A few years ago, Rina Sawayama was starting to wonder if she was unsignable. There was the casual racism, like the time she found out that a senior record executive jokingly referred to her as “Rina Wagamama” behind her back. Or that time a major-label A&R executive backed out of a deal at the last minute, leaving her scrambling to cover lawyer’s fees she had planned to pay for with her advance.
Her infraction? The demo for “STFU!,” a thrashing, nu metal romp that sounds like the reincarnation of Limp Bizkit if Fred Durst were JoJo. The song’s chorus — “Shut the f--k up,” intoned over and over again in a feathery singsong — was both absurd and intimate, aimed at the very sort of person in the industry who thought replacing Sawayama’s name with that of a Japanese-inspired British restaurant chain was funny. From the label’s perspective, though, “STFU!” was too stark a departure from the R&B-inflected minimalism of RINA, her 2017 EP. She remembers feeling “devastated” when the deal fell through, looking around the Los Angeles studio she was renting for the month and wondering how she was going to afford it. But at no point did she ever question her vision.
“I was like, ‘F--k off,’ ” Sawayama, dressed casually in a gray hoodie, says over Zoom from her London flat on a recent afternoon, her laughter revealing a sliver of blue braces. The Japanese-British singer, 30, had spent her 20s toiling independently in London’s underground music scene, playing small clubs and fine-tuning what would become her boundary-pushing approach to pop. So by the time she started pursuing a record deal, she knew she was on to something: “I think that’s the benefit of me waiting so long. Had I been younger, I might have been like, ‘Oh, no. I need to change my sound.’ ”