Mitski: live wire singer/musician embraces the human connections

July 1, 2016
Words: Jasper Willems
Pictures: Jan Mulders

OCC chatted with Mitski about juggling big emotions, her nomadic life and the boon of basement shows.

Mitski’s fantastic fourth LP Puberty 2 depicts happy and sad feelings like two Godzilla-sized behemoths duking it out above the cityscape. A cathartic battlefield where feral emotions like yearning and disillusion almost act like impartial forces. Forces not necessarily adherent to the whole good vs. evil-duality. But as they say: the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Take for instance single Happy, with its deliberately prosaic title serving as a red herring to its crude industrial inflections.

‘I think both happiness and sadness don’t define you as an individual,’ Mitski explains, when addressing the song. ‘They’re things that just happen to you. At least that’s how I see it. We tend to chase happiness, but happiness can be just as exhausting as sadness. When you’re happy you feel like it’s going to last forever. And I think that’s scary, because when it goes away you’re extra sad. Or extra empty, you feel like you should be happy but you’re not anymore. I think that’s exhausting, anyway. You start asking yourself: why are you not happy? But if you see happiness as something that simply passes through you, maybe it wouldn’t be as exhausting.’

Amidst juggling big emotions, Mitski doesn’t evoke her art with an overwrought seriousness. Your Best American Girl is a firecracker of a tune, initially striking as a lovesick torch song – which, in essence, it is. What puts this song into an entirely new echelon of brilliant is Mitski’s unadulterated use of 90’s alt rock tropes, plenty-o to make Courtney Love proud. Without flinching, she stands inside the crossfire between desire and selfhood. Your Best American Girl is unquestionably the best love song of 2016, a brisk balancing act between playful whim and visceral intensity.

The album title Puberty 2 says as much about Mitski’s playfulness: it struck home as an impromptu joke from Mitski’s friend and producer Patrick Hyland, delineating the record like the sequel of some dorm room teen flick. ‘I just grabbed onto it,’ she notes. ‘I was like: that was it. So initially there wasn’t any deep meaning to it. I don’t know why I instinctively gravitated towards Puberty 2. Maybe like in five, ten years I’ll be like, “oh, that was why.”  I think at the moment I’m too close to it to really understand ‘why’.’

Mitski Miyawaki is twenty-five years old. Her puberty is, of course, about four or five years behind her: that time in your life where you go haywire exploring love, sexuality and social identity. Except Mitski never found the (head)space to do those things properly. She was born from an American mother and a Japanese father, and the latter would travel incessantly for his job. Mitski grew up in 13 countries across Europe, Africa and East Asia… Well, do the math. Bouncing around constantly meant not getting too attached to friendships and lovers. ‘Because you can’t earnestly say goodbye every year. I would move every year. You can’t survive becoming attached every year, and having to say goodbye every year. So yeah, I learned to kind of float above that… And accept that I don’t have any roots.’

Mitski matter-of-factly calls her background her “personal basket of things”, just like everyone else is shaped by a unique set of circumstances. That said, the yearning to connect with others isn’t exactly suppressed by pressing a switch. At puberty, making music became the perfect echo-chamber for Mitski. While studying at SUNY Purchase College, Mitski recorded her debut Lush and follow-up Retired From Sad New Career in Business, two albums that amply filtered classical music chops into the pop idiom, even working with entire orchestras to shape her artistic vision. While the conservatory program proved fruitful for her abilities as both a composer and musician, she didn’t find many kindred spirits.

She tentatively began seeking out urban venues and local DIY scenes. Playing basement shows in the New York area was a tryst that gave her new perspectives on how to wield music. ‘I like the immediacy of basement shows,’ she opines. ‘You can see everybody and that’s a very direct interaction. What happens in the room is largely under your control as a performer. And also, the sound is almost never good, so it allows you to become creative with performance. You can’t rely on good sound or flashy effects. To mold people’s attention it has to be good. You have to really learn how to perform.’

After “floating above” for so many years as an outsider, Mitski unleashed third LP Bury Me At Makeout Creek like a beast that’s been caged for far too long. For the first time, Mitski has been stuck in one place, which sparked a dramatic stylistic shift. Over the span of four LP’s, she cavorts from stylish confessional pop to impassioned punk rock catharsis. Bury Me At Makeout Creek reached its emotional apex with the riveting Drunk Walk Home, a solemn defeatist march that simmers and ultimately lashes out in brutal self-exorcism, punctuated by a primal scream to the heavens.

“To become an uncompromising artist in Brooklyn, you have to be rich already.”

When push came to shove, however, Mitski was left to her own devices within the largely homogenized white indie community. Living in New York became increasingly cumbersome for her. The city’s gentrified demographic makes it nigh impossible to earn your living with just art or music. ‘To become an uncompromising artist in Brooklyn, you have to basically be rich already’, Mitski soberly states. ‘When I lived in New York, I was persistently distracted by how expensive everything was. To such extent that I could never really enjoy myself. Every day was about trying to get by. Maybe that’s why I missed out on a lot of things I could’ve otherwise enjoyed.’

Mitski tells us she’s now essentially without a home, living out of her suitcase. ‘Because I’m on the road so much, even if I had an apartment I would be responsible for it and not live in it. So when I’m not on the road I just stay with people.’ To someone who has endured a nomadic existence for nearly half her life, what else is new? The constant travel once again puts her in this place of isolation, making it harder to connect to and invest in others.

Of course, as social media has become more and more prevalent in our daily interactions, the world shrinks further and further. Mitski’s Twitter feed contains surprisingly candid, wry and often witty observations, often at her own expense. Being this candid to strangers online shows that she’s a real person, who has her own “basket of things”, – as Mitski emphasizes more than once during our conversation – to come to grasp with. At the same time she does acknowledge the pitfalls of severing your thought process in chunks of 140 characters.

Mitski

Mitski: ‘But when you’re writing a song, you need a lot more stamina, my mind has switched into trying to fit things into 140 characters. So I feel like I don’t have the attention span to finish a thought. To actually let something sit. To let the creative process happen naturally. Because I’m not thinking about anything when I’m writing, except for being in the moment. I think that’s why I love it, because everything goes quiet. Only after I write a song, I get myself into trouble. Because I think: “Shit! This is really really personal. But… It’s my job now!’

Writing from such a personal angle undoubtedly invites a fair share of sycophants, voyeurists and misogynists. St. Vincent, for instance, has created a strong avatar of herself as a repellent, whereas post-punkband Savages opt to devolve everything to its bare essence. Mitski admits she never thought about applying subversive smokescreens that correlate with her music. ‘The thing is, I want the art I make to be real, and in order for it to be real it has to be real to myself,’ she attests. ‘I don’t think there’s any point in making art when it isn’t saying something. I think I just accepted the scrutiny as a consequence of what I have to face in order to make art. I’m not going to make meaningless music. I just decided I’m going to face whatever consequences come. Because I want my music to mean something.’

“I accept scrutiny as a consequence of what I have to face in order to make art.”

It’s a familiar conundrum when making writing songs: do you want to be evocative and show your bones or simply capture a certain aesthetic and remove yourself from the music deliberately? But really, why can’t you do both brilliantly? Mitski is living proof that you can, an artist fully aware of the reciprocal nature of music and performance, and how the response isn’t always going to be flowers and bouquets. Most of the time life involves rolling with punches, gaining acceptance for your flaws and emotions. As someone who had to remove herself emotionally all those years to spare herself, this new extreme may not be all that bad by comparison. Mitski: ‘Yeah, maybe, yeah… Especially since I’ve always felt like an outsider. Making a real connection is what I crave.’

Regardless, the one thing that always remains consistent in Mitski’s life is being on-the-go almost twenty-four seven. Which begs the question: is she allowing herself to dream about a happy house where she can anchor her thoughts and feelings? A destination? ‘Oh yeah, definitely, I think about it all the time,’ she nods. ‘I think about it as almost this escapist fantasy, just whenever I’m having a hard time on the road. I’ll ponder where I’ll live, I’ll have this kind of house. Or that kind of furniture. That’s actually how I survive on the road!’

Puberty 2 is now released via Dead Oceans/Konkurrent. You can order your copy here. Mitski is set to play Paradiso on Monday September 26. All photo’s by Jan Mulders. And finally, check out this magnificent Mitski feature by the legendary 2 Meter Sessies for good measure.

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