Most of us are addicted to the internet. Endlessly scrolling, not many can turn this obsession into productivity. Japanese-born and London-raised singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama does exactly that though with her maximal R&B tracks about the anxiety, love and compulsion we feel towards the digital world.
Moving from Japan to London at the age of five, Rina spent her formative years immersed in the saccharine sweetness of Japanese pop. “I have a vivid memory of singing along to ‘Automatic’ by Utada Hikaru”, Rina explains, “and my parents and were like, ‘you must become a singer!’”. Her influences broadened to include the treasure trove of late ‘90s and early 2000s Pop-R&B made by the likes of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Kylie Minogue and soon she formed the band Lazy Lion. As her band mates became increasingly occupied with side projects, most notably bassist Theo Ellis forming Wolf Alice, Rina went solo.
Finding her voice wasn’t an easy process though. “I spent a long time when I first started trying to fit in with what the charts sounded like”, Rina tells me, “even down to my tone of voice, but it made me miserable!”. Some of this pressure to conform came from the identity struggle of being an immigrant: “a lot of immigrants go through this period of being ashamed of your heritage and I was trying to be white and British”.
With a lack of precedent especially in the UK for East Asian female artists, Rina has had to find her own authenticity. She states, “now I'm revisiting what I used to listen to as a kid and as soon as I started weaving that into what I'm listening to here, it felt much better. I decided to do music that I would love to listen to and that was true to my influences”.
The result of this is a string of singles released over the last two years that solidify Rina’s status as an exciting new talent. Her latest track, ‘Cyber Stockholm Syndrome’, deals explicitly with the digital, musing on the simultaneous anxiety and sense of community that can come with our proximity to the online world. She sings over an Aaliyah-style harpsichord: “came here on my own/party on my phone/came here on my own/but I start to feel alone”.
Explaining her fascination with the internet, Rina says how “it's my everyday and I felt like no one was talking about it in music. The stuff I'm writing for my album isn't really related to it but at the centre of it is this struggle, anxiety and love story with the internet which I think a lot of people can relate to”.
With her debut album almost finished and slated for release later this year, Rina is keeping her creative control. She sees the similarities between her other profession as a model with music, stating how both industries are premised on the notion of casting. “You have a specific role to fill and the legacy of that role is controlled by the industry”, Rina explains, “with music I found that because there's no East Asian pop stars in the UK, it's a really difficult territory to forge. I've had lots of labels that have said that because I'm so new they don't know what to do with me”.
For the time being then, Rina is working with her own trusted team and collaborating with producer Clarence Clarity to forge her own territory and encourage her listeners to find a sense of identification in her songs. “Unless it’s the perfect deal, I’m not going to sign it”, Rina tells me, instead she’s “pushing to do something new”.
“As I'm getting older I don't care as much what people think; I just want there to be more visibility for East Asian artists so that people feel like they're represented”.
Words: Ammar Kalia
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