In today’s social media age of hyperbole where an artist’s every move is immediately labelled “iconic”, talking about how a new act is the future of pop music could seem disingenuous. In the case of 27-year-old Rina Sawayama, however, it’s actually the truth. Not only has she been labelled such by publications like Interview Magazine, Dazed and Confused, Noisey and INTO, but her debut mini-album RINA, released in 2017, saw her land on a heap of “Best Of…” lists, including those by The Guardian, The Needle Drop and Pitchfork. “It's crazy. I feel so lucky. I can't put it into words, really. It gives me purpose because it's clearly working and for the longest time it felt like no one cared,” Rina says, blushes of embarrassment peeking through on her cheeks. “It's nice when something makes sense, because before the album it didn't make a lot of sense to me.”
Born in Japan, Rina and her family emigrated to the UK when she was five years old. Intent on ensuring she was still immersed in her home culture, however, her parents enlisted her to Japanese primary school. “It was crazy because everything was Japanese — there was nothing that was British,” she recalls. “There was no Western music being listened to; it was all J-Pop.
Heading to a secondary school that wasn’t a performing arts school but was rather “a state school that had a really good performing arts department”, Rina found herself immersed in drama, dance and singing. “I was even lead tenor in gospel choir — the only Asian in gospel choir,” she says, laughing. Setting her sights on Cambridge university to study Politics, Psychology and Sociology, Rina knuckled down and hit the books. However, her university experience wasn’t quite what she’d been expecting.
“First of all, until you apply, [Cambridge] make you feel like there are more people that look like you. I went to an open day for, like, ethnic people, and thought it was great, but then you turn up and it is only white people.” There was also the problem of the other students, too. “I didn't realise how cliquey it would be,” Rina says, clearly still frustrated by the situation. “The most notorious drinking society is from that college. It was crazy stuff. Even the girls fostered this culture of misogyny within their own female circles. There was just hard-core bullying.”
Despite the odds Rina completed her degree, but the bullying and ostracisation she experienced left depressed and almost suicidal. She spent years, she says, “finding myself”. But while that experience was difficult it was also the catalyst that helped create the artist that Rina Sawayama has now become. At university she had shirked her Japanese heritage for fear of further being picked on, she later embraced where she came from by re-immersing herself in the J-Pop of her youth and playing video games. She also took solace in the pop music from when she grew up, with acts like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake becoming cathartic escapism.
The amalgamation of these experiences makes up the foundations of RINA, the singer’s exceptional debut mini-album. Over eight tracks she traverses topics of identity, mental health and society’s relationship with technology. With nods to the productions of 90s and 00s pop stalwarts Max Martin, Timbaland and The Neptunes, Rina, alongside collaborator Clarence Clarity, crafted a soundscape that pays homage to the past while gleefully rushing head-on into the future.
If you’re on the lookout for love songs, however, RINA isn’t the record for you. In fact, she admits that she can’t even write them. Instead, everything veers towards the political and has an academic lens. “I feel like I've always thought about why things happen to me via the world,” she confesses. “I always ask why I feel a certain way and then look outwards to the world rather than going deep with introspection. So even though I feel like it's going to be a love song, I always end up writing sociologically.”
This unique take extends to other aspects of Rina’s music career. Despite offers, she’s still unsigned and is control of everything. “Being unsigned, you're able to have more artistic integrity and are able to decide when you actually do want to do different things and expand in a way that you're in control of,” she says.
Continuing she adds: “I feel like I'm trying to do something new here, so I've got to just push through and do it on my own.” Sounds just like the future, right?