Rina Sawayama Is Your Digital Dream Girl

Rina Sawayama Is Your Digital Dream Girl

London’s resident R&B Cyber-Philosopher talks new music, growing up in the digital age, and the give and take of social media.

London’s resident R&B Cyber-Philosopher talks new music, growing up in the digital age, and the give and take of social media.

Text: Erica Russell

If you’ve ever found yourself anxiously scrolling through your Instagram feed in the darkest hours of the morning, the blue glow from your smartphone bouncing off your irises like a laser in the smoky recesses of a nightclub, Rina Sawayama knows exactly how you feel.

The singer-songwriter, artist, and model was born in Japan and raised in the U.K., but she, like many of us, grew up on the Internet: the post-digital lovechild of MySpace, MSN Messenger and moving GIFs. Her constantly-evolving relationship with the online world, as well as its effects on her perspective, sense of self and worldview, seeps its way into her music like liquid sugar. When she’s not posing for brands like Diesel or starting conversations about political corruption and whitewashing in the media on Twitter, the neon tangerine-haired Londoner can be found hunched over her laptop, pouring busily over her intoxicating brand of sleek, glossy dream-R&B and digi-pop—a hard candy concoction of ‘90s era Mariah Carey, Utada Hikaru (the singer’s most personal influence) and Banks.

On the cleverly-titled “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome,” the artist confronts her digital addiction over a sparkling soundscape of midtempo Destiny’s Child-esque beats, tick-tocks and twinkling synths, the track slowly building towards a blissed-out crescendo as Sawayama bares her all-too-familiar insecurities: “Pretty but sad inside/Isn't she beautiful/Queen of the ball/Even when she's home alone…”

It’s a bittersweet fantasy, baby—that “party on [her] phone” is a party of one. No matter how connected she is with that world cradled “in [her] palm so bright,” she’s still going it solo. It’s complicated, but we’ve all been there… Maybe we’re there right now.

Sawayama—who captivated listeners with 2015’s glistening “Where U Are” and its corresponding Arvida Byström-directed video—is so much more than fashion’s latest It Girl or music blogs’ newest indie darling: She’s a digital-age pop pioneer, an R&B princess and cyber-philosopher preoccupied with exploring and challenging the shifting frameworks of self-identity in the era of Web 2.0. More than that, she’s honest—a crystal clear reflection of our own uncertainties and anxieties about presenting our “best” selves online, whatever that means.

Whether in her digitally conscious music or her socially conscious tweets, Sawayama presents an open window for gazing within ourselves—the kind of window you can’t minimize or x-out of.

Fresh off the release of “CSS” and ahead of her debut album, I spoke with the artist about navigating the contradictions of the world wide web, growing up with J-pop, finding empowerment in online communities and the importance of diverse ethnic representation, particularly for East Asian women. Read the interview below.

"Cyber Stockholm Syndrome" seems to capture a sort of contradictory dichotomy: We're trapped in the digital, but we're also freed by it. Can you explain that philosophy?

It's a contradiction I've battled with for a while, but one that I'm starting to make sense of through my writing. That idea of our devices being the captor we love is one that comes from personal experience… I feel like social media lets me be myself—and someone else at the same time. I feel like it helps my anxiety and depression, but also worsens it.

Which lyric in the song is most personal to you? I can't stop thinking about "Girl in the corner/Stirring her soda/Biting the shit out of her straw/Ready to go out/Only her body tells her no"... Like, that's literally me.

It's me every time there are plans! [Laughs] The chorus—"Came here on my own/Party on my phone/Came here on my own/But I start to feel alone”—and also, "Happiest whenever I'm with you online" is how I feel when I'm at any social event. The last line in the song, "Burn bright, don't burn out,” is my message to our generation, who I feel—contrary to popular belief—works way too hard.

Some listeners have compared the track's sound to early Mariah Carey and other glossy 2000s R&B. Is that music nostalgic for you?

Yes! I went to a Japanese school in London until I was about ten, where I only listened to J-pop, so the first Western music I heard was of that early 2000s era: Britney, Justin, Beyonce, Avril Lavigne, Aaliyah. At the time, I was obsessed with a Japanese artist called Utada Hikaru who drew influences from American R&B and pop, produced by Darkchild and The Neptunes, so everything fit in well.

When I started out in music in 2013, I was looking at SoundCloud and just trying to be relevant through writing what other people were writing. But looking sideways helps no one; it destroys innovation and means your sound will already sound… late. Also, around that time, I wasn't as comfortable with my ethnic identity, so when I finally started to become comfortable with my own Japaneseness my music started to make way more sense. I'm now inspired by my past and comfortable with what my current music sounds like.

What are your most visceral online memories?

I remember all the beef that used to arise from MySpace Top 8. That was so unnecessary! I also remember recording my first acoustic cover of "Naive" by The Kooks and putting it up online, and posting an ad in NME to look for members to join my band, The Lovecats—cringe. I remember MSN Messenger and the shit that used to go down on there.

How did your relationship with the web shape you as an artist or even as a young woman in general?

It’s helped me as an artist, and maybe as a young woman growing up. In your early twenties you can be quite insecure and have a natural inclination to compare yourself to other people, so social media made that tendency a lot worse. But then you find networks and groups, you find feminist artists making incredible work and saying incredibly important things, and being part of a community online (particularly the East Asian online community) has really helped me come to terms with my ethnic identity.

You're very socially and politically active on Twitter, particularly with regards to intersectional feminism and the representation of Asian women in the media. What are the issues that are important to you?

I can only really speak from experience, so racism in the fashion industry, beauty ideals in Asia, slut shaming and stereotyping are important to me right now. Being in a casting-based industry like fashion (and to some extent the music industry—in the way that most A&Rs like to be able to categorize someone as the "next whatever"), representation is so important. Growing up I didn't see Asian girls with tattoos and colored hair in the media, so I want to change that for future generations

Do you think that social media helps or hurts our self-image?

I think it can help our self-image, but in a way, that's sometimes fleeting.

Sometimes I wonder if I come off cooler online than I am IRL. Do you ever feel like that?

Yes, definitely. I went through a time when I was trying to be someone else online but now I'm more myself. Maybe my edited life online seems cool but IRL I'm really dorky!

And what about the sentiment that even though we're more connected than ever, we're also more isolated because we're all on our phones? Personally, I think it's a give and take. Pros and cons.

I think when you're all physically together and you've taken the time to travel to meet each other and people would still rather be on their phones scrolling through other people's lives, that's a bit sad. I'm sure we've all been there. Also, I think it’s much easier to bail on plans via text when you don't have to hear the other person's disappointment. I agree there are pros and cons but I think it’s the awareness that matters. I feel like our actions are so much more robotic and automated than before and our inability to allow ourselves to be bored stunts creativity.

You also model and work in the fashion industry. How does style play a role in your music? I find that visual aesthetic and sound are inseparable for me as a listener!

Same. I'm lucky that I can work as both a model and singer, as I can explore how image and sound intertwine as one (important in a world where YouTube is a huge music streaming source). I'm a very visual person and an image can set off melodies in my head.

Which designers or fashion labels speak to your soul?

Dilara Findikoglu, Faustine Steinmetz, Hanger Inc, Japanese brand AMBUSH and Y/Project are all cool.

You're from Japan, but you moved to the U.K. when you were young and have lived in London ever since. Who are some J-pop artists who inspire you? Brit-pop artists? (On the J-music side, I'm a massive fan of Hamasaki Ayumi and Utada Hikaru. And I love English artists like Kelli Ali and Dido!)

Utada Hikaru is literally the reason I decided to be a singer! I remember singing "Automatic" in front of the TV at age seven, dancing in front of the armchair pretending to be her. She's still my all time favorite. I grew up listening to my dad's favorite band, Southern All Stars, and enka music from my mum, and my half-sister used to listen to a lot of Sheena Ringo… So all of those are huge influences for me (I can knock out a proper enka ballad at karaoke). I'm continually inspired by the satisfyingly formulaic Japanese pop writing. On the Brit-pop side, I'm obsessed with Little Mix, and my collaborator Clarence Clarity is redefining pop in a major way.

What songs would be on your ultimate cyber party playlist?

“Baby Come On Over” — Samantha Mumba

“Undercover” — Kehlani

“Vapid Feels Are Vapid” — Clarence Clarity

“Overload” — Sugababes

“Movin’ On Without You” — Utada Hikaru

“Touch” — Little Mix

“Green Light” — Lorde

“No More” — 3LW

“Someone that You Love” — Jarreau Vandal

“Lovestoned/I Think She Knows” — Justin Timberlake

Who (aside from yourself, of [email protected] and @rinasonline) should we follow on Twitter and Instagram ASAP?

On Twitter, you should follow @ESEAsianBeauty for East and South Eastern Asian beauties all around the world and for being politically active against Eurocentric beauty standards. On Instagram, check out @Johnyuyi and @matilda_finn for Instagram grid art and @vernbestintheworld for virtual reality art.

Your debut album is due out this year. Will it follow a similar concept to your recent releases?

I'm writing a lot with Clarence for the record. It sounds like all of the pop, rock and R&B of the mid-late 2000s put in a blender, with a hyper-modern gloss. I'd say half the songs are about identity on the Internet and the other half are about my identity growing up as an immigrant. I’m super excited! It’s out this year and it’s the best music I’ve ever written.

Credits: Banner Image Photography Matilda Finn

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