By Erica Russell
Rina Sawayama was preoccupied with the tangled complexities of family roots — both the ones we’re born with and the ones we plant ourselves — while working on her debut album, Sawayama, out April 17. Her fascination with her complicated bloodline and the instinct to explore that creatively came naturally, especially considering the sense of self required to create one’s first full-length record. “I knew for a while that the title was going to be my family name, so I think framing it [around the idea of family] was very useful,” she tells MTV News. I’ve been in therapy for years talking about my feelings and things that happened in the past, so it comes quite naturally to me. I feel privileged that I’ve been able to write about myself and for myself rather than for other people.”
Navigating generational trauma and creating one’s own legacy are just two of the many multiplex themes at the core of Sawayama, the overall theme of which is “intergenerational pain,” according to the singer-songwriter.
“Growing up, family was always a point of confusion and pain,” shares Sawayama, who was born in Niigata, Japan, and raised in London by a single mother who struggled to assimilate. “There was a lot of tension between her and my dad. It was quite messy. My mum’s English wasn’t very good in the beginning and we had no money. There was a lot of drama.”
That drama acts as the artery for the album's 13 pulsating tracks. “The pain in my vein is hereditary,” Sawayama sings on “Dynasty.” The song, a blast of jagged pop-metal that opens the album, is about the mystique surrounding her absentee father and his relatives, which the artist discovered more about while excavating her family’s history.
“When you have a troubled family, it’s very easy to go through life very angry. And I did for a while. But it doesn’t work for me to be angry; it doesn’t work to try to seek revenge. I know a couple of family members who have chosen that path, but it doesn’t mean that they’re any happier,” Sawayama says, sharing that working on the album not only brought her and her mother closer together, but helped her find forgiveness for her father’s side of the family, too. (The album’s cathartic, cinematic “closing statement,” “Snakeskin,” finds Sawayama finally shedding “that part of me,” and even features audio of her mom speaking — a poignant moment that marks the transformation of generational shame into something empowering.)
Inspired by artists like Kylie Minogue, Utada Hikaru, and Gwen Stefani, the innovative album marries eclectic, decades-spanning pop, R&B, and rock sensibilities with sharp lyrical storytelling and intimate perspectives from an artist unhesitant to tackle layered, sometimes challenging topics. From the groovy, early 2000s-indebted dance-pop of “Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys)”, a shimmery ode to the LGBTQ+ community that doubles as a patriarchal takedown, to the t.A.T.u.-meets-Evanescence nu-metal rage of “STFU!,” a vicious banger about racist microaggressions, Sawayama isn’t just deeply personal — it’s political.
Sawayama’s social anxieties can be heard on the frustrated interlude “Fuck This World,” a brief yet biting slice of humid trop-pop about climate change and government incompetence, as well as the twinkling R&B song “XS,” a cheeky critique on greed and mass consumption that sounds like a cross between TLC and Y2K-era Britney Spears.
“Just in the last year we’ve seen that the whole world cannot save itself. I’ve got a responsibility to [write about] the things I care about, so there are songs on the album about climate change and consumption,” Sawayama says. “It’s on all our minds and it’s really important to talk about it. I’m frustrated at how little I can do, in terms of the scale. Offsetting your carbon footprint [as a musician] is expensive but every little bit counts — turning off the light switch, using public transportation, not buying meat...”
Sawayama’s feelings towards her Japanese heritage are also represented on the album. Her introspective musing can be heard on bittersweet songs like “Akasaka Sad” and “Tokyo Love Hotel.” The latter, Sawayama reveals, is “a critique about where I stand in all the people who write songs about Japan.”
“When I end every pre-chorus with, ‘I guess this is just another song about Tokyo,’ I’m pointing the mirror at myself. I’m still a Westerner writing a song about Japan. I might be Japanese, but I didn’t grow up there,” she admits, sharing that the track was inspired by a “frustrating” trip she took to Japan where she saw “disrespectful tourists screaming everywhere and treating Tokyo like Disneyland.”
While she was writing the neon-hued electro-pop track alongside Lauren Aquilina and Oscar Scheller, Aquilina pointed out a sticker Sawayama had on her laptop that read “Tokyo Love Hotel” — both the name of a club night hosted by one of Sawayama’s friends, as well as the phrase for the special hotels where people go to have sex in Japan. And so, a song title was born.
“It exactly fit the analogy of having casual sex with Japanese culture,” Sawayama explains. “I’m talking about Japan as though it’s a partner, someone who I really wanna get to know. Like, I don’t want to just check into a love hotel with Japan. It’s a love song about my complicated relationship with Tokyo.”
Yet it’s another song, “Chosen Family,” that perhaps best captures the heart and soul of Sawayama. “We don’t need to be related to relate / We don’t need to share genes or a surname,” Sawayama sings on the tender, twinkling ballad, which celebrates Sawayama’s relationship with her friends in the LGBTQ+ community and represents the importance of queer solidarity and acceptance in general.
“The concept of family has broadened for me over the years,” Sawayama says. “I think a lot of queer people especially, they need to broaden their definition of family. Often you see your family and it’s not what Hollywood shows you — it’s not the happy nuclear family unit.
“But you can grow your own family, make your own happiness,” she continues. “I have my queer family, I have my touring family, I have my label family. There’s beauty in knowing that you can have a much wider family that’s not just biological.”