Mitski Miyawaki likes to probe heartache in her music, but melodrama isn't really her thing. Her songs explore vulnerability, yet always sound sturdy and confident — and it's that combination that's made her one of the most talked-about young rock artists of the past few years.
Mitski was born in Japan, and she grew up all over the world. In her suitcase, she always made sure to pack her dad's American folk records and her mom's collection of Japanese pop tunes. This week she released her fourth full-length album, Puberty 2, and she joined NPR's Rachel Martin to talk about it. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
Rachel Martin: Your first couple of albums, which you recorded back in college, included a full orchestra. Now you've scaled way back and are working solo, with the help of your producer. Does that free you up a bit?
Mitski: I recorded Puberty 2 in the span of two weeks, and I think that was only possible because it was just the two of us and we'd worked together before, so we knew each other's rhythms. You know, while I was working on something, he could be working on something, and it just freed me up totally to work much more efficiently.
It must have been fun though to have a full orchestra to work with.
Yeah, maybe fun in retrospect. Like, when you're a college student and you have to direct 30 people, and they all have stuff to do that's not your music, it's very difficult to try and get everyone together. So I'm very grateful for their help — and I'm glad I'm not doing that anymore, or for a while. Maybe I'll want to in the future, but right now I'm into the minimalism of my setup.
You were making so much music when you were a student. How did your education end up informing this album, do you think?
Well, I went to SUNY Purchase; I was part of the studio composition program. Maybe it's different now, but when I was there, it was a very free program where you got to forge your own path, you got to take what classes you wanted to take. And some years, to be honest, I took as little classes as I possibly could so I could record my own music.
Were your teachers OK with that?
I think at the end of the day, they kind of realized they couldn't stop me. They learned to step back and let me do it, because if they didn't, I would find a way to do it. They really encouraged finding your own voice.
The first track on this new record is called "Happy," and it has a lot going on. As I listener I fixate on your voice, which sounds really haunting — but then there's that bass sound. What is that?
I believe it's some kind of kick sample that's repeating over and over. I wanted something that was incessant and obsessive, a little bit. I mention trains in the song, and I think I wanted to evoke that without actually using train sounds.
And what is it about the obsessive quality? What about happiness and obsessiveness pair together for you?
I don't think I'm alone in this: I'm obsessed with trying to not only be happy but maintain happiness, but my definition of happiness is skewed more towards ecstasy rather than contentment. Ecstasy can't last forever, so there's the inevitable comedown from that.
Where has that feeling crystallized for you? What have you sought this kind of ecstatic experience from that, in the end, didn't sustain you?
I think it's less the "what," and more the thing itself. I've been learning that I can use many different things to try to chase that feeling, but the most unhealthy thing is the chasing itself. I think in the song, I touch on the fact that chasing it and then coming down from it and then chasing it again is the most exhausting process.
When I was writing this song, I just wanted none of it. I didn't want the happiness and I didn't want the sadness that comes after it. That's kind of what the song is about: not wanting to go up or down anymore.
Does writing make you happy? The composition process, the putting together of the art and the music?
Yeah, I think that's the one thing that truly, fundamentally makes me happy, and that's why I keep doing this. There is the ecstasy of being in the zone, as they say, but there is also the contentment that comes from songwriting — for me, anyway. There's a feeling that I did a job or that I fulfilled a role, and I think that's why I keep going back to it. I think that songwriting and composition is actually very healthy for me because it's not just about the high, even though that exists as well. It's just about feeling okay.
In 2014, you wrote a post on Facebook, and you were talking about the first time that you wrote music. You said in the post that right then, you saw the rest of your life, and you knew that you were "doomed." What did that mean? Doomed to what?
Doomed to pursue it. Now I had a taste of ... I don't know. I'd touched God, I felt like. And once you feel that, you can't keep living your life like it didn't happen. I felt like I finally found some mysterious inner spring, and I had to keep pursuing it.
Was music a big part of your childhood?
It was a part of it. A lot of musicians talk about how they were into music from the start; they always wanted to be musicians. It wasn't like that for me. I didn't think of it as a job or a career — it was just something that was constant. I moved around so much, and music was the one thing that couldn't be taken away from me: I could just do it on my own terms, and I could learn so much about it. You can never learn enough about music. So it was always a part of my childhood, but it wasn't a conscious part of it in any way.
Does that mean your parents didn't necessarily know this was something they needed to cultivate in you, because it was just so casual? Were they supportive?
They were always hands-off but supportive, in that they never pushed me towards anything. Like I was talking about with my professors, I think my parents learned early on that I will just do as I do and there's not much they can do about it, and so they kind of just let me go and let me do my thing.
I took a few piano lessons as a kid but it didn't last; I just learned piano from doing it over and over on my own, because I didn't have many friends and there was always a keyboard in the house. And then I decided to go to music school, and they were like, "Okay! Do your thing."
I want to ask about another song on the album, called "Your Best American Girl." It plays like a pretty straight-ahead indie rock single, but when you get into it, you realize that there's something else going on. Where does this song come from?
From ... from me! It's just a feeling of loving someone so much, and yet being from completely different backgrounds and not being able to do anything about it. You watch movies where the couple loves each other so much but can't be together because of their fate or whatever, and when I was younger I thought that was so stupid. I just thought, "They love each other, why can't they be together? This is ridiculous." But then as I got older, it's like, "Oh, I see." Sometimes life or your backgrounds just kind of get in the way, and there's nothing you can really do about it.
Do you want to get more specific?
Um, no! Because then I would get into my personal life, and I don't know who's listening.
Is it more cumbersome to write about your own experience, because that requires a more introspective kind of work? Or does that come pretty easily to you?
Well, I'm a very selfish person: I'm always thinking about myself, so it's not difficult. Obviously I'm performing for an audience, but when I'm writing I'm not thinking about any kind of audience. I go back into that world I've cultivated for myself that's just mine, and when I go there I dig up something and try to express it in some abstract way.
We started off talking about the nature of happiness, and joy and ecstasy versus contentment. So where are you at today? Are you ecstatic? Are you content? Are you somewhere in between? Have you figured out what happiness means to you?
Realistically, I don't think we ever actually find anything. It depends not only day by day, but hour by hour. But right now, in this moment, I feel like I'm doing a job. For so long I worked towards people listening to my music — and now people are listening to my music, and I'm talking to you, and my album's coming out. I think I'm feeling pretty content. We'll see how I feel in an hour, and tomorrow, and in a year, you know?