Pin It
Rina Sawayama
Rina SawayamaPhotography Agnes Lloyd-Platt

The digi-pop singer turning her online insecurities into art

Rina Sawayama creates a new sound for internet struggles in this exclusive premiere of new video ‘Where U Are’

Most of us are addicted to the internet, but Rina Sawayama takes her digital obsessions a step further by making it central to her music. Flitting between being a model and a digi-pop powerhouse, Sawayama consistently confronts her online insecurities in new and unexpected ways, utilising fellow female creatives Arvida Byström and Alessandra Kurr (who have co-directed her videos) along the way.

Sawayama was born in Japan and, at times, a glimmer of Japanese pop seeps into her work, from her candy-coloured aesthetic to her uber-catchy, glittering melodies. However, her sound and style leans more towards early-00s R&B than J-Pop, and although she acknowledges the impact of the latter, she says she is ready for the media “to stop calling me a ‘Japanese singer from London’” adding: “just a ‘singer from London’ would be good.”

Her latest track and video “Where U Are” (premiered below) is love song with a twist. Her need to “feel your pulse” is not desire for her crush, but desire for the virtual world – a relationship which, by its very nature, is intensely dissatisfying. “Funny how together we’re alone, thought you were the one but I was wrong” she sings in a breathy falsetto over shimmering synth lines, her words recognising that however many likes and retweets you might amass, it will never feel enough. In the video, which was co-directed by herself and Alessandra Kurr, Sawayama sits alone, curled up on her silken sheets, completely enamoured with the glowing screen of her iphone. It’s a creation that poses a question: what is modern love in the digital age? We caught up with Sawayama to find out more.

Your music is often preoccupied with the online world. Do you think you’re addicted to it?

Rina Sawayama: I definitely am dependent on the internet, but who isn’t? It’s like an acceptable addiction now, and like cigarettes or alcohol, I think it’ll take a while for people to understand the negative effects of it as we're mainly seeing it for the positive effects at the moment. 

These days, musicians aren’t just musicians anymore. They also have to be curators of their online world. Do you think this allows more freedom or more pressure or both?

Rina Sawayama: It’s definitely more pressure, and if you’re not careful you end up spending less time doing music. Social media is like a full-time job, so you have to put the music first sometimes – otherwise you go crazy. That said, I’ve definitely had more creative freedom because people trust that I know how to “brand” myself through instagram – whatever that says about the music. It’s a double-edged sword, and I want to stand in the middle of it rather than be stabbed by it.

Your video for “Where U R” totally reminds me of your Instagram account. Tell me a bit about creating it.

Rina Sawayama: Me and Ali Kurr (the director) got together for this video a couple of months after my track “Tunnel Vision” was out. I wanted to continue this theme of technology and feminine despair/awkwardness in the narrative, but make a more classic music video and explore a richer, darker colour palette. We’ve worked together before, and I knew that Ali would bring some awesome references and experience with editing that would be invaluable to helping the idea come to life. 

We went through lots of different cool ideas – some we’ve shelved for future releases – but we had absolutely no budget to make it happen. Luckily, Ali’s friend had borrowed an incredible kit and kindly let us use it over the weekend. I quickly emailed everyone I knew, pulled a few favours, and got the production together within a week. The entire thing cost £200. 

You worked with Ali Kurr for this video and artist Arvida Byström for the video for “Tunnel Vision”. Do you think women produce different sorts of visuals? 

Rina Sawayama: The majority of my team are women, and the men who I work with are feminists who understand the importance of fair representation in the music industry. In all aspects of work, women sometimes produce different things to men, and also sometimes they don’t. This idea, combined with the fact that the industry is still very male dominated, is why it’s so important to empower fellow female creatives. 

What about the lyrics? Tell me about the ideas behind them.

Rina Sawayama: Well the song started life as a cover of Michael Jackson’s 1972 song “I Wanna Be Where You Are” – I really clicked with the rhythm of the lyrics and so I adapted it into a Garageband demo in 2013. I revisited the demo again in 2015 when I was obsessing over the idea of online life, so took the subject of longing and regret in the MJ chorus and started working on applying it to an original verse lyric. The lyrics went through several different iterations – I work a lot with vowel sounds, so the lyrics have to click in that respect. I really enjoyed reworking this and going over different drafts, although I drove Justin (Hoost, the producer) crazy as usual.

Do you ever feel like people have expected you to create certain styles of music due to your ethnicity/gender? 

Rina Sawayama: Well there isn't really a precedent for a UK-based Japanese pop singer, which is lucky and unlucky. Maybe some people might get confused because I'm not rocking the whole “kawaii” thing and not singing sickly sweet “j-pop” as it is exported here. It’s like people are surprised by the fact that I speak really good English and that I’m quite outspoken about racism and sexism – all things that don’t fit into people’s Asian stereotypes. The truth is, I'm influenced by Japanese pop music, and that does come through sometimes, but with regards to music I’ve been lucky so far. My goal is for people to stop calling me a “Japanese singer from London” – just a “singer from London” would be good.

What does the rest of 2016 look like?

Rina Sawayama: I’m releasing my EP Alone Together soon. It’s not finished yet – I’d say it’s about 80% done, but it keeps going back and forth because I'm being a perfectionist. There will also be ,ore self-directed videos and hopefully my first show soon! I’m also looking for female backing band members, so hit me up if you want to join my band!