore.
In the pop world I don’t really see anyone doing exactly what you do: using the accessible medium of pop music to raise awareness for various issues. I was wondering, back when Lily Allen was doing her thing, she was ravaged in the mainstream media for speaking out openly about sexism. Are you ever afraid to speak out and take a stand in your music?
I’m not afraid, but I always have to make sure I’ve got the facts right. The platforms I speak from have no regulations about truth, so I don’t really want to add to any more misinformation. I just have to be careful. But, at the same time, I feel like my role as a singer and writer is to reflect the times in my work. I speak out about stuff on social media from time to time, but I know that I’m speaking to my fans who all just think the same way as me! I’m aware that it’s not the most effective thing. I try not to share things that are triggering, or anything that is not useful. Just facts, and then how people can help. I try and write about it later on, if that makes any sense!
It makes perfect sense. And I’ve just got to tell you that I’ve been listening to Sawayama in the shower every day – it’s so fabulous. I love how on the surface it feels poppy and fun, but then underneath it’s very smart.
(Laughs) thank you!
Do you find people misunderstand your work? XS is a read on capitalism, but do people think you’re championing the classic material girl fantasy instead?
I kind of love it! Whether it’s queering a straight space or injecting a little something that’s not necessarily right for that kind of statement, I like to subvert whatever the meaning is. That song is so tongue in cheek. The production and the melody came at the same time with XS, so I was reflecting what the producer was doing at the time. I remember saying that I want it to be like The Pussycat Dolls, Evanescence or N.E.R.D., but also like Rockstar with that guitar riff; a mix of that – quite chaotic. I guess it would be so easy to make a flex song but it’s just not me, I’m just not that kind of person. I just wanted to take the piss out of Calabasas and the Kardashians, makeup obsessions, YouTubers and stuff like that, while also poking fun at the fact that I’m also part of that system and I can’t escape it.
You’re not alone there. You’ve spoken before about how so many of us have this inner capitalist monster. I was wondering how you relate to that, as it must be hard to maintain an ethical lifestyle, especially when working in an industry which is so excessive.
Oh, god, it’s really hard, a daily struggle! I don’t think I have it down yet at all. During this lockdown I’ve definitely felt like I wanted to buy a lot of things that I don’t need. I just moved into a new house, and have just wanted to buy everything in the name of moving in. It’s hard, and it shouldn’t be up to the individual to solve it. There are little things that you can do, like being a conscious consumer, and I think I am one at the moment. But it’s difficult, especially during lockdown, when I haven’t been on tour and doing my usual thing. With everything getting so disrupted, I’ve tried to focus a lot on just being present and okay with being still.
Especially in the world we live in where we’re told that productivity is synonymous with value, so many of us are really struggling with being stasis, asking ourselves, where is my self-worth?
Definitely. Like putting out this record last year and thinking, cool, but in 2021 I’ll be able to go on tour. I mean, we had that announcement yesterday which looked promising, but things can change. This virus knows no rules, you never know what’s going to happen, but fingers crossed! It’s weird because it has affected the whole world but in very different ways. I think everyone is just trying to keep sane.
That we are! Before, you mentioned queering heteronormative spaces, especially in pop – a genre that has been traditionally quite conservative. Did you originally want to go into pop because of your personal interest in the genre, or did you have a more reforming agenda? Or did the two just go hand in hand?
Good question! I started out writing R’n'B music, pop R’n’B but leaning towards R’n’B. I’ve always been a huge fan of pop, and I guess that during writing sessions I’ve found the challenge of writing a pop song the most exciting. It’s so hard to write pop, and people think it’s the easiest to write. In my experience it’s one of the hardest genres to write for because there are so many pop writers, so many songs. To try and come up with an original idea is really challenging. If it’s not original, then what’s your take on a tried and tested formula? I’m scared by the number of songs that are out there in the world; there are hundreds, and thousands created every single day. I think on Spotify there are 50,000 songs uploaded every day, it’s wild to think about writing something. I grew up watching and listening to Britney, and I’ve been obsessed with pop stars, with the display of the mastery of the skill – and I’m not saying that other musicians aren’t more skilled. With pop it's very showy, especially for the girls, and I love that so much. I also love how pop has affected and given so much positive influence on the queer community. In a sense, Beyoncé and Britney gave me so much confidence.
Speaking of which, many LGBTQ+ pop icons don’t actually identify as part of the community, and it’s wonderful that there are now people on the scene like you who do belong to the community to fill that role – not that we’re here to ascribe icons to people! What are your thoughts on this?
I think allies are super important. We’re in an era right now where we’re privileged to even be questioning the need for allies. That is such a privilege compared to the 1980s, when the gay community didn’t even have allies! It was bad enough during the AIDS crisis. Obviously, the community was campaigning, but allies were the bridge between them and those who were stigmatising the queer community. I see a lot of people criticising Ariana for headlining Manchester pride or whatever, I really don’t believe in it. Of course, I believe in amplifying queer voices and queer artists, but at the same time I do think that it’s a real privilege that we can think that allies aren’t important anymore. Coming from there, I love being in this community of weirdos, and I feel so happy to be a part of the voice, for sure. I think that any voice that lends itself to the community is important, whether they are part of the community or not.
I completely agree. In the lyrics of Comme des Garçons you discuss how confidence is bizarrely gendered, like everything else! Women with confidence are often slated for being divas and prima donnas, criticised for co-opting masculine sensibilities of confidence. What do you think of this, and how do you navigate it yourself?
Wow, that’s a big question! I mean, how do men expect women to act when we haven’t had an education on how to be our own confident selves? What is feminine strength? It’s a very recent conversation. No matter how cringe the Girl Boss movement is, it’s important to galvanise ourselves and realise there’s a new version of confidence. It’s a tough one, because I think that the female confidence that gets criticised is the type that we spoke about just now concerning productivity or the workplace. I’ve definitely met people who I’ve thought were a bit off, but I always have to check myself for wondering whether that woman was confident or arrogant. I ask myself whether I think I am complaining, or, am I thinking about this person because of their tone, or what they’re saying? In Hollywood and everywhere the kind of confidence we often see is that kind of masculine confidence. Comme des Garçons was kind of inspired by when Beto O’Rourke lost the Texas primaries in 2018. He said that he was born to do this, born to win. I read that and thought, what fucking woman says that?! No woman would say that, that’s an insane, psychopath thing to say. So, I found it a very interesting thing to write about.
It is! It also made me think of the fallout of videos like WAP, and how artists like Megan and Cardi have been criticised as anti-feminist for displaying their sexuality. It really pisses me off that people call women who actively engage in their sexuality anti-feminist, and I was wondering what you thought about it.
It’s just such an age-old criticism of women, isn’t it? That we can’t do what we want with our bodies. Obviously, I disagree with it and think it’s stupid, but I also think it’s interesting how feminism isn’t just one opinion. I always think this about the queer community, we’re such a diverse group of people. If it sparks conversation and makes people think about the origins of sexuality and stuff like that, then that’s really important. I don’t like when it leads to cancelling or cyber-bullying in the name of feminism – it is harmful and it feels like taking a couple of steps back. I remember people criticising Christina Aguilera so much for her sexuality. In a recent interview she was looking through her old outfits, and when it got to her Xtina stage she said that she was feeling really liberated, feeling like a woman, feeling really confident, so she just wanted to look like that. It’s funny because people not only criticise the woman for looking a certain way, but they also critique the fact that they’re being controlled by someone else to look like that. The label’s making them look like that. I get that there is this sinister patriarchy but what if the woman actually just wants to do that? What if? What does that mean? I think it’s a constant conversation. I always try listen to different opinions – especially these days because I think echo chambers are extremely harmful. People should graduate from echo chambers when they’re ready, and I’m trying to do that myself. There is no harm in knowing why some people do or say certain things.
That’s quite an apt way to move on to chatting about STFU. It is so badass that the first track you released from your new album is a metal song. Apparently, you were in the process of signing with a label, and when they heard the song they dropped you. Could you tell me a bit about the song and a bit about that?
Adam Hann, Clarence Clarity and I were noodling around one day and had been working on Dynasty the day before, so we thought it would make sense to have something a bit heavier. I have a great relationship with him where we suggest things that might be insane, but we try it anyway. So, we tried it and the song came together in two hours or something, ridiculous. I thought it would be an interlude. When I showed it to people close to me they said that this had to be a single, especially because I’d been away a while. I thought it was a great idea and took it to the several labels I was talking to at the time. There was one label that we were in negotiation with and there were lawyers involved in signing a deal. We were discussing video budgets and stuff, and as soon as they heard that song they dropped the proceedings of the contract. On paper it’s fine, like fuck you, but it cost me so much in legal bills – nearly five figures. The fact that they didn’t like the song cost me. If I see that label at a party, I’m going to be like, hey, invoice! Feel free to pay it, thank you. It’s just so rude! I’m sure I’m not the first person, and I’m lucky because I signed to another label which was a much better fit for me anyway, but this must happen to so many others – the label changes their minds and then, who’s going to pay the lawyer? It’s really bad practice, it’s exploitative and awful. I will be having a word with that person if I ever see them in real life!
Absolutely! I’m so sorry and I had no idea you had to go through that. I’ve heard that labels can be exploitative – is that one of the reasons why you were going label-free for a while?
I was lucky because I’m older, which is stupid because I’m only 30. But that’s considered old compared to the rest of the industry, girls get signed so young. I knew my worth and had a manager who was not going to pimp me out for some shit deal that I’d be locked into for three years. He believed in my worth, my writing and the record, even when it wasn’t finished – he really had so much belief. At some point I was struggling financially to fund the thing, because it costs so much money, and together we decided that we weren’t going to sign until it was the right deal. We were looking for an album partner for about two years, which doesn’t include the countless single deals that we were entertaining before that. It’s been years in the making and I’m lucky to have a manager like that because managers can be short-sighted; they’ll sign a deal so they can get a commission for the advance. I’m really lucky. And it’s weird, because it took so many years to arrive at Dirty Hit. The massive thing was, in our first meeting I met the head of Dirty Hit, and that doesn’t happen with major labels, ever. We had that direct connection from the get-go. He wanted to understand my project, and so I’m really lucky. Labels are what they are, they’re trying to make money off artists, and that’s not a bad thing. You can make a lot of money as well, but if you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into it can be really stressful. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t go with a major label, because I’ve seen so many people who have signed with a team to a major label and then they’ll leave. For major labels, the turnover for employees is unbelievably fast. One person will move to another label within three years, so it’s rare that someone will stay at a major for a long time. I didn’t want to do one album and then have them leave, that would suck! I loved the idea of Adele at XL and XL Recordings, an indie label. She was the biggest star of XL and that model appealed to me more than being a tiny, tiny fish in a big, big pond at a major label.
I can imagine having someone like your manager who really backs you can be invaluable in this industry. To go ahead and have the courage to make art and put yourself out there; it must help to have someone sincere behind you.
Oh yeah, 100%. Obviously, I’ve been through several different managers, but me and my manager Will Frost have been working together for about five or six years now. He’s been there ever since no one knew who I was. It’s hard because managers have to earn money too, but to find the manager who is willing to go poor themselves just so you can get a good deal at the end of it is amazing. It’s very rare.
For sure! I was also wondering, as you were a model before – how similar or different is the modelling industry to the music business? It seems like there may be a few crossovers.
I would say that thankfully they’re quite different. As a model you are just a vehicle to carry the idea to the photo. You’re not the star, you shouldn’t be demanding. You’re just there to make the photographer or the clients happy with the images – there’s always that hierarchy. It’s also so devoid of creativity! Luckily, I wasn’t a runway model, so I didn’t have to do too many castings, but fucking hell. I have a friend who’s an actor, and the struggle that actors go through is worse than with modeling. With modelling, you don’t take it too personally because your look just doesn’t fit with their vision. Whereas as an actor you have to develop a skill on top of that, so when you’re rejected, you’re rejected for your skill and your look – it’s unbelievably tough. With music I would say that the creativity is much more freeing, you have much more agency over your own destiny –which sounds so corny but it’s true. You can make your own songs, whereas you can’t make your own campaign as a model – you’re co-dependent on agents and multiple extraneous factors. Thank God they’re so different. The type of modeling I was doing was street-cast modelling, so they really cared about social media. What I learnt was to be shameless about plugging yourself online! I definitely learnt about marketing and self-branding through modelling. Luckily, the similarities stop there. I have so much respect for models, by the way! I don’t know how they do it, it’s the hardest, most brutal industry.
You’re so right. I did some modelling in my teens, and I had grown up watching America’s Next Top Model and so thought that if I were to become a model, I would feel beautiful and accepted, but it was just the complete opposite. I can definitely also admire those who do it as their day job.
I know! I love people like Coco Rocha, who’s an incredible model but she also runs a model camp to teach people how to pose. I think posing is so hard, it’s one of the big skills for models. I think people think that you just stand in front of the camera and look beautiful, but there’s so much more technique to standing and posing. All the really big models are just absolute pros at doing that and they must have unbelievable endurance to keep doing fashion weeks, because it’s hardcore. The one thing for me was that I do not get pleasure out of people telling me I’m beautiful. It’s great the first couple of times, because that’s the ultimate compliment, right? You’re so beautiful – as a woman, from a young age you’re taught that’s your currency. After a certain point of doing modelling, I didn’t want that at all. I want to be told that I’m skilled! That I’m so good at writing, acting. If somebody told me I was good at posing I was very happy. I’m sure there are a lot of women who feel that way, that being told you’re beautiful isn’t great. Sometimes it’s nice, but when it’s every single day, and that’s your job... That wasn’t for me. It feels very empty.
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There’s so much more to being a woman than just being an accessory.
Yeah, and the idea that beauty fades. So, you can be a model for a limited amount of time, whereas a skill improves over time. I’m sure some people love being told they’re beautiful all the time, but not me!
I feel you. You have said before that people struggle to categorise you as the next Britney because there’s never been anyone like you in this industry. Does it make you feel empowered to be filling that space, or does it feel like a weight on your shoulders?
I don’t put too much pressure on myself on that side because I trust that I’ll do the right thing. I guess I try not to think about it too much, but when I do, I think about it in a really positive way. It’s amazing when I get messages from people who have come out because of my songs, and that my music is something that has directly affected people’s lives. If I can make people feel seen, or if my song got them through lockdown or whatever, that’s incredible! On a personal level – because it just freaks me out to think about too big a picture – I feel that I’m like most people in that way, I would love to be like, I want to be the biggest popstar in the world! But to me, if the song’s not great then I don’t want to be that popstar behind that bad song that gets big. I would rather focus on being an incredible writer, an incredible storyteller. I focus more on that because it’s something I can control; I can’t control people’s perception of me or my music. To try and not freak myself out I just stick with writing, and what I would like to get across sonically. That doesn’t mean to say I’m not eternally grateful, oh my gosh – I’m always so floored that people listen to my music! Honestly, since the last year that I’ve been doing these interviews... The journalists did do their research, but the kind of insight and the amazing questions people come with have really changed. People are so much more interested in what I do now, and I’m super grateful. I’ve seen that through lockdown, and that’s the only kind of metric that I have in terms of human interaction: people who come with much more insightful questions, people who are fans of my music, which didn’t really happen that much before! It’s been a big change.
That must be so affirming. And I can’t imagine how strange it is to have released an album and not having performed it live!
It’s awful! So awful! I feel stuck, I really feel stuck. I’m struggling with motivation, with productivity. To me there’s a line, and I decided that I wasn’t going to do shoots unless it’s super necessary. Some people go ahead with their lives as if nothing is happening, but that to me just felt tone deaf. Technically, because of my industry there are certain things I can’t do because I need to leave the house or do it with other people. I’m not a key worker! I’m not going to put people at risk, it’s just not worth it. Because of that decision I’ve just been sitting around trying to plan the next year, while still not knowing what’s going to happen. What I have been doing a lot is trying to work on things that I can control – I’ve been singing loads, reading loads, and anyone who writes knows reading is writing and writing is reading. I’ve got a new piano, I’m so excited and I’ve been teaching myself how to play, keeping fit – doing little things that don’t amount to much but make me happy and keep me sane. I just want to tour so much. I want to play these songs live and get it out of my system so that I can write the next record. It’s weird because in the album cycle I would have toured twice, at least, and done loads of festivals, loads of prides. There were some amazing slots at festivals that people have missed out on that haven’t even announced. I don’t even know if they’re going to happen this year or next year! I’m really lucky, but I’m definitely going through a kind of motivation crisis, for sure.
I think we all are at the moment! And it’s funny that you described yourself as a storyteller because I was going to ask you if you think of yourself as one. You take your listeners on a journey, which is highlighted by the artistry of your music videos. You also have your own channel where you take your viewers through the whole journey of creating your music, and really invite people in on your process. Your work is also intensely personal, so I was wondering if inviting people into your world is always a good thing, or if it’s also overwhelming.
It’s been really important to me, because I guess I was independent for a long time. It really felt like a group effort: me and the fans trying to make this happen together. I’ve been obsessed with YouTube my whole life and I watch YouTube videos more than I watch TV. I love the format of people democratising knowledge. My producer basically learnt all of production on YouTube, and look at him now, he just does the craziest shit! I believe that knowledge is really important, and I come from an academic background as well so it’s really important for me that knowledge is open. I didn’t come from a world where I was connected, I didn’t know anyone in the industry or how to make money in the industry. My parents just thought that you’re either a billionaire or completely poor in the music industry. I just think if I’m able to break it down and it’s like the sum of all these amazing parts, then I can help others too. I always want to highlight the people I work with – it’s not very, look at me I’m doing so amazingly! It’s the story of how fun it is to collaborate, how funny the director is, the relationship between me and my makeup artist. I just want it to be more about that. What I’ve seen from other people who create behind the scenes content is different. They’re just like, I’m a star, this is me, I’m amazing! We get it, you’re great! But who else is there? Who did your hair? Who did your make up? That story for me is much more interesting. I guess in regard to whether it’s hard to keep writing personal stuff – sometimes it is. Writing is easy, talking about it afterwards is hard. I had one interviewer ask me if there were specific incidents with my dad that were traumatic!
Oh my god!
I was like, that’s not okay! Because I bear all on my album people feel like it’s my invitation to do free therapy on me, like some psychoanalysis. I have to draw the line at that. But I will always keep writing personal things. That’s the most interesting sort of writing to me – people who are able to write about something so personal and make it so broad, make it appeal to and talk to so many people. I’m proud of my song Chosen Family for that, for sure. It’s the one I’m proudest to have written, I think.
I love that one and Bad Friend too. You touch on these subjects, which are so important to so many, like how friendships go sour when you suffer from anxiety or being without a family and then finding it in your friends. That’s something that I haven’t really seen in music, I’ve seen it in writing, in art, but in music there’s been a void and you’ve filled it with such joy!
Aw, thank you! I always imagine it being played live. People throw around the term ‘safe space’ a lot in terms of live settings, and obviously that’s really important. But, for me, my songs are like a safe space, because I feel like I really understand what people are going through, and they’re not based on this idea like, “Oh no! Queer people are persecuted!” It’s like, yeah, we get that. I know that from my friends who’ve been kicked out of the house for coming out, or who haven’t come out to their parents yet and they’re thirty. People have struggled, and I know that so well, I see it. It came from such a genuine place. I’m so happy that people love it. It’s a ballad, but it’s really hard to write a good ballad. I always think about who the character is, who I’m talking about and who I’m saying it to. That’s the thing I always think about. I’m just really proud of that song.
You definitely should be. So, finally: you’ve battled capitalist systems, the patriarchy, homophobes and racists in your music already. Who’s next?
Oh my gosh! I don’t know! I think I’m going to promote healing because I think that there are a lot that people need to heal at the moment, worldwide. I’m going to promote healing, tell stories of healing, of overcoming. And that’s where I’m at. I’ve got everything out of my system with Sawayama. Until I experience new stuff, that’s kind of my goal at the moment. For musicians it’s so important to travel and meet different kinds of people from all over the world to be able to write something that actually resonates. In the absence of that, I’ll just look inward and write songs that heal me and might heal others.
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Jumper PRADA, skirt VERSACE.
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T-shirt JEAN PAUL GAULTIER vintage, chocker ACNE STUDIOS.
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