How Rina Sawayama Turned Pop Inside Out — And Built One of Its Fastest Growing Fanbases
With her genre-obliterating sound and gripping lyrics about identity, she became one of the most exciting queer voices in pop. Now she's making room for anyone else who feels like an outsider.
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.’ ”
Then she took a meeting with British independent label Dirty Hit. Founder Jamie Oborne had a different reaction to “STFU!”: He couldn’t stop laughing. “It was bonkers,” says Oborne. “It was such a collision of different cultural elements, of genres.” He also knew a thing or two about developing misunderstood acts. When he launched Dirty Hit in 2009, his first band was pop-rock powerhouse The 1975, which “every label in the f–king world seemed to pass on twice,” he says. Sawayama signed to the company in 2019 — and became the pop-star outlier among a rock-leaning roster that now includes Pale Waves, Wolf Alice and Beabadoobee.
“I often say there are two types of artists: artists that have to do it and artists that want to do it, and Rina is the former,” adds Oborne. “She can’t be anything else other than Rina Sawayama.”
“STFU!” became the lead single from 2020’s Sawayama, her debut album and one of the most critically lauded releases of the year. (It appeared prominently on over two dozen best-of lists last year.) It felt like the foundation for a new kind of pop star: unabashedly queer, unapologetically Asian and completely unconcerned with genre conventions. Sawayama’s identities don’t just inspire her music — they permeate its DNA. On “Chosen Family,” a shimmering, gospel-tinged ballad, she sings about finding solace in queer friendships, especially in the face of rejection from loved ones. On futuristic tracks like “Tokyo Love Hotel” and “Akasaka Sad,” she explores her relationship with Japan as a U.K. transplant — her family emigrated from Niigata when she was 5 years old — who feels both protective of and disconnected from her culture.
Her material is often dark and deeply personal, but she wraps each song on Sawayama in the pageantry of pop music. “Rina is a pop-art chameleon,” says friend Elton John, a longtime fan who duetted with her on a new version of “Chosen Family” in April. “Her debut album is a clever and confident kaleidoscopic odyssey that zips and zooms through a compendium of pop music genres. She exuberantly changes gears from track to track and keeps the listener guessing where she’s going to go next.”
Genre fluidity is essentially the norm today, but Sawayama takes the concept to dizzying new heights: She’s less interested in blending sounds than in pushing each to its extreme. Throughout Sawayama, she pivots with ease from New Jack Swing to stadium rock to slinky club beats. Time-stamping it all are influences from the Y2K days, back when Korn and Britney Spears vied for the top spot on MTV’s Total Request Live. “I love the chaos of that era,” says Sawayama, who in conversation is enthusiastic and quick to laugh, usually at herself. She stresses that her affection for these sounds is in no way ironic. “I always get asked: ‘Who are you listening to at the moment?’ I’m like, ‘Kelly Clarkson? I don’t know if you’ve heard of her? Um, Katy Perry’s first album?’ ”
There’s an exhilarating whiplash in hearing her go from “Dynasty,” an Evanescence-inspired rock anthem about intergenerational trauma, to “XS,” a snappy critique of consumerism that evokes Spears’ frothy collaborations with The Neptunes. In less skillful hands, the transition would crumble into mere pastiche. Sawayama’s approach, however, feels reminiscent of code switching, something many queer people — and more specifically, queer people of color — know intimately: the ability to flit between presenting queer and straight, constantly modulating identities depending on circumstances. “That’s part of the magic of Rina, the fact that she was able to stitch it all together,” says Dirty Hit A&R manager Chris Fraser. “Her identity brings it together. She wants to exist in the mainstream world, but on her own terms.”
Sawayama has yet to produce any major hits, but her music has turned her into the rare artist equally adored by underground auteurs and A-listers like Elton John and Lady Gaga, who will feature Sawayama on her upcoming Chromatica remix album. Sawayama won’t spoil what song she’s on, though as a longtime Gaga disciple, she was hardly picky. “If they said, ‘You need to cover ‘Chromatica I,’ ” — the first of the album’s instrumental interludes — “I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it!’ I’ll just sing the whole orchestra: dum-dum-dum, dum-dum-dum!”
Like Gaga and her Little Monsters, Sawayama has been intentional about cultivating her passionate fan base, the Pixels. On her 2018 tour, she offered special wristbands to audience members who had come alone so they could find one another and build community. She’s also a savvy creator on YouTube, where she posts not just behind-the-scenes footage and performances but also guitar lessons and makeup tutorials, all branded as “RINA TV” with algorithm-friendly, vlogger-style titles like “How to make a MUSIC VIDEO in 5 STEPS.”
“Showing the creative process can be really exciting for people who, like me, had no idea how to do this,” she says. “I learned so much from being independent, but I really wished I knew so much before. It would have saved me a lot of time.”
The conversations she fosters in her music — what it means to be queer, what it means to feel torn between homelands — are ones she continues outside of the studio, too. Last summer, she signed an open letter asking the U.K. government to ban conversion therapy for LGBTQ+ youth. More notably, her criticism of the citizenship requirements for some U.K. honors, including the BRIT Awards, has inspired new eligibility rules that recently opened up nominations to musicians like her — immigrants who have spent much of their lives in the United Kingdom.
Sawayama makes music about feeling like an outsider and fighting for agency; that she wields it back at the music industry, making room for other outsiders in the process, cuts to the heart of what makes her so exciting. It shows in the video for “STFU!,” which begins with Sawayama out to dinner with a white guy. As he stabs at his sushi, he unleashes a string of microaggressions, from comparing her to Asian actresses to expressing surprise that she sings in English. At one point, he asks, “Have you been to that Japanese place… Wagamama’s?” Every remark is something Sawayama has heard before from real-life dates, strangers or, yes, label executives.
The freedom to make such artistic decisions, says Sawayama, makes her feel “really lucky that [I’ve been] able to do me, 100%. Because if I wasn’t, I don’t think I’d be proud of where I am now.” Which is a fairly unique position: She’s a kind of cultural critic embedded in the front lines, a pop scholar using the diva playbook to punch up at the industry that has tried to pigeonhole her.
It’s a role that’s unlikely to change, even as she enters the next phase of her career and advances toward pop’s molten center. Sawayama is working on her second album, which she promises will mine even more left-field references from decades past. In the fall, she’ll finally embark on a rescheduled tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland, playing some venues that are double or triple the size of those she planned to hit pre-pandemic. (A North American tour, originally scheduled for later this year, is now booked for next spring alongside other European dates.)
“I feel like Rina is going to explode once people start going to shows and seeing her,” says Oborne, adding that her success has played a big role in the label’s recent expansion, with new offices in Los Angeles and Sydney. She’ll also make her feature-film debut in 2022, starring alongside Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 4.
Sawayama’s rise has even inspired those who didn’t get it to reach out to congratulate her — including the A&R executive who pulled the plug on a deal after hearing “STFU!” It felt good, says Sawayama, but it wasn’t quite good enough. “I was like, ‘Next time I see him, I’m still going to demand that money,’ ” she says with a laugh.
Rina Sawayama had two goals for her U.S. TV debut, on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, in October. She wanted to convey a sense of stakes: At that stage of the pandemic, remote performances often felt as slickly produced as music videos — so instead, she designed a performance that relied on a few camera cuts to capture the feeling that anything could happen if the viewer stuck around. “Rina was like, ‘It has to be live, but it has to be capital-L live,’ ” says Tom Connick, product manager at Dirty Hit. “ ‘You have to really hear my vocals — I don’t want it to be super polished.’ ”
Her second mission: “I’m going to try to get the straights and the locals,” she recalls thinking — in other words, win over the masses. “And then I came out with that f–king outfit.” She’s referring to her Marie Antoinette-goes-to-the-fetish-shop number: a red leather bodice and garter-style harness with opera gloves and opulent costume jewelry. “My entire team was like, ‘Babes, I don’t think you’ve nailed the brief,’ ” she says. “It was so high drag.” Vogue called the look “a performance in itself.”
Sawayama traces her sense of theatricality to her days at Cambridge’s Magdalene College, where she studied politics, psychology and sociology while singing in a hip-hop group called Lazy Lion. “I thought we were the second coming of Black Eyed Peas,” she says. “I wasn’t nearly as iconic as Fergie, but I was trying.” At times, however, she struggled. She has called the university culture of Cambridge “horribly patriarchal” and felt isolated and stereotyped as an international student during much of her time there. But in her senior year, she fell in with a group of queer creatives, including the drag band Denim, which gave her a much-needed sense of belonging. Sawayama, who has been open about her experiences with depression, credits that scene with saving her life.
Their sensibility — proudly camp with an academic twist — has become a defining feature of her music. “I’m inspired by drag because people wear their trauma and insecurity and celebrate it or make a character out of it, and that’s really what I wanted to do with the album,” she says. “I wanted to talk about these things that have caused me so much pain — so much expensive therapy bills — and make it into something that just sounded like a pop song, to make people want to really listen over and over to what was being said.”
After graduating, she worked a series of odd jobs in London, sometimes two or three at a time, to independently fund her music: selling ice cream sandwiches out of her friend’s truck, working as a nail technician at a high-end salon, logging a few months at an Apple Store before she got fired for modeling in a Samsung ad. Pursuing music full time often felt like a distant dream. “When I started out, I was like, ‘What do you do as an artist?’ I had no idea how to release things or why it’s important to release songs or albums,” she says. “I didn’t grow up around the music industry. I have no connections.”
A photographer friend introduced Sawayama to Will Frost, who had worked in music publicity and now manages her along with day-to-day manager Caspar Harvey. At the time, Sawayama was content to just put out singles. Frost, she says, stressed the importance of planning for a larger body of work and thinking long term.
“Even when the money was running out, I had such belief in how successful Rina could be that we had to just keep going independently and not make any decisions that didn’t feel right,” says Frost. “It shows now in everything she does, whether it’s the fearlessness in the music or being outspoken on any topic she is passionate about — they’re all possible because of those formative years and the resilience she developed.”
Frost connected her to Adam Crisp, the singer-songwriter and producer who works under the name Clarence Clarity. Though it took a while for them to click — “The first song he did was ‘Alterlife,’ and I remember being like, ‘Ugh! That’s too much!’ ” — his maximalist tendencies turned out to be a perfect match for Sawayama’s instinct to, says Crisp, “blow the lid off everything” as a performer. He ultimately co-produced all but two of Sawayama’s 13 tracks. “He always brings a slightly cooler reference,” says Sawayama, “which is helpful, because I’ll be like, ‘Remember Avril Lavigne’s fourth track when she did this?’ And he’ll be like, ‘Yeah, but did you know that’s a rip-off of Radiohead?’ ”
Instead of sanding down her influences into one neat package, Crisp helped her embrace their contrasts. “We’ve got a running theme of face-melting guitar solos that pop up all over the place and really audacious, ridiculous key changes,” he says. “That’s the kind of stuff we both like, particularly Rina: putting things in places that have no right to be there.” In the end, he notes, “the most ridiculous idea wins.”
Plenty of pandemic albums sounded like queer dance parties incarnate, from Dua Lipa’s disco trip Future Nostalgia to Gaga’s ebullient Chromatica. But Sawayama felt the most purely communal: a celebration of all the ways queer bodies can come together in their own hallowed spaces, whether that’s moshing to “Dynasty,” strutting down imaginary runways to “Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys)” or swaying sweatily side to side, with interlocked arms, to “Chosen Family.”
That has made the lack of live shows as tough for the artist herself as it has been for her community. “I think a song is complete in terms of its writing when it’s performed and fed back to you through the audience, when you hear them singing it. It’s almost like a comedian testing their material,” she says. “For me, it’s important how people’s bodies move to the songs because as a pop writer, you’re essentially carrying people on this journey.”
Still, Sawayama never considered pushing her album back. So during lockdown, she focused her promotional efforts on social media, pivoting her album-launch event to a last-minute YouTube party and releasing new episodes of RINA TV. “We had to be super adaptive with the album coming when it did,” says Connick. “Especially when we went into lockdown, a lot of our marketing ideas were shelved and canned pretty much overnight. So we had to very, very quickly figure out what it was we wanted to do.”
Sawayama has learned what many pop stars have in the streaming age: The albums that make the biggest impact are the ones you can keep breathing new life into. In December, she released a deluxe edition of Sawayama featuring live versions, remixes (including one with Brazilian drag superstar Pabllo Vittar) and the dopamine-spiking dance-pop single “LUCID.” For the one-year anniversary of the album in April, she put out the new version of “Chosen Family” with John. (“Will was like, ‘We should get Elton on a song,’ ” recalls Sawayama, “and I was like, ‘You’re f–king insane.’ ”) The same month, she also filmed a Tiny Desk concert for NPR, which felt like a counterpoint to the bombastic Fallon performance: a stripped-back showcase for her operatic voice.
Not everything on her wish list went according to plan. In her first meeting with Dirty Hit, Sawayama said it would be her dream to receive the prestigious Mercury Prize, which is awarded to a single album each year. But last summer, she realized she was ineligible for both that honor and the BRIT Awards, the U.K. equivalent to the Grammys. Both are run by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) trade group, which at the time required solo artists to have British or Irish nationality. Sawayama has spent most of her life in the United Kingdom but is not a citizen — she’s on an Indefinite Leave to Remain visa. There are pathways to citizenship for those with such visas, but she would have to give up citizenship in Japan, where her parents now live and which does not allow for dual citizenship.
Realizing she was locked out was heartbreaking. “When you’re an immigrant, you kind of move through life being masked and shielded to the fact that not everyone is welcoming of you,” says Sawayama. “And that was a moment when that veil came off.”
One phrase in particular kept running through her mind: Am I not enough? “I’ve lived here for this many years, I went to Cambridge, I pay taxes here, and I’m still not good enough,” says Sawayama before backpedaling — as if realizing she has boxed herself into the model-minority myth. “You can still be an amazing person and belong to this country without those things, too. But I think I’ve conditioned myself to believe that I’m not deserving if I don’t have those things, which is the reason I work so hard.”
After waiting a bit to gauge whether she had been truly snubbed — “Can you imagine if my album was s–t and no one was talking about me, and then I was like, ‘Excuse me, I should have been nominated’?” — she did an interview with VICE calling attention to the eligibility requirements, which she labeled a form of artistic “border control.” A day after the article was published, the hashtag #sawayamaisbritish started trending on Twitter in the United Kingdom.
Eventually, BPI chairman Ged Doherty reached out to Sawayama to explain that he didn’t realize how restrictive the rules were, she recalls. (“Rina is an incredible artist, and we are grateful to her for raising her concerns,” Doherty wrote in a statement to Billboard.) A few months later, in February, the organization announced some changes: Any musician who has been a resident in the United Kingdom for at least five years is now eligible. Soon after, Sawayama was shortlisted for the BRITs’ 2021 Rising Star Award. “Telling my mum was amazing,” she said in a teary-eyed video responding to the nomination. “She was so proud.”
She ultimately didn’t win, but getting a seat at the table was its own kind of victory. In April, Sawayama attended the 2021 BRITs ceremony in a purple Balmain couture gown with an impossibly long tulle train, looking every bit the belle of the ball. On Twitter, she posted a photo of herself on the red carpet with the caption: “sawayama looking v british tbh !!!!”
“Ri-na! Ri-na! Ri-na!”
“Who’s Gonna Save U Now?,” a crunchy, ’80s-style rock jam on Sawayama, opens with the sounds of an imaginary crowd chanting her name. Even before she released an album, Sawayama always had grand visions for her live show. Her first official concert, celebrating the arrival of her 2017 EP, was at the 150-capacity East London venue The Pickle Factory. As she listened to fans singing along to her music, she recalls, “I literally thought I was selling out a stadium.”
“She only ever thinks in mega pop-star terms because that’s the world she grew up loving,” says Frost. “When she was playing to 300 people, it was always outfit changes, choreo, drama — how can we make this tiny venue with this small fan base feel like they’re at an arena?”
On her tour this fall, Sawayama won’t be playing arenas, but she will perform at her biggest venues to date. She’s relishing the creative opportunities that come with a larger stage and hopes her show will offer a safe space for a fan base that spans a diversity of backgrounds. “I feel like my entire live team is queer. It’s like a lovely queer family,” says Sawayama. Directing the tour is her friend Chester Lockhart, the musician-actor who also directed her Tiny Desk performance. “Me and Chester always talk about live shows — we’re obsessed with iconic shows of the 2000s.”
In the meantime, Sawayama has been back in the studio with Crisp recording her second album, which she says will explore other influences from the Y2K era and beyond, including ’90s rave music, The Cardigans, No Doubt and Bon Jovi. “That’s what’s so fun about music from the ’90s and 2000s — it’s so broad,” she says.
At first, writing new music felt terrifying: “I was like, ‘I have f–king nothing to say, I haven’t lived life, I haven’t met people.’ ” Not being able to tour the first album also made it hard to start thinking about the next. “Mentally, as a songwriter, that’s hard,” she says, “because I haven’t gotten [Sawayama] out of my system.” But after getting into the studio with Crisp earlier this year, Sawayama slowly found her voice again. In two weeks, they cranked out 14 songs. A writing trip to L.A. is also in the works.
The staff at Dirty Hit believes that, with the right timing and positioning, this next album could finally push her into the mainstream. But they’re not in a rush. “We haven’t taken anything to radio in America yet for a reason: I want to build an undeniable foundation first,” says Oborne. “I feel like we’re almost there.”
For now, they’re letting Sawayama lead the way. “We’d love for her to become a Main Pop Girl,” says Connick. “But I’m trying not to focus too much on any particular model or existing success story and just continue what we did from 18 months ago, which was to facilitate Rina being Rina.” It’s a common refrain among her team — “Let Rina be Rina” — that speaks to both her singular artistry and the general strategy at Dirty Hit. “We’re not really selling music,” says Oborne, “we’re selling identity.”
A few years ago, Sawayama contemplated going simply by the name Rina. “I’ve always been conscious that my surname is an inconvenience,” she says, recalling her earliest days in British school, when staff would regularly butcher her name. “I would be in floods of tears. That anxiety of someone trying to say my last name as a 5-year-old was the most excruciating thing.”
In the end, after talking it through with her team, she decided to keep it. “I think it’s important for people to instantly recognize that it’s a Japanese or Asian-sounding name,” she says. “But in the future, I’m definitely not counting off dropping the surname — if I become iconic enough.” For Sawayama, maybe the question is not if, but when.
This story originally appeared in Billboard’s 2021 Pride Issue, dated June 5, 2021.