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For Mitski, music began as a way to regain control following a childhood in which she relocated frequently before eventually landing in New York, where she discovered the city's D.I.Y. music scene and began performing. Five albums later, including the recently released Be the Cowboy, the 27-year-old singer has continued to grow — as has her sound. "I really need for my music to be human," she says, "and humans are ever-changing. I'm one person one year, and another person the next. So, I want to make sure my music reflects that, and grows with me, and vice versa."
Tell me about Be The Cowboy.
It's my fifth album but only my third record, because my first few albums were self-released, which is a very different thing. For Puberty 2, the recording process was two weeks of intense and focused working but Be the Cowboy was much more spread out between tours. It was mostly recorded in Philly but some was also recorded in New Jersey and LA.
What inspired it?
I'm not the kind of artist who makes a thematic record. When I first start writing, I'm never thinking about the whole album concept — I'm just writing. But as I was writing this, I discovered a sort of pattern where I realized I was talking a lot about loneliness, and maybe feeling a little mad — not mad as in angry, but mad as in loopy. Also, I noticed I was playing with a lot of ideas about control, or just rather feeling that I didn't have control, so the protagonist or the main character feels like they want it but can't or don't have it.
From there, I started to shape this character. It's someone who is in me, but not who I walk around being all of the time. This woman who's very repressed or reserved, who feels powerless and therefore seeks power, or feels like she has no control over her life or herself, so she adamantly seeks to regain it. I went back a lot to the idea of the protagonist in The Piano Teacher, which is a French film by Michael Haneke that was adapted from the book of the same name. She really helped guide what I wanted out of the album, visually.
Going from your last few records, which were really about you and exploring your own identity, how was it to write this record, which also explores identity, but through the lens of another character?
If you're a writer, too, I'm sure you have this as well, where you kind of write what you're thinking, or what you're feeling, or what you think will make a good song, but after a while, you look back on a batch of songs you wrote in a certain period of time and realize what you were actually thinking about. You get a more bird's eye view of your mind. So, I think that's what happened. I find that sometimes it's just like with writing fiction. Even though I don't write prose, I find using a character or using a narrative that didn't happen to you is better equipped in telling your story and expressing your feelings than what actually happened in your life, so that's kind of how I go into writing songs. Like in "Me and My Husband" — I obviously don't have a husband, but I just imagine, How does this feeling I have translate in the most exaggerated way? Maybe with a retro-suburban housewife idea.
Clothing by Miu Miu
How would you compare this record to Puberty 2?
I think limitations are very healthy, and placing limitations on my creative process really helped me. The limitation I had with Puberty 2 was that I had a very limited amount of time to finish a record and on a very low budget but with Be the Cowboy, I was on tour for a lot of it, and it was between tours. So it really made this process much less intuitive, because I had so much more time to anxiously over-analyze what I did in the studio. It gave me a lot more space for my anxiety to creep in. The creative process became much more analytical, because every time a doubt would creep in, I would have to tame it with my brain, instead of moving with pure momentum like I did with Puberty 2.
How do you think you've grown since then?
I've realized I'm more capable than I thought. I mean, there's still that same imposter syndrome, but I think because writing Be the Cowboy was so spaced out and hard for me, it kind of forced me to reach into my toolbox and really hone my craft in a way I didn't with other albums. I was finally like, "Oh, I actually know what I'm doing." I mean, I always kind of knew what I was doing but I never had that self-awareness because so much of my music was written just based on instinct. To not have access to that instinct but still be able to write was such a cool feeling.
This is your fifth release but Puberty 2 was such a critically-acclaimed album that, in a lot of ways, people are looking at this record as a follow-up to it. Did that give you an added sense of urgency during the creative process?
Yeah, the knowledge that there would be people who actually listened to the record shaped the creative process because I think I overcompensated a little bit. For example, I decided to have no distorted guitar — or at least, very little of it — because I'd come to be known as the distorted guitar girl on Puberty 2, and I had the strong feeling that I couldn't repeat myself. So, I deliberately placed that rule on the album: don't resort to those crunchy guitars that you've resorted to before. "Your Best American Girl" had a very classic chord progression, and a really classic structure, so I made sure I went the other way in a lot of the Be the Cowboy songs. Some of them don't even have a chorus. So, yeah, to answer your question, yes. No one was telling me what to make or what not to make, but I put a lot of internal pressure on myself to make sure I didn't repeat anything.
I read another interview where you called this album your saddest. What do you mean by that? For me, listening to tracks like "Nobody," I definitely feel the pain and heartbreak you're touching on, but it also feels hopeful — more hopeful than a lot of your other work.
I think that the sadness or the depression or the pain in a lot of my previous albums are definitely legitimate, but I also think they were an adolescent kind of pain, where it's incredibly dramatic, and also very real, but it's incredibly visceral. You know, it's a very clear-cut kind of pain and clear-cut kind of sadness. In Be the Cowboy, I think I grew up. So, it's a different kind of pain and sadness that's closer to the sadness of having to become a responsible adult who experiences heartbreak, or maybe has tragedy in her life, but now it's not anyone's problem. You still have to go to work, you still have to get up and be a nice person. No one is going to take care of you. You just have to put on a brave face and keep going, because no one cares anymore. That's the sadness I'm talking about. It's a very unexposed feeling — the kind of sadness without an outlet. When you're a teenager, you can be sad, and you can lash out and express yourself, but when you grow up there's no outlet for it anymore. You also kind of realize that there is no real source or reason behind the sadness sometimes. When you're younger, you can be mad at your parents or a certain situation, but when you get older, it becomes something in you that, no matter what you improve in your life, will kind of still be there.
You said the character on this album feels powerless, so she's actively trying to gain control. It seems like those two things — control and power — both play big roles in a lot of your work. Why do you think you're so drawn to writing about those topics?
That's going to be a lifelong question for me — it definitely won't be easy to neatly answer in one interview question. But it's just the obvious stuff. Being a woman, being Asian. Asians are traditionally seen as submissive or weak — in Western society, anyway. And I'm also not really from anywhere. Growing up, I struggled a lot with control because I felt I had none over my own life and surroundings. I was shuttled from one place to another and never felt like I belonged anywhere. I was never a part of any community. So, I think a lot of those things fueled this eternal question for me about control and power, and what it means to be powerful, and what it means to be powerless.
What does it mean for you to be powerful?
In my mind, I equate it to freedom — the freedom to do what you please. For example, power can be money in the simplest sense in that if you're a woman in a relationship, dependent on a man's finances, or if you marry someone and you can't leave, even if it might be a bad relationship, because you're dependent upon them, then you're not free. But having money would give you the power to leave and be free. For me, freedom means power. It's complicated, though. There's this quote, "Power corrupts absolutely." Right now, straight white men are finally being revealed to be abusers of power, traditionally. But I also feel like it's a human thing, where even if a woman or person of color was put in a position of great power, that person could be easily corrupted. I just think something happens to a human being when they're given a lot of power.
You're Japanese-American and you've explored identity in your work and spoken a bit about it but it seems like music media has sort of dubbed you the Asian-American female face of white, male-dominated indie rock. That seems like it would be a lot of pressure to feel like you've become a spokesperson for women of color in music.
Yeah. That's something I've been good about understanding — that I can't carry that. I'm half Japanese, but I'm also half white. I can't represent everybody. But it's funny to be in the U.S. and be called an Asian-American, and then be in Asia or Japan where I'm just a colonizer. When I first came to America I remember being like, "Are all these Asians okay with me being called Asian?" because my ancestors did some shit to theirs. So, from the start, I didn't feel much pressure about it, because I never had that expectation of myself to fill that role.
I'm an artist, and art in and of itself can be political. All I can really do is talk about my experiences — for myself and for others like me. But I'm certainly not equipped to be an activist or politician. I am not smart enough for that.
Returning to your new album, what does Be The Cowboy mean?
The album title is just kind of a joke with myself. I've always said to myself in a lot of situations, "Be the cowboy you want to see in the world." It's kind of like, "Be the change you want to see in the world," but a different version. Like, what would a cowboy do in this situation? I don't mean a real, living, working cowboy. I mean the cowboy myth of this white man walking into town, fucking shit up and then leaving and not being sorry for it. That's where I'm coming from. In college, I once saw a performer who was very much an embodiment of that onstage and it was so inspiring. I kind of turned it around on myself and said, "If you love it so much, you should do that yourself." You should always just try to do what you love to see. So, that's where the album title came from.
What do you want people to take away from the record?
I don't know. I felt a lot of pressure — the kind of pressure a lot of artists would experience on their sophomore album — so I tried to block that part out of my brain and decided I wouldn't focus on what other people think once the album came out. I mean, I decided not to even go on social media. So, I have no expectations. If it fails, in terms of reception, that'll be a great opportunity for me to finally be free and make whatever weird shit I want to make.
What do you see for yourself going forward?
The goal is to be able to keep making music and also live, which seems very simple but it's actually really hard to do both. That's honestly it. I just want to make music and live, and I'll figure the rest out as I go.
Photography by Ben Hassett
Styling by Mia Solkin
Hair by Diego Da Silva at Streeters
Makeup by Hung Vanngo at The Wall Group
Digital Tech: Carlo Barreto
1st Photo Assistant: Roeg Cohen
2nd Photo Assistants: Eric Hobbs and Chris Moore