Rina Sawayama is one of a handful of artists who released an album just as the pandemic was beginning and watched, astonished, as their stars rose during lockdown. The Japanese-British singer’s debut, “Sawayama,” was a wild fusion of Lady Gaga with nu-metal guitars, but also showed a penchant for sentimental ballads amid the power chords and intensity.
The album won a co-sign from none other than Elton John, and its videos got her cast in the fourth installment of Keanu Reeves’ “John Wick” series, due in March. In fact, Elton was one of many people who spoke out against Sawayama’s exclusion from eligibility for England’s BRIT and Mercury awards because she isn’t a U.K. citizen, even though she’s lived in England since the age of 5. After #SawayamaIsBritish became a trending topic on Twitter, the British Phonographic Industry changed the eligibility rules to include anyone who lived in the country for at least five years, including her.
Yet Sawayama, 32, does not like to stay in one place for long, and her new album, “Hold the Girl,” has a different vibe: It’s more musically upbeat and pop-oriented, less intense and angsty while still being emotionally diverse and resonant — and the video for “This Hell” shows a sexy, partying side of her that she hadn’t shown previously (one viewing will make the world wonder why). She talked with Variety about her music, career and more over the course of a lively Zoom call.
Is there any history of musical talent in your family?
None of my family are musicians, but they’re all very good singers: We’d sing in the car and at karaoke, which for Japanese people is like going to church! So I’ve been singing since I was young, but I wasn’t taking it really seriously, and my family didn’t know how to turn this into a career. I think I first wrote my first song when I was maybe 17, but it wasn’t until I was around 26 that I was able to actually do this as a full-time thing.
What do you think was positive and negative about that relatively late start?
Positive aspects: I feel like I have perspective. I think it must be really crazy to have been in this industry from a young age because so many things that are very not-normal are very normal in the music industry! And I guess the negative aspect is that I did not realize how physically taxing this job would be. I love being onstage and don’t feel too tired from that, it’s more the traveling and constantly battling jet lag, and always having to be camera-ready and stage-ready. Exercise doesn’t come naturally to me at all — I’ve always hated it — so it’s been a real reckoning in terms of being fit all the time.
People tend to think it’s easy being a performer, but isn’t it exhausting not only to sing and dance, but to have to be on so much of the time?
Yeah, a lot of artists are actually quite shy in our private lives — I consider myself quite shy and I don’t really like social interactions that much, but for my job, I feel like I can really turn it on. But I think it’s really important to keep something for yourself, so recently I’ve tried to implement at least half an hour or an hour every morning that is purely for me and for no one else. Because I think, yeah, like you said, a lot of people can see what I do as, “Wow, you’re fulfilling your dreams, and it’s all about you.” But you’re giving a lot — if you’re playing to 3,000 people, you’re giving to 3,000 people, and you’re trying to give everything. So having something that is purely for yourself — not for your job, not for anyone else’s enjoyment — is so key, because I didn’t have that for the first U.K. tour or the U.S. tour that I just did.
What do you do during that “Everybody fuck off” time?
(Laughing) Yeah, it’s literally that! I can’t stick to a routine, so it’s a mix: It could be journaling, meditating, yoga, sketching, reading. My chill time used to be spent a lot on YouTube, but now I don’t do that as much because there are people reacting to my music or reviewing it, and I just have to be like, No, I’m just using this time to slowly switch off.
Where, when and why does your songwriting inspiration come from? Does it just happen and you drop everything and seize it, or is it more deliberate than that?
I try and drop everything to focus on it, but often I can’t, and that’s where my notes app on my iPhone and my voicenotes app are where I store my notes. I get inspiration from books, podcasts, overhearing a conversation, or a combination of two words that are like really cool together and unexpected. I try and have at least 10 ideas before I go into a session because I’m not very good with spontaneously coming up with things.
Those are all verbal — do you have musical inspirations or do they come with the words? Do you get a melody in your head and sing it wordlessly?
Yeah, the melody sometimes just floats into my head. I’m trying to kick this preconception that I have that if I listen to too much music, then I will inadvertently plagiarize it. I really need to drop that because nothing is original — no good melody has not been done somewhere.
Do you write on an instrument?
Oh, I wish I could play an instrument, and I think my publishers would also appreciate it if I could write on a fucking guitar rather than in a room with three other people (laughing). I’ve never been very consistent — again, I can’t do a routine and I’ve always hated classes and things like that. But I’m trying, and I’m definitely going to play guitar on my next tour, so maybe, Emily, my guitarist, can help me with a bit of lessoning. I can play, it’s just I don’t want to. One of my big dreams is to just fuck off to the middle of nowhere with a guitar and magically come out with an amazing album that I own 100% publishing rights to, but I can’t like see myself doing that right now.
On the no-melody-is-new subject, is that what happened with “Hold the Girl” and its reference to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”? Did you have to pay for that?
No, I didn’t — I think you have to have a certain number of consecutive notes and a certain rhythm for it to be that, although Madonna is such a huge inspiration for me. But one thing that many people have not picked up on, which actually was a whole palaver behind the scenes, was that the guitar riff in “This Hell,” which is definitely very similar “Gimme Gimme Gimme” by ABBA — that has way more similarities melodically than “Life a Prayer.” I actually had to ask Elton to help me reach out to ABBA, like, “Hey, is this cool?” Luckily, they said yes and really no one has noticed it.
You just mentioned Elton John very casually. Are you guys, like, pals? Do you talk often and all that?
Yeah, we do. I’d love to just hang out with him more but we’re so busy, but wherever we get the chance we’ll FaceTime each other and just catch up and just talk about boring stuff, you know? I think people would love to think that we just constantly talk about art, but it’s more like, “Hey, how are the kids doing?,” just little normal things.
Have you read his autobiography? It’s got amazing stories.
No, I really want to — but yes, I hear so many stories. I’m so lucky, I went on holiday with him last year and he has so many incredible memories. He was telling me about… is it his birthday? I think it’s his birthday when he goes really crazy with the costumes and concepts, and he was saying how one year he had to be transported because his wig was so heavy.
Did his cosign of your music just come out of nowhere?
Yeah, it was on his [Apple Music “Rocket Hour”] radio show, he featured a couple of my singles, and then by the second single, he wanted to talk to me. So we had a FaceTime video interview, and it just kind of went from there. We really got on, it seemed really natural. And even though he’s so famous, I just saw so many similarities with my queer friends and the kind of chats that we have, and the humor that we have. But yeah, he just finds a lot of music on his own — he scours, scours YouTube, and finds all this stuff that’s new to me — he teaches me about new music.
He’s just so genuine and so generous. At first I thought, Oh, he’s gonna give me a shout-out and that’s gonna be it, but he calls every two weeks, checking in. And he introduces me to people and he’s helped me so much behind the scenes. He’ll just be like, “Okay, what do you need?” And then he’ll call the person you need, and two minutes later you’ll get a call back from him. He makes dreams come true, it’s incredible. He’s like Santa Claus. Actually — strike that. He’s more like fairy godmother (laughter).
Is there anyone else who has really helped you along in a similar way?
Charli [XCX]. She’s done 10 records — only five full-lengths, but she’s done mixtapes which are basically as long. I ask her about a lot of business stuff. I think people don’t realize that behind every pop star is a business — they have a touring business and merch company and publishing and commercials and so much. I’ll ask her, “Hey, is this normal? Hey, how did you feel a month from the record?,” things like that.
It’s a very, very strange feeling to have fans. It’s not something relatable, it’s not something I can talk to people outside of the industry about. And it’s been really nice just to be able to ask her, “Hey, how do you feel when this happens?” And I always get reassurance and she always makes me feel like, “Oh, that’s totally normal,” or “I can help you with this.” She’s just been incredible. And she’s really kind of set the blueprint for collaborations between female artists. Before, it was always like Britney and Christina or whoever always pitted against each other, and she’s one of the people who’s really shown that it’s fine to collaborate with other female artists — it’s not a competition.
I wouldn’t necessarily say the new album is happier, but it is less angsty and intense than the first one. You’ve said in other articles that it’s the effect of good therapy?
Yes, and also, I intentionally didn’t want to do the first record again, at all — I did it, and if I want to have that feeling onstage, I’ll just perform those songs. This record was written during lockdown, so I couldn’t do some of the experimental stuff that I did in the first record, my brain wasn’t in that headspace. So it was, yeah, a lot of introspection, quite a few ups and downs, which is what I was going through at the time.
It seems strange, but your one of those artists whose careers didn’t seem to be impeded by the pandemic — your album got a lot of attention and praise, even though it was released in April of 2020 and you couldn’t tour. Did you feel that?
Yeah, it was fucking weird! (laughter) I’m on an indie label, right? And especially because it was my first record, there wasn’t this conversation of, “Oh no, we’d given 10,000 copies of your album to Sainsbury’s and no one can actually go to Sainsbury’s!” so there wasn’t that kind of [commercial] pressure. So it was just, it seems like people are going to really need new music, because so many people were postponing their records, and I’m so happy that it resonated. But it was still really, really surreal to have had that experience throughout lockdown.
It’s strange that so many dance records came out during that time, Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga and Jessie Ware.
Yeah, it was just like, okay, we’re all in a situation that we don’t want to be in, we can’t go to clubs and we can’t be with our friends. So let’s just imagine that we are, through “Chromatica,” through “Future Nostalgia,” through “What’s Your Pleasure.” That’s definitely what I was listening to during that time, for sure.
The “This Hell” video is so different that it’s almost like a different artist, much more sexy and in-your-face and partying, which is something you hadn’t really done before. Is that the direction you’re going in now?
I guess I realized that on my first record, I forgot to look hot in my videos. (laughter) Like, I just sort of forgot that I was supposed to be doing some pop-star shit and looking hot. So I was like, “Right, okay, ‘This Hell,’ let’s look hot.” I wanted to tell a story, but visually, I just really was like, “You know, I’m ready to be kind of hot and get some really amazing lighting.” And it’s funny because I said to Ali Kurr — who also directed “XS” and “Bad Friend” and so many of the videos from the first album — “Babe, I need to look hot this time.” And she was just like, “Oh, for god’s sake, fine.” And me and my creative director would be like, “This shot needs a light on her face” and the directors and everyone would be rolling their eyes like, “Oh, god.” Because cinematic videos and looking-hot videos are very different things. I think with “Hold the Girl,” we really struck that balance, but with “This Hell,” I just wanted to look hot.
How was it working with Keanu Reeves on “John Wick”?
I really love the process of doing something I’ve never done — learning to read scripts and getting into a character. But I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to seeing myself onscreen in that way, to be honest — it’s a very different vibe to “I need to look hot in my music video.” The camera gets so close you can basically see your pulse, it’s crazy, crazy close. I watched a preview and I freaked out because it was so fucking weird.
But Keanu was amazing, and exactly what you think he’d be like, so chill. But he looked after me in loads of different ways, very much behind the scenes — not telling me that he was doing something for me, but making sure that it was done. Although him being one of the executive producers means that he had a hand in casting me, so that was really crazy to comprehend.