Rina Sawayama is on tour at the moment for her sophomore album, Hold The Girl, which released in September this year. Her shows in the UK and Ireland, as well as her upcoming Australia and New Zealand shows, are sell-outs. This was announced through her social media pages with several crying emoji to express her gratefulness. It doesn’t come as a surprise, though, given Sawayama’s bubbling popularity over the last two years since her self-titled debut album dropped in 2020. She’s been touted as an It girl, a face (and voice) to keep on your radar, and the next Lady Gaga.
“It’s a bit ridiculous,” the 32-year-old tells me candidly when asked about the comparison to the inimitable singer-songwriter. “Incredibly flattering of course, but she is an icon who is incomparable. I was lucky enough to see her show in Las Vegas and meet her. She is magnetic and amazing.”
Her fans, affectionately known as Pixels, take pride in how long they’ve been a stan for. The relationship between Sawayama and her fans are two-way—in 2018, she asked fans with “hard to pronounce” names in English to record a short video for her as part of a marketing campaign. Born in Niigata, Japan, and emigrating to London at the age of five, this sheds light on her growing-up years—she was in a place where she wasn’t the majority race, or had a common name.
While her first album explored her social identity—inclusivity and pansexuality, to name a few—her second is decidedly more introspective and purposeful. “There are some very personal and some traumatic moments that I had to revisit to create the songs but ultimately, I’m very proud of how they’ve been able to translate in the music,” she says.
Sawayama might have ventured into a full-time singing career at the age of 27—an older age in the music industry—but with her rich vocals and meaningful lyrics, there’s a sense that at the age of 32, she has so much more life and potential to give to her songs. Below, she expounds on songwriting, unforgettable moments and the cause she’s most passionate about.
How would you describe your last year?
I’m exhausted! The last year has been one of the most intense of my entire career. I finished touring my debut album, Sawayama, in May and then I released my first single for Hold The Girl at the end of May so I haven’t really stopped. It feels like this year I’m promoting two records because many people were only able to listen to the music at home. I’m incredibly grateful to all my fans who have come out to support me on tour after enjoying the records I was releasing during the pandemic—I’ve loved getting back out playing shows and that’s made all the work so worth it. It’s been a tiring year, but a special one.
You studied political science at Cambridge—how did you transition to becoming a singer?
I loved university for my friends. One of my best friends, Tom Rasmussen, is touring with me at the moment opening the shows. You should check out their music; it’s really wonderful. Cambridge was often very intense though and I think that’s why I gravitated to music as a bit of a safe space away from it all. I never really had that moment where I thought, ‘I want to be a singer!’. It was gradual and came from meeting good people who have become my team as it’s impossible to do it alone.
Tell us more about the inspiration and production of Hold The Girl.
The songwriting is what I’m proudest of. I worked really hard on my lyrics in the Hold The Girl sessions and I was writing this record under some difficult circumstances. I was struggling with my mental health for quite a lot of it. My writing sessions were on Zoom which are horrible; you have to really work to get energy going and when you’re talking about intense subject matters, not having that immediate connection of being in the room is quite strange.
I understand it might be like picking your favourite child, but what are some tracks that you feel particularly connected to?
It’s amazing to see people reacting to the songs. The release of a song for me isn’t complete until you’ve played it live, so my favourites have changed from the writing process, to when the album came out, to now playing them live. Currently ‘Imagining’ and ‘Frankenstein’ are up there because I love the audience response—there’s this unbelievable energy from them.
What do you hope Hold The Girl will ignite in your fans?
I hope the themes I’m talking about connect with people. I just hope people enjoy it—sometimes it really doesn’t matter if the fans don’t take the emotion that you intended from the song. It can even be better and more powerful if they attach their own meaning to it.
What’s the best part of being on tour and what are some of the rituals you keep to?
I love my band and the people I tour with. This job can be a bit lonely sometimes, so there’s a real comfort from seeing the same people every day who have the same goal—putting on a great show. I’ve made some mistakes on tour in the past, like not eating well or exercising enough, which can be really costly. You can feel tired and can’t give your entire self to the performance, so this time around I’m trying to stick to a schedule that includes exercise, Pilates, vocal warm-ups and eating sensible food. That last bit is the hardest as I love trying different foods from different places. On my off days, the first thing I will do is find places to go and try the best food around.
What is a moment in your life you will never forget?
Wow, that is tough. It’s hard to think of things from too far back, so I think playing my first show in Japan recently stood out for me. I hadn’t been back to Japan since 2019, which was before Sawayama came out, so coming back to play at a festival was surreal. Having my family come to watch was special as well.
What does fame mean to you at this point of your career?
Not much really. It doesn’t motivate me and I’m not sure it does for many people…it just sort of happens to people. I think it’s healthy to not think about it too much or have it as any kind of goal.
Who would you love to partner with in the music scene?
I haven’t done many collaborations. Working with Charli XCX on ‘Beg For You’ was a wonderful experience because I admire the way she works with people. Since then, I’ve been excited to do more. I love Rosalia, so if that were ever to be a possibility, I’d love to try out some ideas with her and see what comes out of it.
You said in a previous interview that you like to stay home more than going out, although that’s changing a little. What’s a day off like for you?
No, that’s not changing! (laughs) Days off for me are logging off from my phone—emails, social media—all of it. Just spending the day walking the dog and watching Hacks is the dream for me at the moment.
What do you enjoy cooking?
When I do get the opportunity, I love to cook Japanese dishes. I bought a book in Japan that is all about quick dishes—I’ve recently loved making Japanese curry that you can have with rice, then the next day I turn it into curry ramen. I love the versatility of Japanese cooking.
What other causes are you passionate about or feel like you want to play a part to change in the foreseeable future?
I’m supporting Trussell Trust at the moment by having food banks at my shows. They are a magnificent organisation that help people in the local communities. No one should have to worry about whether they can afford to eat or not during a really dreadful cost of living crisis in the UK—that’s something I’m passionate about helping with.
What’s next for you?
I realised playing live is the best part of what I do, so framing my goals around that is the healthiest way to plan as it’s something I love focusing my energy on. Playing at The O2 in London is a goal of mine.
Photography Jenny Brough
Fashion direction Desmond Lim
Creative direction Crystalline
Styling Jordan Kelsey
On-set producer Danielle Quigley
Hair Ryo Narushima/Saint Luke using L’Oréal Professional Paris
Make-up Mona Leanne|The Wall Group
Manicure Angel My Linh
Set designer Roxy Walton/ The Magnet Agency
1st assistant photographer Adam Roberts
2nd assistant photographer Joshua Hippolyte
Digital technician Ho Hai Tran
Fashion assistant Mao Miyakoshi
Set assistants Lucy Garrick and Rafe Hamilton
Retouch Monica Chamorro
Casting Jill Demling/Creative Casting Agency.
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