Rina Sawayama, one of London’s most exciting new artists, is on the phone and she’s complaining about her cold. “Sorry if I sound like I’m crying. It’s just that I have a blocked nose,” she says, exasperated. “I’m just adverse to the cold now. I get so cranky when I have to go outside. Genuinely, I’m fucking freezing.”
Admittedly, the temperature in the U.K. has dropped dramatically over the last few weeks, so Rina’s complaints are justified. It is freezing. But we’re not here to talk about the weather. In fact, I want to talk about why Rina Sawayama is the future of pop music.
Born in Japan, Rina and her family emigrated to the U.K. when the singer was young. Her early years were spent in a Japanese school which ultimately, she explains, shaped her approach to both Japanese culture and her affinity for J-Pop.
“There was no Western music being listened to, it was all J-Pop,” the singer told INTO. “But I think back then J-Pop wasn’t as, I don’t want to say Westernized, but I just feel like Japan has evolved. Like, the perception of what the West thinks of J-Pop has evolved.
The J-Pop that she was raised on, she adds, wasn’t “pandering to this kawaii ideal,” referring to a culture of ‘cuteness’. Rather, artists like Utada Hikaru were the sort of pop stars that you wanted to be best friends with.
These formative early years embedded in the Japanese culture were disrupted, however, when Rina moved to a state school. There she was introduced to the glorious cultural diversity that London has to offer.
“I remember thinking back to how ethnically and religiously diverse it was and not even caring or wondering why someone would wear a headscarf. When you’re so young you don’t even think about someone being Black or Asian or Muslim,” she recalls fondly.
Her seeming utopic existence was shattered once more, though, when the singer headed to the illustrious Cambridge University to study politics, psychology, and sociology.
While it should have been a time of learning and expression, the university and the way in which immigrants or foreign students were labeled was a triggering experience. Rina tells how, to ensure that she wasn’t singled out because of her “Japaneseness,” she rejected her heritage.
This need for assimilation, along with the regimented nature of the university, led to an extreme mental health crisis.
“Basically, at university I had such bad depression by the end that when it was finished I had to take almost two years out to just,” she stops, adding a parody voice, “find myself.” She adds, “But genuinely, my mental health was in such a bad state that there was a lot of introspection going on.”
“And in that process I was reclaiming what I felt like when I was younger when I was a bit more carefree,” she continued.
So she began re-appreciating Japanese culture, as well as the pop music of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s by acts like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, was not only cathartic but instrumental in shaping Sawayama’s debut mini-album, RINA.
Inspired by the productions and songwriting of pop music legends Max Martin, Timbaland, and The Neptunes, the mini-album is a bombastic and thrilling listen. Working almost entirely with U.K. producer Clarence Clarity, Rina says she tapped into the “distilled and refined” complexities of these early ‘00s bangers, with songs like “Take Me As I Am,” with its power chords, whimsical sound effects, hook-laden melodies, and socio-political lyrics, guiding it all firmly into 2017.
Rina is quick to praise Clarence, who she says was the only person she worked with “capable of doing that level of production,” but the astute songwriting including a throwback to choruses with actual words in it is all her. Because underneath the animated and absorbing production, are lyrics that are powerfully personal but also full of vitality and urgency.
The fuzzing synth-pop of “10-20-40” is actually a track about the adverse effects of the antidepressant citalopram. “It levels out the lows, but it also levels out the highs, so you just feel like you’re in this weird bubble,” Rina explained.
“Obviously, it’s really nice when you suffer from anxiety like I do as you don’t think about the bad things. But I used that as a vehicle for the song. It’s like when you’re on cruise control in a car where you’re teetering between lanes,” she continued
Pivoting suddenly, she adds, “But it’s also thinking about how depression is portrayed in this really contrasting way in the media where, until recently, people didn’t put their finger on musicians having depression.”
This observational melding of the personal and the socio-political gives Rina’s songwriting and edge that, in 2017, other pop stars lust over.
The aforementioned “Take Me As I Am” and “Alterlife” tackle Rina’s own struggles with identity politics and racism, and are both a clear affront to the homogeneity of Western ideals.
“I think that people especially younger people are more sensitive and aware, and there’s this incredible movement to understand what the hell is going on,” she says, alluding to the U.S.’s current regime and the controversial vote in the U.K. to leave the European Union.
Pop stars over the past few years have, she argues, approached these themes in two ways. “You can do a Taylor Swift, which is beneficial for your brand, or you can you can go the route of Princess Nokia or Solange where it can really affect your career, but it’s a risk that they’re willing to take. I just didn’t want to be Taylor. I wanted to be the latter.”
“I love Taylor’s songwriting,” she hastily says, “and I think she’s really talented but it didn’t make any sense to me to make music that doesn’t…” She stops. “I just couldn’t do it. I can’t write a love song. Everything has to be political.”
The politicization of her music, however, doesn’t mean that it lacks universality; there’s more than one way to be relatable. One integral factor to Rina’s music is a deep excavation into our relationship with all things digital.
A meeting with the artist Arvida Byström encouraged the singer to explore how her digital consumption could be used to create.
“I just became so inspired by the analysis side of the internet and I was really drawn to this phenomenon of people who are completely absorbed by their phone,” she told INTO. “Our generation witnessed the progression from dial-up, where not a lot was based online, to literally people not going anywhere without their phones.”
“Now conversations are often interrupted by phones, and we’re fine with that!”
Rina really is an academic, and inspired by her newfound analysis of the internet she read the work of Sherry Turkle, a Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, who focuses a lot of her research on young people’s behaviors online.
This spawned the track “Tunnel Vision” featuring Shamir, a low-key song about the pitfalls and anxieties of social media and the impact it can have on your IRL relationships. It’s not all despairing about the state of society, however, on “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome” there’s a comforting liberation in acknowledging the impact that the digitization of society has caused.
My excitement about Rina isn’t limited to just the banging pop songs and thematically detailed lyrics she’s also shirking away from the traditional pop star routes of distribution.
She explains that she’s actively not signed to a record label despite offers, instead opting to run everything herself. This stems from a fear of poor development deals and a concern that life at a record label is out of your control.
“I was really interested in Rita Ora’s court case,” she says. “She sued Roc Nation because all the people who signed her left the label. That has happened to so many of my friends and that really scares me.”
A career in modeling has helped fund the music, which she gleefully boasts is starting to see some return. But at the end of the day, that’s not really the point.
“I feel like I’m trying to do something new here,” she says pointedly, “so I’ve got to just push through and do it on my own.”
Rina Sawayama’s debut mini-album RINA is available now.