The first thing you should know about Mitski Miyawaki is that she’s a true professional. She shakes hands like she means it. She seldom loses eye contact. She treats you like a candidate who is suitable for the job.
Her last album, Puberty 2, was released two years ago to almost universal critical acclaim. Lyrics from it, like the epigrammatic adage, “My body’s made of crushed little stars” have been tattooed across torsos and stretched across sweaters which have sold out within hours on her website.
Her talent for giving pain a punchline should make her an easy business investment. She’s toured with Lorde, Iggy Pop’s called her “the most advanced American songwriter” he knows of and, as of writing, she joins Drake and Cardi B in Spotify’s curated ‘Viral Hits’ playlist.
Yet “people in the music industry are confused by me”, she tells us in Dead Oceans’ London office. “I think people don’t really know what to think of me or what to do with me. People just cannot imagine this Asian girl who’s making weird music having any kind of appeal to an audience.”
Mitski’s latest album, Be The Cowboy, was made largely in reaction to the way she’s been perceived. “I’ve been simplified to an unfair degree”, she says after a brief smile. “There’s been a lot of othering, and with this album especially, there is the fear of people not absorbing and immediately assuming it’s other, and seeing it as not something they can relate to.”
Music is not only Mitski’s greatest love but her most important mode of communication. When asked what reaction she’d like from the album, she simply says “I just want people to relate to it”. In order to do that “all I can really do is make sure that what I’m expressing is as easy to understand as possible.”
The relentless touring that’s required of Mitski, “because no one buys records anymore” and “it’s the only way to make money,” has continued the societal isolation she’s felt from childhood. “The loneliness of a touring musician is specifically the loneliness of being on the fringes of society,” she says. “There are so few people who can relate to your experience because you live such a specified type of lifestyle. You’re on the outside of everybody.”
“The whole album rallies the desperation of growing old against the aspiration of youth.”
Despite her specific loneliness, Be The Cowboy describes a nihilism “that’s not just something musicians feel,” but “something everyone feels as they get older. Deep inside there’s just vast emptiness. But you still rally yourself, and you still be an adult, and you still participate,” she says, while doing all three at once.
The album is as much a “reaction to Puberty 2 being described as ‘adolescent'”
as it is the desire to express “being a grown-up and having grown-up love.” It’s a sentiment that’s in contradistinction from a “music industry [that] is youth-oriented,” where “the songs which tend to succeed are about infatuation”.
Adult fantasy, rather than a juvenile infatuation, underpins Be The Cowboy. Mitski sings like a silver-screen star with her new, kissable lipstick as she affirms: ‘Me and my husband, we are doing better’. It’s a fantasy formed from Mitski’s childhood, which she spent “just watching movies and assuming that’s how love is, and wanting that.” “That’s why a lot of this album is just about cinema, and the effect of watching a movie or being in a movie. Growing up a lot of my relationships were fantasies. I didn’t have a chance to get to know people or build real relationships. I don’t know what the draw of infatuation is, but I know that it helped me survive when I was younger.”
But as we find in Be The Cowboy, “there’s more desperation in adult fantasy.” Mitski dreams of ‘just one movie kiss’, and when that impossible fantasy never arrives, she unfurls into a desperate Tennessee Williams character, as she wails: ‘somebody kiss me, I’m going crazy!’
“The whole album rallies the desperation of growing old against the aspiration of youth,” Mitski says. And its most “opaque and quiet” song ‘A Horse Called Cold Water’ “encapsulates the whole album.” It describes “a racehorse who was once known to run like a storm and just be so fast and the best, but that was when he was young.” Now, with his heart unstirred, he simply endures.
“Time’s up!” her manager calls. We leave the room. Mitski tucks in our chairs. She rallies through another day.