Mitski: Tell Me About It
“Honestly, the first one would be, ‘oh dear.’” Having turned 26 last year, Mitski Miyawaki is choosing appropriate terms to describe the experience of her mid-twenties.
The theme of millennial anxiety is central to many of the Philadelphia-based artist’s songs, and her rapidly-expanding fanbase respects her for exploring that clumsy stumble into adulthood with sharp wit. “And then the second one would be… ‘settling’,” Mitski says over the phone. “Because between the really messy parts of your early twenties, you are settling down. You suck a bottle of water with dirt in it, and the dirt is settling to the bottom.”
The heady narrative of surviving the ‘dark side of your twenties’ has inspired plenty of great indie rock albums, but few other contenders in recent years have propelled these quarter-life crises anywhere close to the heights reached on Mitski’s fourth full length Puberty 2. Released mid-summer last year, the album tells tales of love, loss, hurt and heartbreak, guiding us through life’s hidden vulnerabilities with self- deprecating humour, anthemic choruses and magnificent low-tempo ballads.
While not all of Puberty 2’s ideas felt particularly new, Mitski galvanised traditional indie rock tropes with enough personality and relatable vulnerability to charm even those who doubt the genre’s continued relevance, and the LP was rated highly among many credible publications’ end-of-year round-ups.
Detailing the day-to-day power struggles with your internal voice that accompanies the strive for happiness, across Puberty 2 Mitski laments the complications of casual relationships, drags her unwilling body to a party, and clears up after a lover who legs it while she’s in the bathroom. The album’s most jarring moment comes in the form of My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars – a blast of pure anxiety. “I wanna see the whole world,” she sings one moment, full of wanderlust-fuelled agitation. But then, all of sudden, she can’t help but be worried about her finances: “I don’t know how I’m gonna pay rent,” she panics.
Following her lo-fi breakout album – 2014’s Bury Me at Makeout Creek – Puberty 2 is the sound of Mitski wrestling with herself as she matures, gets her heart broken and ultimately falls into the same cycle of shit over and over again. It’s a seemingly unbreakable loop that is all too recognisable for the average 20-something. But the final song, A Burning Hill, offers solace from the chaos: “Today I will wear my white button-down, I’m tired of wanting more,” she sings, looking for comfort in small acts of control. “And I’ll go to work and I’ll go to sleep… I’ll love some littler things.” With limited physical resources but full of resolve, Mitski hopes that accepting life as it is, with all its blissful banalities, will take her where she wants to go.
When I speak to Mitski, she’s celebrating the completion of a long stretch of gigs across the US and Europe (most of which sold-out) with a day of “nothing.” To Mitski, that means answering emails, sleeping, and “trying to eat right for a day” – the latter being something she’s found tough to thread into her busy days of traveling and playing ever-growing shows. “I have so many friends who are totally mentally healthy, go on tour and then become really unhappy because it’s such a strange way of life,” she explains. “I don’t do drugs. I don’t drink any more. I don’t drink coffee. I don’t smoke. And I try to eat as healthy as I can. I’ve found ways to stay on tour, but some people never do.” However, Mitski does have one saving grace: “I do bring green tea with me. No one in the US even knows how to make black tea and it pisses me off,” she laughs.
By now, transience must be a familiar feeling for Mitski. Following her dad where his work took him, she has lived in 13 different countries, and she has often spoken about how her half-Japanese heritage makes her feel like ‘an outsider’ in Western culture as well as the New York scene, where she completed a degree in composition. As a result, her work is permeated with themes of detachment, alienation and belonging in American culture.
These notions also defined a recent, widely-reported performance. While always close to her heart, the importance of Mitski’s live show was recently most tangible to her on the night of the US presidential election result. Blind-sided by Donald Trump’s victory and fiercely protective of her POC and LGBTQA fans, she asked supporters of the new President-elect to leave her show, even telling them she was willing to refund their tickets. “I was in North Carolina the morning Trump was elected,” she remembers, “I cried all day. But then I had to switch gears. Because like, oh my god, I’m on tour, I have to play these shows. I can’t disconnect. And maybe that saved me, because otherwise I would have just retreated into myself. But I was forced to reach out.
“Everything was so raw,” she continues, “and the fact that a lot of people of colour or LGBTQA people physically, at that moment, felt unsafe around people who openly supported Trump – I just didn’t want that at my show. I wanted my show to feel safe and I wanted it to be a place of comfort for the people I related to. And I didn’t do it for every show but that night, because it was so soon, I just wanted all those people who felt unsafe to have a few hours of feeling okay.”
And after that night, Mitski’s remaining US tour dates continued to feel more significant. “As I went on stage, the air would just be different,” she recalls. “It would feel like people were there because they really needed something. People weren’t just there for a fun night out. People were there to forget, or be angry, or be sad. People really needed this. And I’m not saying they needed my music – I think they just needed anything. I put so much more energy in those shows than I ever have.”
There’s a sense of mutual respect between Mitski and her fans that’s reflected with her social media presence. Her fans often reach out to her directly, and her replies range from the silly to the serious. Whereas her songs roll out into grand designs, Mitski also thrones herself as the queen of pithy one liners when she’s constrained to 140 characters. ‘”assume the worst in people. and the best! every extreme is possible so let’s run through each possibility once more before bed :)” -anxiety’ reads one tweet; ‘I’m 26 now. I’m officially on the other half of one’s 20’s. death is real and I am afraid’ reads another.
Scanning her social media feeds, it seems that for many her rhetoric is a reminder that all is not lost. But she takes a realistic view of her role as an activist. “I’ve both realised how useless I am and consciously tried to be useful in the way I can,” she reflects. “I recognised quite early on that I don’t know anything about making systemic change. I don’t know anything about the law. I don’t know anything about the US government. I don’t even know about American history because I grew up abroad.”
“But I do know how to make music,” she says. “And I do know how to connect with individuals one-on-one on an emotional level. So I figured instead of me trying to reach beyond what I’m capable of doing right now, I should just try to use what I already know – how to talk about sadness and anger and just, uh… love. I know how to do those things.”
“I think my wish for 2017 is to cut the bullshit”
On a practical note, Mitski recently used her Twitter and Instagram to call out and match up ‘safety buddies’: POC and LGBTQA attendees of her shows that could travel alongside each other as a form of solidarity and for safety’s sake as they journeyed through red states. Does she feel that she has a responsibility as an artist to encourage positive political change? “You know, I’m not sure it’s actually wanted of me,” Mitski considers. “I could very easily just be an entertainer and that would be fine. Musicians can fulfill many roles. Some pop stars exist to give relief and let people forget and not be political. My music and my songwriting is so connected to who I am. I just have these thoughts and I say them. And sometimes I get in trouble.”
Despite (or maybe because of) the remarkable year she’s just had, when I ask Mitski to make a wish for herself for 2017, our conversation steers back towards the realities of her approaching her late twenties. “I think I just I need to be more disciplined now,” she states. “I think my wish is for me to cut the bullshit and actually be disciplined in terms of my health, in terms of my music practice, in terms of getting work done. I’m getting to the age where I can’t just do it last minute any more. I’m losing the Christmas of my youth and I can’t just rely on my grit. You know, practice everyday. Eat healthy. Actually exercise. Do all these things because I can’t just like, drink a bottle of vodka and then just wake up the next morning.”
Like so much of her music, Mitski’s thoughts on the process of maturing are honest, philosophical and unsparingly self-reflective. And where there is darkness, there must also be light. “I’m only 26 – I don’t want to like act like I know things,” she laughs. “But I do think that as you get older, you expand. You gain more people inside you. You become more and more people with every year. Your former selves don’t ever go away, but you also become new people all the time. You learn differently, you see differently, see the different crevices in yourself.” It’s a thought that stays with me after I put down the phone, and much like Mitski herself, it gives me hope.
Puberty 2 is out now via Dead Oceans