Mitski: Stop the World
This cover story is taken from Issue 127. Get your copy now via the online store.
Mitski Miyawaki would like everyone to log off, even just for a little while. “I understand the importance of connectivity, you know? A lot of great change has happened via the internet and social media. But I want us to figure out a way to have that without having our livelihoods depend on it.”
The 31-year-old Japanese-American musician is speaking from experience. In late 2019, she announced that she was quitting social media and that an upcoming Central Park gig would be her “last show indefinitely”. Her unexpected disappearance sparked collective mourning, particularly for fans of both her music and her wry Twitter presence (sample tweet: “enemy of men and lush store employees because I know what I want and don’t need your help to get it”).
Just over two years later, Mitski – or rather, Mitski’s management – started posting online again, teasing a new album named Laurel Hell with the synth-heavy ballad Working for the Knife. It was accompanied by a music video directed by her Your Best American Girl collaborator Zia Anger, shot entirely on location in an unnervingly brutalist theatre called the Egg, in Albany, New York. “I cry at the start of every movie,” she sings in a voice that sounds all the sweeter for its long absence from music, “I guess ‘cause I wish I was making things, too.” The video ends with Mitski in an empty auditorium, flinging herself around the stage in eerie silence, punctuated only by the sound of her panting and footsteps.
“Working for the Knife was the one song that I wrote almost immediately after my last show in 2019,” Mitski tells me. “I was like, ‘I have time now, I’m going to sit at a guitar and just work through this.’” We’re sitting next to a roaring fire in the garden of a boujee London hotel that overlooks the River Thames, with Mitski swaddled in a navy fleece and bleached jeans. When we first meet, she waves both her hands in a brisk hello and says, “First, what is your name?” Then she orders a pot of black tea, which she only occasionally sips as we chat in the rapidly approaching nightfall. Mitski is a straight talker, constantly punctuating every thought with “you know?” to underline her points. Like her songs, every sentence is a considered, deliberate construction. The overall effect is like catching up with a friend you haven’t seen in a while – one who has had more than enough time to process the rollercoaster of the last few years.
The idea for the video that accompanies Working for the Knife, director Anger explains, was “an artist returns to the cruel stage that gave birth to her […] It’s all about how hard it is to be travelling somewhere in one’s career, and then you get there – or maybe you don’t get there – and it’s never what you wanted it to be.” Anger elaborates further, adding: “Mitski speaks from this really specific point of view and it allows this access that is not too universal – like, you still feel like you’re part of a secret club, but there is this universality to it.”
Necklace: Sarah Kauffman
Rings: Sweet Lime juice + Dosisg6c
Laurel Hell takes the universality of Mitski’s lyrics and applies it to her sonic palette. It sounds in some parts like maximalist pop – an expansion of the genre she dipped her toe into with her last album, 2018’s Be the Cowboy, the kind you can imagine cracking the Top 40. It opens with Valentine, Texas, which sees Mitski crooning “let’s step carefully into the dark” over opiate-heavy synths – before it explodes into a euphoric, technicolour wall of sound that, for all its orchestral squall, resembles a sped-up opening of The Cure’s Plainsong.
In the studio, Mitski and her longtime producer Patrick Hyland listened to Arthur Russell and Beverly Glenn-Copeland, but also Hall and Oates and Vangelis. “ABBA were a huge influence on the record,” says Hyland. Other tracks channel more obviously 80s influences. There’s Nothing Left for You sounds like it could be the depressed sister of Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time and Should’ve Been Me channels the manic disco pop she first perfected with Nobody, its frenetic catchiness commandeered in the service of bleak lyrics about how easily one can find themselves replaced in a relationship. At its high points, the album is reminiscent of the sumptuously enchanting pop of the greatest 80s bands – Tears for Fears, for instance, or Pet Shop Boys – who wove undercurrents of bone-deep alienation into fizzy earworms.
“I can’t put myself into a sad song that’s outwardly sad,” says Mitski, reflecting on the peppiness of disco-inflected tracks like Stay Soft, which began as a “straight-up sad rock anthem” on guitar. “I find it’s easier to allow a song in when the message might be depressing or dark, but has a veneer of happiness. Otherwise, it’s off-putting. It starts to feel like whining.”
Corset, skirt and shoes: Stella McCartney
T-shirt: Eleanor Butler-Jones
Gloves: WED Studio
Mitski took her time on the new record – not least because recording during lockdown meant that she and Hyland had to minimise face-to-face contact in the studio. “I think it’s fair to say that each record we make is written more and more for Mitski herself,” Hyland explains, “[with] less of an interest in trying to appeal to any type of imagined audience; it’s more about making something that she enjoys.”
Mitski, today, is vehement about her aims with the record. “I don’t want to make another Be the Cowboy,” she says. “I knew that I didn’t want to make music that was putting up walls against the listener. At the time I felt I needed to in order to protect myself, but that’s not why I make music. At the end of the day, the music that touches me and has saved me is the stuff that goes right to my heart and feels personal, authentic and true.”
Still, this being a Mitski album, there’s no one track that escapes the gravitational pull of melancholy. Even on the propulsive synth-pop single The Only Heartbreaker, she’s singing about how desire turns her into a source of destruction: “I’ll be the water main that’s burst and flooding/ You’ll be by the window, only watching.” In Mitski’s musical repertoire, she is both a woman resigned and a force of nature – she’s a geyser, a forest fire, and the forest itself. “This album is full of resignation,” Mitski explains. “A feeling of ending, but wrapped up in 80s inspired pop music.”
“I can’t put myself into a sad song that’s outwardly sad. I find it’s easier to allow a song in when the message might be dark, but has a veneer of happiness. Otherwise, it starts to feel like whining”
Critics have described Mitski as “one of her generation’s most lauded songwriters” because of her ability to craft piercingly crystalline vignettes of ennui and loss and shred on a guitar – skills that have seen her adopted by fans hungry to see an Asian woman beat the odds in a white, male-dominated indie-rock industry. Be the Cowboy – her fifth album – landed on almost every 2018 end-of-year list going and saw her open arenas for Lorde. It was the kind of breakout moment that any musician dreams of – but it didn’t feel that way for Mitski. “Day after day, it got harder and harder, and I was just unhappy and in distress all of the time,” she says today. “Looking back, I actually think Be the Cowboy was a cry for help.”
When she came off stage at that final show in Central Park, Mitski didn’t know what she would do next. “I really thought, ‘What have I done?’” she says, laughing almost incredulously. “I had really strived and built towards this point in my career, and I felt like, ‘Oh my god, I’m just throwing it away.’” But she knew it had to be done. By this point, she’d been on the road for almost half a decade, running from the shadow of economic precarity that chases after almost every DIY musician. It wasn’t until Be the Cowboy that she felt financially secure enough to treat herself to an UberEats in a hotel room without feeling like it was going to ruin her week.
“You could say that I was just exhausted because I had been touring and popping albums out one after the other for a while,” she says. “I’d just been grinding so hard, for so long, that I think I just – I needed a break.” She takes a long pause, as if weighing up what to say next. “I think being in the music industry requires a lot of compromises, or doing things you don’t want to do,” she continues slowly, the heaviness evident in her voice. “When you make those kinds of compromises – even though your heart or soul is crying out against them – you do them every day, year after year.”
All of a sudden, the piped-in hotel music feels very quiet and far away. It’s the longest answer she’s given so far in our meeting, and the most open she’s been, publicly, on the reasons for her departure from music. “I had found that in order to survive the music industry, I had numbed my heart and disconnected from myself. And then, after a while of actively disconnecting from myself, day after day, you really do become disconnected,” she says, sounding visibly frustrated. “Suddenly I found that I really was numb, like the way I wanted to be, but I then couldn’t write music, because you can’t write music from a place of being completely detached from yourself.”
What side of the industry made her feel she had to numb herself? “I think it’s broadly being a product,” she sighs. “You have to accept that in the eyes of the world, you’re not a person, you’re a consumer product. That’s just really difficult for my brain to accept.”
Knitted vest, shirt and jeans: ASAI
Jewellery: Bleue Burnham, Sweet Lime Juice
Working for the Knife – a lament about working for the capitalist grind – became a kind of “magnetic north” for the album, as Hyland explains. At the time, though, an album was the last thing on her mind. “I was really thinking, ‘OK, my music career is over. I need to find a new career,’” Mitski says. “And it really occurred to me that I’m just moving from one set of exploitation to another, you know?”
Mitski had told her team that she was going on hiatus back in 2018 and had spent the intervening year preparing for her exit, saving up and making sure she could cover her bills. How did her team react? “I don’t know,” she says. “Because I don’t think I had any room to acknowledge how other people reacted. I was really on the edge for a very long time.”
When I acknowledge that it sounds like a horrible experience, she nods. “I basically dissociated through many years. I don’t remember most tours, except for the performance.” When people ask her about anything else that happened on tour, she says, she usually has no idea what they’re talking about. “My hair was greying. I had a lot of medical issues that went undiagnosed because I never went to the doctor. My body was breaking down. The only way of getting through it was dissociating.”
Necklace: Sarah Kauffman
Rings: Sweet Lime juice + Dosisg6c
In interviews around the release of Be the Cowboy, Mitski spoke about creating a persona of “a very controlled, icy, repressed woman who is starting to unravel”. As she grew increasingly famous, she gained a reputation for what Anger affectionately describes as the “mystery surrounding her”. Mitski had a peripatetic childhood, moving around several times a year with her family. (Nobody, the lead single off Be the Cowboy, was inspired by spending Christmas alone in Malaysia, where she lived for some time as a child.) Feverish speculation and online discourse sometimes seemed to overwhelm her music, including a deranged conspiracy theory that her dad was a CIA agent and fans going on an ill-advised crusade against Mac DeMarco, who had inadvertently used a similar name for his new album and lead single, despite Mitski and DeMarco both laughing it off.
“There’s a lot of moral absolutism among her fans that I think is totally alien to Mitski as a person,” Hyland tells me. “I hope I’m not alienating anyone who takes meaning from our work together, but Mitski is not someone who views the world in black and white.”
“Looking back, I actually think Be the Cowboy was a cry for help”
Mitski, the brand, though, was easily distilled down to a few key signifiers: Asian-American. Female. Queer or, at least, queer adjacent (she once tweeted: “I’m a Libra so my sexuality is essentially ‘you can be any gender as long as you treat me like a princess’”). In short: an outsider, in the way that great musicians are all too stereotypically described. Mitski, now, isn’t so sure about that: “At a certain point, the feeling of being an outsider is self-imposed. Growing up, moving around, and then also being on tour, I didn’t allow myself to attach to anything, because I knew that eventually I would have to go away again. I think I’ve allowed myself to attach to things again, or people again, or just become attached.” When she was on tour, she never used to get homesick; but now, having moved to Nashville, she is beginning to understand the feeling.
Did Mitski’s management ever express alarm that their artist – finally breaking out in the mainstream with performances on Jimmy Kimmel Live – was choosing to step away from social media, one of the biggest ways to market her music? “It wasn’t a point of contention,” Mitski says. “It was more just like a problem we had to solve like, ‘OK, the problem is, I have to have socials, but being on socials is bad for my brain. How do we make it work?’”
Now her management posts on her behalf, and Mitski doesn’t even look at social media. Her friends sometimes send her TikToks soundtracked by her songs, mainly those of women running away from things to the sound of Nobody – “my label is very excited about it,” she deadpans – but she’s never been on TikTok and doesn’t understand how her music became a trend. The video she liked most, which Anger sent to her, is a Succession fancam of Kendall Roy looking depressed, set to her 2016 song Thursday Girl. “It’s the best thing that’s happened to me on the internet,” she says.
Top: Eleanor Butler-Jones
Brooch: Sweet Lime Juice
Rings: Bleue Burnham + Sweet Lime Juice
Does she not even lurk online? “No, no, no,” she says emphatically. “I used to in the very beginning, mostly because I was weaning myself off of socials. But every time I would be bad and lurk secretly, it would just ruin my day.” It’s not a problem unique to Mitski, as she points out. “Even you,” she says, gesturing towards me, “any kind of self-employed person has to have socials now to continue to be employed, which is a really messed up situation we’ve put ourselves in. A resume no longer suffices? Now thousands of strangers also have to like your online persona for you to be employed? It’s wild.”
But it’s hard to dispute that the need to embody an online brand that is both witty, self-aware, humble and yet incredibly self-promotional wears particularly hard on creative people whose art is the result of a finely-tuned emotional sensitivity and openness. Musicians who have quit social media – or at least stopped posting – include everyone from Father John Misty to Kanye West. “In my ideal, magical world, I would be able to be at home and then perform every night. But it doesn’t work like that,” she notes drily.
Even now, she’s got over 50 sold-out Laurel Hell dates lined up for 2022 across the US and Europe, with all shows selling out in minutes. The gigs are the first she’ll have done in years, with the added stress of touring during an ongoing pandemic. She’s got press to do, and people to meet. “It’s hard,” she emphasises. “I have to get used to it again. But,” she says, pausing for effect, “I’m doing it.” She laughs, then excuses herself to the bathroom.
Laurel Hell is out on 4 February via Dean Oceans
Get your copy of Issue 127 via the online store