Avant-Pop Singer Rina Sawayama Talks Elton John Duet, and Kicking Against the Brits

Haley Bosselman
·6-min read

One year after the release of her debut album, Rina Sawayama is not ready to move on.

“Hell yeah, I don’t want this album cycle to finish,” Sawayama tells Variety. “I’m not done with the songs. I think they’re complete when they’re being performed and sung back to me by an audience.”

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The Japanese-British pop star dropped “Sawayama” on April 17, 2020. In the year since, she’s had standout performances on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and NPR’s “Tiny Desk,” successfully campaigned for a change in Brit Awards eligibility (so that artists who have been U.K. residents for more than five years can qualify for main prizes), released a deluxe version of the album with four additional songs (including a cover of the 1975’s “Love It If We Made It”), and even collaborated with one of her biggest fans, Elton John.

“We marched on with our release and I’m really grateful we did,” Sawayama says of the decision to release her album just a month into the pandemic. “I get so many messages still from people who say, ‘Your music really helped me get through lockdown.’”

Sawayama, now 30, moved to London from Japan when she was 5. She developed a love of music as a teenager and went on to be in a hip hop group called Lazy Lion with Wolf Alice bassist Theo Ellis. In the meantime, she earned a political science degree from the University of Cambridge, which partly informed her decision to “speak up when something feels wrong.”

Upon her first meeting with her label, Dirty Hit, Sawayama laid out her top goal: to win the U.K.’s prestigious Mercury music prize. But her immigration status — she holds an “indefinite leave to remain” visa — made her ineligible, as the prize’s awards required potential nominees to have been born in the U.K. or hold a U.K. passport. When informed she didn’t meet the qualifications for the the Mercury Prize or the Brit Awards, the singer took matters into her own hands. In addition to a statement of support from Elton John and a meeting with the British Phonogram Industry, she got #SAWAYAMAISBRITISH trending on Twitter.

“I don’t know if it’s just me or whether this is how people feel when they speak up about anything, I was like, ‘Who the hell are you to think that you would have gotten a Mercury nomination?,'” she says. “But when I did get nominated [for a Brit], it was a validation…I’ve already seen that [the rule change] made people eligible, so that’s amazing.”

Despite the “emotionally exhausting” process, Sawayama says she felt grateful for the outcome. “[It’s] that same sensation that people feel when they’re at a concert standing next to so many different people from all different walks of life: They’re coming together because of music or a musician and I want that feeling to exist in the real world,” she says. “You’ve just got to really work hard to knock down barriers.” Speaking to the Stop Asian Pacific Islander Hate movement, Sawayama added, “I think a lot of Asians feel so ashamed to bring thing up. It’s like the model minority myth. I guess people just really feel like it’s not their place to say or complain or they think that saying something is complaining, but I want to show just in little ways that it’s not. People’s experiences are valid.”

When she came to Los Angeles for “Sawayama” recording sessions, the singer was shocked by the city’s drastic income inequality: homeless encampments sprawl just blocks away from the most wealthy parts of the city. While it’s embellished with earworm hooks, the album’s lyrics read like a social critique, spanning from the ills of consumerism (“XS”) to cultural and familial identity (“Tokyo Love Hotel,” “Akasaka Sad”). Critics and fans praised the innovative sound of “Sawayama” for its infusion of the best of early aughts pop and rock. Lead single “STFU!” embraces nu metal, while “Comme des Garçon (Like the Boys)” rattles by way of dance pop synth.

“I think the culture of consumerism is very much amped up in America compared to the U.K.,” she explained. “I love L.A. and I have so many great friends there, but it just seems like a wealth of opposites: so much glitz and glam, but you go a couple of blocks away and it’s really bad opioid problems.”

Much of “Sawayama” is a departure from the typical love songs that saturate the pop landscape. The closest she comes to a pure love song is the sentimental ballad “Chosen Family.” The queer anthem was originally released as a single two weeks before the album came out, but recently took on a new life with a feature from Elton John. The pop legend was among her biggest supporters when the record first came out. Their duet enlivens the song’s inherent theatricality and points its main sentiment to a direct receiver: “We don’t need to share genes or a surname… you are my chosen family.”

Ensuring proper due diligence in such a collaboration, Sawayama asked John if he would like to change the second verse. Opting instead for the original lyrics (“Perfect just the way it is,” she recalled him saying), John reinvigorates “Chosen Family” with some “very Elton piano parts.”

“It’s phenomenal that’s the song that he connected to the most. I think there’s a reason for that. He has lived through the AIDS crisis and the concept of chosen families was vital back then. People died without having seen their families.”

Discussing her own experience, she added, “Chosen Family to me just means the mental support so when people do experience hardship with their families, they can have a safe space to talk about their problems. I really felt that when I was at university and I was really struggling and I found other people who were struggling as well, and we all happen to be queer… we saved each other.”

Sawayama plans for the live reincarnation of “Chosen Family” to be stripped down to acoustic guitar. She has an upcoming fall tour that is scheduled to begin in September in San Francisco and caps in London in November. As for what could come next, Pixels (her fanbase) will be happy to know she wants to open up for Lady Gaga as much as they do.

“I’m right there. I’ll be at every show if I can support,” she said. “I would love to wish it into existence. I know that she knows about me, so I’m sending positive vibes… It would just be insane.”

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