“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.”