London – Most artists would find it intimidating to ask a musical icon like Elton John to duet with them — but that didn’t seem to be the case for British-Japanese singer Rina Sawayama.
“I just asked him and he said yes!” Sawayama says via video chat from her London home. Of course, it helped that John had already been a vocal cheerleader of the singer and her 2020 debut album “Sawayama,” a record that put the 30-year-old performer on the cusp of a major pop breakthrough.
Together, Sawayama and John reworked the album’s penultimate track, “Chosen Family,” an ode from Sawayama, who is pansexual, to her LGBTQ support network. Understandably, John had a deep appreciation for the sentiment.
“(John) loves it, he and his kids sing it at home,” Sawayama says. “For him, it means something different (because) he lived through the AIDS crisis. (But) it’s a topic that really connects us both.”
Sawayama laughs as she recalls guiding John’s vocals in his own studio. “He’s such a pro, he was so open to direction,” she says, adding that she now counts him as a close friend.
“We do chat quite often! He’s lovely,” she continues. “Whenever he sees something about me that’s positive in the press, he’ll call and say congratulations. He’s so sweet to say I’m his chosen family and I feel the same. It’s beautiful.”
The collaboration with John has been a major high point in Sawayama’s trajectory so far. After starting her pop career at 26 — “technically ancient” she says, with an eye roll at the industry’s youthful standards — Sawayama built up a cult following (she calls her fans her “Pixels”) with her 2017 mini album “Rina.” But just as “Sawayama” was released in April of last year, the COVID-19 pandemic ground the world to a halt. Sawayama was left in limbo, with no gigs and no real way to celebrate her success. “It’s hard to have pop star moments sitting at home in my leggings with no makeup on,” she says.
Nonetheless, the impact of “Sawayama” is undeniable. It has been streamed over 100 million times, with the Guardian, New York Times and BBC all placing it in the top 10 of their best albums of 2020 lists. In October, Sawayama made her U.S. TV debut on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” performing a stirring choreographed version of her single “XS”; and last month, she was nominated for a Rising Star prize at the Brit Awards after a campaign to change eligibility rules for music awards.
Born in Niigata, Sawayama has retained her Japanese passport, and stays in the U.K. on indefinite leave to remain. Despite living in England for 25 years, her status made her ineligible for the U.K.’s leading music award ceremonies.
“It was exhausting,” she says. “It’s a feeling I know a lot of immigrants feel, that they get to a certain place and then realize that place is not for them.”
After Sawayama hesitantly highlighted the issue, initially in regard to the Mercury Prize — “When you speak up about these things, you can feel ashamed” — trade association British Phonographic Industry (BPI) changed the rules. Her subsequent nomination felt like vindication.
“It was very emotional. I know some people would be like ‘Why do you think you’d even be nominated anyway?’ But all the doubts and shame went away. I thought, ‘I deserve to be here.’”
Sawayama’s reputation for challenging consensus extends beyond fighting to gain recognition as a British artist. She has an infectious personality, and is refreshingly unfiltered for a pop star.
Take her thoughts on the #StopAsianHate movement, which has sprung up in the wake of a spike in violence against Asian Americans amid the pandemic: “It’s like any type of attack — why the f— do (Asians) have to do something about it? It’s not up to Black people to sort out Black Lives Matter. It’s not up to Asian people to sort out Asian hate. That horrible anti-POC sentiment is something the white community needs to address, not us. I just want to see anyone who has benefited from any Asian culture, ever, to be speaking up about this. You benefit from our food, our culture, our art, our fashion, our movies — you need to speak up.”
Fittingly, “Sawayama” is a daring record, as notable for its wide-ranging dynamics as its lyrical themes of family history and identity. Sawayama plunders her pre-adolescent musical loves, variously invoking J-pop, Britney Spears, N.E.R.D, Evanescence and Korn. It’s a chaotic mix that, with Sawayama’s instinctive pop nous, somehow works.
“I got miserable looking at what other people were doing, so I decided to go back to what I loved growing up. No genre was off-limits; I didn’t want it to sound like something that already existed,” she says.
The nu-metal roar of “STFU!” flips convention, attacking the casual racism she’s lived through as an Asian woman. “Nu-metal was often lame, straight white men being angry,” Sawayama says. “It’s great to turn that on its head with an Asian woman getting angry at a white man, talking about my experiences. I take so much joy in satirizing things like that.”
Sawayama was just 5 when her parents left Niigata for London due to her father’s job in the mid-1990s. Understandably, she has very few memories of living in Japan. “Just good times and naps,” she says with a laugh. “But my mum would illegally download Japanese TV and movies in England, and she always fed me Japanese food. She made sure I was always as Japanese as possible.”
Still, the family’s transition from Japan to England was fraught. “It was easier on me than it was for my family,” she says. “But growing up with that secondhand anxiety was very hard.”
Struggling to assimilate to English life, Sawayama’s parents split, resulting in financial hardship and Sawayama sharing a room with her mother, which strained their relationship. Not quite fitting in with her peers, Sawayama suffered from depression, especially during her years studying politics, psychology and sociology at the University of Cambridge. Sawayama’s mother, disapproving of her life choices, eventually asked her to leave home.
This complex upbringing is tackled head-on throughout “Sawayama.”
“I’d grown up with a lot of anger toward my parents and I’d still not let go of some of it,” she says.
Before writing the album, Sawayama visited her grandparents in Japan to try and learn more about her parents. “It made me look at them as humans, and everything became less emotionally charged,” she says. “The album became a thesis about family. I feel like I’ve rewritten my own family album.”
Sawayama says she no longer has a complicated relationship with her Japanese heritage, although she can’t say the same for those around her. “I don’t think I do, but the world does,” she says. “I struggled with that when I was younger. But I don’t anymore. The acclaim the record has had has validated the fact it’s OK to write about these things.”
Her attachment to her roots is why she has held on to her Japanese passport, even though it means she can’t vote in the U.K. “In a metaphorical sense, that’s my connection to Japan,” she says. “But on a practical level, my whole family lives in Japan. I dread to think what would have happened if I’d given up my passport just to be eligible for an award.”
What Sawayama does want, however, is an amendment to Japan’s citizenship policy, which doesn’t allow Japanese nationals to hold dual citizenship after turning 20. “I do think Japan has to change its laws on dual nationality. I think it’s archaic and old-fashioned. It doesn’t make Japan any less Japanese if you allow dual citizenship.”
Sawayama hasn’t been back to Japan since 2019, but says she’ll visit as soon as circumstances allow. As well as seeing her family again, she just wants to walk the streets that still feel like home.
“I can’t wait to be around Japanese people,” she says. “I miss it so much. It breaks my heart. It’s the one place I can go where I look like everyone else, and be invisible in that way. It’s comforting.”
For more on Rina Sawayama, visit avex.jp/rinasawayama.
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