It’s been a wild year for Mitski Miyawaki. Her latest album, Be the Cowboy, has been hailed as one of the best of 2018, and every one of her current tour dates is sold out in advance. Still, her reaction, she says, is less pride than a mixture of disbelief and relief.
Be the Cowboy is a collection of strange, poignant vignettes tackling themes that feel simultaneously adult and childlike. Some songs last barely two minutes; others employ instrumentation at odds with their mood, walking an emotional tightrope that’s well aware of the void below. Contrast the drunken piano rock and campy showtune glitz of “Me and My Husband” with its narrator’s depressingly modest ambition for validation via relationship: “And I’m the idiot with the painted face / In the corner, taking up space / But when he walks in, I am loved, I am loved.”
The Mitski of Be the Cowboy is lonely for something she knows won’t satisfy, fixated on little signifiers that carry outsize importance when you’re not yet confident in the big ones. Still, she delivers everything with a straight face. She has a way of making familiar longings and insecurities feel like unfamiliar territory, laying bare another buried layer of fear: If we can’t read her, can we hope to understand ourselves?
Mitski habitually declines to speak about most aspects of her personal life, which, contrasted with her fiercely emotional music, can make her celebrity appear distant. You probably know someone like this in real life—maybe you call them an introvert, or a Virgo. People with intensely felt emotions are unlikely to be interested in subjecting themselves to public examination, even (or especially) if that’s what modern audiences have come to expect. It’s true if you’re Bradley Cooper, doubly true if you aren’t an A-list white male in Hollywood. Mitski knows this; she evidently values healthy boundaries.
And she’ll need them, because in 2018, Mitski reached the level of fame where her own heroes began appearing within reach. “You think, you know, you make your music, you put it out, but your life stays intact, sort of,” she says. “But then suddenly, these people you idolize are in your life in a weird way. Like, Iggy Pop said I was a great songwriter, and I will hold onto that for the rest of my life.” When we speak over the phone in late November, Mitski is looking ahead to Jack Antonoff’s Ally Coalition benefit concert, where she’ll share a bill with Lorde and, to her particular excitement, Lana Del Rey: “I’m not gonna bother her.”
I’m not here to bother Mitski, either, so I forget the stuff she doesn’t want to talk about and ask for some different answers: How are you dealing with success? Why all the songs about marriage? (Mitksi is also covering “Let’s Get Married,” a song by Antonoff’s Bleachers project, for a forthcoming compilation.) What are your favorite new movies? And which famous diva do you only want to meet through a one-way mirror?
The characters in your music tend to spend time feeling lonely, longing, or like they’re underdogs. Is there a process of reconciling that with experiencing a lot of professional success yourself?
Well, the thing is, what I do ends up being isolating, so I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I’m finding that the more I do this, the more isolated I become, and it is a weird realization process because I make music to go, “Hey, look, you’ve felt this way too, so I’m not actually that different. I’m part of you, I’m one of you, accept me.” That’s what I’m saying when I’m making my music I’m putting out. And yet the more I put out my music, in a weird paradox, the more I kind of get pushed out of the big group. Because I’m on stage with just a few other band members facing a whole big crowd. That’s neither here nor there. I don’t think success in terms of music means being less isolated.
Are you saying that the success itself is in some ways isolating?
It’s not even so much success—I’m just realizing the nature of being a musician or a performer, in and of itself, is isolating, in a way that I didn’t quite realize before. And being a touring musician is isolating because you do this job that’s so different from everybody else’s job, and so fewer and fewer people can relate to your life experiences. And then you go on stage and you’re not even really a person, you’re a symbol, or you’re a performer. You’re not really seen as one of the people in the crowd. The whole process is actually isolation.
Who’s an artist that you’d really like to write for or work with?
I would not dare to expect myself to work with this person, but I would love to just—you know those one-way mirrors? Where in one room it looks like a mirror, and in another room it looks like a window? I would like to just be on the viewing side of that one-way mirror when Mariah Carey is writing and making a song. I don’t want to intrude on it, I don’t need to be part of it, I would just like to see how the magic happens, because she’s just amazing. She’s an amazing singer, but a lot of people don’t give her credit for how great of a writer she is. I just want to be in the room when she’s making a song.
It’s interesting you ended up covering that particular Bleachers song [“Let’s Get Married”] because marriage feels like a recurring theme on Be the Cowboy, and I’m curious why that’s meaningful for you. Or if it is meaningful for you?
As I get older, I just wanted to explore and talk more about things that have taken time. And so that ends up being long-term relationships, or just complex human relationships whether it’s romantic or not. I want to write more about that and I want to hear more of that in music that’s accessible like pop or rock. So much of that kind of music is just about youthful feelings of infatuation, and really temporary things. Like ecstasy, the feeling of ecstasy, the feeling of immediate joy. I’m more interested right now in how messy and complicated and just kind of muddy long relationships are, or life gets as you keep living. That’s much more interesting to me right now than something that’s effervescent.
I know you’re something of a film buff. What are some favorite movies you saw this year?
There was one movie that I think is my favorite movie and yet I can’t remember the title. Oh—Beast, as in Beauty and the Beast, but just Beast. That one blew my mind. Subjectively, it kind of solved a lot of problems for me that I was having creatively. It talked about a lot of things that I had been thinking about. I remember I was in L.A. and I just watched it three nights in a row—I kept going to the ArcLight Hollywood over and over again. There’s this movie called Cold War that was recommended to me. I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s the movie I’m most excited about seeing. It’s a Polish movie and I don’t think it’s out yet in the U.S. It might not be good, I have no idea. But it’s the most exciting to me right now. Honestly, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. I know it’s not a movie, but I haven’t loved a TV show like this in a while. There’s a lot of good TV, like Mindhunter is amazing. I could go on and on.
Would you ever want to write or direct, or work in film in some way?
Well, I was a film major for a year but I quit because I realized I love music, whereas I just like watching movies. It takes so much to make a movie. Even more than making an album. So much more has to go right in order to make a decent movie. And I just don’t know if I have the leadership skills to direct such a team effort. I’d rather kind of just work solitarily and make my album and then go back to my room and not talk to anybody. [Laughs.]
What are you most tired of talking about? What question are you totally sick of?
There are so many. Well, it doesn’t happen anymore, but before the album came out and then when the album first came out, I think there was still a strong idea of the songs just pouring out of me—I had words like “raw” and “authentic” and “honest” thrown at me so much. I think more than anything I’m tired of questions that just mine my trauma. There would be press days where I would have like 10 interviews in a row, and each interviewer would just try to just cut me open and poke at my trauma each time, and that was annoying and exhausting, ‘cause I don’t want to have to keep talking to you about how hurt I am all day everyday. They end up just becoming struggle-porn, and trauma-porn, and it stops being about the music—it just starts being about, “Look at how in pain this Asian girl is, let’s ogle at it.” And it’s very gendered and kind of race related, too. I’m open to talking about the songs, but I don’t want it to get into the territory of just, “Tell me exactly how you hurt, and describe it in detail.”
It sounds like you really just do not want to be a human interest story.
It’s really complicated, because you do this press stuff so that people will listen to your music and come to your shows and have an interest in what you’re doing. It’s important to do and I gladly do it, but at the end of the day, I don’t matter. I just want people to hear my songs, and to relate to the songs, and to the experiences behind the songs, and I’m not doing this to, myself, become a—what’s the word?—like a thing at the carnival that you ogle at. I don’t want the attention personally, I just want you to listen to my songs.
What’s the smartest decision you’ve made for yourself this year?
I can’t think of one, but they revolve around saying “no.” It always ends up being smart when I pay attention to my limits and say, “No, actually I can’t do it.” Especially because there’s so much pressure to say yes all the time. As an artist, it’s made to seem like every opportunity that comes your way will be your last, and it’s the best one, and if you don’t take it you’re dumb. But often that’s not the case, and you have to keep reminding yourself you’re still gonna have your job if you say no to this one gig or this one press opportunity. And it’s better to preserve your health or your energy sometimes.
Where do you go when you need a hardcore break from everything?
You know, the cheapest way to get a break is just to not go on the internet. And that’s it. When I really need a break I just don’t look at the internet.
That’s extremely good advice.
I’m just a working person. I can’t be like, “I’m so tired, I’m gonna go on vacation.” I have a life, I have my job, I have my responsibilities. Not going on the internet is free.
Find more from Spin’s 2018 Year in Review here.