Mitski

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“I AM AN ARTIST. I’M NOT A FEVERED PRIEST­ESS GIRL,” Mitski Miyawaki de­clares weeks be­fore her fifth al­bum, Be the Cow­boy, ar­rives.

It’s a la­bel she’s con­stantly re­ject­ing — that of the hys­ter­i­cal, fan­tas­ti­cal po­et­ess whose songs spill out of her when she’s no longer able to con­trol her emo­tions.

Be the Cow­boy makes it clear that Mitski is a woman in con­trol of her art and how it gets pre­sented to the world. The record it­self is a dec­la­ra­tion — of agency, of power, of what she wants her mu­sic to sound like, and how she doesn’t want it to be in­ter­preted.

The sen­ti­ments are as hon­est as ever, but they’re de­liv­ered this time through a fic­tional pro­tag­o­nist. She’s firmly es­tab­lished as the au­thor and cre­ator, but there’s a cal­cu­lated dis­tance be­tween Mitski as a per­son and the char­ac­ter at the cen­tre of these songs.

It marks not just a dra­matic shift in her mu­si­cal ap­proach, but an in­ten­tional sw­erve away from songs that have been in­ter­preted as con­fes­sions set to dis­torted gui­tar. Rather than fo­cus­ing on build­ing and main­tain­ing a “sig­na­ture sound,” Mitski’s lat­est hits back with songs that can’t be de­scribed the old way.

She per­fected a lo-fi punk rock aes­thetic on 2016’s Pu­berty 2, a record pref­aced by the ab­so­lutely an­themic sin­gle “Your Best Amer­i­can Girl.” Iron­i­cally, given its fond­ness for jar­ring dis­tor­tion, the al­bum am­pli­fied Mitski’s mu­sic to an even larger au­di­ence and at­tracted near-unan­i­mous crit­i­cal praise. It also left her stand­ing in a brighter spot­light than ever, and with new ex­pec­ta­tions reach­ing un­prece­dented heights.

Re­fus­ing to be type­cast, she has opted to ditch the grungi­ness that drew so many to Pu­berty 2, as well as its first-per­son sto­ry­telling style, choos­ing in­stead to play around with the­atri­cal­ity and nar­ra­tive. Sure, that de­ci­sion was partly fu­elled by cre­ative drive (“What could I do that would be dif­fer­ent?”), but it was also a way to fight back against sex­ist la­bels she was get­ting sick of.

“I got re­ally tired of peo­ple call­ing my mu­sic ‘raw’ and ‘con­fes­sional’ and ‘like a di­ary.’ I think it’s in­cred­i­bly gen­dered,” she says. “It is mu­sic that is true to me and in­cred­i­bly per­sonal, but it’s not like it just flows out of me in an un­re­fined way. It’s not ‘Oh, I don’t know what I’m do­ing, I’m so emo­tional it just flows out of me!’ — it’s not that.

“Re­peat­ing those terms over and over makes it seem as though I don’t have au­thor­ity over my mu­sic — or that it’s some­thing that hap­pens to me or through me,” she adds. “I’m so much de­scribed as a ves­sel, when I’m ac­tu­ally the cre­ator. So to make a point of that on this al­bum, I de­cided to de­lib­er­ately write nar­ra­tives that didn’t hap­pen to me, but that still ex­press an emo­tion that is true to me.”

“WHY ARE YOU CRY­ING, MITSKI?” “MITSKI’S CRY­ING!” “WHY ARE YOU CRY­ING?”

It’s not un­usual for a first-grader to cry in class, but Mitski wasn’t up­set be­cause she missed her par­ents or wanted a nap. She was cry­ing at the theme song from Cas­tle in the Sky, the 1986 film from ac­claimed Ja­panese an­i­ma­tion com­pany Stu­dio Ghi­bli.

“We were just singing a Ghi­bli movie song, and I don’t know why — it wasn’t any one emo­tion, I was just filled with emo­tion,” Mitski re­calls. “It was the first mo­ment I con­sciously re­al­ized I was in­cred­i­bly touched by mu­sic.”

It’s a gift she’s gone on to share with her fans who, in turn, un­abashedly pro­fess their ten­dency to weep along to Mitski’s own mu­sic, wear­ing their emo­tional con­nec­tion to her songs like a badge of hon­our. That con­nec­tion was a slow build, but it reached new strength with Pu­berty 2.

Be­fore that, 2012’s Lush and 2013’s Re­tired From Sad, New

Ca­reer in Busi­ness — writ­ten and recorded as Mitski’s ju­nior and se­nior projects, re­spec­tively, at Pur­chase Col­lege in New York state — were com­posed pri­mar­ily of pi­ano-pop songs with a melan­cholic tilt. There were hints of some­thing louder and brasher on the for­mer’s “Brand New City,” but it wouldn’t fully break free un­til her third al­bum. Bury Me at Make­out Creek, re­leased in 2014, show­cased Mitski’s emerg­ing gui­tar-play­ing abil­ity, tak­ing her sound in a garage rock di­rec­tion. Recorded in makeshift stu­dios at friends’ houses with pro­ducer Pa­trick Hy­land, her only re­main­ing col­lab­o­ra­tor from her col­lege days, she ripped through some of her finest songs to date on it, youth­ful en­ergy and gut-wrench­ing lyrics masked by a wall of dis­tor­tion. She also started tour­ing, bring­ing her mu­sic to a wider au­di­ence — and crit­ics be­gan to take note.

Since the re­lease of Pu­berty 2, though, Mitski has be­come a sym­bol to a grow­ing fan base that praises her as an am­bas­sador of emo­tional ex­pres­sion, po­si­tion­ing her as an out­sider thrust un­com­fort­ably into the role of ringlead­ing masses of alien­ated youth.

That’s not to say she doesn’t want her mu­sic to feel “needed and nec­es­sary to peo­ple.” But on her lat­est al­bum, Be the Cow­boy, the 27-year-old mu­si­cian is urg­ing lis­ten­ers to dry their eyes and do away with any pre­con­ceived no­tions of what her new ma­te­rial should sound like.

“This al­bum embraces the­atre a lot more,” she says. “If you’ve al­ways ex­pected to cry to my mu­sic, you might not cry to this one. I’ve done away with grunge-y dis­torted gui­tar for the time be­ing, and I’m em­brac­ing a cleaner sound.”

That’s made im­me­di­ately clear on open­ing track and lead sin­gle “Geyser,” which starts sparse and builds to a vo­cal and or­ches­tral cli­max. The ti­tle alone con­jures the image of a force bub­bling be­neath the sur­face, even­tu­ally and in­evitably los­ing con­trol and erupt­ing; it’s a mo­tif car­ried through­out the record.

An ex­er­cise in nar­ra­tive ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, Be the Cow­boy is de­liv­ered by a char­ac­ter cre­ated by Mitski, though there’s still truth in what she’s singing.

“It’s not com­pletely fic­tion,” she ex­plains. “It’s me find­ing a cer­tain per­son­al­ity within my­self and pur­su­ing it and ex­pand­ing it.

“This per­son — this woman, rather — is very ob­sessed with con­trol and power, specif­i­cally con­trol over her­self,” Mitski con- tin­ues. “She’s an in­cred­i­bly con­trolled, re­pressed per­son, and this ob­ses­sion with power and con­trol comes from the re­al­ity of not hav­ing con­trol or power in her real life. This al­bum is the process of some­one try­ing to main­tain con­trol, but find­ing that they’re un­able to do so.”

She found both com­mon­al­i­ties with her­self and in­spi­ra­tion for the al­bum’s hero­ine in the ti­tle char­ac­ter of Michael Haneke’s 2001 film The Pi­ano Teacher. The movie stars Is­abelle Hup­pert as a sex­u­ally re­pressed woman in her 40s, who lives with her over­bear­ing mother and whose fa­ther was long ago sent to live in a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal.

“She’s al­ways dressed con­ser­va­tively, hair tied in a sleek bun, she doesn’t so­cial­ize with any of her co­work­ers, she’s very dis­tant and cold and crit­i­cal,” Mitski says. Her deep­est, dark­est, sado­masochis­tic de­sires are re­vealed, though, when she’s se­duced by one of her young male stu­dents.

“The stu­dent does that quite light­heart­edly, but he finds that she ac­tu­ally is re­cep­tive and she ac­tu­ally opens up to him,” Mitski ex­plains. “And when she does open up to him, he turns around and says, ‘No, you dis­gust me.’ That leaves her hang­ing, be­cause she’s been some­one who’s [been] closed all her life and she fi­nally opens up, and in that vul­ner­a­ble state she’s told she’s dis­gust­ing. So she very hastily tries to close her­self back up, but the flood­gates are al­ready open.”

The woman we hear on Be the Cow­boy draws other cin­e­matic par­al­lels, as well. “I was also think­ing about a lot of Hitch­cock films and how the pro­tag­o­nists are por­trayed as cold and mys­te­ri­ous and very tightly wound,” says Mitski. “I found that all of Hitch­cock’s heroines are viewed through Hitch­cock’s some­what misog­y­nis­tic lens, and I was think­ing, ‘Who are these women when Hitch­cock’s not watch­ing?’” Un­like the women of Al­fred Hitch­cock’s films, how­ever, Mitski isn’t will­ing to give up agency when it comes to her art.

MITSKI’S SHEER WILL AND DE­TER­MI­NA­TION negate any con­cept of a mere ves­sel of song. She’s spent most of her time since the re­lease of Bury Me at Make­out Creek play­ing a dizzy­ing chain of sup­port­ing slots, head­lin­ing shows and fes­ti­vals.

The road has al­tered how she has to work on mu­sic. “I have less time to sit down and write, so now I just think of lit­tle phrases or lines on tour, and I record those or write those down,” Mitski says. “It be­comes more of a col­lage than one full thought in one sit­ting.

“My great­est dream is to get to make mu­sic, but not have to tour in or­der to make a liv­ing,” she con­tin­ues. “I wish we still could make money off the mu­sic it­self, but 10 or 15 per­cent of my time, or less, is ac­tu­ally spent on mu­sic.”

Life on the road has also al­tered how she views her­self within the larger world — though she’s never been one to set­tle in one place for long. Mitski was born in Ja­pan, at­tended high school in Turkey and moved to New York to study film be­fore she switched her fo­cus to mu­sic. Now a pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian, she says that iso­la­tion is just a nat­u­ral side ef­fect of her job.

“Our daily sched­ule is com­pletely dif­fer­ent than most other peo­ple’s,” she says. “We are al­ways in a dif­fer­ent city, a dif­fer­ent time zone, a dif­fer­ent coun­try. Your ex­pe­ri­ences are so unique that it’s hard to talk about them to any­one. You just live a life that’s very hard to re­late to, so not so much per­son­ally you be­come iso­lated, but struc­turally you be­come iso­lated.”

As Jenny Zhang re­cently wrote, Be the Cow­boy hears the singer­song­writer delv­ing into that “lone­li­ness of be­ing a sym­bol and the lone­li­ness of be­ing some­one, and how it can feel so much like be­ing no one” — though it wasn’t some­thing Mitski set out to make an al­bum about.

“I didn’t re­al­ize how much there was a com­mon thread of a feel­ing of iso­la­tion,” she ad­mits. “The word ‘lonely’ is just re­peated so much in the al­bum, more than other al­bums, and I didn’t re­al­ize this un­til I started to do in­ter­views and ev­ery­one asked if lone­li­ness was a com­mon thread.”

It shows up in “Lone­some Love” and the first line of “No­body” (“My God, I’m so lonely”), though the con­cept of be­ing alone is also con­jured on songs about ended re­la­tion­ships, over­due mee­tups, the need for other peo­ple’s val­i­da­tion and heart­break.

“A Horse Named Cold Air,” mean­while, paints a pic­ture of a re­tired race­horse that has be­come “com­pletely still and un­moved and un­mov­ing.” “That en­cap­su­lates the al­bum a lot,” Mitski says. “A horse that used to be young, used to be vi­brant, but now is sort of still and cold and old.”

Though Mitski her­self is a long way from los­ing her youth or vi­brancy, she has a sense of re­flec­tion that reaches beyond her years. She speaks with a ma­tu­rity, wis­dom and hu­man un­der­stand­ing that will earn her a rep­u­ta­tion as an old soul — and it comes through in her song­writ­ing, too.

Be the Cow­boy closes with a sweet, sweep­ing bal­lad about a cou­ple who re­con­nect at a class reunion — still able to look back fondly on the past, but also able to ac­knowl­edge that, af­ter one nos­tal­gic dance, they must re­turn to their reg­u­lar lives.

“I wanted to write a song about the pas­sage of time,” Mitski says. “So much pop mu­sic is about be­ing young and be­ing in­fat­u­ated and ex­cited, but I wanted to write a sweet song about be­ing older and hav­ing lived a full life and maybe hav­ing re­grets, but still feel­ing love and feel­ing a youth­ful ex­cite­ment for a lit­tle tiny bit.”

“…THIS AL­BUM IS THE PROCESS OF SOME­ONE TRY­ING TO MAIN­TAIN CON­TROL, BUT FIND­ING THAT THEY’RE UN­ABLE TO DO SO.”

WORDS SARAH MUR­PHY PHOTO BAO NGO

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