“It took a while to realise that my feelings were valid...”

There’s a song by Japanese-American singer 宇多田 ヒカル (Utada Hikaru) called ‘Automatic’. It’s a perfect slice of addictive, sugar-sweet pop, backed by the kind of scratchy hip-hop beat that was in vogue in 1998. It’s the track that, aged seven, Rina Sawayama performed to her parents in their living room in a bid to prove she could be a singer. Fast-forward a few years and 27-year-old Rina has swapped her armchair stage for cool East London venues, and her hairbrush for a real microphone, but the candyfloss melodies are still there.

Rina is pissed off when she walks into our photo studio on shoot day. Bundled up in a cloud of pink camo puffer, a hood covering her bright tangerine hair, she croaks that she’s suffering from the “worst-ever” flu. This is where, luckily, her side hustle, i.e. extremely successful modelling career, pays off. Rina exhibits the kind of professionalism you’d expect from someone who’s walked for Nasir Mazhar, twisting her couture-clad body into poses you’d balk at during yoga, while warning the crew about her incoming sneezes.

Over a post-shoot lemon and ginger tea, she explains how she now lives in Tooting Broadway (“I’m a bit of a hermit, so I really like living away from where I work”) with her rescue dog, Kaya. Her mum has just moved back to Japan, the last family member she’d had left in the UK. “It’s cool but it’s sad,” she says, pulling tissue after tissue out from what is apparently a Mary Poppins bag. “Your parents get older and they tell you they’re feeling ill. Especially my mum, cos she’s a single mum...”

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The iPhone in her pocket might make the distance between them feel smaller, but Rina is conscious of the dangers of us all being so hyper-connected these days. Living life online is a topic that often pops up in her music. Her fans are called ‘pixels’. “Came here on my own / Party on my phone,” she sings on ‘Cyber Stockholm Syndrome’, musing about love, loneliness and anxiety in the digital age. It’s a message that’s resonated particularly with millennials; the group who, like her, grew up on dial-up Internet, flip phones, and painstakingly-crafted MSN screen names, yet are uncomfortably aware of our pseudo-connectedness.

“They call it social media but it’s not social,” she nods. “I think it does something to your brain that people aren’t really acknowledging. With the telly, for example, you gather round it and discuss the programme. But [social media] is not a social activity.” Far from making some bleak Black Mirror fodder (though she does joke about “psychotic-looking” Sophia the robot), she sees our digi-centric world as both a support network and prison. Her main concern is with “the commercialisation of our everyday life rather than just using technology for the fun of it? I just think about the generation younger than us and what it does. But it is the new normal, so we’ve just got to think about a way to manage it.”

Born in Niigata, northwestern Japan, Rina and her parents moved to London when she was five, for her dad’s job. “I remember struggling with English but I think I was just young enough not to care that much,” she recalls. The Japanese school she attended incubated her love of glimmery J-Pop; her favourite artists being girlband Morning Musume and Ringo Sheena - the ones that weren’t overly sexualised or kawaii.

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A touch of that J-Pop sparkle comes through in her work, but tracks like ‘Take Me As I Am’ (from last year’s ‘Rina’ EP) sound like they’ve been pumped out of Max Martin or Bloodshy & Avant’s studio, or like long-lost collaborations between Billie Piper and Samantha Mumba. She’s a self-confessed popaholic, with a love of Britney that bonded her and producer Clarence Clarity. They pair have made most of their music together, inspired by the working relationships of Timbaland and Aaliyah, or Brandy and Darkchild.

Something Rina doesn’t have in common with Ms Spears, though, is her very hands-on approach. She produces her own merch (think caps with ‘pretty but sad inside’ stamped on them), hauling the packages to the Post Office. She’s currently plotting a transition from merch line to fashion brand (as “it’s much more fun”). Whereas in the year 2000 you might have sent fan mail written in gel pens to a designated P.O. box, Rina’s often in direct contact with her ‘pixels'. “They’re the sort of people you could genuinely be friends with,” she says.

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It took a while to realise that my feelings were valid...

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The aforementioned Utada Hikaru was born in Manhattan to Japanese parents, and would become something of a role model for Rina. In interviews, her Japanese wasn’t perfect, and Rina could identify with Utada’s strain of being bicultural. Rina describes how, as a kid in London, she felt increasingly “embarrassed about what it means to be an immigrant.” Her mum would prepare her beautiful Japanese lunchboxes for school, but she’d long for the ham sandwiches and crisps of her classmates. “I just tried to pretend I was white. Liking what other people liked and shunning my mum, a lot. Being embarrassed by her was definitely part of assimilating.”

“It took a while to realise that my feelings were valid,” she continues, “and it’s a sticking point for a lot of immigrants - to feel like their feelings of marginalisation are valid, that the low-level, microaggressions are valid.”

As a teen, Western pop and MTV video culture ruled her tastes, but she couldn’t exactly stick up posters of Justin Timberlake in the bedroom she shared until 15 with her mum. “I used to go to Virgin Megastore every weekend and just stand there and listen to album after album.” During the height of indie in the mid-Noughties, Rina started bunking school twice a week to go to gigs, flashing her fake ID. “I was just really into wearing white skinny trousers and going to the club,” she laughs, cringing slightly.

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Magdalene College, Cambridge, is one of those mid-century buildings with sprawling grounds that get romanticised in American movies. It’s where Rina spent three years studying Politics, Psychology and Sociology, but her excitement to be at such an illustrious centre of academia was short-lived. She instantly “saw the beginnings of an establishment. That was really scary. I saw little versions of David Cameron, and the future powerful people who control the country, basically. And they were such twats! All of them, pretty much.”

PPS, Rina’s subject of choice, afforded her a deep insight into the makings of the ruling government. “It sees everything that happens within politics as a result of psychology, like on a macro level. It makes you more empathetic, for sure. That’s why you get a lot of politicians from PPE [Philosophy, Politics and Economics] but not from PPS.”

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I’ve got a campaign coming out next year that’s, like, beyond my wildest dreams...

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Magdalene is also the college that made headlines when its male drinking society attempted to stage female jelly-wrestling competitions. The Cambridge environment was the polar opposite of Rina’s diverse London state school, and she found herself being bullied by a group of girls. “They excluded me from the [end of year] May ball,” she says. “There was a dinner and they moved my name tag off the 12-person table, so I had to sit on my own. And that was so shit.”

The hip-hop group, Lazy Lion, that she’d started in sixth form with Theo Ellis from Wolf Alice and Jelani Blackman became a means of escape. “I had to continue it even though I was so busy.” Luckily she “found a group of really queer, weird people who are still my friends. They've all actually gone into fashion or journalism.” After leaving uni, Rina signed to cult model collective Anti-Agency and has since shot for Vogue, and been reached out to by Jeremy Scott and Nicola Formichetti. “I’ve got a campaign coming out next year that’s, like, beyond my wildest dreams,” she glows.

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A fiercely intersectional feminist, Rina is passionate about the fair representation of East Asian artists. A tone-deaf modelling job once had her dressing up as a geisha and serving tea, and these experiences have made her an open critic of problematic tropes. She wrote, for example, an editorial about the silent East Asian spa workers attending to Madonna in a beauty ad. “I didn’t see anything, especially in the US or UK, that really represented how I felt, so I had to find my own way to talk about some of the issues I faced.”

And it’s already having a positive effect: “It’s so sweet, I get messages from Asian people who are just like, ‘This is great, keep doing what you’re doing!’ It’s the biggest motivator ever.”

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Success last year was not having to worry about bills and money...

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When it dropped late last year, ‘Rina’ earned the kind of rave reviews you’d dream about for a debut EP. Her mum, she says, has finally come round to her not being a banker or a lawyer. “I guess it was a protective thing - she didn’t want me to have a hard time failing. So whenever I wasn’t getting anywhere with music - which was for several years - my mum would be like, ‘Why don’t you just quit?’” But now her mum’s “the biggest fan; she wears my T-shirts! Bless her, she was like, ‘Your tickets have sold out, I can’t buy one!’ I was like, ‘Mum, I’ll put you on the guestlist, don’t worry.’”

Despite her reverence to the popstars that came before her, Rina sounds like the future. She tells me about a collaboration she’s done with elusive producer A.K. Paul; a diss on capitalism called ‘Capital’. Her tracks might be packaged up with a cute exterior, have melodies that burrow into your brain and take their cues from her lifelong obsession with video gaming, but they deliver incisive, important social commentary. With plans to tour the States and develop an “interactive” live show, Rina is a woman on a mission to bring her URL world IRL.

“Success last year was not having to worry about bills and money,” she finishes. “Now, it’s doing things that haven’t been done before.”

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Words: Felicity Martin
Photography: Clark Franklyn
Styling: Vincent Levy
Hair: Kota Suizu

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