An interview with Mitski at the Sinclair

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Before her recent show in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I got the chance to sit down with Mitski, an indie-punk solo artist from Brooklyn, to talk about touring her new album, connecting with fans and the issue of representation in the music industry.

It almost seems unfair that you’ve just been touring for so long and then only had what seems like the shortest break – now you’re going back to it for another month or so.

So this short break, I needed it because I need rest – every human body needs rest, but it made me realise that I don’t have anything else in my life. To really do this you kind of have to neglect everything. I guess I’m just not good at multitasking, so I personally cannot handle doing more than one thing at once. I was on tour for a while and then I had a break; it was a few days break and I realised, oh my gosh I don’t know what to do with myself, because if I’m not doing this job or doing music I have nothing else. I’m now kind of afraid of going on breaks, because I don’t want to have to reflect on that.

So how did you connect with Speedy Ortiz?

I think I listened to their music a while back and then Sadie [Dupuis], who sings and writes, she hit me up on email like “hey I like your music”, out of nowhere and then we just started talking on the Internet. So we befriended each other a while back and then she was just like “I’m doing this tour, come along”. So it happened really organically.

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It’s great that you are playing with each other because you actually like each other’s music.

I try to do that. Sometimes, especially when you’re on tour, it’s nearly impossible to know all the bands that you’re touring with or playing shows with. Honestly, playing shows together is a good excuse to just hang out with each other – especially if you’re all musicians and you’re everywhere all the time; you kind of have to make up excuses to be in the same place at the same time.

Do you ever jam together [with Speedy Ortiz]?

Oh no, not yet. Not yet!

Did a similar thing happen when you supported Hundred Waters? Their music is so different to yours.

Actually I hadn’t heard of their music until, I don’t remember who, but I think someone who handles the Hundred Waters Twitter tweeted at me… I can’t remember, but basically the band members were like, “we love your music let’s play together.” So it wasn’t like we were friends before, but it was still the band saying, “we want to play with you”.

That’s really nice.

Well Hundred Waters are really committed to doing that. They have a fest coming up that they organised, called The Arcosanti Form Festival and they are basically just getting all their favourite people to play at this not-for-profit festival in the middle of nowhere.

Do you have much planned for the later months of summer? There are lots of festivals happening in America…

I don’t know about festivals and it’s not announced, but I’m planning on going on tour in June and July of the full US and then after that I’m going to be on more tours but it’s not set up or announced yet.

Were you this active with your other albums?

No, the other albums basically required a full orchestra to realise, so I just couldn’t play it live. I didn’t have a car, which seems like a lame excuse but actually it really factors into touring in the US. When you don’t have money and you don’t have a car then you can’t do it. Right now, I’m riding my band member’s car, thank God. Thank you, Maggie.

 

So in terms of the sound you want, how much does your band size play into how you have chosen to tour? Is it more that you’re thinking about what could be more cost effective or easier to orchestrate, or are guitar, drums, bass and voice sort of all you need, or all you feel like you want?

I mean, all of that. I like keeping it as a three-piece because the people I chose to be in my band are good at what they do and are passionate about music, meaning that they have things in their life that they want to do. So, obviously scheduling becomes an issue; less people means fewer scheduling conflicts. It’s all very practical and then the thing with money too, less people means fewer expenses. I figured out a way to make it still work with three people. Maybe if I am able to sustain a bigger team of people then I’ll have more people in my band, but right now I don’t want to do anything that is out of my reach.

And speaking of your band members, the last time I spoke to you, you mentioned how you really try to involve band members who don’t fit that white, cis male mould that dominates indie music. How important is that representation to you?

It’s one of the most important things. I started actually seriously pursuing this, I’d say at 19 or even 20. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a young age, but in the – I don’t want to say entertainment business – music business, that’s not old but people usually start off much younger. I could have started much younger because I was passionate about music and I knew that it was what I wanted to do, but I didn’t pursue it for a long time because it didn’t seem like an option for me. I just looked around and didn’t see any mixed Asian or Asian women making the kind of music I wanted to listen to on their own, as solo artists. So I just couldn’t visualise it and I couldn’t imagine that I would be allowed to do it. That’s such a big factor of why I started so late, so I don’t want that to also be a speed bump for other people like me. Representation is important in that way, because it’s not just about having career opportunities available for people, like women of colour, non-cis men of colour, it’s just that we need to be able to even just think about the fact that we can do it.

I haven’t yet heard a unanimous opinion on the subject of female representation – I think it was St Vincent who suggested in an interview that the issue of women in music comes down to people making an issue of women in music and if you keep talking about it like it’s a thing, it’s going to be a thing. So I guess she was sort of suggesting, don’t look at her as a female musician, look at her as a musician. Do you think it’s important to still talk about it?

So I think St Vincent, what’s she’s saying I agree with, but realistically we’re not at that point yet. If we decided today that we’re not going to talk about gender, we’re just going to pick people based on talent, the next day or within the next few weeks, we are slowly going to start seeing that suddenly we have all these beautiful… white men dominating everything. But then we wouldn’t be able to speak up because oh, we’re not supposed to talk about it, it’s not supposed to be an issue. It’s not realistic; realistically everyone in charge is a white male and if we stop talking about it then they’re just going to pick who they want to see succeed, or who they’re comfortable having around. A lot of it is subconscious, a lot of them don’t even think about it. They look at a man and a woman making the same kind of music and they would favour the man without even realising that they’re doing so because they are a man – they’re not registering that they’re making a subconscious sexist decision. So I think it’s important, where we are right now, to be talking about it, because if we don’t talk about it then it won’t be addressed and then it won’t change. Maybe in the distant future we’ll get to the point where we don’t have to talk about it, but right now I think we do.

Is the crowd ever something you think about, as you’re looking on the people watching you?

I think about it all the time. When I can see the crowd, I look out onto the people watching me and I just instantly register myself as “other”. Or even when I’m in a crowd, I look around and immediately think “I’m not one of these people.” I’m always an outsider, I’m always conscious of how other people look at me because other people are looking at me more and thinking “other”. It obviously depends on whatever “scene” or venue you’re in and I deliberately choose shows to be in where the crowds won’t treat me blatantly badly.

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Does being very aware of how you are being looked at ever come into play when you are writing your lyrics, because they are very personal and they are very relatable in that way. Do you ever write and think “no that’s too much of me in there, this is too much, I should take it out”?

Well when I’m writing, for better or for worse, I’m not thinking about people hearing it. I started writing and continue to write for myself and for trying to get through shit, which is unfortunate because then my personal feeling do end up being in the public.

How do you feel when you realise it’s all out there?

Haha I have to face people talking about what I’m saying in my songs all the time.

Well I like to think nobody listens to lyrics in heartfelt songs to judge whoever’s written them.

Right, yeah, but I think the feeling of otherness comes in when I’m writing, in that I think it actually helps my song writing because it needs the combination of subjectivity and objectivity. If you’ve lived your life being objective about yourself – how you look, how you present yourself, how other people see you – then that becomes second nature, even when you’re writing. And not even just for song writing – I think it’s important for writers to be able to objectively look at themselves, because then they can describe things and then they can find metaphors. So I think being “other”, very unintentionally has helped me with my writing, because I have that objectivity, whether I developed it consciously or not.

When you’re playing, is it ever sort of cathartic to sing those lyrics out to people? Immediately I think of “Drunk Walk Home” where you end it screaming. How does it feel to reveal that much in front of so many people like that?

It depends – sometimes I wish I just made fun party music because then I could protect myself, in a way, from all those strangers. With the stuff I’m saying, I can’t just disconnect, I have to actually emote things because I just very inconveniently wrote lyrics that are like that. So when a crowd understands and seems to get it and responds, it’s so validating. You feel like you’ve been understood or that you’ve made a connection. But when the crowd is just there to get drunk… Crowds are other people with other lives, I don’t expect them to always be paying attention to me, but sometimes I’m letting all this really personal stuff out to people and they are just on their phones like “uh uh yup” and getting drunk while I’m crying in front of them. I have come to deal with it though, because that used to really bring me up and down and that’s not healthy when you’re doing it every night. I feel like that’s why a lot of musicians do drugs, to deal with it.

And that’s not how you deal with it?

I’ve come to just do it for myself, just pretend like no one is there. I don’t mean to block everybody out, but I make sure that I’m doing it and releasing for myself and releasing it out into the air and not to the people, because people can be fickle. It’s not their fault, that’s just the nature of being a person. Sometimes you’re in the mood for something, sometimes you’re not. In that way you can’t rely on them for emotional support.

You can’t control how the crowd is going to respond.

Yeah, so I just try to do it for myself. I’m doing my best, but it’s so hard because there are, in reality, hundreds of people in front of you. When they’re shouting at you or all talking together, or whatever, it’s hard to ignore.

So your success has absolutely shot up since you released your third album [Bury Me at Makeout Creek] and obviously we have to put that down to your creativity and talent, but also you are very involved in social media. Have you found that has helped you build your dedicated fan-base and get your music out there?

Some people have actually told me they found my Twitter first and then started listening to my music, so I was like, oh! Cool, it’s actually working! But I am fundamentally doing it because it’s fun for me. I think more than to attract fans though, it gives people something to hold onto in terms of where the music is coming from. I think it’s really important for me to be seen as a real person instead of a symbol or an object, or a face on a screen that you can just say shit to. That’s the thing with the Internet – everyone is so disconnected they don’t think the person on the other side of the screen is a real person with real feelings, so you just say whatever and don’t think about it. It’s important for me just to protect myself almost, from people being hateful or people having very strong opinions about me and disconnecting me from my music. It’s important to me for people to see that I am a person and I have a normal life.

You do seem to be enjoying it – you take the time to respond to people’s tweets, you respond to people’s comments on your Facebook page.

I hope I can keep doing it, but there are days where I just get weird messages… I guess because of the content of my music and how it’s supposed to be cathartic and emotional, a lot of people come to me with their own personal problems and expect me to be their best friend and help them through these things. But realistically, like I said, I’m a person, I have my own life and I don’t know these people. I can’t always help them. So sometimes that can be stressful and is why I sometimes think I should tone down the social media presence, just because now a lot more people than I’m comfortable with lay their life onto me and I can’t be there for everybody. On the one hand it’s really validating when I can relate to someone on the other side of the world and be like, hey I’m going through the same thing, but on the other hand I also have my own life to live.

And as your fan base gets bigger, it’s probably only going to get harder to keep up with it. You know you want to help people but then you obviously can’t help everybody. 

It’s fine if they want to message me and tell me how they feel, but what really hurts sometimes is when I have people getting resentful because I haven’t been responding in the way they want. They imagine me to be someone I’m not and then get mad at me for not being that person. They imagine me to be their best friend and then when I’m not responding or acting like their best friend they feel betrayed.

I suppose that’s the flipside of having a very relatable album – people listen to it and think they know you. So before you made “Bury Me [at Makeout Creek]”, or even before you made the first two albums, what were you doing with your life? Were you hoping that this is where you would be in a few years’ time?

You know what, I don’t know. The way I have lived my life, it’s kind of changed now, but it was very day to day, “figure it out as I go along”. I was at music school studying composition because in senior year of high school I realised that I could write songs and that this is what I actually want to do. But even then, I wasn’t thinking about whether it was feasible to be a musician or composer, I was more thinking that I couldn’t see myself doing anything else with my time. Then, while I was at music school, I was looking around and thinking “okay, what can I actually do?” So it was a very step-by-step process.

You recently posted something on your Facebook page – an interview your management team [Salty Artist Management] did. They talked about how important the personal connection is with the people they choose to work with. Being someone who is very much involved with speaking to people on social media, was that personal relationship as important to you when you were deciding who you wanted to work with?

Yeah, it ends up being a very important thing, because on a day-to-day basis, these are the people you communicate with and go through hard times with together. So even if they are good at their job, if you don’t feel like you can get through a hard time with this person or trust them, or even have a laugh with them, then it just doesn’t work. Especially with a business like music, a lot of it is very emotional – a lot of it is about persevering, regardless of the shitty things that happen. When you are in that environment, it’s so important to have the type of people working with you that you can turn to, no matter what.

Do you kind of have a plan of what you want to do, touring-wise, outside of the States? We want you to come to England!

The plan is to tour the UK and Europe at the end of October and beginning of November. But that’s a while from now and isn’t booked yet, so I can’t really talk too much about it.

[Krill – the support act before Mitski – begin their set outside and Mitski and I start rambling about British bands, what it means to be indie and the various attitudes of becoming “mainstream”.]

Everyone had a shit-fest when Mumford and Sons threw away their banjos and started making rock music. People complain that the Artic Monkeys have also changed and have become more commercialised. It seems unfair, as a fan, to resent a band for finding success and going mainstream.

Being an indie-punk artist, I get all these fucking white boys telling me that I’m betraying indie because I’m trying to make a career and a living out of this. I get so much hate actually every day for it and I used to think that I really was being a bad person. Then I realised, at the end of the day those white boys can go home to mum and dad and say “the music thing isn’t working anymore, I’m going to get a real job”, whereas this is what I want to do.

A lot of that probably comes from jealousy – you’re actually managing to make a career out this and afford food by making music. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to make a career out of what makes you happy. 

Thank you! I feel like in anything you do, the more specified the field is, the more sacrifices you have to make. My impression is, by doing music, objectively I’ve made a shit ton of sacrifices, but they don’t feel like sacrifices – they just felt like the process.

Very inspirational! So here’s the grittiest question – what are your thoughts and feelings on Zayn leaving One Direction…

At which point, Mitski falls back on the sofa, puts her hand to her heart and sort of whimpers.

Noo!

…and will you continue to be a “directionner”?

Probably not, but I was a directionner… I am a directionner… poor Zayn! He’s so beautiful. But the thing is, I am also happy and relieved for him – I think he finally made a choice that is healthy for himself. I’m sorry that the world hurts, Zayn, but good for you, do you. That was 80% of the reason I did that cover [of One Direction’s “Fireproof”], on the off chance that he would know that I exist and am here for him.

Oh bless! Well you never know…

I try not to be superficial and judge people based on their looks. That said, I think God spent and extra 20 minutes to work on his face and then when God was done, he was like “wow, yes.”

I might make that the title of this interview – “Mitski bares soul about Zayn Malik, nothing else relevant”.

Mitski then went on stage with her bright pink bass guitar and performed to an admiring audience, willingly hanging off her every word. She may just be one of the coolest and most pragmatic indie musicians around right now, but ultimately her priorities are things we can all empathise with: wanting to do what you love and makes you happy, and your existence being known by someone with really pretty eyes.

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Jessica Brough is the Editor of bite (2015/16). She writes about music and popular culture.

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