Music » Artist on Artist

Mitski: 'I don't belong anywhere. That really affects how I write songs.'

On the eve of a tour to support her breakout record, Bury Me at Makeout Creek, this Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter talks to Brian Sulpizio of Health & Beauty.

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A month after she released her third album, Bury Me at Makeout Creek, Mitski ran out of LPs. In November 2014, the Brooklyn-­based singer-songwriter (full name Mitski Miyawaki) had pressed the record in an edition of 500 via Double Double Whammy, a small label run by friends from SUNY Purchase, where she'd studied composition. Though by December Mitski had aired the album's songs in venues as prestigious as the Knitting Factory in New York City, neither she nor her label realized what kind of demand she'd created.

In April, Bury Me at Makeout Creek got a second life through Don Giovanni Records, home to fellow feminist guitar assassins Screaming Females and Downtown Boys. Don Giovanni is also the likely home of Mitski's in-progress follow-up album, and she's a good fit for the label; though she wrote tradition-­minded jazz pieces in college, now she embraces rock as a wide-open arena for her thoughts on love, desire, and death. She shows off her knack for melody on swinging, bass-heavy numbers such as the lovelorn "I Don't Smoke," while her raw guts show through in the bare screams and stomping, staggering drums of "Drunk Walk Home." She's not just a flexible, skillful songwriter but also a brave one—she can push past the defensive reflexes that often plague young artists, opening herself up to whoever needs to look inside.

For this week's Artist on Artist, Mitski was interviewed by Chicago experimental-­pop stalwart and recording engineer Brian Sulpizio. He's probably best known for his work as the mastermind of Health & Beauty, but he contributes to other projects as well, including Frank Rosaly's ¡Todos de Pie!, which recently finished a short residency at the Owl. He added electric guitar to Ryley Walker's new Primrose Green, and he's currently playing in Walker's band as they tour North America in support of the album. Sasha Geffen

Brian Sulpizio: How are you doing?

Mitski: I'm well, actually. I'm in the studio in Westchester, which is a 30- or 40-minute drive from the city.

Are you working on another record?

Yep.

Are you working with Patrick Hyland again?

Yeah! How do you know him? I guess you did your research, huh?

I don't know him personally, but I just saw that he had recorded your last couple.

Yeah, he's the only person I actually trust with my music. I've become very insular in terms of my recording process. He works at this studio called Acme Recording Studios, which is actually owned by my former professor from college. So I guess I really get insular.

There's a stylistic breadth that you've had between those two records, and I think it all sounds really good.

Patrick's an engineer at heart. I could talk all I want about abstract ideas, like, "No, I want it like this and I want it like that," and use colors and shapes and sizes to describe what I want, but at the end of the day, he actually knows how to do it. I realized through meeting him and getting to know him that I don't have the engineer's brain, you know? He just thinks of things in different ways, so he really is a godsend.

That most recent record, did you do a lot of live tracking, like, as a band?

Actually, I tracked them all by instrument individually. Because I didn't have the resources or space. I didn't really record them in studios—it was just in houses or in random makeshift places with Patrick. And I got whoever was around who could play that instrument to just play that one part, you know? If there were parts where me or Patrick couldn't play them as well, because neither of us are professional musicians at a specific instrument. It's more like I can play usually what I wrote, and then he's kind of good at everything but not, you know, a guitarist or a drummer or whatever. So I don't think any of it was tracked live in terms of, like, having a band. It was all on click.

Cool. You studied music, right?

I studied it at SUNY Purchase.

Were you a composition person? What was your focus there?

Yeah, composition. Purchase has a unique program—they have a classical composition program, but the one I was in was called studio composition, where you obviously study classical composition, but you also learn how to work in studios, and you study quote-unquote "pop music," whatever that means. And there's more technology incorporated in the program. A lot of people who go into studio comp want to do film scoring or want to do production, but want to learn how to compose and so on.

I've read about you, and it seems that you're a person with a great deal of integrity and empathy, I would say.

Oh jeez.

That seems un-American to me. And then I read that you were born in Japan and you've lived all over the place.

What do you mean, it feels un-American?

People who are working toward some kind of success, it's not usually a focus for them.

Oh, right.

A friend of mine who grew up in Japan told me that there was a certain day of the week where everybody would come out and clean the street together. And that seemed like a very beautiful practice to me. I wonder if there were things like that that you picked up from living in various places—other cultural norms.

Maybe the Japan thing was not a Japan-wide thing but more like a regional thing or a neighborhood thing. I'm sure that exists. There's a big sense of community, because in Japan, it's such a small country with little space and a lot of people, so there's this emphasis of, "If we don't work together, we really can't do this," especially after the war. And there are a lot of earthquakes, and a lot of natural disasters happen.

But I don't know if the way I am, my personality or whatever, can be attributed to any one culture. It's one of those lifelong questions of whether it's nature or nurture. I grew up a little bit in Japan, and I am Japanese by nationality, but I also grew up in a lot of other countries. It's hard for me to think about where I got what, or where I'm from, or what can be attributed to where.

How did you come to live in so many places?

I just tagged along with my father. For his occupation we moved to a different country almost every year or every other year. So it's not because of anything I've accomplished. Growing up, I moved along with him.

You've been in Brooklyn for a long time now.

I'd say six or seven years.

You've discussed gentrification and the problems associated with that, and the way that DIY culture has to move around—the Vice magazine takeover of Williamsburg, and that situation. I remember I was there in 2008 and then wasn't there again until last year, and it just looked like a different planet. I've met other people who were sort of escaping that situation, to Hudson or even elsewhere in the country. Is that something you'd think about, or are you a Brooklynite for the long haul?

Well, I can't say I'm a Brooklynite or a New Yorker, because I'm not. I'm not from there. I haven't been there long enough to call myself that, and I don't think I've contributed to the community or the health of the community long enough to call myself that—especially because at the end of the day I am part of the gentrifying force.

I was actually talking to my friend Felix [Walworth] from Told Slant about this recently, and it's tricky, because on one hand it's very easy to make it seem like it's an individual thing. Like, oh, these individual white people are bringing in their baby strollers and cupcake shops—oh, here they come! But we keep forgetting that that's a scapegoat, and it's actually more a deeply embedded thing. It's a systemic thing. Talking about, "Oh, I won't go to that coffee shop because it's part of the gentrifying force"—I mean, I guess that is true in a sense, but it's also bigger than that. Focusing on that takes the focus away from the systemic issue and why it's happening and the whole history of New York and the displacement of communities.

It's one of those things that I don't even know how to talk about, because I don't feel educated enough. I think a lot of people in New York aren't even educated enough about it—no one actually knows what's going on.

It happens in Chicago too. I feel like the way the economy is organized in general just makes it possible for this sort of thing to happen. I feel like there's a lot of racism involved, at least in the Chicago situation.

Oh, yeah. It's so deeply racist too.

Are there places that feel more like home? Or that you've identified with more so than other places?

I miss Malaysia a lot because that was three consecutive years I lived in one place, which was a big deal for me. It's summer all year round and I was a kid, so I identify a lot with that place. I identify with the mix of cultures, and how it's Malay and Chinese and Indian. But the thing is, if I go back there, I'll be a foreigner. I won't belong there. So in my heart, I can think of it as home, but it never will be home. I feel like my whole identity—every place I feel like I belong to, I don't actually belong to, you know? I don't belong anywhere. I think that's the consistent theme for me. I think that really affects how I write songs, how I perceive the world.

Speaking of which, there's "Texas Reznikoff." You were in Texas for a while. Would I be the first to point out—you say that Texas is landlocked. [Laughter.]

I know it's not landlocked. And I've gotten so many Tumblr messages and tweets like, "Um, excuse me Mitski, it's actually not landlocked," and I'm like, "Yes, I know. It's a song. It's a message to someone, and that someone understands what I mean."

There's an Elliott Smith song where he says something about the Duracell Bunny. It's like, you know, "It's the Energizer Bunny, not the Duracell Bunny," but I think it's nice because it indicates in a sort of sly way where your priorities actually are with what you're saying. I really enjoyed it.

I'm still regretting writing that, because I didn't think that I would get so many smart-ass teenagers telling me I'm wrong. I'm just like, "I don't care, that's not the point." [Laughter.]

In another song, "Drunk Walk Home," you talk about retiring at the age of 23. How serious a feeling is that for you?

Well, I'm already 24, so it's too late. [Laughter.] I wrote it when I was 23. I just felt done, you know? I just felt like there was nothing more I could do or nothing I could contribute. I just wanted to go somewhere quiet and wait to die.

I'm a big fan of the idea of early retirement. [Laughter.]

I feel like everyone has a phase like that. Realistically, I don't have the money to retire. That's why I talked about retiring to the Salton Sea, because a lot of people just live in trailers.

The idea of lowering your standard of living in order to increase your quality of life.

Yeah.

"Last Words of a Shooting Star," that's a really beautiful song, and the recording is a bit different too. Did you do that in the studio at the same time as the rest of the record, or was that a separate endeavor?

The whole record was recorded all over the place. "Last Words" was recorded in Patrick's kitchen, actually. A lot of people think, "Is that, like, tape fuzz or hiss or something?" But actually we left the windows open and it was raining outside, so that's the hiss you hear.

My roommate says that your music sounds like you were a goth in high school.

I was what in high school? A goth?

Were you ever a goth?

I think I was abroad and I didn't really know what goth was. But I went to four different high schools, so I was four different people in high school.

How did you fit in? Did you figure out a way to do that?

The secret is that there is no "way." I went to a different school every year of my life except for Malaysia—except for freak incidents where I got to stay in a place for two or three years instead of one. Every place I went to, no one knew me, and I got to start over. Around middle school I was like, whatever, fuck it—I'm never going to meet any of these people ever again, and they don't know who I am. I'll try on this person and see if I am this person, and then if I'm not, that's fine, there are no consequences, because I can just start over at the next place. In the long run that really fucked up my brain in terms of my identity. But that's how I led most of my adolescence. So maybe I was a goth, but I never knew the word goth.

It seems like you've started to put down roots, although you're also touring all the time. I imagine that having lived that kind of life is helpful for being on the road a lot. Would you say that's the case?

A lot of issues that other artists might have with touring, like missing places or feeling out of place in certain places, I don't have issues with because my life was led feeling out of place. It's nothing new to me. It's quite a familiar feeling. I don't miss anywhere. I don't feel like I belong anywhere. So that upbringing has molded me into the perfect touring musician.

There's a song, "Brand New City," on Lush. It sounds a little more similar to the Bury Me at Makeout Creek record. Like it almost prefigures that change in direction.

I haven't thought about that record for a long time. I think that record is all about me trying different things. It's the most varied in terms of genre or style, because it was my first album, and I took all these different songs I wrote at different times and put them in one record, as opposed to having focused time to write for it and just writing "an album." I think for the first record, I was trying out all the different things I might want to do in the future. So yeah, I'd say "Brand New City" was I guess a precursor to the current stuff I'm working on.

I'm a big fan of that approach. I think it makes for an interesting listen to have varied songs on a record together.

Yeah, and I don't feel like I can do that ever again. I think it's an especially first-album kind of thing, not just for me but for any artist. Because for your first album ever, you put together all the songs that you wrote over a long period of time when you were changing as a person constantly. Right now I'm living the kind of life where I just have a period of time when I write for the next record, and then that's it.

When you're writing a record, do you get into a groove with it where you find yourself coming up with similar types of things?

For me, anyway, the song I write reflects who I am at that moment, you know? I am basically a consistent person during a short period of time. I don't know about everyone, but I change as a person every year. In one month, I'm usually consistently one person. So if I write an album in one month, then all of the songs will be coming from that one person in that one stage of life. So it'll all feel cohesive.

The record that you're working on now, would you say it's similar to Bury Me at Makeout Creek? Can you describe any change in the direction?

I stuck with the guitar-bass-drum-keyboard kind of situation. So it's similar to Bury Me, but it's obviously not the same record. I'm really happy with it. I'm admittedly very proud of it, and I can't wait to put it out.

Were you writing things on the road at all? Were you workshopping things with the band?

Some of it was written on the road. It's kind of hard to write on the road, not because there isn't any downtime, but because the downtime is not expected and usually leading to something else. I'm sure you've been on tour, right?

Yeah, and I don't write on the road. Occasionally I'll have an idea, but it's never something I finish in that situation.

Yeah, exactly.

I play with Ryley Walker, who will write things on the road. He'll write them on the stage, actually.

Well, that's amazing, because I can't do that.

Personally, I can't do that either. It's kind of mesmerizing for me.

Like you said—having some ideas on tour, storing them for later, and when I have some time to sit down I'll actually develop them.

I'm looking forward to hearing your next record—it sounds like it's going to be great. Do you have any idea when it's coming out?

Sometime next year.  v

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