Earlier this year, a little-known British film called Beast had a small theatrical run in the United States. Mitski Miyawaki saw it three times. “I think it’s my favorite movie,” the 27-year-old songwriter says when we meet in a cutesy Brooklyn cafe, ordering a piping-hot green tea even though it’s full-blown New York summertime weather outside.
Set on the scenic cliff-covered isle of Jersey, Beast follows a damaged young woman who falls head-over-heels for a mysterious outsider. The twist? He may or may not be behind a series of unspeakably violent crimes on the island. “It's really beautiful,” Mitski continues. “It explored a lot of things that were circling in my mind already. It felt like getting the answer to questions I didn't even know I had.”
You could imagine a fan saying something similar about the emotionally turbulent music that Mitski releases under her first name. Her songs aren’t scary or grisly, but they are easy to lose yourself in and inspire a great deal of self-reflection, in the same ways that a good psychological thriller might. Her fifth full-length album, Be the Cowboy, out August 17 on Dead Oceans, continues that introspective streak.
The record follows 2014’s Bury Me at Makeout Creek and 2016’s Puberty 2, two powerful and personal records that won her lots of new fans well outside of the DIY rock circles she orbited as an undergrad at SUNY Purchase in upstate New York. (LVL UP, Aaron Maine from Porches, and the founding members of Sheer Mag also attended the school around the same time.) Puberty 2 was particularly career-launching; its pop-punk-indebted first single, “Your Best American Girl,” will surely be remembered as one of the great rock songs of the decade. It feels accurate to say that Be the Cowboy is highly anticipated.
I’m a big fan of Bury Me at Makeout Creek, which was the first album you released that got attention. What's your relationship to that record now?
I'm impressed by how scrappy it is. It's very young, in that it has the resilience of youth. I didn't have resources, but I made it happen, and I used whatever was around me to try to express myself. I try to remember that feeling of needing to create. I'm still an indie artist, so I'm still often in a position where I don't have access to things. But I'm glad that I went through [making] my first four records, because they taught me that you can make it work. I don't get discouraged when I hear “no.” I just think, OK, how do I make it work?
Why do you think Puberty 2 was successful?
I figured out what to do. I was touring more, doing more press — just learning how to be a working musician. That was it. I honestly don't know if it was anything related to music. I'd done three albums by then, and I was like, Oh, OK, if I don't do press, then no one hears about it. If I don't tour, then no one cares. When I was writing it, it was still a very sincere process of wanting and needing to make music. I don't make music in order to make a living. But I do make music, and I have to figure out how to make a living.
Do you have a sense of which songs are gonna resonate with people?
I think I'm not that different from the masses. In terms of musical taste, I tend to agree with the majority on what's good and what's not. I love Ariana Grande's "God is a Woman." I assume that if something clicks for me, there will be other people for whom it would click, too, because I'm not that extraordinary. It's the same with songwriting. If you write what works for you and what's true to you, you can count on you not being so special that no one else would have felt that way.
You've recently started songwriting for other artists. How has that experience been?
It's great. I'd like to do more of it. I currently don't have time, but over the years, I plan to do more. I've been pursuing it, because I don't wanna tour forever, or I might want to but I physically won't be able to — eventually, the body cannot stand it any longer. Sometimes I write a song and know that I can't do it justice with my voice or persona, and it'd go really well with somebody else's voice. An extra need is filled when I get to write for other people, because I get to be creative in ways that might be limited if I was just working on my own stuff. I don't think my creativity is a limited resource. I can write a great song, give it to somebody, be happy that I wrote a great song — and then write another one.
I got to see the show at Barclays in Brooklyn, when you opened for Lorde.
It was great. I had never played in an arena before. I understood while I was doing it that this was something not everyone got to do. So [I felt] blessed.
Are you a fan of Melodrama?
Yeah. I think it challenges the pop audience. I realize now, having done that tour, that a lot of people in the U.S. really never venture outside of Top 40. And the magic of Melodrama is that it gave everyone who listened to that kind of music everything they wanted, but also snuck little nuggets in there that were challenging them. I feel like it must have broadened a lot of people's perspectives on what “pop” is.
Just as Lorde’s sneakily unconventional anthems are expanding the definition of “pop,” Mitski’s music continues to challenge the loosely drawn parameters of “indie rock.” On Be The Cowboy, she incorporates several elements of baby-boomer radio music, from disco to show tunes, adding an old-timey-feeling texture to her electric folk formula. “There's a lot of completely un-self-aware drama in that era's music,” she tells me during our chat. “Very uncritical, very uncynical.”
Mitski’s take on the material is bleaker, a serious album by a serious artist. “Remember My Name” is like an urgent, existentially angsty version of “Fame,” Irene Cara’s inspirational hit from the movie of the same name. “I need somebody to remember my name / After all that I can do for them is done,” Mitski sings with a hint of desperation, her voice wobbly but sure. “I need somebody to remember me.” And then there’s “Nobody,” the record’s deceptively upbeat second single, which sounds a little bit like “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie” but is actually a profoundly sad exploration of how it feels to be all alone on Christmas. It’s a welcome new addition to the tears-on-the-dancefloor canon.
When did you write and record Be the Cowboy?
It was done little by little between tours — which was challenging, because it gave me so much time to doubt and second-guess myself. Between each song's recording, I'd go on tour and be left pondering about whether I'd done it right. I don't wanna do that again. If I make another album, I'd like to do it in a limited amount of time so I can be in it and then get out of it, so that by the time I start doubting it'd be too late.
It was mostly just me and [producer Patrick Hyland] in the room. We played most of the instruments except for the occasional horns — that's something you just can't fake. So we got a couple of horn players who we didn't know based on recommendation of the studio owner, but other than that it was very straightforward.
Tell me about the characters that populate the album. Are you the protagonist of the songs?
I think Björk said in an interview that all of her albums are just exaggerations of a specific part of herself. I think it's like that for me. It's not like [the album’s protagonist] is a fictional character, but I noticed a personality in me that was very obsessed with control and feeling like I have power — because I am powerless and don't have a lot of control. So I kind of investigated that person in me. What is the exaggerated form? Well, it's a woman who's incredibly controlled, severe, and austere. But maybe there's some kind of deep desire or emotion that's whirling around in her and trying to get out. Maybe she's losing control.
One of the album’s themes seems to be this idea that even with fame, there's still a lingering fear that it's not enough — that we need something more.
I'm less talking about fame in the crude sense, and more [about how] I'm someone who goes on stage and becomes a symbol. People project onto me. Internally, [I’m trying] to understand that dynamic. I think that's something that everyone thinks about. Even in day-to-day conversation, we're projecting onto each other. And [there's] a weird dissatisfaction either way: you want people to project onto you and see you as something bigger than you are, but when people actually do that, it's not what you want. You want people to know you for who you are, but when they actually know you for who you are, you're like, "No, I want you to think I'm great."
That makes me remember a show of yours, when someone shouted that they loved you, and you kind of sighed, like, "You don't know me." To me, the Be The Cowboy song “A Pearl” is seemingly a little bit about that, but I didn't know if it was just me getting caught up in it.
I want you to get caught up in it. But for me, it was actually about when you have some kind of toxic relationship to yourself, or to another person, for so long that it becomes your identity. Even when you don't need it anymore and you've stepped away from it, you still hold on to it because it's scary to let it go — because if you actually let it go, it feels like erasing yourself. That song is about likening that sort of toxicity to a pearl. Even though you're in this great relationship with somebody who loves you and wants to take care of you, you still don't talk to them about what's toxic in you. You just roll around this pearl in your hand every night and just look at it, like it's a pretty thing.
Another big theme seems to be loneliness. How does that relate to the other stuff we’ve been talking about?
There's the loneliness of being a symbol and a projection, but I think that loneliness [says a lot about] being a woman, or being an other — some kind of identity that has a lot of symbols attached to it. And there's also just touring. Touring is a very ... it isolates. The longer musicians tour, the more isolated they become from the rest of society, because the way you live is so incredibly different. And no one can really relate to your experiences, so you can't talk to anybody about it and you go deeper and deeper inside.
How are your interactions with fans, generally?
It's usually great. People are usually nice. But I had one show recently where I had to go through the crowd in order to get from the stage to the outside, and the show didn't have security. So I just said, “I'm gonna have to go through the crowd,” and I thought explaining would make everyone understand, but I got grabbed a lot. I kept saying, "Please let go, I need to go, please stop." But it was like everyone's eyes were sort of glazed over, and they didn't see me as a real person telling them to stop. And that's weird.
That's when the whole “being a projection” thing can be really uncomfortable and dangerous. But I don't know how to negotiate it, because I also think it's healthy. I think humans need symbols — or rituals, like going to a show — in order to organize our thoughts and understand the world. So when I'm on stage, I think it's really healthy that people are not seeing me as a person. But it's hard when that doesn't stop.
Your catalog is full of incredible, quotable one-liners. There's a lot on this record — “Nobody fucks me like me” from “Lonesome Love” comes to mind. Do you feel a special feeling in your bones when you write a line like that?
No, it's just more like relief. Thank God I was able to put it into words.
I haven’t figured out why, but “Old Friend” is one of my favorite new songs. Maybe it's triggering some sort of romantic image I have of being at an all-night diner with friends. Are you historically charmed by places like that?
Yeah, but I don't really attach as much fetish to it as a lot of Americans do, or as much as David Lynch does. But because I've always lived a transient life, there is something really charming about one specific place where everyone you know goes, and where people know you.
The organ part reminds me of an old Howard Shore score. Do you think your songs lend themselves to film and TV syncs?
You know, you'd think so, but I think they actually ... they doth protest too much. Songs sync better if they could apply to a lot of things. I think my music is actually incredibly specific, and it's a little too individualistic; it's a little too “listen to me.” Movies and TV shows don't want that.
Has the business side of things affected how you operate and your relationship to the music?
I thought that if I worked really hard at this, then eventually I'd get to the point where I can just spend all my time making music. But I've found that the more I do this, the less time I get to spend on music. Around 10% of my time — less than that — I'm actually making music or playing music. Most of my time it's press and travel and admin stuff: answering emails and just being a business person, putting out fires. It's just being a working adult. No one gets to just do what they like to do all day. We have to make a living first, and then maybe in our spare time we get to do the thing that we love. So I'm not complaining, I know that's just reality. But for some reason I had some fantasy in my mind that, "Well, if I work really hard at this, then eventually I'll get to make music the way I want to, all the time." I'm finding that's not the case.
In a recent story, you're quoted as saying that sometimes it gets to you when people say they cry to your songs.
I got so much flak on social media. It was weird. "What's wrong with crying to your music, I love your music." It was so funny, because I was being scolded, but also being told that people love my music. I'm glad that people cry to my music. What I was trying to say was that my music is so often understood as a diary entry that has not had any sort of composition or thought put into it, and that's really frustrating. I've found that I've become a sort of emotional vessel, and I think that can be unhealthy. The point of my music isn't to make you cry. I'm not trying to make torture porn. I want to express, I don't know, the whole gamut of human experiences.
What do you hope that Be the Cowboy says to people?
I don't know. Often with my own music, I find out what I was actually trying to say much later on. Maybe that's what the whole process is about, too. Just sorting things out so that I understand.
Would you describe the process of making the album as fun?
No. Because it's hard. I don't do it for fun. I do get some kind of deep satisfaction out of it, but it is anxiety-inducing, and hard, and you have to investigate parts of yourself that maybe you don't want to.
After our chat, I accompany Mitski to the photo shoot for this story, in a sunny park by the waterfront. She wears her own clothes — a simple white sundress, and then later a short, formal-looking black one. Someone on set tells her she looks a little bit like Bjork. “I think it’s the ‘Where are you from?’ element,” she responds matter-of-factly, seemingly unfazed.
With the exception of a few silly moments, like when she does a quick Britney Spears imitation or refers to herself as “Bitchski,” she's generally calm and professional, eager to cooperate and get the work done. She has a meeting with a movement coach after this. She’s hiring a professional bassist, she tells me, so she’ll be singing without an instrument for the first time. “I just don’t want to look like an idiot,” she says.
During the shoot, I play music off my phone to loosen up the mood. Mitski likes the new Drake song but thinks his snare sounds are formulaic. She asks if Charli XCX is “some kind of genius” when I choose something off Pop 2. I secretly want to put on “Nobody,” which I can’t help but feel would be a perfect soundtrack to the scene. I imagine it’s playing when as she tilts her head this way and juts her chin that way, the camera flashing over and over, her own voice ringing out across the water, singing about loneliness.
Hair by Evanie Fausto, make up by Alana Wright.