It’s unlikely that the current generation’s answer to candid, guitar-strumming songwriters like Liz Phair will find domestic bliss anytime soon. Despite being discouraged early on by a piano teacher who told her that her hands were too small for the instrument, Mitski majored in music composition at Purchase College in upstate New York and has since put out five albums. The first two were more classical-influenced, but it was with her third, Bury Me at Makeout Creek in 2014, that Mitski began to win critical acclaim. By her next release, 2016’s Puberty 2 -- an album of relatably angsty guitar ballads -- everything had changed. Of her 51.3 million on-demand streams, according to Nielsen Music, Puberty 2 has generated nearly half. She’s gotten high praise from Iggy Pop, and last year, Lorde sent her a Twitter DM, inviting her to open on her arena tour.
“Sometimes I felt like I was blowing people’s minds,” she recalls of Lorde’s spring trek, where she played to young pop fans so early in the evening that the house lights were often still on. “It was like I was inventing punk music in front of them.”
Her fifth album, Be the Cowboy, out Aug. 17, favors synths over guitar. It’s an intentional pivot for Mitski, who, now that she commands a larger reach, is wary of being pigeonholed. “I had come to be identified by distorted guitar, and I wanted to make sure I didn't repeat myself,” she says. And, she jokes, “I want to get my nails done. I’m passing the bass on to a bassist, so my fingers are free.”
Be the Cowboy isn't a total departure from Puberty 2 -- there are plenty of the lonely-heart anthems that first drew fans. Its first single, “Nobody,” where Mitski bemoans, “I know no one will save me,” has garnered 1.3 million on-demand U.S. streams since its release in late June. But as open as she may be with her emotions, Mitski is guarded about her personal life. “I accept all the consequences of what I do because I want to make music,” she says. “If I have less privacy, then fine. But the people that come into my life or that I love, they didn't make that choice or choose this life. I don’t want my relationship with them to jeopardize their privacy.”
“Me and My Husband” seems to invite speculation about her love life, though Mitski says it’s fictional and that she only “wanted to use that idea of a stereotypical housewife.” Where Puberty 2 centered on a teen heroine, Be the Cowboy takes a more grown-up, boundary-pushing perspective. On “Lonesome Love,” Mitski whispers, almost unemotionally, “Nobody fucks me like me.” This line, she says, is “true.”
Her music and videos play with fantasies of settling down, and as Mitski gets older, she has found they increasingly mirror her actual desires. “I’m thinking about [marriage] now, and it’s crazy,” she says. “I never thought I’d be this cliche, but I’m really like, ‘Wait, do I want children?’” She’s now big on investing money and recommends a SEP IRA for the self-employed. (“You get a discount on taxes because you give the government money that you’ll get back later,” she explains.) She has also started writing songs for others, including Canadian pop singer Allie X. “The hope is that 15 years from now, when I’m too tired to tour, I will already have that other musical job set up,” she says.
With her Asian heritage, Mitski is aware she’s an outlier even in the current indie-rock scene, which is now less talked about as a boys club thanks to rising acts like Snail Mail and Soccer Mommy. She has repeated in many interviews that she doesn't want to just talk about being Japanese -- something that would reinforce the idea that she’s an indie-rock token. Yet she can’t help but be proud about the growing presence of Asians in popular culture: She’s quick to note the big-budget, Asian-led film Crazy Rich Asians opens in August, as does the Asian-coming-of-age flick To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which hits Netflix the same day Be the Cowboy arrives. “I’m going to keep being a musician for as long as people let me, so by the time I put out seven or eight albums, maybe people will realize I’m not putting out music because I’m Asian.” She’s doing it, she adds, because “I can’t do anything else.”
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 4 issue of Billboard.