Peripheral Vision: Mitski Interviewed

The Skinny meets Mitski to talk about Björk, the power in sad pop music and feeling like an outsider – even when your music's hit the mainstream

Feature by Andrew Gordon | 29 Sep 2016

For as long as she can remember, Mitski Miyawaki has felt like an outsider. Given her backstory – a childhood defined by constant relocation, followed by years of grafting in Westchester, New York’s overwhelmingly white and male indie scene – it’s easy to understand why. Her tale has been amply documented elsewhere, but you need only listen to her whip-smart, confessional music to find Mitski's moving rundown of a life lived on the periphery.

Take Townie, the anti-party anthem from her breakout album Bury Me at Makeout Creek (2014). Over scraggly pop-punk guitars, the songwriter steels herself for a night of revelries ahead, describing the anticipated trials like an anthropologist observing tribal rituals: 'I've tried sharing and I've tried caring / and I've tried putting out / but the boys boys boys keep coming on for more more more.' Mitski's guard is well and truly up as she confides, exasperated, 'I’m holding my breath with a baseball bat / though I don’t know what I’m waiting for.' 

Then there’s Best American Girl from this year’s stand-out album Puberty 2. It begins like an impassioned entry in an adolescent's diary, Miyawaki comparing the distance between her and her flame to that of the sun and moon. But just as the misleadingly saccharine bridge reaches its apex, she summons a thunder cloud of distortion, shattering all that teenage hyperbole with a single line. 'Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me,' she belts out, the sudden, sobering injustice of cultural difference landing like a kick in the teeth.

The song, along with the rest of her incendiary fourth record, has garnered Miyawaki no shortage of attention. In the space of six months, Mitski’s transformed from a Bandcamp act with a cult following to landing a deal with Dead Oceans, attracting profile features from the likes of Elle and Rolling Stone, and even Cartoon Network's angsty teen vampire Marcelene covered her song Francis Forever in an episode of the Emmy Award-winning series Adventure Time. By the afternoon of our phonecall, Mitski's sold out a run of Stateside gigs nearly three months in advance. So, now that she's found herself at the epicentre of the cultural conversation, does she feel any closer to fitting in?

“No, not really. I still feel the same,” she replies with little hesitation. “I'm trying to figure out why exactly.” For Miyawaki, who's bunking at a friend's place in New York while prepping for her European tour, there's some kind of cognitive dissonance between her achievements as a musician and her day-to-day life. “I lead a very disconnected life. It's hard to tangibly feel connected to or within something; it feels like all that press stuff and my music career kind of happens outside of my real life.”

Not having a permanent residence certainly doesn't help. “I still live on the road and I'm in a different state or country every day,” she explains. But where once she might have yearned for stability as a means of comfort – the line 'I've been anywhere and it's not what I want, I want to be still with you' from 2014 track Texas Reznikoff comes to mind – now she believes that connectedness comes down to a certain state of mind. “I'm realising that I can't really blame outside forces any more. I have to decide where I'm going to belong.”

Moreover, she's learned to turn her innate feelings of disconnection into an asset. “You have to be outside of something to observe it,” she states. “It's a tightrope walk of being completely inside it while also being outside of it. You need to be inside it to feel it and know what it is, but you also have to be outside of it to describe it and explain it objectively, so that other people understand it.”

And understand “it” they do. Miyawaki has an incredible knack for putting words to feelings that many of us recognise deeply, but couldn't begin to express. Search for Mitski on social media and you'll find page after page of fans sharing her lyrics alongside the phrase "current mood" – no further explanation necessary. One post shows a phone playing the heart-breaking I Bet On Losing Dogs next to a photograph of a child lying next to a pool in the dead of night, running their hand wistfully along the water's surface: the melodrama is played for laughs, but it's a truthful approximation of Mitski's emotional impact. Miyawaki wields sadness like a siren song, conjuring a deep, cathartic melancholy that, like a warm bath, you can't help but let yourself sink into and stew in.

“I think wallowing just comes naturally to me,” she jokes, although for her, that process can be transformative: “I think the value in downer music, or just being quiet and being introverted is that it kind of forces you to look inside [yourself]...  to sit and go through the maze of your own inner world and try to figure it out.”

Was there a musician who provided that experience for her, while growing up? “Every artist says their favourite artist is Björk but I really do love Björk,” she admits. Miyawaki first discovered the inimitable Icelander’s work via a listening station in a Japanese record store, aged 15. “I put on the headphones and I was terrified!” she remembers. “It actually viscerally scared me.” In retrospect, she suspects it was Björk’s uncompromising expression of her own interiority that was so unsettling. “Her music does such a vivid job of portraying very vast inner landscapes. The Vespertine album especially really helped me look further into myself and I think that's why it was so terrifying when I was 15. I was just not ready for it.”

Flash forward ten years, and Miyawaki is injecting her own work with that same brutal honesty. “I want to make sure that I continue to trust in my listener and trust in their intelligence. I know that they're listening to my music for something that is truthful to me. We're all human beings; if I'm feeling something, I know for a fact I'm not the only person to ever feel it, because that's incredibly self centred. I'm just like everybody else.”

Surprising words from an outsider, maybe. But perhaps that critical distance allows her to see through contemporary clique mentalities and identify those common experiences that unite us all. Mitski's music speaks to her specific experience as an Asian-American songwriter in a white man’s world, and in doing so it creates a universal emotionality in which everyone's welcome. It’s a perspective we are lucky to have.

Mitski is touring with Trust Fund, playing Brudenell Social Club, Leeds, 2 Oct; Stereo, Glasgow, 4 Oct; Deaf Insitute, Manchester, 5 Oct Puberty is out now on Dead Oceans