Being her own cowboy
"I've never had this many eyes on me before," says Mitski Miyawaki, reflecting on the fact that she's about to release her fifth album in just seven years. "Knowing that people are going to listen to the record and trying to make sure that I don't just try and make people happy…my instinct is to always try and make people happy, so I have to be conscious of that and fight against it."
It’s a gaze Mitski is not yet accustomed to and is one that has shaped Be The Cowboy whether she likes it or not. But Mitski is now deliberately pushing away the sounds and themes that listeners expect from her.
The American-Japanese musician's last album, 2016's Puberty 2, was interpreted by many as the musical diary of an emotional teenage girl. This time, Mitski wanted to make something very different. She says it wasn’t about rebelling or trying to make a "difficult" album but was more about ensuring that what she creates has meaning.
"I was conscious of the fact that my previous album was represented as full of adolescent feelings,” she explains. “So for this record I was conscious of representing ageing, or a love that's more complicated than just, 'I'm so infatuated with you because you're hot'."
“Two Slow Dancers” taps into the bittersweet memories of an aging couple, alluding to the school dances most of us have experienced at one time or another: young love blossoming in the same hall used for gym classes. It’s sentimental but unflinching in the experience of ageing. She sings: “We’re two slow dancers, last ones out / And the ground has been slowly / Pulling us back down / You see it on both our skin / We get a few years and then it wants us back / It would be a hundred times easier / If we were young again / But as it is / And it is.”
“It’s directly about people who are older than I am,” Mitski says of the track. She talks about how she consciously formed narratives – almost characters – for songs rather than writing from her own perspective. Unlike Puberty 2, the new LP was written and created little by little during snatched moments in-between tour dates, "I had a lot more time to sit and look out of a car window and think about it and just ponder it," she says.
On “Me and My Husband” Mitski tells an imagined story from an imagined character's perspective. It's the same on "A Horse Named Cold Air", a tale of an aged horse who once ran like the wind: “A lake with no fish / Is the heart of a horse / Named Cold Air / Who, when young / Would run like a storm / They would say.”
She says this space – despite giving her the chance to explore a new, narrative approach – also gave her more time to doubt herself; more time for anxiety to creep in.
"On previous albums I never thought anyone would think something or have an opinion on my music,” Mitski explains. “It was just all about how I felt."
Knowing that she would be doing interviews and that more people would be hearing her music added a layer of doubt to the creative process. It's meant she's almost second-guessed herself.
“When arranging songs, I would think, 'Oh, a really distorted guitar would sound really good here...but I'm not going to put it in because I'm known for that.' I deliberately pushed a lot of things away," she explains.
The opening bars of the LP’s opening track “Geyser” demonstrate this perfectly, with ominous organs and a haunting, lilting vocal that develops into an arresting call to arms. The synthy electro-pop of “Why Didn’t You Stop Me”, too, hears Mitski expand her musical palette.
Previous experience has also taught her to expect to be ‘othered’ by the public. This is in regard to her Japanese-American heritage (she was born in Japan and raised across East Asia and beyond before her family settled in the US).
It also applies to her status as a female solo musician with a guitar, or just being a shy teenager. All of this has driven her to use a new narrative approach to lyrics.
"I am surprised at how many opinions are possible,” Mitski laughs. “I got one once where the writer was very much stuck on the fact that I was an Asian girl." She described people using lazy tropes about the "studious Asian girl" studying at school. "I don't know how they got that from the music," she says, "but they managed it."
"I've also got a lot of, 'It must pour out of her' and, 'This is her diary’,” she says of receptions of her work. “I've read a lot of commentary and criticism where people go out of their way to make me out as this fevered priestess. And I think me going for the narrative perspective was fuelled by that, because I went to music school!
"People work really hard to take autonomy and authority away from a woman artist. They don’t want to have to acknowledge and understand that a woman is in control of her process and creating something. The work that goes into it – it doesn't just happen."
"I actually make music to try and connect with people, and talk about how we're the same and we feel the same when all that’s heard is me being ‘different’"
This ‘othering’ and focus on her identity and story is something that Mitski feels bleeds over into people's experience of her music. And not in a useful way.
"It can be frustrating because that becomes your genre,” she explains. “It’s not about the music you make, it’s not about what you're trying to say – it's about what little box you fit into. And so a lot of people don’t even listen to the music and immediately decide what kind of music I'm making – and that’s really frustrating.
“Just having that be the filter that people listen to the music through – everything I make is listened through the filter of otherness. And that can be frustrating because I actually make music to try and connect with people, and talk about how we're the same and we feel the same, when all that’s heard is me being ‘different’".
The narrative approach to writing is part of this. Mitski wants to make connections using her imagined worlds and figures, and the situations in which they find themselves. She talks about using narratives that haven’t happened to her but that are relatable for everyone all the same.
One imagined figure that runs through the record is that of a “very controlled icy repressed woman who is starting to unravel”, who Mitski felt drawn to when reflecting on her own experience as a woman in charge of her own professional and creative life, running a team of people and negotiating on behalf of herself: “85% of my time is spent not making art. A lot of it is logistics and writing emails."
She says being an adult woman navigating this business world means she puts up walls and barriers in the same way her ice queen character does. "I have to make a really deliberate effort not to be emotive in any way because any sign of emotion is seen as 'hysterical' or weakness,” Mitski explains. “No matter what kind of crazy shit happens and no matter how I'm treated, just completely be ‘business’ and rational and icy cold."
"There can be something incredibly violent about being a woman and having desires as a woman – not so nice, not so soft."
This got her thinking about a character who wants to be in control and have power but who’s found it by being icy and cold, repressing their true emotions and behaviours. "But when you stuff things down for a long time, they'll explode eventually," she says.
Womanhood is another theme threading through Be The Cowboy. Mitski was half-conscious of this while she created the record, saying she's fascinated by the female and female-identified experience.
"I think it's a very feminine album,” she says. “There can be something incredibly violent about being a woman and having desires as a woman – not so nice, not so soft. And I think that's an interesting experience to draw on. When I say 'feminine album' those words make it sound soft, but I mean feminine in the real way."
Sonically this violence can be heard on the record. There’s threat in the off-ness of some of vocals, a lot of "brash sounds" as Mitski describes them. “I have leaned into an easiness with vocals that aren’t doubled,” she explains, “keeping vocal flaws in there and not having harmonies, just one voice." Mitski says she’s stopped polishing or rounding things off for the listener, producing a more up-front, bold sound: "Not soft and giving - all the sounds are sort of opinionated." She describes making sounds coming from a forceful female perspective, and it’s empowering.
"I want freedom and I don’t have freedom. I want to portray something that is free."
Mitski adds that part of the record's female energy was inspired by The Piano Teacher, a 1983 psychological thriller novel by Elfriede Jelinek that was later adapted for screen in a film written and directed by Michael Haneke. It tells the story of an unmarried piano teacher at a Vienna conservatory, living with her mother in a state of emotional and sexual disequilibrium, who enters into a sadomasochistic relationship with her student.
"She's very cold and icy, doesn’t form relationships,” explains Mitski. “But then this young student seduces her and she goes for it… then her desires end up being too much for him to handle. He runs, and tells her she's disgusting – the only person she's ever opened up her heart to. In the film, the last scene is of her just stabbing herself." This character seems to have echoes of other 'too passionate', violent women in literature such as Madame Bovary and Cathy of Wuthering Heights. Mitski has taken a figure we're all familiar with and spun a unique musical take on her.
Another character that looms large in our collective imagination is the cowboy – and he’s an important part of the album too.
The title of the album “is a kind of joke” Mitski says. “There was this artist I really loved who used to have such a cowboy swagger. They were so electric live. With a lot of the romantic infatuations I’ve had, when I look back, I wonder, did I want them or did I want to be them? Did I love them or did I want to absorb whatever power they had? I decided I could just be my own cowboy.”
There is plenty of buoyant swagger here on the record but just as much interrogation into self-mythology. The music swerves from the cheerful to the plaintive. Mournful piano ballads lead into deceptively uptempo songs like “Nobody” where our cowboy admits: “I know no one will save me/ I just need someone to kiss.”
"There was just a sort of abandon and confidence, something that I couldn’t embody in my real life,” Mitski reflects on this outlaw figure. “Something very sure. A freeness. I think it's about freedom – I want freedom and I don’t have freedom. I want to portray something that is free. There is such an idea of freedom around the cowboy."
Despite wanting this freedom, Mitski says she won’t ever attain it for a lot of reasons. Everything from time and money, to being bound by her care for others that her actions may affect.
“The other thing about cowboys is they ride into town, wreak havoc and then just leave. They don’t care. They don’t have to live in the town. And my brain and my conscience wouldn’t allow that. There's no shame to the cowboy, and I think I will always carry shame," she says.
And this consideration – almost restraint – can be seen even in the modest length of the tracks. Only two of 14 songs go over three minutes. It’s a neat, concise, disciplined album.
"I like to say something in as little time as possible,” Mitski explains. “I don’t think I have the fundamental confidence necessary to write a four-minute meandering song. Number one – because I'm impatient. But number two – because I’ve never been someone who is listened to. No one would stop to listen to me. I'm not a white guy noodling on a guitar for 45 minutes. No one would stay for me. I learned from a young age to be concise because there’s a very small window for me to grab someone's attention.
She continues: "With novels it's about painting a whole story, but what's beautiful about songs is that you can show one little snapshot, express one little moment. I like the idea of painting one little picture and then moving on, instead of showing the full movie."
In being her own cowboy, Mitski has discovered she’s also a storyteller, painting us one little picture at a time.