Mitski Is Not Here to Save Indie Rock (But She Might Save You)

Her latest, ‘Puberty 2,’ is one of the most anticipated albums of the year. But the singer-songwriter is wary of the spotlight.

Mitski Miyawaki has no interest in being your poster child for progress. She’s a witty, guitar-wielding Asian woman playing American rock music—a genre typically populated by white dudes. And she knows exactly what narrative could be spun from the sheer fact of her identity. But there’s a thin line between real growth and exploitative back-patting, and she’s very, very, very wary of her press. “I think it’s important [to talk about diversity] but I’ve become selective with how and where I talk about it,” the 25-year-old musician who records as Mitski, tells me when I ask about being asked about being a woman of color in this industry. “I’ve found that me talking about it isn’t actually making a difference or benefiting anyone. It just benefits the publication, because then they look progressive and feminist, and it becomes part of their brand.”

Even as I write this, I’m aware of the countless Mitski profiles and reviews already framing her as the non-white savior the fallow genre of indie rock needs. But she deserves the press simply because she’s making some of the best music right now, not because she can easily be slotted as a vehicle for vapid enlightenment. “I talk about being Asian and then that becomes the article,” she says. “All the white people reading the article feel good about themselves because they are reading about this person of color being an artist. It stops there and everyone goes back to their day. When other young Asian girls hit me up about what it is like or what my music might mean to them, then I talk about it all day. For me, now it’s just a matter of doing it when it counts and not just servicing all the time.”

“I have my privileges but I do feel like at every turn there is such resistance. I feel like I’m not taken seriously.”

The first time Mitski and I exchanged words, it was via Twitter Direct Message two years ago, after a fateful mutual follow on the Internet. This was before Mitski started living by the mantra currently serving as her Twitter bio (“I don’t read DMs”), and months before the release of her 2014 record Bury Me at Makeout Creek, her third album, which would mark her as a rising star in the world of indie rock.

“Oh, shit, I’m sorry!” she says, when I accidentally accuse her of sliding into my DMs first. (Apologies are in order, though, because the record shows that it was actually I who had slid into her DMs first.) It’s easy to ignore music that strangers share on the Internet, but something—again, let’s call it fate—led me to click on the Bandcamp link modestly advertised on Mitski’s Twitter page. There was just one song posted, “First Love/Late Spring,” the first single from Bury Me. A quiet bassline opens the song before Mitski’s warm, hushed voice joins it, the kind of voice that has a sort of melted butter effect over your entire body. I listened to it again. And then again. And again. And then I took it out for a walk on a quiet summer night, just to be alone with it.

My DM was just a way to let her know, to say thanks.

Almost exactly two years later, Mitski and I are meeting for the first time. “I feel like we’ve been…” I start, before she finishes my sentence: “Internet friends for a long time!” We run in similar circles and have mutual friends, but are only just crossing paths. There’s an immediate sense of familiarity.

It’s a windy 52 degrees that May morning in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and even chillier by the East River, where Mitski is chasing geese. She’s dressed in all black, with black knee-high socks, sneakers, and a cozy sweater she occasionally wraps herself in when the wind picks up. She doesn’t always wear glasses but today she does.

“What if the article comes out and it’s just photos of geese?” Mitski jokes. “Like the piece is about the real producers behind Mitski.” The geese, oblivious to the high praise bestowed upon them, fly away. The fantastical joke is sourly rooted in reality—many women musicians, including massively successful stars like M.I.A. and Bjork, have been forced to go to great lengths to prove that they are the authors of their art in the face of a general public that is forever searching for the man calling the shots behind the scenes.

“I have my privileges but I do feel like at every turn there is such resistance,” she says. “Things seem to take so much longer for me to do. I have to say things 10 times instead of once. I have to knock on 10 different doors instead of two. For everything. All the time. I feel like I’m not taken seriously.”

Your Best American Girl (Official Video) - Mitski

Those frustrations are not the central focus of her work, though. Mitski recently used Facebook to clear up a few misconceptions about her music: “‘Your Best American Girl’ is a love song,” she wrote, in reference to the first single from her newest record, Puberty 2. “A lot of reviews have agreed on a narrative that she wrote this song to stick it to 'the white boy indie rock world'! but I wasn't thinking about any of that when I was writing it, I wasn't trying to send a message. I was in love. I loved somebody so much, but I also realized I can never be what would fit into their life.”

Not quite fitting in is a running theme for her life. She was born in Japan (to a Japanese mother and American father), grew up all over the world, and did her schooling in New York, at SUNY Purchase, where she studied music composition. “I feel like I’ve always wanted to live in one place and stay in one place, but I always end up choosing things that make me travel,” she says. Currently, she lives out of a suitcase. She tours so often that, financially, it didn’t make sense to pay rent for a place she would hardly spend time in. That morning, she’d come straight from her manager’s couch.

“Even though I dream of living in one place, I remember by the second or third year I was in New York I was starting to itch and needing to leave,” she says. “It’s probably unhealthy. It’s nice to know there’s a big world with many perspectives. I tend to get so stuck in my own small world easily and going out into the world reminds me that I’m not the center of the world—in a good way. There’s just a whole big world and I don’t really matter. That’s a really nice feeling.”

That lifestyle makes it difficult to maintain a relationship. Mitski’s shy when it comes to her love life (“I don’t talk about my personal relationships ever; it’s all in song”), but she does address the challenges of making your loved ones—romantic and otherwise—a priority. “Any musician would say this,” she says. “If you have a partner, you usually see them once every three months or something. Then it gets harder and harder to have a partner who isn’t involved in music, because it’s hard for them to understand why you are doing what you are doing, and why you are away. When you’re back you seem to not really be working or you are working a part time job. This lifestyle really distances you from the world in that way.”

What drew me to Mitski’s music wasn’t the sticking-it-to-the-white-man narrative, but something far simpler—feelings. I tell her, “I’ve never been in love so when I heard “First Love/Late Spring,” it really captured my anxieties of catching feelings for someone and then being like, ‘Please don’t. But also please do.’ That’s me every time.” She replies, “Yeah, it’s funny ‘cause when you fall in love, every time is like the first time. You never get used to it.”

The title for her fourth and latest album is apt: Puberty 2. Mitski has a way of intensifying feelings, recalling the unbearable rush of teenage hormones. As the chorus builds in “Your Best American Girl,” you want to jump up on your bed and belt the words into your hairbrush after having spent the verse pouting about a cute boy you’re pining for. The album title came from Mitski and her producer Patrick Hyland riffing off each other and she says she naturally gravitated towards it. What’s Puberty 1, then? “A nightmare,” Mitski says, laughing.

After roaming around Williamsburg for an hour, we find ourselves famished at House of Small Wonder, a quaint Japanese eatery. She’s delighted to have a taste of home cooking, especially after gorging on gas station food for months at a time. It’s gotten so bad that Starbucks has become a beacon of light on the road. She orders a matcha latte later (she doesn’t drink coffee; matcha’s her choice of caffeine).

“On tour people know that if they ever ask me what I want to eat, I will always say Asian food,” she says. “I’m becoming a stereotype but it’s what I want to eat. I want to eat rice.” She orders Japanese curry and when it comes out, she announces, simply, “I’m very happy.”

Whatever fatigue she might be feeling, Mitski’s still young and at 25 years old, she’s at the right age for roaming. “Your 20s are very… Puberty 2.”

“Goddamn it!” she says, realizing how on-the-nose her album title is.  

Happy (Official Video) - Mitski

She tells me about one reckless and extremely teenage thing she did while living in Japan. “I gave myself a small stick and poke on my 13th birthday—very melodramatically. I skipped class to do it in the bathroom. But I did it with pen ink and a sewing needle. My body was like, ‘What is this? We are going to erase it?’ It went away.”

She tattooed the number 13 on her body. “I didn’t want to grow old. I wanted to be 13 forever.” Somehow, it gets even more ridiculous: “It was on my pelvis. I didn’t do it right because I was looking down and doing this. So it’s ‘13’ from my perspective, first of all. Then it didn’t even look like a ‘13.’ It looked like a blob. It’s gone now so it’s like it didn’t happen.”

Growing up, Mitski listened to a lot of 2000s pop: Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey. Spice Girls, too, but “only because my neighbor really liked them and she was my only real friend.” These are musical obsessions that aren’t necessarily obvious in Mitski’s own music.

“Here’s the thing,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about music production. But the early aughts pop music is expensively made. It’s not something you could just make on your own. Right there it just was inaccessible. It’s like, I don’t know how to make this.”

“I think really making it would be getting to a point where I can freely make music the way I want to make it and not have to do things I don’t want to do in order to just live.”

We joke that indie rock was the only career move for her. The joke’s on everyone else, though, ‘cause there’s no one doing that genre better than Mitski right now. We’ve talked so much about the feels Mitski’s music evokes, but the formally-trained musician is also technically gifted, too. She’ll own a stage with her electric guitar. In fact, the most surprising thing Mitski tells me is that she only picked up a guitar for the first time for Bury Me, which came out two years ago. “For my first two records, Lush [2012] and Retired from Sad, New Career in Business [2013], I was writing on piano, for piano, with piano. But once I graduated I realized that I didn’t have a car and I needed to get to gigs. I wanted to play and I didn’t have a band. I wanted to learn an instrument that I could just pick up, get on a train, and play. I started learning from there. Then I started writing for guitar from that. That was what Bury Me ended up being.”

She’s becoming one of the mainstays of the indie world. Anyone who’s read Pitchfork in the past couple years knows who she is. But she doesn’t feel like big just yet. “I’m not,” she says. “Maybe in this very small world. It feels very gradual for me because I’ve been doing this for a long time, little by little. Obviously other people don’t see me behind the scenes working.” It’s maybe that her previous album feels like her debut, and people often think she just came out of nowhere. “Bury Me at Makeout Creek was actually my third album,” she says. “Obviously for people outside of me, they just these flashes of [my life.] ‘Oh, she’s doing this!’ or ‘Oh, I see her again!’”

She has an extremely grounded way of looking at whether or not she’s made it yet. “If I get cancer today, I would not only not be able to pay for it. If I quit music right now, I have no income,” she says. “I don’t really have savings. I’d be done. I think really making it would be getting to a point where I can freely make music the way I want to make it—at my own pace—and not have to do things I don’t want to do in order to just live.”

There’s another “I made it” moment, though, and it’s a Twitter shout-out from one of her heroes, Michelle Branch. “When I saw that Michelle Branch thing, I was just shaking,” she says. With the release of Puberty 2, Mitski should brace herself for more shaking moments. However small her world is, she’s about to dominate it. Or maybe she already has, and just doesn’t know it yet.

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