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Interview: Mitski Talks About Her New Album 'Be The Cowboy'

Interview: Mitski Talks About Her New Album 'Be The Cowboy'

Fluffy / Thursday 16th August, 2018 3:00PM

Japanese-American songwriter Mitski has been raking in accolades for her earnest and unabashed take on love and life in the post-everything era. The artist has garnered props from such notables as Iggy Pop who famously called her "probably the most advanced American songwriter that I know,” and shared the stage with alt-rock legends The Pixies and Aotearoa’s favourite Gen Z pop star Lorde. Ahead of tomorrow's release of her hugely anticipated fifth studio album Be The Cowboy, Mitski got on the blower with UTR reporter at large Fluffy for an in-depth conversation about meeting your heroes, musical politics in Trump's USA, having her songs used in cartoon show Adventure Time and more...

I understand you hit the road with The Pixies last year?

Yeah, that was very strange. First of all, both the guitarist in the band and I are such huge Pixies fans. When I told the guitarist… Patrick Hyland… actually, what am I saying, the guitarist? He also produced a lot of my records and he’s also the guitarist in my band, he fucking cried. He was like “I can’t believe it.” They’ve been such an influence on my thinking about music and my melody writing. So it was very strange to be on a tour with people who have directly influenced me.

Speaking of high accolades, I saw a video of Iggy Pop on BBC6 who was singing your praises. That must feel pretty nice?

Yeah! Oh gosh, in that moment I was like “maybe I should just quit right now, maybe this is it, this is the end. This is as good as it gets”. It’s sort of strange because as much as I try to caution against it, I still very much idealise the artists I love and they don't seem like real people to me, they’re more like ideas. So just the idea that Iggy Pop said he found my music on YouTube, [I thought] “Oh Iggy Pop goes on YouTube!” like oh, he’s in the world right now listening to indie rock. The whole idea of it was just incredibly weird.

Can you tell us about your forthcoming new album Be The Cowboy?

Ok, where to begin? It is my fifth album, I am so glad to still be here... I focused more on writing on piano because I had become known for the guitar mostly, more making guitar-centric music over the course of Bury Me At Makeout Creek and Puberty 2 so I just wanted to go back to piano which was my first instrument. What else could be said about it? I dunno.

What’s a moment that stuck out over the creation of the album?

I think I was the most pathetic out of all the different albums I’ve made. I was the most anxious, the most unsure. It’s not any one moment it’s a lot of moments of me whining and yelling at Patrick like “I don’t know, I don’t know”, just repeating the words “I don’t know” at him and poor Patrick just being like “weeeeell, let’s figure it out”. All my past albums, I had just written what I felt, I was never fully conscious or never fully recognised the fact that there would be people listening to my music after I put it out. This album was the first one where I fully comprehended that I will have people listen to and judge the album when it comes out. That completely changed my process because it kind of filled me with doubt, I guess. I could no longer just completely turn to instinct because I was anticipating all of the interview questions I would get. So I think a lot more second guessing and thinking deeply and being more objective with the theme of this album.

But yeah, it was just a lot of yelling at poor Patrick. He was just like “I’m trying to make your album!” and I was like “I don’t know, can you just decide for me?” and he was like “no, I can’t just decide for you, you have to make this!”.

You guys have had a working relationship for quite some time?

Yes, it’s become somewhat of a crutch because we’ve worked together so long that there’s this sort of non-verbal communication at this point. He can anticipate how I’m gonna act and I can anticipate what he’s gonna do. I know how long he takes to do things and vice versa for him. It’s much more efficient, so once you get used to that kind of efficiency, it’s really hard to break away from it and try and find another producer. I think I’ve sort of fallen into that habit of working with him because he makes it so easy.

Can you talk about your ideas surrounding the cover artwork for Be The Cowboy?

Well I was thinking about movies and I was sort of imagining this idea of a repressed woman or just a woman who has a lot of chaos inside of her, maybe a lot of feelings, a lot of desires, but is for some reason unable to express them, or doesn’t allow herself to express them. I thought about “ok, what kind of films have sort of expressed that?” I thought first of the film The Piano Teacher by Michael Haneke, which is based on the book The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek, I recommend both very much by the way if you have time, and I was thinking about that main character.

I was also thinking about a lot of Hitchcock heroines and how we perceive Hitchcock’s heroines is very much through Hitchcock’s lens, very literally, but also metaphorically. I started thinking that Hitchcock portrays these women as icy and cold and mysterious but I thought well what are those characters like when Hitchcock is not watching them? That was the inspiration behind those pictures, so I tried to play up the drama. The photographer Bao [Ngo] very much helped me realise the overall concept, I talked with her a lot about it. There’s a lot of covering a lot of my flesh because I wanted to express that sort of conservatism and [lend] that old school Hollywood feeling to it.

You touched on the repression of women, which is very significant throughout history. The #metoo movement is well underway around the world. Do you think that it’s creating useful dialog around those issues?

Yeah, of course, I think it is. We still have a long way to go, but it’s something, it’s a beginning, things aren’t gonna change overnight. What’s that phrase? The first steps to overcoming addiction is recognising it or becoming aware of it, and it’s somewhat of an addiction globally to keep men in power and keep women repressed.

Your first two collections were self-released, while your third was on Double Double Whammy and in 2015 you signed with Dead Oceans. Have you noticed much of a change in the release process throughout all of those?

The self-released albums were very much… I was very naive, I thought if I just put my music on the internet then people will find it, but that is not the case and you have to do press and there are all of these different ways to get your music from yourself to other people. There’s a whole different aspect of music that is touring and yeah, it’s completely different.

I was a big fan of your cover of One Direction's ‘Fireproof’ that you contributed to the anti-Trump compilation Our First 100 Days. It must be a bit surreal living in the states at the moment with the current political climate.

Oh honey, it’s on fire! The whole country is on fire, what can I say?

Does it sort of get to the point that it’s so bizarre that it’s not even surprising anymore when new, horrible things come out?

I think it is the greatest challenge right now is to keep fighting. It can become very hopeless when you try to make changes and everyday there’s a new dystopian thing that’s happening. There’s so many mass shootings, just everything. Every aspect of America is falling apart right now. So the greatest challenge right now is honestly just holding on.

I read that you moved around a fair bit when you were younger and I feel like I had something of a similar experience as a wee one. On one hand at the time I felt like it was quite hard as a young person to leave familiar faces and places regularly, but I think about it in hindsight and I feel somewhat grateful for being able to adapt to new settings quickly. What’s your take on all that?

I think I was very fortunate, getting to see a lot of different shades and sides of the world at such a young age when you're still forming who you are and how you see the world. I got a really invaluable experience so I wouldn't trade it. It’s just you’re also very much alone in it and there’s no one around to really tell you how to deal with it. Growing up is already about figuring out yourself and your place in the world but just moving around kind of amplifies that by on hundred.

One last thing I wanted to ask you about was your song 'Francis Forever' being covered by a fictional vampire queen in the cartoon Adventure Time. Does it feel pretty cool to see yourself reflected in an animated world?

It’s funny just to hear a different voice sing my songs but it’s also its funny because now the song ‘Francis Forever’... I don’t know why but a while ago I just casually looked at comments under me performing ’Francis Forever’. A lot of Adventure Time fans seem to very much genuinely believe that that’s Marceline's song that I’m covering. Most of the comments under the song are like “she’s covering Adventure Time!” or “Marceline did it better!”, it’s so funny and I actually enjoy it. I love the fact that people feel so close to it in a way that I never would have allowed people to feel with just my name on it, because Marceline sang it, it’s part of peoples world now. But it’s also funny to see so many comments like “the original was better!” and secretly I’m on the other side of the screen like “ahaha, if you only knew.”

'Be The Cowboy' is out Friday 17th August via Dead Oceans / Rhythmethod.


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