Stylistically, it is also Mitski’s most varied work. Impressively blending a range of ostensibly disparate genres, from trip hop to new wave via punk and electropop, it’s a beautiful tapestry that works as a whole despite the seeming incongruence of its parts. One minute it recalls the early 2000s indie rock of Grandaddy (‘Dan The Dancer’) or the neo-grunge Waxahatchee (‘Fireworks’, ‘My Body’s Made Of Crushed Little Stars’) and the next it’s all smart eighties slow jams (‘Thursday Girl’) and dreamy synths that would have psychedelic tears dripping down Robin Guthrie’s wee cheeks (‘I Bet On Losing Dogs’).
It all arises from a growing confidence in her own abilities and a newly found disregard for reproducing the songs on stage that have given Miyawaki the freedom to evolve. “For the last album [2014’s breakthrough ‘Bury Me At Makeout Creek’] I was very conscious of being able to recreate the songs live,” she admits. “And my live situation was very lo-fi, where I would either have one guitar in a basement or a three-piece band in a basement. So I wrote songs that would translate well to that environment.” She is clearly excited by this fresh brashness. “For this record I wasn’t so concerned about playing it live because I realised that I could just have a different live version. I just wanted the record to sound good, to go into the studio and do what served each song regardless of how I would play it later, live.”
But while the fruits of those toils are hard won, Mitski is evasive when it comes to the album’s title. There was no ‘Puberty 1,’ of course, and so I ask if it is intended to hint at a sequel to or reflection on the changes she went through in her teenage years while she now goes through the metamorphosis of her twenties. “Most things that are important, I deliberately don’t think about,” she states cryptically with a look that says she wouldn’t tell me anyway. “So maybe it has loads of meaning and that’s why I gravitated towards it, but how it happened was that me and the producer were just riffing on what the album title should be, just joking around and I latched on to it.” She pauses. “Maybe I latched on to it for deeper meanings but I try not to get too existential!”
Born in Japan to a Japanese mother, a lot is made of Miyawaki’s heritage as journalists scramble to label her work as flowing seamlessly from her background. In interviews and reviews she is almost always described as Asian or Asian-American before any mention of her music. It’s something that understandably grates. “It’s like racism masked in progressive thought,” she says. “At the end of the day, therefore, I’m not a person. I’m a symbol. And then people start talking about how I’m not representing it properly.” She rolls her eyes and sighs, her articulateness making it obvious that she’s thought hard about her stance on the issue. “Sometimes it’s helpful when there are other East Asian girls who message me and they say, ‘Oh my gosh, there aren’t any other East Asian women. I didn’t realise I was missing that figure until I saw you.’ That’s always encouraging.” Having self-identified as a feminist from early on, she has also found that people assume every song is written from that perspective and with a feminist thesis at its core from the poet laureate of Asian(-American) females. “I’m not writing as an Asian woman,” she says, “I’m writing as a person. I’m not making music to be a politician and I’m kind of being dressed up as that.”
Rather than simply an Asian female, then, Mitski sees her identity as much more complex. She’s spent chunks of her life living in China, the Congo, Turkey and various parts of the United States. Although it should be pointed out that that Japanese passport didn’t come easy. I ask about her childhood and she pauses and smiles before recounting the story of her birth. When Mitski was just about ready to come out into the world, her mother flew to her native Japan in a rush to secure citizenship. “My mother… crazy. It was crazy of her to do that, to carry an unborn child in her stomach while she’s travelling from Africa to Japan, give birth, fly back to Africa.” So rushed was the task that she nearly emerged mid-flight. “I was almost born in the plane, according to my mother. Although I don’t know how accurate that was! And then, once she’d recovered, we just went back.” The wistfulness that runs through her songs, she says, is a direct result of that peripatetic life. “It’s shaped my identity at my core and that informs my music,” she tells me. “A lot of it is to do with leaving – saying goodbye – and going to a new place and not belonging. I think those are big themes in my music, objectively!” Who needs critics when you can write your own reviews?
It’s that sense of longing that functions as the thread running through Mitski’s work, tying together all of those genres so beautifully. For as well as a longing to be somewhere else, so many of her songs are born out of a longing for someone else. At every turn there are broken relationships. Some have faded, some have burned out brightly but she’s yet to write a song with the happy ending she so craves. She admits that in her formative years she sought out these experiences, saying: “When I was a teenager it was all about experiencing everything. I was a junkie for emotion and I wanted it all.” Now, however, she just wants a relationship that works within a life that works. “Lately I’ve found that I just want to be happy. You get a little older and you just get tired. So maybe when I was younger I chased that and sometimes I would do it for the song. I’ve had a lot of relationships where I knew from the start… I was like, ‘Oh, this is so juicy. This is gonna hurt!’” She rubs her hands in mock delight. “Now I just don’t have the time or energy. Honestly, if I could give all of this away for happiness, I would. I would rather be boring and happy than be fucked up and – apparently – a good artist.” Feeling that it would be impolite not to, I offer my sincere thanks and she beams. “You’re welcome!”