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Rina Sawayama
Rina SawayamaPhotography Hendrik Schneider

Six things that inspired Rina Sawayama’s debut album

How family photos, failed marriage, and therapy formed the basis of the pop singer’s debut album, Sawayama

Rina Sawayama’s debut album, Sawayama, has been a long time coming, arriving some seven years after her very first DIY releases and three years after she solidified her sonic identity with 2017’s ace RINA mini-album. She’s built up a fiercely dedicated fanbase in that time (thousands of her stans, called ‘Pixels’, joined in on an interactive album listening party last Friday) and shared stages with Charli XCX – all while, until very recently, being a completely independent artist.

So it seems a shame that after all this, Sawayama should land in the middle of a global lockdown. Photo shoots have been cancelled and tours have been rearranged, but the singer herself is remarkably upbeat about things. “If you know me well, I love being at home, so this is kind of my ideal promo,” Sawayama laughs over Zoom. “I’m doing a launch party from the comfort of my own chair.”

Sawayama draws from the pop music of 1999 to imagine the pop music of 2099, cramming everything from *NSYNC-style body poppers to nu-metal riffage into an ambitious and maximalist style that’s unmistakably hers. It’s a lot of fun, but Sawayama’s lyrics add a deeply personal dimension, exploring her family history, identity, and anxieties. Here, she discusses some of the sources of inspiration behind Sawayama.


Rina Sawayama: I’ve always loved looking at family photos because it humanises the people in your family who take on certain roles. Sometimes you forget that your parents lived a whole different life before you were born and that they were children too. That can be cathartic when you have issues with them. Because I studied psychology, it really speaks to me to know that people were not always like what they were like, and there’s a series of events that happened that turned them into who they are.

This started off as the basis of the record. When I finished writing “Dynasty”, I was like, “There’s just so much juicy goss in my family.” I asked my mum if I could see old photos of her, and I wanted to see photos of my dad from when he was a baby, to try and understand the culture he came from. My dad’s side is kind of upper class, which I didn’t even know. It was through doing a bit of research that relationship breakdowns and that kind of thing all made sense. Family photos and those memories are the backbone of this record.


Rina Sawayama: I first went to therapy when I was 15; I had an eating disorder. I’ve been going since I was quite young, on and off. Therapy has meant that I have no awkwardness talking about certain things, and willingly bring a lot of painful stuff into sessions. I’m able to write about it, which makes me feel like I’ve done something with pain. Knowing how to talk about yourself and your pain and knowing yourself really well is really important. So I stan therapy. I stan therapists in school, love that; stan NHS therapy, great. Without therapy, I don’t think I would have actually written this album at all. I thought at one point I was just self-indulgently talking about myself, then I was like, “Fuck it – it’s my own album.”

“Bad Friend” was one of (the songs linked to therapy), when you realise it’s not them, it’s you. On “Dynasty”, in the middle-eight, I’m talking about my mum and dad. And on “Akasaka Sad”, I’m talking about them in the context of depression. It underpins the whole thing.


Rina Sawayama: My parents had a very slow divorce; they were separated for so long before they actually got divorced. It was kind of underpinned by family drama and stigmas about marriage – especially (stigmas) in Japan, which informs the anxiety around divorce and marriage in general. My parents got married after, like, six months, which is insane. I always just say: “No wonder!” 

“Dynasty”, for me, is like the title of a thesis – which is the album. “Won’t you break the chain with me?” is the question that we need to answer on this record. Intergenerational pain can start with marriage, it can end with marriage, it can be passed down through different generations in literal and biological ways. Divorce is very sad and very painful, but also, I’ve been incredibly inspired by watching my parents’ relationship breakdown. Divorce is inspiring!


Rina Sawayama: I just don’t believe in guilty pleasures, full stop. All the stuff that inspired this record was, in hindsight, very not cool: Evanescence, Limp Bizkit, Avril Lavigne. I say ‘not cool’ because it was very mainstream; I think the people I did listen to that did give me a bit of credit were No Doubt and N.E.R.D. – they were definitely cool. But the rest, I was listening to a lot of chart music. My pop awakening was Holly Valance and Kylie Minogue. I love pop structures, and I like there to be some kind of structure in writing. Those songs are iconic because they’ve got such good writing. I feel like the charts were so diverse (back in that era), and it’s getting back there now, but there was maybe ten years where it was just straight-up EDM and everything sounded so similar.

(The song that most embraces this attitude is) “STFU”. That was one where we were like, “Fuck it, let’s just completely reference that era.” I’m not ashamed to admit that I like really cheesy music. I did an article the other day and (the journalist) was like, “Tell us, who are your hot artists right now?” And I said, “Well, there’s this artist called Dua Lipa…” 


Rina Sawayama: This was an exploration of what Tokyo means to me. I’d struggled with where I identify myself: “Am I Japanese? When I go to Japan, I feel like a foreigner. Do I really fit in here either?” 

“Tokyo Love Hotel” is one of my proudest lyrical moments. I was frustrated that I couldn’t do certain things because it would be seen as very stereotypical. Even stupid things. I couldn’t wear a certain colour wig without it looking like cosplay, and I couldn’t do a certain type of music without it sounding like I was just trying to do anime music. I wanted some Japanese in my visuals, but so many other people had done it. Ariana, at the time, had tattooed “barbecue grill” on her; Shawn Mendes had a song about Tokyo. I was getting really pissed off, like, “Where is my space? I have a legitimate claim to this, and I still feel like it’d be so basic if I ever did something like that.” I realised that I was still coming at it from a western perspective. That song really encapsulates that struggle that a lot of people face. The good part of it is that you belong in both cultures, but you also don’t fit in properly to either.

On “Akasaka Sad”, Akasaka is a place in Tokyo that I stay in a lot. There’s this one hotel that I really love staying in. I sampled the elevator sounds from that hotel in that song. That song is realising that depression and feeling like you’re not fitting in just follows you wherever you go.


Rina Sawayama: On “XS”, I’m taking about excessive consumption and this attitude of business as usual in the system of capitalism. It’s unbelievably funny to me, (seeing) people coming out with new make-up palettes – I was obsessed with watching these make-up YouTubers coming out with new palettes, and I was like, “Oh my God, I really want that one – and that one and that one and that one.” There’s this line in “XS”, “I just bought a zip-code at the mall,” (which is about) that casual measure of wealth, these huge houses. I wanted to satirise that. It’s inescapable.

“Fuck This World” is more of a literal, actual ‘fuck you’ to this world. I was getting serious climate grief: “Fuck this, I hate the way that this world is built.” It’s all about humans trying to be more efficient and more productive, and that’s been the guiding force behind so much destruction. “XS” is very tongue-in-cheek, “Fuck This World” is a bit more real. I feel very powerless, but try to do as much as I can. I had a period where I was looking into my council’s recycling programme, looking into where all the waste goes. Then I went to Wal-Mart for the first time in LA and was like, “Cool, maybe one day’s worth of waste here makes up a household’s ten years of waste.” Why am I even trying? I just spent an hour washing my milk cartons!