Rina Sawayama: ‘I always think it’s important to make light of things’

Ahead of her Electric Picnic slot, the pop sensation talks about identity, the trouble with fans and why she loves The Corrs

The video for Japanese-British pop star Rina Sawayama’s 2019 single STFU! opens with a barrage of racist micro-aggressions. “I was surprised you sang ... in English,” says a twerp in trendy glasses, sharing a sushi dinner with the singer. “Have you been to that Japanese place, Wagamamas? Do you watch Grey’s Anatomy? Sandra Oh ... you remind me of her? You’re like ... a sexier version?”

The toxic dude is played by an actor: a friend of Sawayama’s who was mortified at the dreck he was required to spout. The dialogue, though, is all too real, says Sawayama. “Everything said there has been said to me before,” she explains, over video link from Los Angeles, where she is promoting her fantastic second album Hold The Girl.

“It’s pretty hard to believe. I always think it’s important to make light of things. Not to lessen the weight of it. It’s more a way for people who are subjected to that kind of micro-aggression to handle it. I did spend the first half of my twenties getting so irate all the time. It actually made me feel worse. Once I’d processed that anger, I was able to channel it into humour.”

Anger and humour are among the defining qualities of Sawayama’s Hold The Girl, which is released on September 16th, and pays homage to genres as diverse as 1980s power balladry (the title track) and mid-2000s Camden indie (Frankenstein — featuring the drummer from Bloc Party).


You don’t have to wait until September to hear her new material, however. The record is preceded by a performance at Electric Picnic, where she is sure to be one of the sensations of the weekend. The rolling green swards of Stradbally will, in particular, be the perfect backdrop for her Irish-influenced recent single, Catch Me in the Air.

“The Corrs were so big, not only in the UK, but in Japan as well,” she says. The Dundalk siblings were one of the voices she had in mind as she was writing the song.

“They were everywhere. Their pop music is actually still so unique. I love the use of the Irish flute. I also love the key changes. It evokes certain imagery in my head of an Irish coastline. Catch Me in the Air is definitely a homage.”

‘When I went to somewhere like Cambridge – that was when it was obvious to me that I was viewed as different’

Sawayama isn’t quite a platinum artist yet: her biggest hit is as a “feature” on the Charli XCX single Beg For You. She is, however, undoubtedly a pop star. Elton John has duetted with her. She sang virtually with Lady Gaga on Gaga’s Chromatica remix record. Metallica handpicked her to cover Enter Sandman on their Metallica Blacklist project.

She also has the sort of intense fan base that would put Phoebe Bridgers or Harry Styles to shame. And where Taylor Swift has “Swifties”, Sawayama has “pixels” — a word she uses because she and her fans are part of a bigger picture.

This places her at the apex of the so-called “stan” phenomenon. And yet she is ambivalent about a culture where pop stars are put on pedestals. The topic is addressed in a new track, This Hell, where she sings, “Flame red carpet moment/ posing for paparazzi/ f**k what they did to Britney, to Lady Di and Whitney”.

“The press are kinder, definitely [than in the heyday of Britney Spears],” she says. “The press and public people are not allowed to say the things they used to say. I was also horrified at the things that happened to young women [back then]. Not just Britney, but the way we treated Courtney Stodden. She married a 50-year-old guy. It was a very public thing. She was 16. She got shamed so much ... She was treated so badly. It was horrible.”

“Stans” on social media think they’re the good guys, she says. Sometimes they aren’t. “I do still think that [with] Stan culture — Twitter Stan culture — a lot of people like to think they are being politically very ‘right’. Actually, there is so much comparison between female musicians that I find exhausting. I see it all the time and it’s like, ‘that’s classic misogyny’.”

Stans love their artists. And yet they often set female musicians against one another.

“You guys are comparing two female musicians again. Calling it out is important. Why do I have to be compared to seven other female musicians when they’re obviously unique and doing very different music? Everyone gets sick of it. It doesn’t happen with male musicians — at all. There are a bunch of people who could be compared to each other who are men. But never are.”

Sawayama was born in Japan and grew up in Camden in London, the daughter of Japanese parents. They split when Sawayama was 10, her father returning to Japan.

This left Sawayama and her mother and they struggled. Money was tight; they were often forced to share a room. They didn’t always get on and Sawayama has spoken lately about the concept of “reparenting” — of being the role model you never had as a kid. Yet with time, the wounds have healed: Sawayama wrote Catch Me in the Air, in part as a peace offering to her mum (a Corrs fan).

Her relationship with her mother was a reflection of her relationship with her Japanese heritage. Speaking Japanese at home yet living bang in the centre of London, she had the stereotypical feeling of being a child of two cultures and of also being adrift and rootless. It got even worse when she gained entry (having dabbled in modelling) to Cambridge, where she studied politics, psychology and sociology.

“When I was young I wasn’t aware of it. When I went to somewhere like Cambridge — that was when it was obvious to me that I was viewed as different.”

An Asian student in Cambridge is no novelty. An Asian student who had grown up in Camden? That was too much for some of her classmates.

“Not only coming from a state school but being a ‘home’ student rather than an international one. Most Asians at Cambridge were international students. And so [her peers] didn’t understand. I was always doing music — always wanted it as a career. And they were like, ‘what the f**k are you doing here then?’ ”

A decade later, she has come to regard her complicated identity as a blessing. “I see it as more of a strength. I get to be part of the thing that makes London great, which is the melting pot of cultures. I identify much more as a Londoner than I do as British. The entirety of the UK is very divided at the moment. And there’s a lot of it that I don’t identify with.”

Her Britishness became a talking point in 2020 when it was revealed her debut album, Sawayama, had been disqualified for the Mercury Music Prize — open only to holders of Irish or UK passports.

She took to Twitter to argue that nationality and belonging were more complicated than a travel document. And that the multiculturalism that the Mercury celebrates should be inclusive of people such as her. The rule was later changed: Hold The Girl will be in with a shout for next year’s Mercury.

“I grew up thinking that the best part of the UK and Great Britain — of Britishness — is the multiculturalism. All the best food in the UK comes from other places. It’s not a coincidence. That’s the same for the music scene. It was shocking at the time [that she was disqualified from the Mercury]. I’m happy I was able to change something. I was very fortunate I had a platform. It travelled much further than I thought it would. I wanted to tell my story.”

Sawayama had a complicated lockdown. She was a cult artist in early 2020 when the world shut down. But her audience grew and grew through the pandemic (she meanwhile was branching into acting — she plays the female lead opposite Keanu Reeves in John Wick 4). And, as she stepped back out into the world, she was astonished — and slightly discombobulated — to be recognised in public.

It has been a trip and a half to make peace with her rising profile. In advance of Electric Picnic, and Hold The Girl, it is, though, a journey she is thrilled to have made.

“It’s weird,” she says. “I was very freaked out at first, for sure. Once I got used to it and realised the people I meet in the street and have great conversations with are not trying to kill me, I started to have fun. It is such an incredible privilege. I can connect with people across the world. If I get to meet them in person, they’re all so sweet. It’s pretty surreal. I’m still definitely getting used to it.”

Rina Sawayama plays Electric Picnic on Saturday, September 3rd. Hold The Girl is released on September 16th

Ed Power

Ed Power

Ed Power, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about television and other cultural topics