Rina Sawayama Knows What Gen Z Wants

An early aughts revival.

Gucci shirt, tie, sweater, pants, belt, and shoes, available at Photo: Chantal Anderson
Gucci shirt, tie, sweater, pants, belt, and shoes, available at Photo: Chantal Anderson

In the mid-aughts, a teenage Rina Sawayama, then a student at a North London Church of England girls’ school, could often be spotted swaying among a flock of teens at a Soho nightclub. She was there to see the Bravery, a band of five skinny-jean-clad young men from New York with angular haircuts and cheekbones. The group had a penchant for ignoring its fans. “I loved them deeply,” Sawayama says of those fresh princes of landfill indie. “I guess something inside of me was lacking and the Bravery filled it.”

Sawayama is now a successful pop star in her own right. She has sold out Brixton Academy, opened for Elton John, and duetted with Lady Gaga and Charli XCX. Also, she doesn’t ignore her fans.

“The bands I used to see didn’t give a shit, and that was just part of the culture. Your fans pay your wage — but bands like the Bravery wouldn’t even acknowledge that we were waiting there. I’m always up for saying ‘hello,’ ” she says.

Celine Underpinning Viscose Corset Bustier, Wesley Jeans in Raw Wash, and Western 16 Belt Strap in Black Vegetal Calfskin With Leather Hardwares, available at By Far shoes, available at Photo: Chantal Anderson

Her fans (they call themselves the Pixels) eagerly await her second album, Hold the Girl, which comes out in September. It remixes currently unpopular genres, spinning them into slick pop with an air of familiarity. Stadium rock, Shania Twain, bombastic production? It’s all there. One of the first singles, “This Hell,” a braggy mid-tempo song about embracing being a bad girl, is already tracking toward 10 million Spotify plays.

She started writing the album in 2020. “At the start of lockdown, my team talked me through what 2022 would look like if I did have an album to promote, and it looked a little more fun than if I didn’t,” she says.

Sawayama was born in Japan and moved to London young; raised by her mother after an acrimonious divorce, she performed at the church attached to her school, singing Destiny’s Child or Norah Jones to an audience of 800.

But then she went to Cambridge and earned a degree in political science, becoming, she says, “grotesquely productive.” She is 32 and signed her first record deal only two years ago. “I’m glad I didn’t join the industry when I was young and didn’t sign to a label before I was ready,” she says. “I think a lot of the chaotic bits of early artistry have been avoided because I went through them outside of the music industry.”

Alexander McQueen Bandage Mini Dress in Black, available at Kara Silver Orb Headband, available at Photo: Chantal Anderson

The new album does reach back to document some of that 20s mess. The cost of constantly exhuming your traumas for the sake of making a good pop song can be a lot — “but it can be cathartic,” she says. Still, “I don’t want to be stuck writing about things if I have already processed them.”

There’s also a focus on the love song, whether it be about holding the girl or sending her love to John. “I just think being a queer person, and having queer friends, it would seem off if I was writing about heterosexual love. Songwriting is like a diary, so what you are feeling that day is generally what comes out,” she says. “Otherwise, I’d be writing free-and-easy bangers.”

Miu Miu Blouse, Blazer, Jacket, Skirt, Socks, and Shoes, available at Photo: Chantal Anderson

Spending this year trying to own the forefront of the Y2K revival is demanding. “On one hand, I’m doing my dream job, and I love every part of it, but even if you’re doing what you love for 25 hours a day, you go insane,” she says. “I don’t see my friends or family — and when I have to do a lot of social-media posts, I can feel my mental health suffering.”

She’s aiming bigger, though, not smaller. Next year, after completing her album-promotion cycle, she’ll appear in John Wick: Chapter 4. She’ll have to balance her anxiety with learning to enjoy the wild, wild world of pop stardom. “Getting recognized is super-surreal; I go into ‘It’s my job, it’s my job,’ so that anxious impostor Rina doesn’t come out,” she says. What’s going to get her there? For now, her big idea is to reserve a selfish hour each day in which she stretches or meditates. “I look at videos of cleaning carpets on TikTok, too,” she says. “It’s so soothing.”

More From the 2022 fall fashion issue

See All
Rina Sawayama Knows What Gen Z Wants