Alex Broadwell

From Punk To Pop Culture: Bridging The Gap With Mitski

The singer-songwriter breaks down rap feuds, Twitter, and Zayn Malik with MTV News.

“I’m punk, but I love gold,” Mitski tells me with a laugh during a rainy day coffee shop interview. Thus far, we've covered the intricacies of songwriting, representations of minorities in rock music, and naturally... Drake.

I feel we are kindred spirits.

And yet, even if the topic of one Aubrey Graham hadn’t been broached, it’s not difficult to feel at ease with Mitski. The 24-year-old Asian-American singer -- based in New York but raised in several places around the world -- released Bury Me At Makeout Creek in 2014, a thoroughly jarring LP that catapulted her from the Brooklyn underground to the national spotlight, and deservedly so.

With a voice that's delicate yet mighty, Mitski’s raw, vulnerable sound has the power to transform from fragile to entirely earth-shattering within a matter of seconds. She writes candidly about love, heartbreak, relationships good and bad -- not just with men, but with herself, and with the world and society at large (“I’m not gonna be what my daddy wants me to be/I wanna be what my body wants me to be” she declares on the rollicking “Townie”).

While there isn’t another killer One Direction cover in the works, Mitski is working on new material, the follow-up to her previous record. And although she’s been on the road touring for the better part of this year, she hasn’t fallen behind on pop culture, as I soon learned in getting to know Mitski (and truly, she's worth getting to know).

MTV News: You’re very in tune with pop culture, in a way that most people wouldn’t expect from an indie/underground artist... smaller artists tend to act like pop music is beneath them.

Mitski: I don’t know why that is. Pop artists work really hard, and they might not work for the same things that indie artists do, but they’re still musicians, and they’re still making art. Their goals are different, but they’re still artists...

... And like, who am I? I’m a tiny fucking nobody. Who am I to say, oh yes, Britney Spears, I’m better than her?

[Pop artists] make a different kind of art. Some of them don’t write for themselves, but they’re excellent performers.

MTV News: We loved your cover of One Direction’s “Fireproof.” Are you into any other pop fandoms?

Mitski: I’m not. I realized recently that -- straight up -- I’ve been into One Direction because I’m into Zayn. I’m not ashamed to say it. So now that he’s not in One Direction anymore, I’ve stopped keeping track.

MTV News: Do you have any predictions about Zayn’s new solo career?

Mitski: I don’t know! He definitely seems to be going down the R&B route a little bit more. I don’t want to say something on record and then have it be different, and then be an idiot in public. I want to be an idiot in private only.

MTV News: Totally fair! But the world is just dying to know what his new material is going to sound like.

Mitski: It’s like when Drake Instagrammed a picture of two stylists tying his shoes -- did you see that? -- they were just fixing his shoes while he was standing there, and the caption was like, ‘I don’t know how to tie my shoes’ or something, and then people went crazy! They were like, ‘What does this mean?’ It was probably just a joke.

MTV News: What did you think of the big Drake ghostwriting scandal?

Mitski: I see him as a pop artist, and pop artists all have people who write for them. So I was like, why is this such a big deal? That’s kind of what’s expected when you’re a big artist. You probably have other people writing for you, or at least editing your stuff... I didn’t see why it was such a big problem.

I feel so bad for Meek Mill! I mean, I wouldn’t say I pity him. Drake makes it seem like he’s a small artist, but in reality, he’s playing stadium shows. So we’re talking about how Meek Mill isn’t all that, but we’re plebs, and he’s playing stadium shows! So who are we to say? But I felt like Drake really got back at Meek Mill in a big way that was almost a little bit much. He milked it, for sure. He milked the beef.

MTV News: Drake might be smarter than all of us.

Mitski: He’s playing us! But I don’t mind.

MTV News: You’re very active on Twitter, and it seems that Twitter culture has really started to intersect with music culture in a major way. How do you navigate that as an artist?

Mitski: In my case, I truly still tweet for the pleasure of it. My profession is that I’m a musician, I just so happen to enjoy Twitter. So there’s less pressure for me to keep an aesthetic, or to maintain a brand on Twitter, because I don’t really care. What I actually care about is how my music sounds, and how that’s presented.

But after a while, you have to look up from your phone, and like, go outside. When I first got Twitter, I also got a lot of other social media stuff, and there was a period that I really stopped comprehending what the real world was like. Now, I feel like I can just put my phone down and not look at it for a day and feel okay. But there was a period when I was checking all the time, and that was pretty dangerous.

[Social media] is really bad for creativity, too. It’s really made for short quips, so if I’m on it too much, I start thinking that way, and I don’t have the attention span to actually compose music, because it takes patience and time. So sometimes I have to take breaks from 140 characters to create music.

MTV News: You have some really cool, unconventional band merch, like your new ‘Unfollow Him’ shirts. What’s the story behind that?

Mitski: I just thought of it and I made it! I don’t ever want to make merch that I wouldn’t wear. With that shirt, I just sincerely wanted to have a shirt that says that, so I made it for myself. It ties into social media... a lot of people have tweeted about it, like, ‘unfollow your ex’ or whatever... that’s not really what I meant. I just meant that there are so many stupid boys that I still followed because I felt bad for unfollowing, or didn’t want them to see that I unfollowed them. It was just a reminder to myself like, ‘you don’t care what they think, stop listening to them, stop giving them the space to talk.’

MTV News: How does your multi-cultural background inform your music?

Mitski: My mother’s from Japan and my father’s American. My father moved a lot for work, so we would move to a different country every other year.

The whole concept of having a community has been a learning process for me. In my first few years of being in New York, I had a major identity crisis because I’d never stayed in one place for so long. I didn’t even understand why I still had the same friends, or why I lived in the same city. I had never learned how to maintain friendships, so I was really bad at it. That was a weird learning process for me.

MTV News: When did you realize that you could use music as a form of self-expression?

Mitski: When I was in high school. I graduated high school early, in Turkey. I couldn’t wait to get out of school, but once I did, I didn’t actually know what I wanted to do with myself. I don’t really know how it happened, but I just started writing music, and realized that’s what I wanted to do.

MTV News: What’s your advice for a young girl who wants to make music, but doesn’t know what to do or where to start?

Mitski: You won’t be good at it in the beginning, but don’t take that to mean you’re not good. Especially as a young girl, you’ll feel like you have to prove that you’re good, but you won’t be in the beginning. So just forgive yourself for not being good and keep at it.

MTV News: What’s changed in your new record? Does it continue some of the same themes as the last one?

Mitski: I’m still too close to it to know what its themes are. A lot of musicians go into an album with a concept -- Bjork is really big on that, it’s like each album is a character. But for me, I just have songs and I record them, and produce them, in a way that I think suits the songs.

I had like 2 weeks to record it, and I went in and recorded it, and everything sounded exactly like I wanted it to, and I knew what I was doing. That’s the first time that’s happened. Usually I have a makeshift studio, recording everywhere, and it would take a really long time with gaps in between sessions. So it’s the first time I really know what I’m doing.

Mitski is hitting the road with Palehound and PWR BTTM-- check below for dates.

10/31 - Leeds, UK @ Brudenell Social Club

11/1 - Glasgow, UK @ Hug & Pint

11/2 - Brighton, UK @ Prince Albert

11/3 - London, UK @ Dalston Victoria

11/5 - Iceland Airwaves Festival

11/10 - Philadelphia, PA @ PhilaMOCA

11/11 - Washington, DC @ DC 9

11/12 - Charlottesville, NC @ Southern Cafe

11/13 - Durham, NC @ Pinhook

11/14 - Athens, GA @ Caledonia Lounge

11/16 - Nashville, TN f@ The High Watt

11/17 - Bloomington, IN @ Bishop Bar

11/18 - Madison, WI @ The Frequency

11/19 - Minneapolis, MN @ 7th Street Entry

11/20 - Chicago, IL @ Beat Kitchen

11/21 - Columbus, OH @ Rumba Cafe

11/23 - Toronto, ON @ Smiling Buddha

11/24 - Montreal, QC @ Casa Del Popolo

11/25 - Kingston, NY @ BSP Lounge