INTERVIEW: Rina Sawayama

2020 has undoubtedly been an incredible year for music. So many strong albums have dominated the charts and taken over our playlists with their vulnerable stories and innovative production, but one record in particular that has cleared its way to be dubbed Album Of The Year is Rina Sawayama’s debut offering ‘SAWAYAMA’.

The thirteen track collection fused together a unique sonical backdrop of nostalgic 2000’s pop (think early Britney Spears) meets heavy metal influenced drums and guitars. It’s something that you wouldn’t expect to work so flawlessly, but this record proved us all wrong as she impressively captivates with the genre bending tracks ‘STFU’, ‘XS’ and ‘Who’s Gonna Save You Now’. 

With her fans, who she lovingly dubs her Pixels, and new listeners alike adapting these songs into their own lives, it was immediately made apparent that her vivid storytelling really resonated. With them finding their own personal meaning to tracks like ‘Chosen Family’, ‘Snakeskin’ and ‘Bad Friend’, she’s been able to find her voice as an artist and feel a sense of relief from opening up her trauma so explicitly. 

To give them something more before the year is out, the British singer-songwriter has dropped a deluxe edition of the record that features three brand new songs, a cover of The 1975’s ‘Love It If We Made it’, and an array of acoustic renditions of fan favourites. Lead single ‘LUCID’ is the club ready banger produced by BLOODPOP that will have everyone ready to hit the dance floor, and you won’t be ready to stop dancing to it after you start. 

I recently chatted to Rina Sawayama about the lengthy process of working with BLOODPOP on ‘Lucid’, explored adding new songs and acoustic versions to the deluxe edition of ‘SAWAYAMA’, and reflected on the heartfelt connections fans have been having with songs like ‘Chosen Family’ and ‘Snakeskin’. Check it out BELOW;

THOMAS BLEACH: ’LUCID’ is an energetic pop banger that was produced by BLOODPOP and has been in fruition since 2018. So can you explain the creative and lengthy process that this song has gone through? 

RINA SAWAYAMA: We were kind of writing it lockdown style back in 2018. I think he found out about me from Grimes who at the time was texting me like “your EP is so sick”, and she was so sweet, and I know that they’re really good friends. So he sent me the beat, and this was before he started working on producing ‘Chromatica’. 

I knew who he was already as he had done a lot of stuff with the likes of Justin Bieber, and I thought he was incredible. So I was panicked as I had never written on a dance beat before, and it’s a very particular type of writing as there’s not much progression in chords like there is in non-dance music, so you’ve got to really hone in on it. So I asked my friend Lauren Aquilina who is an amazing songwriter and artist to write with me. It took us a couple of hours to write, and then we sent it back to him as a voice note and he loved it. I was then in LA for the first time doing a writing trip and was able to record the vocals with him which was pretty cool. That was back in 2018, and it actually hasn’t changed much since then. We really wanted to make sure the timing was right when it did come out, and I also wanted to make sure that BLOODPOP had enough time to make it perfect as he was so busy with ‘Chromatica’. 

TB: Which we can totally forgive, right? *laughs*. 

RS: Oh, I fully support it! I was like, “I’m sure you’re making a masterpiece. So you’re let off” *laughs*. 

TB: The music video for ‘LUCID’ is STUNNING and is set in an extended reality world. So what was the most challenging thing about this shoot because you had to kind of imagine all of these things happening around you, right? 

RS: Yes, it was very technical, and I think the technical details was the priority rather than my acting. if you’ve seen the ‘XS’, ’Bad Friend’ or ‘STFU’ videos then you can tell I’ve had a lot of interaction with the director about my acting and what kind of character I am, and that’s a lot of the process I do actually enjoy. So this was a pretty big switch up in terms of the directors not really looking at those details, and instead looking at the entire thing. 

It’s not a green screen so you can’t adjust things in post-production, so what you get on the day is what you capture and that’s it. It was incredible because the amount of technology used was insane. It’s actually the same technology they use in The Mandalorian that enables them to shoot anywhere and still create these incredible landscape scenes.  

TB: So could you actually see the animation around you while filming, or were you just being yelled things to do?

RS: Yeah, they were just yelling out things like “walk to this spot, here is the bed, you need to lean on it”. Even though you can see it, you have to remember that you seeing it in front of you is not the same as what the camera sees over there, it’s a completely different perspective. It looks really flat in real life, but on the monitor it all looks 3D. There was a lot of guess work on my end, but what’s really cool is that on the other end everyone else could see the finished video through the monitor. 

TB: ’We Out Here’, ‘Bees & Honey’ and ‘LUCID’ were all songs your wrote during the original writing process for this record, so by adding these songs onto the deluxe edition, what did you want them to represent and bring to the full vision?

RS: It was really for the fans. I was not expecting the fan reaction to this album, and I just wanted to give them more, I guess. I just wanted to make sure that the original album flowed from top to bottom, and that was my obsession. It wasn’t about getting as many things that I liked in there, as there was a lot of things I liked that I had to take out as I knew when I listened to it then it worked, but when a listener listened it wouldn’t work. So I had to make it a bit more streamlined. 

I love ‘We Out Here’! We spent so much time on that song, so I am so glad it’s out now *laughs*. It was actually inspired by Greta Thunberg and the whole youth movement around the climate crisis. 

TB: You also recorded some acoustic versions to add to the deluxe edition, and one song that I feel would have been hard to strip back was ‘STFU’. How difficult was it to pen an acoustic arrangement that worked for this song?

RS: Oh my god, it was actually the most fun to do because I feel like you could immediately imagine how the acoustic version of ‘Chosen Family’ and Bad Friend’ would sound. With ‘STFU’, firstly no one asked for it. Like, who wants an acoustic version of a metal song? But that’s why I wanted to do it. I love when I’m given free reign to do stuff like that. I just wanted to make it more chaotic, so there’s like 3 guitars that are being stacked on top of each other *laughs*. 

I really hope that one day I can perform that version. I would love to do an acoustic album performance, where it’s all the songs but in an unexpected acoustic way. 

TB: Well lets manifest that into existence, because that version is SO cool! 

RS: Lets do it! It’s such a crazy version. The bit that people loved was when I laughed into the note which then went into a high note, and that was honestly so fun to record! 

TB: ’SAWAYAMA’ has been out for 8 months now. So seeing your fans, and new listeners embrace it so whole heartedly and have their own personal experiences with it, has it impacted or changed the way you look or feel about it, or any of the songs at all?

RS: 100%! For me, I love all the songs on the record, but the reaction to ‘Chosen Family’ is the one that has been the most meaningful. I don’t want to say that it’s the most personal song on the album, but it’s definitely the most selfless one. I wanted to give it to people who really needed to hear it. And to hear that Elton John loves singing that song, and he told me that his family sings it around the house, is so special. 

I think it really touches people in a very direct way. It was a risk for me as the song itself is very bare production wise, and it’s very more classic songwriting and didn’t really lean on the production as much as ‘Akasaka Sad’ or ‘Dynasty’. But yeah, the messages that I get about that song are the most touching. 

TB: I saw this INCREDIBLE drag performance of ‘Snakeskin’ from a Brisbane drag artist called Kim Schotte who used the song to tell their story of repressing their Japanese heritage, and learning to reconcile with their own personal history and find freedom. It was very theatrical and so beautiful, and It was cool as I didn’t expect to see a drag performance to ‘Snakeskin’.   

RS: Wow! I’ve seen drag performances of ‘Dynasty’, ‘Who’s Gonna Save You Now’ and ‘Comme des Garcons (Like The Boys)’. And it’s my DREAM to be on Rupual’s Drag Race as a guest judge, and if anyone lip synched to any of my songs I’d die. 

The whole album is honestly inspired by drag because the art of drag is turning trauma and pain into something that is amazing, theatrical and hilarious. And that’s why the album is so fucking dramatic and over the top. I’m surrounded by drag performers, and that’s inspired me to excavate my own issues and express them freely. It’s an incredible way to express, and it’s just fun. 

TB: I saw Tatianna tweet you today about how proud she was!

RS: I know, CHOICES! I’m so chuffed! You know what though, Tatianna is an OG Pixel. She was tweeting me back in 2016 about my first EP, so shoutout to Tatianna. I love her!

TB: ’Bad Friend’ is a song that I immediately resonated to, and has been soundtracking the second half of year in particular. So can you share with me the creative process behind this track? 

RS: I was on my way to the studio and I checked Facebook which I rarely do, and I saw that my ex best friend had a baby and I didn’t know about it, and I didn’t even know who her partner is. I just genuinely felt like a bad friend. So I spoke to Jonny Lattimer who wrote the song with me, and i was like “I don’t know what to write, but I just saw this picture of my friend, and I just feel like a bad friend to everyone”. And he was like “how about you just write a song about being a bad friend?”. 

Similar to ‘Chosen Family’, I really love writing songs that are pure love without talking about heteronormative love. To me the breakdown of a friendship love can be the most heartbreaking, and can teach you so much about yourself. So I really wanted to tell a story about it, and I’m really inspired by how Taylor Swift tells a story through her songwriting so I tried to think about that while writing the song and put particular images into people’s heads. 

TB: Now I have to know, what Carly Rae Jepsen song were you singing with sweat in your eyes?

RS: Obviously ‘Call Me Maybe’! Song of the year! It was the summer of 2012, and that was the biggest song of the year, and there was that dance that everyone was doing to it. That was just the beginning of my love affair with Carly’s music. 

The crazy thing is that Kyle Shearer who produced ‘Bad Friend’ actually produced a lot of ‘Emotion’ and ‘Dedicated’. I was fangirling the whole time we were working together, and I was like “can you just pass on a message? *laughs*. I actually saw her backstage one time, and I was standing next to her and had one chance to say something and I didn’t, I was too shy! I’m such an idiot! 

TB: The visuals for the physical album, vinyl, and press shots have a full gold aesthetic. So what was it about the colour gold that felt like it perfectly represented what this album meant and embodied to you?

RS: Well, I love the fact that my skin looks like the colour gold. When I was approaching the cover art I knew I wanted to look very Asian, but also futuristic, but not those two together in a way that people have seen before. If you think about Cyberpunk aesthetic or Harajuku aesthetic, then that is very futuristic and Japanese, but that’s been done before. So I had to think about what my unique meeting point was there. 

That was my concept, and my new creative team at the time took the reigns and put it all together. I really love that cover art, and it’s led to so many cool things. Like Pixels have been doing the makeup, and I get tagged in hundreds of recreations of it which is so cool. 

‘SAWAYAMA (Deluxe Edition) is out now!