Last year, Mitski Miyawaki released what will go down as one of the greatest indie rock records of all time, Puberty 2. It’s Mitski’s fourth full-length, but the first to propel her into the exciting mainstream current: Her outsider anthem “Your Best American Girl” was named one of the “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going” by New York Times Magazine, she’s selling out shows, playing Coachella on the Beyoncé day (well, she was before Beyoncé rain-checked for 2018)—heck, even Iggy Pop recently sang her praises on his BBC radio show.
This is justified buzz, as few musicians have ever illustrated the impermanence of feeling good, or bad, or anything with such vibrant accuracy. Her words are darts, simple but sharp. Her voice rumbles with gentle but cautionary power. Opener “Happy” describes an all-consuming visit from a fair-weather lover like it’s the short lifespan of a mayfly. On “Your Best American Girl,” the Japanese American musician belts her feelings of un-belonging with pain and pride as she realizes, “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me/But I do, I think I do.” Some songs are volcanic bursts of energy (“My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars”), while others hang suspended in zero-gravity ruminative states spent “trying to fill the void” (“Crack Baby”). Puberty 2 doesn’t ride off into the sunset in a blaze of glory—instead, on closing track “A Burning Hill” Mitski recognizes that “I am a forest fire, I am the fire and I am the forest and I am a witness watching it.”
Nearly a year since its release, the Mercury spoke to Mitski about life post-Puberty 2, the way childhood prepared her for endless touring, the terror of even a sliver of celebrity, and being an unwilling “mom” to Twitter followers.
MERCURY: It’s been almost a year since you released Puberty 2. How does it feel to have some distance?
MITSKI: Yeah, you know I don’t feel that much distance because I’ve just been on tour for the album. So it just feels kind of like Groundhog Day.
Your 2017 tour schedule looks pretty rigorous. Is it weird to have your entire year mapped out ahead of you?
Isn’t it strange? And I haven’t even announced all my dates yet... When you work in music you get into this mindset where, right now I’m thinking about my schedule for 2018. And I’m like, this is crazy. What if I get into a car accident? What if I get sick? What if life happens and I can’t do this one show I booked like, two years in advance? I have like a macro-routine, a birds-eye routine. But in terms of the micro, I have no routine whatsoever because I’m just in a different city every day and I’m just taking it a day at a time.
I heard you lived in a dozen countries growing up—does touring feel like a natural extension of moving around a lot?
Because I moved around so much, I always was like, ‘When I grow up I’m going to have one job in one place and have a house,’ so this was not planned whatsoever. It’s like I wanted to do music and then found out that in order to do music I had to tour, and I was like, ‘Goddamn it!’
It’s like everybody’s going back to the troubadour thing where you just travel around singing your songs.
I’ve been thinking that too! I’ve been wanting to call myself a bard.
Your music is emotionally raw and honest. Do you ever panic or have any regrets about being so publicly vulnerable?
I never have regrets about my songs, because in my mind I’m able to compartmentalize it as my art, you know. I’m an artist and this is what I do, so it’s necessary for me to put out these songs, regardless of how vulnerable they may be. The panic I get is not from my music, but from interviews or social media. It’s weird, I don’t get panicky about showing my most vulnerable emotional side. I could show you my emotions all day. But I get panicky about data, like my birthday and my address, that kind of stuff really freaks me out. It’s funny, I feel like maybe a decade or two ago it was cool when an artist was aloof or you didn’t know anything about the artist, but now I think everyone wants everything from the artist. They want every single detail about their life. They want the artist as a person, whole and completely. Strangers having access to my real personal life is much scarier to me than being able to relate to some of my feelings. Because I feel like those feelings are universal, whereas my address is very specific.
I noticed that some of your fans call you “mom” on Twitter. How does that feel?
I’ve kind of been desensitized at this point, but before I used to be like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t even take care of myself. How can you expect me to be your mother?’ [laughs] You don’t want me as your mom, that would be a horrible decision. Your mom must be great. Please don’t do this to your mom.
I recently read an interview you did with Pitchfork where you expressed this fear of being beloved, and having that crystallize to hate when fans realize you’re just a regular person. You referenced the experiences of celebrities like Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Lawrence. I’m wondering why you think that happens, specifically to non-male celebrities?
I think about this often, and I still haven’t quite figured it out. I think maybe a lot more emotional labor is automatically expected of women. Or, just women are expected to be the ideal, or be what you think they are. They’re seen more as open vessels than men who are seen as having their own life, and having autonomy, and being their own person. So we’re not surprised when it turns out men have their own life—cis men, anyway—because it’s just expected. Whereas women, I think there’s so much about the muse, and women being an idea instead of an autonomous person. I think the first step is ideation, and seeing a woman as an ideal, as your muse, as everything you want them to be, and then I think it often turns into anger when you feel like your ideal is a lie, or you feel like your ideal has let you down. It’s a lot about women being symbols as opposed to human beings.
I read that for songs you usually write vocal melodies and lyrics first. Who are some of your favorite lyricists?
I know this is like, too timely, that it almost sounds like a PR thing, but I really think Leonard Cohen has great words. And I thought about this because I never like it when Leonard Cohen sings his own songs. I’m not into his voice—rest in peace—but then when someone else covers his music I realize how good his songs are. Honestly, lyricists you wouldn’t think of as lyricists, like Johnny Cash and Iggy Pop. Straightforward lyrics end up influencing me the most. Like they say people who are really smart can explain a complex idea to a child. If you really understand a concept, you can make someone who’s completely new to the subject feel like they understand it as well... Bjork has some lyrics like that too, where it’s just like simple, simple words end up hitting me hardest because it’s actually very difficult to take really complex, muddy emotions and ideas and then put them into one simple sentence. Those are always the lyrics I’m trying to write.
How did it feel to have Iggy Pop call you a gem?
You know, I took that little 30-second clip and I played it over and over and over [laughs]... But I shouldn’t make a big deal out of it, because also he listens to so much music. That radio show is like, two hours long or something. Like, I shouldn’t think I’m that special. But it was still very cool, to just be on his radar.