On her debut album 'Sawayama,' the 29-year-old singer digs through her family and identity to lay claim to the narrative that is rightfully hers. "This is the record where I say, 'This is my truth.'"
Each month, Billboard Pride celebrates an LGBTQ act as its Artist of the Month. Our April selection: Rina Sawayama.
Rina Sawayama is supposed to be in America right now. It's a mild Wednesday afternoon in England, where the star is self-isolating in her London apartment instead of preparing for the headlining North American tour she was set to begin on April 24. (The tour has since been rescheduled for September due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.)
Instead of complaining, though, the rising pop star is taking the situation for what it is. "The thought that I would have been going on tour in a week is mental, because I am in absolutely no physical shape to do that right now," she tells Billboard over the phone with a laugh. "Imagine if they were like, 'It's all lifted; you can go back on tour! The original dates are reinstated!' I would be f--ked. You might as well just send a sack of potatoes to do my shows."
Yes, Sawayama admits, the current situation is sad and scary. But she can't help but marvel at the fact that she still has the ability to have a successful career in the midst of a global pandemic. "I'm kind of in awe of technology right now," she says. "I can release my album online -- that literally would not have been possible 20 years ago. Maybe even 10 years ago! It's wild."
The album in question is Sawayama (out now via Dirty Hit), the star's debut full-length project that she's been preparing for more than two years now. The culmination of her "arrival" onto the music scene, which began with her breakthrough 2017 EP Rina, the new record takes the singer's biggest ideas and filters them into a new kind of pop-rock fusion that expands her sound into uncharted territory.
For Sawayama, the record is a labor of love, and one that she has been anxiously waiting to share with her fans. "I can't write 'pre-order' anymore; the keyboard keys are worn out," she says. "The album's been done for months, and it's literally the only thing I've been listening to. I've gotten to the point where I'm like, 'Well, if no one likes it, I love it.'"
The struggle to get her debut project published stemmed largely from the major tonal shift that the project takes from the jump. The glossy, synthesized pop from 2017's Rina that put her on the map is still present, but supported now by grungy, dirty nu-metal sounds, like chunky guitar riffs and slamming drum riffs. Imagine if Britney Spears became the frontwoman for Korn, but she was Japanese, pansexual and openly spoke about intersectional politics.
The "barometer" of her new sound was "STFU!," the pissed-off lead single from the project that sees her embracing her hard-rock sound while singing about the microaggressions she experiences as a Japanese woman in today's society. With rough edges and charged up vocals, Sawayama proclaims, "How come you don't respect me?/ Expecting fantasies to be my reality/ Why don't you just sit down and/ Shut the f--k up."
It's also the song that caused the most struggle in trying to get the album produced. According to Sawayama, she was near the end of negotiations with a major label (she won't say which one) who was looking to sign her. But during the process of signing, they heard "STFU!" and suddenly changed their tune. "The A&R rep said to me, 'We don't like this; we're going to terminate the contract proceedings,'" she recalls. "And that would be fine if that doesn't cost so much in legal fees! It sucked."
Thus began a process of shopping her nearly finished album around to different record labels, some of whom were hesitant to put their support behind such a polarizing song. But when Sawayama found herself in the offices of Dirty Hit's Jamie Oborne, she knew that she had found the right place. "He freaked out. He was laughing hysterically; he loved it from the get-go, and things moved very quickly from then," she says. "They didn't want to change anything on the record. They just wanted to make it sound better. That, I feel super lucky about."
Since then, the star got to team up with Dirty Hit's production team, and even a few of their signed artists (The 1975's Adam Hann plays guitar on a few of the songs) to give the album its distinctive sound. Since then, she's received praise from just about everyone on her clean, crisp sound. But the person whose praise has meant the most to her was her mother's. "She was apparently on a trip, driving in her car, and listened to the album back-to-back for eight hours," the artist says. "She's obsessed, but she loves my music. She just didn't love the fact that I was a musician in the beginning."
Making sure that her mother was on board with the new project was an important step for the singer -- Sawayama deals largely with the legacy of trauma, passed down from generation to generation, and the various ways that baggage can crop up in life. On the album's opening track, "Dynasty," Sawayama lays her thesis bare: "I'm a dynasty/ The pain in my vein is hereditary," she wails in the chorus. "Won't you break the chain with me?"
Familial pain is a phenomenon Sawayama is sadly used to. Born in Japan and raised in London since age 5, Sawayama's parents went through a messy separation when she was a young girl, forcing her to straddle the bitter divide between the two by living with her mother and occasionally seeing her father.
Sawayama says the struggle of living a life where you have two parents who deeply resent one another comes from a loss of self-actualization. "When they talk about each other separately and angrily, it kind of leaves you in a place where you don't have a narrative," she says. "You don't understand, you don't know what your story is or what your take is on the whole situation. Your narrative is made up of other people's narrative."
Eventually, Sawayama earned her way into the University of Cambridge, studying psychology and politics, but even then still felt like everything she was doing and everything she had been told was all a facade. "I went through a period where I was actually convinced that I didn't actually go to Cambridge," she says with a sigh. "It's like imposter syndrome, but from when I was a teenager because I didn't understand what was true, what was real, and what was a lie. ... It got quite bad."
After dropping out of school to pursue music and undergoing what she calls "decades of therapy" ("I'm quite used to talking about the awkward s--t," she cracks), Sawayama decided to use her music as a means to explore the pathways of pain through her family and to reclaim her own identity, independent of her past. "This is the record where I say, 'This is my truth,'" she says.
Part of the process of creating the album meant ongoing uncomfortable conversations with her mother, during which the artist would bring back distinct memories from her past and ask if she was remembering them correctly. "Going through these memories with my mum and asking, 'Is this right? Was this true?' has been really interesting," she reveals. "Some things were not how I remembered it, or I got them completely confused. Most things were right and true, and it was amazing to feel validated."
Each of the songs on Sawayama deals with a different kind of pain that she has experienced as a result of her identity or her upbringing. Sometimes, she rages out to the pressures of toxic masculinity ("Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys)"), others Sawayamafeels despair over the mounting problem of climate change ("F--k This World"), and others she feels completely displaced from both Japan and England ("Akasaka Sad").
But on one track in particular, Sawayama transforms that pain into something beautiful. The second to last track of her album, and one of its final singles, is "Chosen Family," a country-twinged pop ballad that serves as her message to her queer friends and fans of love, hope and solidarity, especially as times get harder. "We don't need to be related to relate/ We don't need to share genes or a surname/ You are, you are/ My chosen, chosen family," she sings.
The singer is used to being open with her fans. On her 2018 single "Cherry," the star opened up for the first time about her pansexuality, singing to a female love interest and exploring the complex feelings surrounding her coming out. Since then, Sawayama says that she has received countless messages from young kids who say that her song helped them come out to their friends and family.
"Whatever I do, whether it's the gigs or the singles or anything, I always want to create a space where people feel comfortable, and I don't ever want to add any more hate to this world," she says. "It's more important to me that people feel seen through my music, or feel connected to me, or they feel something new. I take that very seriously."
To express to her queer fans how important they are to her, Sawayama actually made the lyrics and chords for her song available to them before "Chosen Family" was released, inspired by fellow queer pop singer Dorian Electra, who did the same thing with their track "Flamboyant." The singer saw the moment as an opportunity to connect her fans to her creative process, and was shocked by the response. "It had nearly 100 submissions, which is really wild considering the amount of effort you have to go through to do it," she says.
It's on album closer, "Snakeskin," though, that Sawayama completes the journey she started with "Dynasty." She establishes a tight metaphor surrounding identity and its relationship to music, positioning herself as a snake shedding its skin, transforming it into a handbag, and selling it for a profit. "Buy my expensive, exclusive, pain wear/ My fine couture is your branded repayment/ I tear my soul into two so that you can/ Pretend despair," she sings.
It may sound like a dark message, but it's one that the singer finds particularly empowering. At the song's end, a woman's voice can be heard crackling in the background, saying something in Japanese. It's her mother's voice, recorded by Sawayama, saying, "I’ve realized that now I want to see who I want to see, do what I want to do, be who I want to be."
"I had, like, an hour-long conversation with her and recorded the whole thing, and she kind of just came up with what she said when I asked her, 'How does it feel to be 60? What's changed?'" the artist reveals. "It really closes the whole theme of the album. It's amazing."
To Sawayama, that kind of connection is what success looks like -- not signing a major label deal, or getting radio play, or landing a song on the pop charts, but creating a meaningful, healing bond between listener and artist. "Success is seeing a DM that my song changed someone's life," she says. "If someone feels something different from coming to my gigs, that is success. Or creating a great album. That is success to me."