Looking around the packed basement of Glasgow’s The Hug and Pint, most of the audience are still staring at the space Mitski Miyawaki has just vacated, where she stood alone with her guitar and mesmerised the crowds with impassioned takes on songs from her punk folk-rock third album Bury Me at Makeout Creek.
Some of these people will have heard the 24-year-old’s album when it was first released over a year ago; some may have followed her from 2012’s Lush, made as a student at SUNY Purchase College in her home of New York City. Others will have come through word of mouth, or via hearing her music on Bandcamp. All brought together by a record that speaks (to) our innermost thoughts which we struggle to reveal on a daily basis.
Miyawaki is the embodiment of all these people and the reason they are all together. Born in Japan, and raised across East Asia and beyond before her family settled in the US, she has a unique perspective on emotions, people and places through being a constant outsider…yet no-one is going to let her be that outsider tonight as the crowd whoops, claps and sings along 'til throats are raw.
Earlier, upstairs over a steaming, deliciously scented bowl of jackfruit curry and noodles our conversation focuses on that outsider Miyawaki, on the face of it, appears to be as an Asian American woman in the DIY and indie scene
I mention that I had been listening again to [Kuwaiti musician and artist] Fatima Al Qadiri’s solo record, Asiatisch which focuses on Western perceptions of Eastern cultures, its misconceptions and its misappropriations. It’s a record from someone who has been westernised, someone on the outside looking in, like an inversion of Miyawaki. It’s not a view she completely jibes with when I ask if she’s writing her explicitly personal songs from an Asian American perspective: “Well, when I’m feeling feelings, I’m not feeling them as an Asian American,” she states. “I’m just feeling them as a person, and when I’m writing songs I’m not conscious about my position as an Asian person. I’m not writing politically about being an Asian person.”
“I write personal stories about relationships, and living in this world and being a human being…but I happen to live in a world which views me as an Asian American. So my experiences are tainted by that, even if I’m not conscious of it. Someone said ‘the personal is political’, where it seems like me just being honest about my experiences as a human being and as a person translates as being political about being an Asian American person. I’m not in this to be political or a social activist, it just happens that my being honest is a very political thing.”
It’s the writing of the personal stories that makes Miyawaki so appealing, and so accessible. Bury Me at Makeout Creek – while not painting in the broad palettes of her previous compositions – tells stories we can all identify with delivered with lid-off emotions in a way that’s frighteningly relatable. It’s all well and good your average white dude listening to this and showing up when Miyawaki plays, that’s par for the predictable course.
"I’m conscious of the many people within me and I’m always observing….when you’re an outsider you always observe."
What really feels important is that Miyawaki is playing and doing it not just for the minority of women in the scene, but for the even smaller percentile of Asian American women in the scene: “The more I do this, the more I think about it,” she confirms. “Ultimately I’m doing music for very selfish reasons; I want to play and I love performing so audience or not I’m doing it. But it just means so much to me and it keeps me going when someone like me is in the audience, or someone younger than me who is East Asian and a girl, comes up to me and says ‘I needed to hear this, I needed someone like you around to look up to’. Those are the things I’ll remember forever and keep me going whenever things are very difficult, which they often are for musicians regardless of where they come from.”
It would seem obvious then, that Miyawaki was inspired by someone in a similar way and I throw out the question in such an offhand way waiting for an exclamation of “of course” to be the response: “When I was younger, I didn’t have that,”Miyawaki flatly rejects. “So the fact I can give another version of me the chance that I didn’t have – that’s what keeps me motivated.”
Miyawaki had to look elsewhere for her inspiration, and found it in an artist who shares her experiences of eastern and western cultures: “The one figure who has always been my hero is M.I.A. She’s my biggest hero because she seeks to do and say exactly what she wants to do and say. And she’s also pop, mainstream and known by everyone. She’s unafraid…and you know, she’s been bashed and been criticised but she keeps doing what she wants to do, and does it really well – and often. She’s been such an inspiration.” Yet Miyawaki explains that “I don’t think I saw myself in her, though. I don’t think I saw anyone I wanted to be or aspire to…and my pursuing music was realising that I don’t have anything else to do.”
Regardless of having someone to inspire her, there was no choice, no alternative to making music. Heroes be damned: “There was just a point in my life when I realised I couldn’t do anything else, so regardless of whether I could…I just knew I had to do it.”
Miyawaki's path to “doing it” began at SUNY Purchase, a college in Westchester, NY whose music conservatory shaped the orchestrated sounds of her albums Lush and Retired From Sad, New Career in Business. The college gave Miyawaki the chance to develop, but without once again any kind of guiding hand: “It’s interesting because at my school there was a studio programme about how to learn production,” she explains. “Not just to compose classical music but how to translate the music into the real world and the contemporary, popular mainstream world.” SUNY appeared to buck the trend of conservatory conservatism and Miyawaki found the variety liberating: “I guess there was no one person trying to do the same as someone else around them. It was a very eclectic program. It was also a very for-better-or-worse, boundary-less programme, aka I didn’t get much guidance…so I just used their resources and did what I wanted to do.”
Those first two albums were made as part of Miyawaki's time at SUNY, her junior and senior year projects and were products of the conservatory environment. Having only started making music at 19, she was now quick to recognise it was time to move on, in musical terms: “In my last year of college I opened my eyes, I guess, and looked around the scene around me. There was a really vibrant one at SUNY Purchase where I went to, and I met people through that.”
Outside of SUNY, Miyawaki began to explore the local scene. “I started to go to shows and I realised that [scene] existed. This was right before Bury Me at Makeout Creek when I was making much more orchestral music. But then I looked around and saw all these people my age and younger, being in bands and touring, it just opened my eyes to an alternative way of making music, I guess. That’s what got me a start.”
"I’m not in this to be political or a social activist, it just happens that my being honest is a very political thing."
Once out of college, Miyawaki started to find some rare kindred spirits as she looked around herself. “It’s funny, in my SUNY Purchase scene there weren’t actually very women,” she reveals. “It was just boys. It was once I started doing this, and travelling and seeking out other women artists I found them. So even in the DIY and indie scene I find that it’s very homogenous, which makes the female and non-traditional people all the valuable to me, I guess. Our bonds are stronger because there’s fewer of us.” Asking if she experienced the sexism many of her peers have revealed in countless interviews brings the unsurprising response of “oh yeah, all the time! But it’s one of those things where it happens all the time so I just stop paying attention. It’s the norm that I deal with.”
Bury Me at Makeout Creek is the sound of an artist unleashing her rage at a number of things, often touching on Miyawaki's place in the world. While she found a scene and even some people she held close and dear, a song like “Townie” reveals Miyawaki to be a perennial outsider whether by choice or otherwise: “but the boys boys boys keep coming on for more more more, and change is gonna come but when when when” go the closing lines, and the singer explains her position. “Even when I’m in a scene I don’t think of myself as being in the scene. I’m very conscious of myself being an outsider. I think that has to do with my upbringing outside of the US – not just my heritage but that I grew up differently. I moved to a different country every year or every other year…a lot of different places due to my father’s occupation.”
Without a certain grounding or place to call “home”, Miyawaki chose to use this to her advantage in her song writing: “It does create this permanent sense of being a foreigner and an outsider – because you are – and also, growing up you have such an opportunity to experiment with your identity because you get a clean slate every year…but that can be toxic because you start to pretend, you know?”
“You have this sense of not actually being one person once you realise you can really be anyone…so that creates some sort of identity crisis, especially in my song writing because I feel I have this objectivity that a lot of people didn’t grow up the way I did, don’t have. I’m conscious of the many people within me and I’m always observing….when you’re an outsider you always observe. Oh, and perspective! You realise there’s no one way of doing things, no one answer.”
Miyawaki explains that this peripatetic life and ability to press the reset button enabled her to write the songs on Bury Me at Makeout Creek and make them as personal and visceral as they are: “I think it helps in two ways; one way is that you allow yourself to be many people so you have this huge range of emotions that you can identify as all your own. That helps a lot with creating a breadth of songs, or a variety of them, because you have so much to draw from.”
Hearing this explains the uncompromising and straightforward nature of Miyawaki's third album. On “First Love/Late Spring” she sings “one word from you and I would jump off this ledge I’m on, baby” and then there’s the exhilarating, thrilling lines on “Townie” – “and I want a love that falls as fast as a body from a balcony / and I want a kiss like my heart is hitting the ground” – or the heartbreaking “you know I wore this dress for you / these killer heels for you / see the dark it moves with every breath of the breeze” on “Drunk Walk Home” It’s little wonder, as she’s mentioned elsewhere, that the album recording was an emotional experience.
Going back to being an outsider, Miyawaki says “you gain a very objective perspective of your own emotions. Not everyone will be entertained by what you’re thinking. You kind of gain a sort of cynicism that you need when you’re editing your music, and you understand that not everyone cares about your feelings….not everyone will have patience for five minute, six minute stream of consciousness songs!” Does she also self-edit? “I mean when I’m writing I’m not editing. The lyrics themselves are unedited, or raw feelings…it’s just the way I put them together. The editing is more in terms of composition and song structure.”
Bury Me at Makeout Creek is quick at getting to the point, as those violent lyrics in “Townie” or the blast of “fuck you and your money, I’m tired of your money” are testament to. There’s a practical reason for this: “You were talking about being Asian American and what I find that is whenever I am listened to,” begins Miyawaki, “I have a very small window. So during that small window I cram all the information I can while I still have people’s attention. Because if I was an average white dude I could do a forty minute noise piece and people would stand there listening and be like ‘oh, that’s very interesting’. In my position, I can never get anyone’s attention so I think that plays into my punchy lyrics or my songs that don’t go above four minutes, you know.”
The dropping of the orchestral nature of her music also helped with the directness, but the reasons for that streamlining were twofold. Miyawaki explains “it was less for the audience and more for my convenience. I had left school and I didn’t have those resources anymore. I just had band people around me, and I wanted to go on tour and it was hard for me to recreate orchestral stuff when you’re poor and you want to go on tour. It was out of my own physical necessity to strip it down to something I could travel with.”
As well as the physical necessity, I pick up on Miyawaki's mention of her lack of resources after leaving SUNY as it’s perhaps an example of yet another musician finding it hard to make music in New York City. As gentrification takes hold and venues close down or change hands to organisations like Vice who control a handful of venues, rents rise and lifestyles become more aspirational Miyawaki and other musicians struggle to make art and make ends meet: “It is honestly very hard,” she admits with a sigh. “When it comes to gentrification it’s so complex, especially for someone trying to be a working musician. I feel like just to get your foot in the door to be a musician you have to have some kind of start-up money. New York is very expensive to live in for everybody everywhere these days. You have to have a job that pays for it…or you have to have somebody who pays for it for you.”
"It just means so much to me and it keeps me going when someone like me is in the audience, or someone younger than me who is East Asian and a girl, comes up to me and says 'I needed to hear this, I needed someone like you around to look up to'."
Miyawaki feels the scope for making art narrows as a result, saying “often the people who have the time to get their foot in the door, their parents pay for their rent, or they already have some kind of insurance so they can spend the time that you need to get started. I think that’s part of the whole environment in New York these days. Opportunities are only afforded by people who already have them. It’s the same with venues, it’s a layered thing. It means only a certain type of artist [can succeed]….people focus on art that will make money, and that takes priority. I feel like there’s less and less experimentation, less diversity.”
Yet the city still has its pull for the artist: “I’m unfortunately in love with New York City so I feel like I can never leave. I do record upstate and I’m on tour so much that I let go my apartment because I was bleeding from rent…it just stopped being worth it. So I can’t work in the city any more but I have the privilege of having the mobility to leave…whereas a lot of artists are stuck there and have to keep making music.”
Before we end our chat and I let Miyawaki get back to her pre-show curry that was placed in front of her half an hour or so earlier I wanted to return to where we started and the subject of cultural (mis)appropriation. Being a fan of pop and electronic music, I’m interested in Miyawaki's thoughts on PC Music and their artists’ use of Eastern imagery. “The thing about that is when you tell them ‘you’re appropriating East Asian cultures, Japanese cultures, Korean cultures,” she begins, passionately, “it doesn’t register to them because in their minds it truly is an homage. In their minds it’s just doing what looks good, the characters look good so they are using them as their aesthetic. But the point is that they’re using it.”
“If you look at each person involved in PC Music; maybe you hang out with them and they’re not bad people…so that’s what makes it hard to ‘call out’. So I think there’s this ‘call out’ culture where you’re supposed to excommunicate someone if they do something bad…you just say they’re a bad person and never support them again. In some cases that’s really important: if someone sexually assaulted someone, well you don’t want them around, ever.”
For someone whose music feels so alive and so positive, even in the dark moments, it’s no surprise to find Miyawaki wanting to close with a positive sentiment: “When it comes to cultural appropriation I feel like we should employ the ‘call in’ approach; and I’ve done that. A lot of my electronic music making friends have used Japanese characters and I’ve said ‘hey, this is where I’m coming from’. I would still hang out with them and I would still listen to their music…but I also let them know. I feel like in the future we should start working on that more. Give people chances to improve and therefore our culture actually improves.”
At the end of December 2015, Mitski Miyawaki's pay-it-forward attitude came full circle with the news that she had signed to Dead Oceans, home of The Tallest Man On Earth, Destroyer and Bill Fay, for the release of her fourth album some time in 2016. In a brief catch-up before the chaos of new year, Miyawaki was reluctant to reveal much about any songs which might form the basis for her next record, telling me only that she was “very,very excited” to be on Dead Oceans and to get new music out in 2016.
It seems with this “call in”, Mitski Miyawaki will have to forget about being the outsider – she’s going to be the main attraction this year.