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Rina Sawayama, 2019
Rina SawayamaPhotography Hendrik Schneider, Creative direction Ben Ditto

Rina Sawayama on her nu-metal-inspired single ‘STFU!’

With a debut album set to land in 2020, the pop singer tells us how its first single was inspired by microaggressions and music from her teenage years

Rina Sawayama wasn’t sure about the direction of her new single “STFU!”, at least not at first. Written with longtime collaborator Clarence Clarity, the song is driven by distorted guitar riffs, crashing drums, and lyrics of pure frustration. Fans will definitely be able to pick up similarities between the nu-metal slant of “STFU!” and the cybernetic pop and R&B of her excellent 2017 mini-album RINA, but the sheer force of the song is still disarming on first listen. “It was almost like a one-night stand, where you’re just like, ‘Oh, that was weird. Let’s just leave that behind...’” Sawayama says of writing the track. “And then my manager heard it and was like, ‘No, that’s fucking great! That should be the first single!’”

“STFU!” is the indeed first single of Sawayama’s upcoming, as-yet-untitled debut album, which is set for release by Dirty Hit (home to The 1975, Wolf Alice, Beabadoobee, and more) next year. The song takes its energy from all of the microaggressions – those small but constant discriminatory comments, made either intentionally or unintentionally, that gradually build up over time – that Sawayama has had to field as a Japanese woman growing up in England. Her exasperated response? Shut the fuck up.

The song’s hilarious music video brings this idea to life. Directed by Sawayama and Alesandra Kurr, it depicts the singer on a disastrous first date with actor and comedian Ben Ashenden. The video draws from some of Sawayama’s IRL experiences, with Ashenden acting out every stereotype that the singer has encountered from oblivious white dudes over the years. At one point, he declares that he’s “writing a story from the perspective of a Japanese woman”, something that was said verbatim to Sawayama recently. “In that conversation, he said, ‘I showed a couple of Japanese friends, and they seemed very reluctant to give me feedback. I guess the Japanese are very quiet,’” Sawayama sighs. “I was like, ‘Maybe it’s because your work is shit, mate! Maybe it’s because you’re a prick!’” As the date goes swiftly downhill, it reaches a breaking point, and everything flips. “I’m basically playing the girl in The Ring,” she laughs.

Sawayama is sat behind the computer of her home studio in the London suburbs, playing a mixture of finished an unfinished tracks from her album – a mixture of cathartic pop-metal and giddy club bangers, with all the weirder elements dialled up a few notches. Not much pop music coming out right now sounds like this. “I really hope my fans like this new direction,” Sawayama says. “This is what feels right to me right now. This is the pop music I want to hear.”

Was there one specific incident that inspired “STFU!”, or was it more a build-up of constant microaggressions?

Rina Sawayama: There was a lot of anger I needed to get out in that moment, and it just flowed out completely. Clarence Clarity had already written these two contrasting sections: heavy metal, and kind of JoJo. The last line of the metal bit was like, “Why don’t you just sit down?”, and then it just kind of rolled off: “Shut the fuck up. Shut the fuck up!” In nu-metal they scream it, but I was like, “Why don’t I just say it really sweet, so it sounds even more sinister?”

I think I was able to write that song because I’m at a point where I’ve found my community of people and I can laugh about these things. I hope that people see this song as being quite funny. When you’re growing up, you don’t understand all these things happening to you. Perhaps you don’t live in an area where there is, for instance, other gay people – or other Japanese people, for me – and you still haven’t made sense of how the world views you. I’m at a point where I’ve got communities of people where we can just laugh at all the ridiculous things that people say to us.

Tell me about its video.

Rina Sawayama: The script that me and Izzy (Isobel Rogers) wrote is based on factual things that people have said. Like the other day, I was at a friend’s wedding, and this guy who’s in his mid-40s, white – you know the guy – was just like, “Oh, have you heard of this Japanese restaurant? No? Well what about this one in Richmond? What about this one in Wimbledon?” Like, I don’t know all the fucking Japanese restaurants!

When I was younger, I think that’s something I’d have gotten really angry about, but now I’m like, “This is so funny.” It’s just ridiculous. I think it is important to have an element of that in understanding the world, because otherwise it can really get you down. This song is the perfect embodiment of pure rage inside, and humour at how ridiculous this all is. It’s been really cathartic.

What sort of stuff were you listening to that led to the song’s aggressive energy?

Rina Sawayama: The things I grew up with: N.E.R.D.’s Fly or Die, No Doubt’s Rock Steady, and heavier sounds in general. And Evanescence! (laughs) Evanescence was the ‘palatable’ metal, but it popped off, it was number one for ages! Me and my mum listened to it in the car all the time, so she knows all the words. It’s a little pocket of culture that people are maybe too scared (to reference in their music anymore). They’re a bit embarrassed.

It’s strange, because this was the biggest music at the time.

Rina Sawayama: Honestly! You had t.A.T.u. as well – who are a bit problematic, but who I’m super inspired by – and they were number one for ages.

Speaking of problematic stuff from that era, you said you’re a big Gwen Stefani fan. What’s that like, given the Harajuku girls and your own background?

Rina Sawayama: I know, I know! Even though I have problems – and obviously everyone is problematic, you can’t be perfect – I really think she’s one of the best songwriters. Growing up, her work in No Doubt and since then, as a songwriter and as a girl in rock, was so inspiring. And her fashion! So I never want to negate that, but it’s something where I’m like, “Okay, let’s just accept that it was bad.”

“This song is the perfect embodiment of pure rage inside, and humour at how ridiculous this all is. It’s been really cathartic” – Rina Sawayama

It’s like you were saying earlier, you can kind of laugh in retrospect at the absurdity of it.

Rina Sawayama: Exactly. That was a real 2000s problematic mood, but I still love her.

How did you end up signing to Dirty Hit?

Rina Sawayama: It took so long to sign to a label. Theo from Wolf Alice, we were in the same band in sixth form, and now he’s won a Mercury and is doing so well. I asked him and loads of other artist friends what they think of their label, and Dirty Hit was the one that people didn’t talk shit about. They have such a great family of people that they work with, and with the sound of the album being more rock, it’s been amazing to tap into the engineers that they work with and the studios I’m not accustomed to – like, I’ve never recorded live drums, ever, so it’s been really eye-opening seeing what it does to a song.

Was all this angsty teenage bedroom music something you just listened to, or were you fully immersed in that subculture at the time?

Rina Sawayama: I was quite wild. My parents had just separated, and my mum, she came to this country not really speaking very good English, and I think there was a lot of frustration about home and school. I used to go out every night, I started going to gigs from when I was 13. That’s the amazing thing about growing up in London, I just used to go down to Camden and pretend I was 18 and go to Koko and all these little clubs and venues that have now shut down. My mum used to hack into my MSN Messenger and text my friends like, “Where the fuck is she?! She’s not back.” Which is understandable – I was, like, 13, and I was out until 9.30pm, which is way too late in London. 

So I was pretty wild, but I don’t think my references were very cool. I still don’t think that my references are very cool (laughs), but I have such good memories of the music.

What was your fashion like back then?

Rina Sawayama: I was wearing white tank tops with school ties because of Avril Lavigne. It was not a look. It was horrible. And I plucked my eyebrows so much. I’ve posted a picture of it on Twitter before – so thin. I’d read somewhere that if you cut your lashes, they’ll grow back thicker, so I had cut lashes. It was just a mess.

I guess you shopped at Camden Market, too?

Rina Sawayama: Yeah, Punkyfish. My mum ironed over the Punkyfish logo, which was made of plastic or something, and it just smeared all over. I remember being like, “Mum, you bitch!” 

I definitely wasn’t cool enough to go to Cyberdog. That was loud and ravey, and I was like, “That’s too cool.” But now I go to Cyberdog.

Do you have any advice you’d give to your 13-year-old self back then?

Rina Sawayama: Just live your best life, babe. And be nicer to mum! Don’t call her a bitch, she’s trying her best.