Mitski on Being an Emotional Loser and ‘Giving a Shit’

Photo: Daniel Dorsa
The new female musicians to see this summer.
Mitski on Being an Emotional Loser and ‘Giving a Shit’
Photograph by Daniel Dorsa

Name: Mitski

Real Name: Mitski Miyawaki

Age: 24

Single to Hear:  “I Don’t Smoke”

Video to Watch: “Townie”

Where You'll See Her This Summer: On her national headline tour with Elvis Depressedly and Eskimeaux, from May 8 to July 18.

Hometown: Brooklyn

Twitter: @mitskileaks 

Instagram: @mitskileaks  

Classically trained Mitski Miyawski says she started making music late, at age 19 — the exact age when, by industry standards, you’re supposed to have “made it,” she explains. Five years later, she’s earned major critical acclaim for a spate of flawless SXSW performances and for her masterful third album, Bury Me at Makeout Creek, a sleeper hit that earned a rerelease after popping up on year-end lists in 2014.

Mitski, who goes by her first name onstage, says the title of the album was copped from a line from a Simpsons episode she was watching while recording, and it does sound up her idiosyncratic alley. Her classical- and folk-inspired melodies run the wisdom of a hardened romantic and the restlessness of adolescent longing through the shredder with some black humor and punk-leaning instrumentals.  It’s warm dream pop, but there’s an angst resting just under the surface — her voice threatens to break into a scream at any point (and it does, satisfyingly, on “Drunk Walk Home”). After a year on the road, Mitski is finally back in Brooklyn before she sets out on tour again this summer.

You just finished touring with Speedy Ortiz, how was that?
It was too short, in my opinion, but while it lasted, it was very beautiful. Me and Sadie were internet friends for a while. We'd be at the same shows but wouldn't really get to hang out, so that gave us the chance to get to know each other.

There just seem to be so many great all-female or female-led bands, like you and Speedy Ortiz, that are also carving out their space in the indie-rock world right now. Do you feel a sense of community? I kind of imagine it’s like Taylor Swift’s house out there on the road.
I'm glad you asked that. It's really, really great to have ... I don't know if  I should say community because realistically we don't see each other often, but I think it keeps us all going to have the knowledge that there are other women around, trying to do a similar thing. But at the same time, I love that while we’re all trying to do our own thing and make own music, we're all supportive of another. There's this myth that women are supposed to compete with each other or something, or we're supposed to hate each other, and that's totally not productive. We've created this environment of supporting each other, loving each other, trying to get each other on our own bills, or trying to get each other gigs. We really want to see each other succeed.

I want to talk about the album, but first I really want to talk about this specific lyric on “First Love/Late Spring.” You refer to yourself as a “tall child,” more than once. I appreciate that. Beyoncé is always telling us to be a “grown woman”; it’s refreshing to hear the alternative.
When I wrote this song, I was experiencing the kind of vulnerable first love, and experiencing that kind of love [that makes] you realize how much of a weenie you are. I felt like I was in love for the first time when I was writing that song, and like a kid. I was like, Man,
my body is like a grown person, but inside I'm a child. But it’s not just with love. When you're doing something you're not used to, you kind of realize that you're still a kid even though the whole world around you sees you as an adult and you're expected to act like an adult, you still haven't actually grown up.

All of the songs on Bury Me at Makeout Creek are equally as vulnerable. What, for you, is the album about?
I think it's about giving a shit. Honestly, in the music business, it's all about being cool or being the newest thing, or being the “It" person, and I've tried really hard to be what is expected of me or what would be advantageous to my career, and I just reached the point where I said "No, I'm an emotional loser, I can't pretend to not care." I can't pretend to be a cool person who doesn't care about things. I care a lot. I think with this third record, I finally just let go of wanting to impress people and just did what I wanted to do.

But recently you tweeted, “Are you a piece of shit? If yes, then chances are I’m trying to win your approval.”
[Laughs.] That will never go away, even though in my rational mind I already realize I don't need to impress people, it's fine. But realistically that won't go away. I'll never actually graduate from high school.

There aren't a lot of Asian-American women in indie rock — did you always feel a lack of representation? Did that play into you feeling like you had to “play cool”?
That's one of the reasons it took me so long to start my career. Before I couldn't even visualize my face — I couldn’t visualize myself doing what I do. That's why representation is important. The first step is being able to imagine yourself doing it, and if you can't imagine yourself doing it, you can't begin to start doing it.

Is there more pressure on you to be better because you’re unique in indie music?
Yes. I mean, being a woman is part of it as well. As a woman of color, I always have to be at 150 percent and better than everybody in the room to be considered competent. A white male can write mediocre songs and be in a band and still be cool. I need to be the best, and not just the best, but know everything and be on top of everything and walk in and be assertive, or else the power will be taken from me so quickly. That's the hard thing on the day to day, having to be better than perfect. I can't relax. That’s why I love social media so much; it’s a great way to let everyone know I’m a real person and that I’m out there just trying to do the best I can as a person.

I love your social-media presence. I was just reading some advice your mom gave you? About your brows.
Oh yes. They are really thick. When I was younger, there was the fad of really thin eyebrows, and before I could even try to start plucking them, my mother was like, "Your brows will come into fashion at some point. Your natural brows are going to be great at some point. Just hold on to them." By now, I don't even care what the popular brow is.

What are your other style rules? Do you have any?
I have a few, actually. (1) I don't wear shoes that I can't run away in. (2) I always want to be clean and neat, even if what I'm wearing is very simple and not expensive.  

Even though you're on the punk scene?
I'm not interested in the whole ragged-clothes thing or just wearing whatever and looking dirty and not showering. Most people who dress like that come from privilege. They can dress like that and still have their privilege. They can move through the world comfortably like that. People who don't come from that privilege, if we dress that way, we just won't be considered real people. I have crust-punk friends, when I meet them and think you know the fact that you can dress that way, means that if at any point shit gets real, you can go home to mom and dad.

What’s the third?
I always wear gold. I love gold. It just goes really well with my skin tone. [Laughs.]