After rewriting the indie rulebook with her devastating songs about romantic longing, the singer-songwriter is now imagining a future in which the artist is no longer a product.
With her devastating songs about romantic longing, the singer-songwriter has rewritten the indie rulebook, garnering a legion of dedicated fans along the way. Now, she’s speaking out against the exploitation that defines the music industry, imagining a future in which the artist is no longer a product.
A version of this story appears in Huck Issue 77. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
Mitski Miyawaki is reminiscing about a missing person. “She was someone who simply wrote her feelings, and didn’t think about how her narrative was being conveyed,” she recalls, describing a talented 20-something who’s “long gone now”.
This missing woman looked like Mitski, sounded like Mitski, and even released an album under the Japanese-American artist’s name: 2012’s Lush, a plaintive, piano-led wander through a sadness best described as biological. On songs like ‘Liquid Smooth’ and the hypnotic ‘Wife’, she sang about the kind of loneliness that pervades every molecule. It introduced the world to an artist who’d become one of the biggest indie acts on the planet, lauded by Iggy Pop as “the most advanced American songwriter that I know”.
But Mitski no longer feels like that person. “She was ambitious and single-minded about getting to be a musician,” explains the 31-year-old, warming her hands around a cup of herbal tea in a London hotel restaurant, almost a decade to the day of Lush’s release. A moment passes as Mitski chooses her next words carefully. “But maybe she didn’t quite understand what that meant – what the price was at the door.” It’s a cold night near Embankment, where Mitski is promoting her latest album, the elegant, ’80s pop-inspired Laurel Hell. She wrote the record as a “pep talk” to herself, and to a world in spiral. “I felt like we needed some infusion of possibility, some sense of things happening again,” she says of the LP, written between 2018 and 2020 with a despot in the White House and, later, a pandemic at our doors.
Its pulsing keyboards and danceable rhythms concealed a quiet darkness. “When there’s a sad message under a veneer of danciness and happiness, you almost trick people into going on that journey with you. Like: ‘Oops, too late! You’re sucked in!’” she says, laughing. It’s a trick she learned from one of the album’s biggest influences, Swedish pop heroes Abba. “Have you heard ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’? There’s a desperation to those lyrics, but you don’t notice until you really listen.”
Laurel Hell is an album that almost never was. After 2018’s Be The Cowboy, the star was contemplating leaving the spotlight for good. That album had been her most successful release to date, propelled by a hit single, ‘Nobody’, that sparkled with heartache and disco-ball glamour. In its wake, Mitski found herself invited on arena tours with pop titans like Lorde; she collected album of the year awards from influential music outlets such as Pitchfork and The Line of Best Fit. But the multi-instrumentalist felt strangely empty. On the final night of her touring commitments around Be The Cowboy, she announced she was stopping “indefinitely”, pairing the statement with a brief justification: “It’s time to be a human again.”
Fast-forward a few months, and she had swapped New York for a new home in Nashville, with plans to stay in music but move behind the scenes – away from the glare and grind that had left her on the brink of burnout.
“It really is joyful getting to be almost like a craftsperson, just walking into a room and putting puzzle pieces together,” she says of her forays into the world of “session writing” – penning songs for other artists – after arriving in Nashville. For years, songwriting for her had involved reaching into deep wells of anguish. ‘Your Best American Girl,’ from 2016’s Puberty 2, for example, was a indie-rock rehash of a relationship that was doomed from the start, because of her perceived inability to live up to American ideals (“Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me,” its chorus roared). Writing songs for other artists, in stark contrast, allowed her to unleash her melodic talents without the need for any dark nights of the soul. During this time, she penned songs for pop artists, as well as hip-hop stars and country acts, none of whom she elects to name.
Mitski had always assumed she’d start doing this sort of work at some point or another, as an insurance policy of sorts in a music industry that has a track record of spitting out artists – especially when they’re women of colour. “I’ve always felt like I needed to put my eggs in as many baskets as possible, because what I do has never felt sustainable, never built to last,” she says, pausing to order a pastry dessert dish that neither of us can pronounce properly. (“Croustade!” our Paris-born waiter informs us. “You have to lean into the Frenchness of it.”)
Somehow, even after the success of Be The Cowboy, with Barack Obama among her famous fans, Mitski felt unable to shake that her popularity “was a fleeting thing” – something that would eventually desert her. Writing for other artists felt like a safety net she had an obligation to install beneath her, like a trapeze artist anxious that, sooner or later, she was bound to fall. “I had the notion that [success] was something that was happening to me while I was young, and that I may not be allowed to do it once I aged out.”
It was a weirdly freeing time. As she threw herself into hiatus, she also stepped back from social media. In the years since 2014’s Bury Me At Makeout Creek, a breakthrough album full of torch-song vocals and crunching guitars, Mitski had amassed an online following whose love for the star mirrored the devotional intensity of her songs. It’s a community to whom Mitski and her music are shorthand for a certain type of emotional chaos, celebrated with self-deprecating humour. Example tweet: “Bought my ticket to Mitski and they offered a 30-day trial for Headspace. They know their audience.” While it brings Mitski “an existential happiness” to know people are reacting to her music, she found herself creatively stifled by the caricatured idea of herself that had begun to blossom within the pop-cultural ether. “It’s difficult to write from an authentic place in yourself when so many projected versions of you are invading your brain.”
Social media, she suggests, is prone to this, rewiring our minds in troubling ways. Case in point: in February 2022, Mitski had rediscovered her songwriting spark. She had written and recorded Laurel Hell, and embarked on a string of tour dates in support of the album. With this in mind, she asked her management team to post a polite request on her behalf, via the social media accounts she’d relinquished the logins to. “Hello!” it read. “I wanted to speak with you about phones at shows. Sometimes when I see people filming entire songs or whole sets, it makes me feel as though we are not here together.” She gently implored fans to not record shows from start to finish, given the way in which a sea of screens can break the drug-like reverie connecting fans and artist, a phenomenon exclusive to live music that she speaks of protectively.
What followed was an internet debate so fierce, her team ended up deleting the offending tweet. “It was naive of me to post that, frankly,” she reflects. “I’ve been away from social media so long, I forgot that on Twitter, our words are regularly misconstrued and used by whoever has an argument to make. People picked and chose parts of sentences that helped further their own arguments. Some ignored every word, and simply used me to start different arguments altogether. Somehow my statement led to online fights about race, gender, sexuality, generational rifts – you name it!”
The most disheartening reactions, Mitski continues, were from people who claimed the fact they’d paid for the show gave them the authority to do whatever they wanted, regardless of what she thought or felt. “This underlying fact will always be true, as I am indeed providing a service in exchange for income. But it does feel sad to be told directly by people I’m hoping to share my heart with, that to them I’m a product they have bought for the night, and they will do what they want with me while they have me. It is sad to go on stage and now be conscious of the fact that, to some of the people in front of me, I am a dancing monkey, and I better start dancing quick so they can get the content they’re paying for.”
This is something Mitski has been thinking a lot of lately – the transactional nature of music; the industry at large, as capitalism has rendered it. It’s burned into the synth-pop dream of ‘Working For The Knife’, the lead single from Laurel Hell. “There are different shades of that feeling that we’re all unable to escape throughout the album. I had this feeling that we’re being exploited and there’s nothing that we can do about it,” she laments. “To be really real and cynical with you, now I’ve been discovered as a real source of money for people, I feel kind of trapped. Sometimes I feel – how do I put this? – like institutions have discovered that they can make money through me, and they’re not going to let me get in the way of making money from it.”
She declines to go into greater detail, and caveats that she’s delighted to have a team around her who are supportive and ethically sound. But the wider lesson of her decade in the business is that she’s “a product” being bought and sold.
“It’s the foundation of the entire industry to exploit the artist,” she continues. “The music industry was built on the backs of Black musicians – it’s the basis of how the system works.” Mitski takes the teapot in front of us and fills her mug, again choosing her words carefully. “It’s funny. People keep telling me that I’m the boss,” she sighs. “But I don’t feel like the boss. You know?”
I ask if there’s a solution – a fix for the flaws in the current music ecosystem. “The utopian ideal for me is that musicians are all paid the same living wage, no matter what type of music they make,” she replies. “I’d take commerce completely out of it. Everyone would be paid the same comfortable living wage. That way, everyone’s worries would melt away and we could just focus on making music. I think we’d all make much better music and would be able to provide our service much better if we weren’t constantly thinking: ‘How do I make this into a product? How do I brand myself? What compromises do I have to make in order for this to make money?’” As the waiter returns to take our plates, we agree that it’s the probably the most revolutionary plan to have ever been hatched over a croustade.
Before we part ways, we reflect on what the person who wrote Lush would make of the Mitski of today. “The person I am today, that person could never have imagined,” the songwriter smiles. “I mean, simply continuing to be able to write and release music, that’s miraculous to me. Because I really didn’t see it as a viable option. I was doing it mostly because I couldn’t see myself doing anything else, honestly.”
There’s one fragment of the old Mitski that has remained since those aforementioned early days. Stepping onstage to sing her songs of heartache and desire, in front of fans who’ve lived their own versions of those emotions, gives her a rush that’s as potent now as it was during the beginning – back when her performances at DIY shows in Brooklyn were limited to a handful of spectators at a time. “A good show allows me to feel connected with other human beings, and sometimes even with a higher power,” she says, looking ahead to a busy few months on the road, headlining shows on her own before entertaining stadium crowds in support of Harry Styles – a far cry from those first gigs.
The Mitski that went missing from a decade ago didn’t realise there was a price at the door for a career in music. But after a break from the bullshit, she’s more certain than ever about the things that make that price worth paying.
“Performing is like an ocean I can keep diving deeper and deeper into,” she says. “And the deeper I go, the more magic it reveals.”
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Laurel Hell is out now.
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