The Subversive Pop Power of Rina Sawayama
The London artist's debut album 'RINA' is a masterclass in pop music history reworked for a generation brought up on the Instagram timeline.
All photography by Chloe Sheppard
In 1995, something strange began to happen in pop music. It was a shift so minor, so gradual that it probably didn’t feel significant at the time. But as the latter half of the decade continued, songs stopped entering the charts and slowly climbing to their peak. Instead, they went straight to the top and slowly dropped down. At the same time, the amount of number one singles per year slowly began to rise. There are countless reasons for these changes in movement, but my point is: pop music was entering a digestible new era. Every song was built – no, had – to be a smash. And so pop’s prime focus began to learn toward churning out the hits: “Saturday Night” by Whigfield, “Gangster’s Paradise” by Coolio and “Unchained Melody” by Robson Green and Jerome Flynn all smashed their way into the top end of the chart, and that became the blueprint.
1995 was also the year that Rina Sawayama – then five years old – flew from Japan to the UK. It was initially supposed to be a five-year stay while her dad worked for Japan Airlines, but during that time her parents split, and she settled in north west London with her mum for good. And so, Rina found herself coming of age in the UK at the turn of the millennium, raised on the effervescent, candy-coated sounds of J-Pop on one side, and the meticulously crafted Max Martin golden era of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Backstreet Boys on the other. It was these two elements that would end up converging in years to come, when Rina would make her own music, each tied together with the artistic cues of the internet generation. Since then she’s released a bunch of tracks and videos – including one mini-album RINA – but more on that later.
Over two decades since that flight and I’m sat in a grungy queer bar with Rina in east London, both of us drinking whiskey and ginger ales. With her long tangerine hair, glittery high cheekbones and neon yellow hoodie, Rina is the kind of person who probably gets stopped a lot in the street by overeager street style bloggers. But she’s also got that calm, easygoing attitude that I can’t quite pinpoint, but which I recognise in a lot of people my age who also grew up in London. We spend the first few minutes of our chat swapping stories about the city, being raised by single mothers and all the weird shit she’s been asked to do since her profile has risen in recent months. “Someone suggested that we do an interview and photoshoot at the Japan Centre,” she says. “I don’t think they realised that it’s just... a supermarket.”
Rina doesn’t come from a music background – she comes from an academic one. She studied Politics, Psychology and Sociology at Cambridge University, but she says she hated the vast majority of it. “It was very white, very fratty and very competitive,” she explains. She also says she experienced a lot of bullying and felt othered by some of the students. “I got into this situation where I had to actually be moved out of my halls,” she tells me. “I was different; I was the only ethnic minority and I was the only person doing something other than uni. It felt like Mean Girls. I very nearly didn’t graduate because my depression got so bad, but then I moved out of the house I was in and reported [the bullies]. There was one incident where they woke me up because they were bitching about me so loudly in the kitchen next to my room for a straight hour – all three of them. It was so bad.” Rina stuck it out for graduation, but she says it took her two years to get to a place where her mental health was steady enough to move onto the next thing, which in this case was singing and writing music.
The earliest creation of Rina’s that I can find online is “Sleeping in Walking”, a slinky R&B track from 2013 that comes alongside a shadowy, black and white visual. It’s a cool song – it sounds kind of like Kelela – but it doesn’t pack the same punch as what would come later. It wasn’t until a few years down the line that Rina began to fully realise her own sound. “I just stopped listening to Soundcloud music,” she tells me now. “Soundcloud means that you’re constantly looking sideways at what people in your age bracket are doing, and for somebody like me – who’s experienced bullying – that is the worst thing ever. You don’t want to be comparing yourself. So then I was like, ‘I listened to a lot of J-Pop when I was younger, why don’t I go back to that?’ I started remembering how awesome the songwriting was in 80s, 90s and early 00s J-Pop.”
A deep conversation with fellow online creative Arvida Byström led Rina to start exploring certain themes within her work, particularly those relating to the internet and identity. The two struck up a friendship after meeting on a fashion shoot and Rina found herself wondering why she wasn’t also making art about the world she was most immersed in. “When I spoke to Arvida, I was so fascinated with her following and the difference between her online life and her as a person,” she explains. “I found it amazing how she used that to create her art, so I started thinking ‘why am I not doing this?’ I’m so passionate and interested in it, so it would make sense to explore that through music. I think [my interest] probably has a lot to do with the fact I studied Politics, Psychology and Sociology. I’ve always been obsessed with phenomena, and why people do what they do.”
Soon afterwards, Arvida directed the video for Rina’s 2015 track “Tunnel Vision”. The collaboration makes sense because there’s a distinct parallel between Arvida’s internet aesthetic and Rina’s sound: one of shiny, pastel-coloured hues, of playful, postmodern self awareness and the intersection between femininity and technology. “Emotions are too much for me, so I spread my love through likes / I didn't even leave my house last week, but I know what you did last night,” she sings over sensual, glimmering keys and a slow electronic beat, neatly summing up how being on your iPhone can make you feel super lonely but surrounded by people at the same time. The video shows her rolling around her bed late at night, her face bathing in the cold, white light of that familiar rectangular screen. Later, the iPhone is literally in place of her heart, glowing through her shirt, as if it's become just another organ, beating with the relentless life-force of the timeline, likes, DMs, content.
Earlier this year, I wrote a column about how much I relate to Rina’s music, about how perfectly she articulates my own complex, sometimes tense relationship with the internet. In that same column, I wrote about how Shamir does a similar thing. A few weeks later, a Facebook message landed in my inbox. It was from Rina. “This is kinda random, but thank you for inspiring this collab. Without your article this wouldn’t have happened,” she wrote. “I sent it to Shamir and he wrote this verse in two days. Tell me what you think.” Attached to the message was a duet between them both, a re-recorded version of “Tunnel Vision” in which their vocals blend and weave around each other, harmony upon falsetto, like silk upon silk. It’s beautiful. “I wanted it to be like a classic pop duet,” Rina tells me now. “The whole inspiration was even like… Christina Aguilera and Ricky Martin, or Beyonce and Luther Vandross. I just wanted to make it cheesy because that’s what they used to do. I love the way their harmonies intertwine.”
It’s this obsession with the mechanics and traditions of “pop” – the way music history can be absorbed, then viewed through a fresh lens later – that’s led to Rina releasing arguably one of the most interesting albums of the year, last month’s RINA, co-produced by Clarence Clarity and Hoost. At just eight tracks long, it feels like a concise masterclass in reimagining throwback pop influences for a generation raised by the scroll screen. Opener “Ordinary Superstar” sounds like the punk pop theme tune to a classic highschool teen movie and the robotic, glittering shapes of “Take Me As I Am” could be an off-cut from Britney’s In the Zone. You can hear the echo of “Vogue”-era Madonna in the spoken reprise of “10-20-40” and “Afterlife” – which has an actual key change – is like late 90s Max Martin if he was into Japanese city pop and sampled video games. Written down, these ingredients make RINA sound overtly nostalgic or kitsch, but it doesn’t feel like that. The lyrics push everything up to the present day (you wouldn’t hear Britney singing about citalopram or Instagram, for instance) and the production is so tightly wound that it actually sounds subversive.
I tell Rina that this album sounds like pop music that has been pushed through a futuristic machine and distilled to its purest, most perfect form and she looks visibly pleased. “I need ‘the feeling’ to be there when you listen to it, every single time,” she says, downing the rest of her drink and sitting up a little. “It has to have that progression and that story and that meaning. Even the interludes have significance; they’re meant to be there. I feel like it was the same with Max Martin-era pop and that whole era of production in general, even the riffing is intentional, it really is a distillation process. But that process is me taking a song and listening to it over and over again and changing it until there’s nothing that catches me, when it’s very smooth, when it finally feels right.”
Rina also chalks this process down to being holed up in the studio with producers who respect her vision and are willing to foster a proper creative partnership. She’s obsessed with longterm collaborators like Justin Timberlake and The Neptunes or Bloodshy & Avant. “A lot of producers just get bored and want to get the track over and done with. But I like having these really long relationships with producers. I was working with Hoost for a long time and now it’s Clarence Clarity. I can’t just go into different studios with different people, that’s not my style, I like working with one person and fighting with them and finding a middle ground.” It’s the reason a lot of her tracks, including two recent collabs with the enigmatic A.K. Paul, have yet to see the light of day. “A.K. is such a busy guy that I want to make sure we’re writing something that makes us both happy. We’ve got this really sick song that I just want to finish. But it’s about finding the right moments.”
Before long, our chat has come to an end, and Rina is ordering another whiskey and ginger ale before she has to go home and individually wrap eighty orders of her recently released merchandise. She says she would love to include something personal in each parcel – like a handwritten note – but there just isn’t enough time. It might even take all night. It suddenly strikes me that I can’t imagine the popstars that we grew up listening to in the 90s and 00s doing the same thing for their fans. But this is a completely different era. We were brought up on the internet. Everyone is connected now. Everything has become personal. We are much more DIY. And though Rina might reference a whole load of top 40 genres, sounds and locations in her own work, she is very much an artist of right here, right now, forever facing forwards.