Credit: Ebru Yildiz
As a woman of color in an otherwise white-male-dominated industry, Mitski Miyawaki has always had to work a little harder to prove herself. Known simply as Mitski, she released her breakout fourth album, Puberty 2, last year, and some critics seemed desperate to assign her a specific role in the music landscape: that Mitski’s music only existed to rebel against the men in the industry instead of existing alongside them.
And when critics recently suggested that her breakout song “Your Best American Girl” was an attempt to “stick it to the white boy indie rock world,” as she said on a social media post last year, she didn’t let this false assumption bother her. While she did discuss it publicly, that was only to establish that her place in the indie-rock world had nothing to do with white boys at all.
“I’ve learned the hard way to switch gears and not try to fit into it and just try to pursue exactly the kind of music I want to make and the audience I want to reach,” Mitski says. “And if some white indie boys end up liking my music, that’s great.”
In the same way that she stopped trying to mold her music to a specific genre or audience, she also decided to do the same with her identity. Mitski is half Japanese and half American, but doesn’t fully identify with either culture. While some might see that as an identity crisis, Mitski finds freedom in the lack of stability in her background. Since she’s not personally tied to any traditions, neither is her music.
“I’m very good at listening to my gut and what I want to make instead of what maybe is expected of me,” Mitski says.
Listening to her gut when it comes to her music means creating songs with pop vocal melodies and indie rock instrumentation that range from very soft to very loud. However, it isn’t party music, and going to a Mitski show feels more like a private experience.
“I like for my shows to be places where someone can go to reorganize their feelings or go through whatever is inside them and take inventory of their psyche,” she says.
Mitski was raised in a family that moved around a lot, and music was one of the few constants in her life. When asked if there was a moment in her upbringing when she decided to pursue a career in music, she says simply that she realized that music was her only special skill.
“I realized it was more like I don’t know how to do anything else, I’m not good at anything else and all I want to do is make music,” Mitski says. “So it became kind of like, OK, if I don’t have anything else then I actually have to do this.’”
Working on her early material helped her get through her problems with her identity and gave her a sense of purpose and meaning despite lacking a sense of belonging.
“I think having my music gave me a reason to be around or just permission to exist,” Mitski says. “Like I’m allowed to be here because I can contribute this one thing.”
Her journey into making music hasn’t been easy. Her first two albums Lush and Retired from Sad, New Career in Business were self-released and largely went unnoticed when they first came out. As a beginner in the music industry, Mitski’s naivety became apparent when she hit a roadblock after putting the songs on the internet.
“I was impatient,” Miyawaki says. “I was done with the music and I wanted to put it out regardless of whether I had support from any kind of institutions or not. I assumed that if I just put music on the internet then people would come to it and listen to it. Now I know it’s not as simple as that.”
However, even with the hardships that came with self-releasing two albums, Mitski says she learned the importance of independence in the music industry. Ultimately, her biggest challenge has been trying to find respect as a woman of color within that industry. In a quiet tone but with a hint of passionate ferocity, Mitski recalls the times she’s had to sell out 800-capacity venues before she was allowed to play 1,500-capacity venues. She says that she had to do this despite seeing “indie rock bands of four white dudes” being allowed to play these venues without having to prove anything.
“I think a lot of my struggle in music comes from the fact that people can’t imagine someone like me taking charge and writing my own music, performing it and being a solo act,” Mitski says matter-of-factly. “I think people physically can’t imagine my face doing that, so it’s hard to convince people of something they haven’t ever even imagined.”
Unfortunately, she also notes that this hasn’t changed much from when she first started out as a musician.
“It’s the same hurdles just at a different level with different stakes,” Mitski says, with a sense of resignation in her voice.
Even with all the hurdles she’s had to jump through, Mitski’s passion for music has become her primary motivation. She realizes that she’s put all of her energy into her music and can’t give up now. She also accepts that the feeling of being dedicated to one thing and knowing what she wants to do is the best possible scenario.
“That’s my driving force,” she says. “If I quit this, I have nothing else.”
Mitski plays April 19 at The Irenic