Rina Sawayama On Carly Rae Jepsen, Pop Activism & Her “XS” Year

Rina Sawayama has been making music and performing long before the release of her debut EP, SAWAYAMA. But, in 2020, her career has skyrocketed. The 30-year-old Nigiita-born, London-raised pop star has been performing as a solo artist since 2013, releasing a series of Utada Hikaru meets Gwen Stefani and Jojo ‘90s inspired R&B pop sounds on singles like “Tunnel Vision” and “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome.” Yet, it’s on SAWAYAMA, which released earlier this year in March, where she has become The Artist of 2020, celebrated in the same breath as Chloe x Halle and Megan Thee Stallion. 

To celebrate the release of SAWAYAMA: Deluxe Edition, Syrup caught up with the wildly talented artist—and Aka My Favourite Artist Of The Year—to reflect on her insane glow-up of a year, being compared to Karl Marx, making political pop songs and future collaborations we can eagerly look forward to.

Before the album’s release, Sawayama described herself as a lesser-known artist. In an episode of The Needle Drop with Anthony Fantano back in January, she explained that she was once invited by Charli XCX to perform “Backseat,” which originally features her absolute fave Carly Rae Jepsen, on her Pop 2 Tour. When Charli asked Rina how she wanted to be introduced moments before coming on stage, she nervously told her not to worry about it. “Nobody will know who I am,” she said at the time. 

Flash forward to just two months ago, where dripping in pearls and hugged by a bright red corset and matching red opera gloves, she performed her anti-capitalist hit “XS” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. “When you put it like that, fucking hell yeah,” Sawayama tells me, admitting just how “crazy” of a year it’s been for her. “I was invited to be on Jimmy [Fallon] and they took a chance on me because I’d never done a TV performance before and that was my debut worldwide to do a TV performance. It was a major thing.”

“Sometimes I wonder if this would have happened if there wasn’t a lockdown,” she adds. “The way that people have programmed shows and done interviews has changed completely. Before, there might have been more rules like, “oh, they need to be in our studio,” but I’ve done so many Zoom recording sessions and Zoom writing sessions with people that maybe might not have happened before because I was loaded with work and busy touring.”

Joined by the very band she was meant to go on tour with, Sawayama took her worldwide debut as an opportunity to take some risks: “I wanted to do this kind of pirate [meets] underground money laundering, Moulin Rouge but drag kind of thing… It was a production, yeah.” When it aired, her name was soon trending on Twitter. When her album dropped, people began comparing her to Karl Marx—”Rina Sawayama could write The Communist Manifesto but Karl Marx couldn’t write “XS,”” one tweet read. We might not all be able to crowd into a packed stadium theatre, but everyone in their homes is chanting one name: Sawayama.

SAWAYAMA is a thunderous collection of sounds ranging from headbanging nu-metal to soulful and sultry dirty R&B and hyper-pop; and pumped with politically and socially charged lyrics about queer identity, capitalism, and climate anxiety. Instead of post-breakup anthems calling to “break up with your boyfriend, I’m bored,” Sawayama’s ballads are about her chosen queer family (“Chosen Family”) and the struggle as a creative found in rewriting your trauma into a commercialised art form (“Snakeskin”). Instead of disco-heavy tracks about the spontaneity of love and how it feels like “levitating,” Sawayama’s music tackles late-stage capitalism (“XS”), intergenerational trauma (“Dynasty”), white fragility, orientalism, and the fetishisation of Asian women (“STFU”), and rebelling against your controlling parents (“Paradisin’”), to name a few Big Brain thoughts in the album. 

And, while the album took two and a half years to write and produce, it’s come at a time where it’s never been anymore pertinent. In this year alone, we’ve witnessed the largest civil rights movement in the history of the United States and extensive civil unrest as police brutally harm Black people. There’s been harsh bushfire seasons and continued political inaction towards climate change, literal dictators in power, once beloved heroes be revealed as transphobes and racists. We’ve had conversations around authentic diversity, microaggressions and representation—and all to the backdrop of a literal global pandemic. As young people, we’re angry about the state of the world and mad that the responsibility of its future is being forcefully put on our shoulders. So it makes perfect sense that Sawayama is making angry pop music that’s political and representing our 2020 problems.

“Yeah, it’s so funny because obviously I wrote the record well before this, and I would never have expected to release the record in this climate,” Sawayama says with typical British humility. “I came into this record being like, I just want to do what I feel like and what I want to feel like saying. I just didn’t think that it would get picked up by this many people. It was kind of a blessing that I thought that I was trash and that no one would actually care. That enabled me to actually do what I want.”

Rina Sawayama Is A Pop Girly Unlike Any Other

Born in Nigiita, Japan, Sawayama moved to London as a small child with her mother and father. Shortly after, her parents divorced, her father took most of their money and fled back to Japan, and he became a passing thought in her life. Growing up, she’d see and hear from him once to twice a year. Sharing a one bedroom apartment with her mother and as the daughter of a migrant, Sawayama was met with the daily experience of being othered. She brought food that her mum made to school that she feared was “too Japanese,” and her mother, often busy with work, would arrive late at parent teacher interviews. 

As a rebellious teen, she grew resentful of her mum for representing everything that made her different from kids her age. She spent her adolescence skipping school, travelling across England and Europe attending rock concerts and being a groupie, much to her mother’s panic. In her early 20s, she worked as a model and studied psychology, politics and sociology at the University of Cambridge. It wasn’t until she was 26 years old that she says she was able to do music full-time, something that she felt made her inferior to other artists.

“I used to think that the differences I had between the other people in the industry were bad,” she says. “I was inferior because I didn’t start early. I was inferior because I hadn’t really been songwriting for that long. I was inferior because I didn’t train.”

“I used to compare myself so much, and anyone can relate to that feeling where you start to compare yourself and then your uniqueness is something that you weaponise against yourself and it becomes a very shitty place to get to. I would think, ‘Oh, why did I go to university. I should have just started doing music straight away.’”

“But, when I accepted that that gave me strength and the strength of that is then when I was able to write really freely. It wasn’t until I wasn’t looking at other people when I was able to express myself the best.”

“My academic background has come in super handy because I read a lot and I think it really helps in songwriting when you’re reading a lot,” Sawayama adds, reflecting on her time at uni. “My degree kind of taught me that every psychological [and] personal thing that happens is the result of sociology and politics—everything is interconnected.”

“So, [when working on this album,] I was thinking about the songs that I wanted to write and how that connects to the wider world. I was able to traverse those different topics quite easily, I think, because I had to do that for three years and in essay form.”

Indie Pop But If It Were Made By A Political Activist

With an album that protests against corporate greed, climate grief and the fetishisation of Asian women, you’d be fair to call Rina Sawayama a pop star activist. In fact, it’s something she says, she’s “thought about.”

“A lot of artists, they have their politics and then they have their songwriting and it’s very two different things,” she explains. “I’ve never intentionally done that.” 

“I wanted to combine what drag does for drag performers,” she adds. “They shed their trauma and their pain and they create these crazy, hilarious names and they get on stage and they act out some sort of horrible incident, but they make it art. You think about drag names like Sum Ting Wong. It’s re-using racial slurs and owning it. I think that’s so powerful.”

“I wanted to use the art of that and sort of use it with the record where I use all my experiences and turn it incredibly dramatic, over the top and honest, and kind of see where that takes me. I worked really hard on making sure that, for the average listener, it wasn’t too much of a wild journey, but it was cohesive enough. But I still wanted it to kind of take people to these dramatic places.”

In a two-part series on YouTube about the “Making Of Sawayama,” the artist says that she finds “writing about love boring.” She prefers to write about what’s actually on her mind, which, looking at the state of the world, translates to angry and passionate pop songs about how she feels. “To me, the heteronormative love is just so done,” she tells me when asked about why she’s never written a traditional love song. “I actually physically can’t write one. I have tried so many times because I know it would sell better, but I can’t.”

Instead, Sawayama’s love songs are about things greater than a romantic love for an individual. “Love songs can be anything,” she says. “Love can be about love for the world and that’s why you talk about climate grief [in “Fuck This World”], or love can be about love for a country like in “Tokyo Love Hotel.”” 

Rina Sawayama on a Charli XCX and Carly Rae Jepsen collab

For those in the know, you might remember there was a rumour that Rina Sawayama once worked on a song with Charli XCX. The song, which was recorded very early into the writing stage of SAWAYAMA, was intended to be part of Charli XCX’s third studio album, Charli, released in 2019. Evidently, as a quick listen on Spotify will tell you, it’s not on it.

“There’s a song. I mean, Charli’s got it,” admits Sawayama. “But you know what, we didn’t write it together in the studio and I know she’s such a great writer. For me, when I collaborate with other people, it needs to be a true collaboration.”

“I can’t sing other people’s lyrics, I find it just a bit disingenuous for me. We’ve got the song together but we wrote it two years ago maybe, and I really actually just want to get in the studio with her and write properly.”

Another collaboration we and Rina Sawayama would love to see? Rina Sawayama x Carly Rae Jepsen. On “Bad Friend,” Sawayama’s emotional ballad about lost friendships, she sings about seeing a Facebook post from a once close friend that she had a falling out with, and the time they were drunkenly singing Carly Rae Jepsen at karaoke in Tokyo till late in the morning. Eerily, the song was worked on by one of Miss Jepsen’s main music producers, Kyle Shearer (“Julien,” “The One,” “Fever” and “Roses”), putting forth the question: Rina Sawayama x Carly Rae Jepsen collab when???

“It’s been the thing I’ve been trying to manifest my entire career because I love her so much,” says genuine CRJ fangirl Sawayama. “I literally went to her gig—and when I go to people’s gigs that I’m a fan of, I’m so embarrassing, like, I physically cannot contain myself. I’ll be crying and dancing up and down. People were filming me at Carly’s gig because I was so embarrassing, I was losing my shit. 

“She’s a phenomenal songwriter so I just would absolutely love to write with her. I would love to see how her powerful big brain works in the studio,” she says, reminding us that it’s “so, so big. But I know she doesn’t use social media so my pleas and my fans’ pleas, I don’t know if it’s reached her.”

“Oh, I was actually in the same green room as her for this random charity event that she was DJing at—iconic. I literally was there and I didn’t say hi to her. I just freaked out. I didn’t—I was just like, ‘I can’t. I can’t, she’s so amazing.’ But yeah, one day. Fingers crossed! I’ve texted Kyle who was the producer, ‘hi the internet’s saying that “Bad Friend” should have a remix and it should be Carly Rae Jepsen. Just wonder if you could just drop her text or something,’ and he did. But I don’t know… People have reasons, you know. So we’ll see.” 

In an almost full circle moment, after momentous achievements in a momentarily paused year, Rina Sawayama has found herself doing what she does best: making extraordinary genre-blending music and being a hardcore Carly Rae Jepsen stan. 

You can check out SAWAYAMA: Deluxe Edition on Spotify and Apple Music.

Hero image source: Ed Blow (Dirty Hit).

Julian Rizzo-Smith is a writer and producer. He also claims to be a vine historian, avid connoisseur of low-fi beats, indie hip hop and Kermit memes. In a perfect world, he’d be married to Tyler the Creator, own an Arcanine and a Lapras, and don his own Sailor Scouts uniform. He tweets @GayWeebDisaster, which is also, coincidentally, how one might describe him.