Catching her breath as she opens up a Zoom call, Rina Sawayama is quick to offer an explanation.
“Sorry if there’s some slight background noise,” she says, as a low rumble of hushed conversations echo behind her. “I’m in rehearsals right now and trying to step out. Everywhere else is too cold, so I have to sit in the corner of the rehearsal room for this.”
It’s indicative of the British pop star’s life as of late — when she speaks with Billboard, she’s putting the final touches on her Hold the Girl Tour, an international set of live dates that began Wednesday, Oct. 12 in Glasgow, Scotland that will see her perform in Great Britain, North America, New Zealand and Australia through January 2023.
The show simply continues on the momentum Sawayama has been building throughout the year — along with completing her long-delayed U.S. tour of her debut album Sawayama, the star has been hard at work promoting and releasing Hold the Girl, her critically-acclaimed sophomore set dealing starkly with mental health and childhood trauma through the lens of alternative pop songs.
For Sawayama though, the release of Hold the Girl has felt more like putting out two albums at once — since COVID-19 effectively shut down much of the promotional work surrounding her debut in 2020 (as well as her original European tour), the star has been working double duty when it comes to unveiling the new project.
“It’s the fans who couldn’t come and get their records signed the first time are coming round with two vinyls now,” she explains. “They’re talking about their experience about how both albums have helped them through difficult times, so it really feels like I’m promoting two albums in a way.”
A lot has changed for the singer since debuting Sawayama — back then, for example, the star says that because she didn’t have a live opportunity to commune with her fans, she found herself diving deep online to figure out what the response to her work looked like.
“It was all online, it was all tweets, and back then I used to read every tweet and YouTube comment and all of the stuff like that,” she says. “I was reading every review and comment, and I did that for the first record — I read so many and I really cared about what everyone thought. I’ve very happily moved on from that.”
The subject matter has also evolved — throughout the new LP, Sawayama explores the idea of parenting her inner child and coming to terms with traumatic events from her childhood. Songs like the title track and “Forgiveness” seek to create reconciliation, while others like “Your Age” and “Frankenstein” seethe with rage at having gone through pain in the first place.
It’s an album dappled with personal truths and revelations that Sawayama was ready to share after a few years of therapy. The therapy process itself was “really hard,” she says, as she was encouraged to “come to a realization that your whole world is turned upside down.” But once she had moved past that, the writing and producing process of her album “was very good for me.”
Then, it came time to promote the project, which came with its own complications for the singer. “I talked about the very deep, emotional parts of the record to too many people, and it felt like I was sort of re-traumatizing myself every time,” Sawayama offers. “I think I did 120 interviews for this record, and I really thought I could handle it emotionally — but it was quite a lot. I never got specific, but even just alluding to the trauma, your body sets up this little reaction inside of you where it’s getting ready for fight or flight.”
But instead of succumbing to the emotional exhaustion of reliving some of her darkest moments over and over, Sawayama is choosing to find the silver lining in the promotional push. “I think it was a lesson that you can be boundaried about what you talk about; you can share it with the people who understand, but you don’t have to share it with everyone,” she says, relief hanging off each word.
As a cadre of excited voices begin to rally behind her once again, Sawayama is more than happy to refocus onto the task at hand — creating a show that fans are going to love. “It’s my favorite bit of what I do,” she says, excitedly.
The Hold the Girl Tour promises to be a spectacle in and of itself, with Sawayama describing the everything as “bigger.” She’s teamed up with production company WFB Live — who helped craft Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia Tour as well as Post Malone’s 12 Carat Tour — to take the same number of people on stage (two band members, two backup dancers, and Sawayama) and make it feel more extravagant.
Sawayama quickly rattles off just a few examples of the amped-up production — new lighting rigs, stunning choreography, interesting stage pieces — before coming to her own conclusion of what they’re accomplishing. “We’re now maximizing the sound, maximizing the slay,” she says, before laughing at her own joke.
It’s a strange experience for the star, especially with her U.S. tour set to kick off on November 1 in Brooklyn, NY — despite having spent the earlier part of this year touring the States, Sawayama is returning a mere six months later and playing venues doubled in size. Plus, she adds, they’re traveling to states they didn’t get to hit the first time around.
“There’s cities like Nashville, and places in Texas, and North Carolina, where we’ve never been to, and we’re having to scale down the show quite a bit,” she says. “Even thinking about, if we’re walking five steps in the New York show to get from one end to the other, let’s say, you have to cut it down to two steps in these other places. It’s a weird puzzle, and it keeps things exciting.”
That excitement remains in the singer’s voice throughout the interview, as she remains in awe of the task at hand. “For a U.K. artist, being able to tour the U.S. and have success doing it is a dream,” she says. “I feel so lucky that I can do multiple tours and festivals in the same year.”
“Success” is an important word to associate with Sawayama at the moment — after unveiling Hold the Girl in September and earning a No. 3 debut on the U.K. Albums Chart, the singer officially became the highest-charting Japanese artist in the history of the U.K charts.
It’s especially important for an artist who fought publicly for recognition as a British artist back in 2020, prompting the BRITs to change the rules for their eligibility regarding British citizenship. “When I heard that, it was like, ‘Oh my god, maybe I’m helping make that happen for someone else right now,'” she explained, adding that BLACKPINK earning their No. 1 position on the chart that same week felt appropriate. “Just to see all of this East and Southeast Asian representation like that is something I never would have thought could happen five or six years ago.”
With the whiplash of her tour-to-album-back-to-tour schedule weighing on her, Sawayama takes a moment to breathe as she lays out her plans for the future. “I’m allowed to take time with my third record,” she says, audibly relaxing as she does. “It’s been a very crazy, very fast journey; with the first and second albums, I felt like I was working with a lot of limitations in terms of writing and promoting it. I feel like I’ve made a lot of different mistakes with the first and second record — I’m immensely proud of them, but on the third record, I want to consolidate and take time to really focus on what I enjoy and love.”