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Rina Sawayama Has No Use for Boundaries

The Japanese-born British musician (and future ‘John Wick: Chapter 4’ star) returns Friday with the country-tinged ‘Hold the Girl,’ the latest step in her evolution from student of pop culture to teacher

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Rina Sawayama is a student of pop culture. In the run up to her second studio album Hold the Girl, out Friday, she watched “movies about Asian life [and] immigrant life” like The Farewell, Everything Everywhere All At Once, and Minari; read Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart; and listened to Kacey Musgraves’s Golden Hour. Pop culture references even come up in her music—on her recent single “This Hell” she borrows Shania Twain’s famous “let’s go girls,” and criticizes the paparazzi’s treatment of Britney Spears, Princess Diana, and Whitney Houston. She loves 2000s nostalgia and once pretended to pitch an idea to Gwen Stefani as a songwriting exercise.

To a certain type of online pop fan who would appreciate her current Twitter display name (“RINA SLAYWAYAMA”), Sawayama’s variety of influences shouldn’t be a surprise. To them, the Japanese-born British vocalist has been a boundary-pushing artist since the dreamy video for “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome,” off of her debut EP Rina, dropped in 2017. The neon-orange-haired Sawayama crooned the surreal R&B track about online life, and since then she’s carved out a distinct lane in pop music by never repeating herself. The R&B-inspired Rina led to her first full-length album, the nu-metal tinged Sawayama, which was met with rave reviews and high placement on year-end lists from The New York Times, The Guardian, and NME. Next up is the country-inflected Hold the Girl. Disparate, yes, but that’s the point: Genre-bending is her genre. A crunchy guitar, sweeping synth, or Carly Rae Jepsen reference could all be markers of a Sawayama original—and it helps that she often pairs it with bright blue eyeshadow or a bedazzled cowboy hat. The wealth of knowledge she’s gained as a pop fan gives her the tools to create something new.

“She’s not so much, ‘Oh, I’ve been getting into this tiny subgenre, let’s try doing something like that,’” British multi-instrumentalist Clarence Clarity, who has production credits on Rina and both her LPs, says. “It’s tapping into different moods. I might be like, ‘Well, that kind of sounds a bit like mid-’90s Radiohead, what you’re talking about there. Let’s have a listen to some of that and just smash that together with No Doubt or something.’ And she’s always super open to doing that.” This process yields a mixed bag, and that’s not an accident. “I’d imagine when even a casual fan sees that Rina’s got a new track out, you’re going to go and listen to it just out of curiosity because you know that it’s different every time,” Clarity says.

“I just think good rock writing is great pop writing,” Sawayama says of mixing genres. “I feel like we’re almost at a point where every single genre is being represented in popular music. I think it’s awesome.”

While her unpredictability has carved out a niche of fans, whom she calls “pixels,” Sawayama is on the verge of breaking out in an even bigger way. She had to promote Sawayama from afar due to its release during major COVID-19 lockdowns, but since then she’s collaborated with Charli XCX and Elton John, the latter of whom did a joint feature with her in The New York Times. (“It was nothing you can pigeonhole. It was like hearing, I suppose, the Mothers of Invention in the late 1960s,” John says of Sawayama’s music.) She’s also branching off into an acting career; she’ll make her film debut next year in John Wick: Chapter 4. But for Sawayama, all of these changes are par for the course. After years of work pursuing a music career, she was never going to be content with limiting herself. The only difference now is that while her style and sound may have turned heads with curiosity, she’s now ready to keep them looking.

Among all that Sawayama watched during the making of Hold the Girl, the influence of Bo Burnham’s 2017 feature Eighth Grade, about a 13-year-old’s last week of middle school, is the most tangible throughout the record. “When you’re a teenager, you put yourself in precarious situations, not because you want to but because you want to fit in. And I think I did a lot of that,” she said. “We’re so lucky to live in a time where there’s films like [Eighth Grade] being made. I was just like, wow, this is literally so spot-on as to how teenage girls grow up and how they feel about their bodies and the amount of shame that comes with being a teenage girl.”

Eighth Grade resonated because Sawayama is in a reflective moment in her career, which might sound odd for an artist who’s only on her second LP release. Having just turned 32, her journey to pop stardom has not been typical: She signed her first album deal with the U.K. label Dirty Hit at 29, which is comparatively a late start for an industry built upon trapping minors in exploitative contracts. (“The most ridiculous thing I’ve ever read about myself? That I’m an industry plant,” Sawayama said in a recent PopBuzz video. “Sis, I’m 31. Whoever tried to plant me did not do a great job.”) Sawayama has been forthcoming about her unique path, tweeting in 2019 about how she spent her 20s focused on education, mental health, and working multiple jobs to fund her debut EP before leaving home at 27, and that she’s felt “pressure to lie” about her age.

A music career wasn’t initially on her radar. After high school, Sawayama lost some friends to a “party school” and felt lost, so she went all in on academics. “I was just purely so interested in psychology and politics,” she says. “I wasn’t at all ready for the amount of work that it was going to be, but I did it.” She ended up getting a degree in politics, psychology, and sociology from the University of Cambridge. As for when she saw music as a viable path: “I didn’t, until it was.”

She befriended some creatives at Cambridge, including a hip-hop group called Lazy Lion that she sang for, and worked odd jobs to fund a music career post-grad. These included selling ice cream and working at an Apple Store, but the bulk of her income came from modeling for the London-based Anti-Agency, despite not having what she says was “the typical model look.” Her self-sufficiency gave her the freedom to pursue her artistic visions uncompromised, and after years of hustling, she came on the scene with a pretty developed aesthetic, especially for a new artist. “She has always approached songwriting and music making in a world-building kind of way,” Clarity says of Sawayama’s process. “She’s thinking of the video concept as we are writing, and if she can’t see the whole picture of what the life of a song could be, from the stylization of the campaign around it, then it doesn’t get off the ground.” She also had a sense of humor that she’s maintained ever since, from 2017’s tongue-in-cheek “Ordinary Superstar” off of Rina, parodying out-of-touch celebrities who swear they’re “just like you,” to “This Hell,” which celebrates eternal damnation to an underworld where “the devil’s wearing Prada and loves a little drama.”

Contemporaneously, Clarity had been performing in indie rock bands and grew jaded by the scene. He started putting out more pop-focused solo projects in 2012 that generated some buzz, which he then tried to snowball into more production work with other artists. When he was introduced to Sawayama in 2015, he was intrigued by her pop inclinations, and she was drawn to his rock background. “I was looking for new people to work with that had bigger, ambitious pop dreams,” he says. “I think Rina was just looking for a producer or a co-writer with bigger, bolder ideas that was going to cut through the noise.” He also connected with her ability to constantly evolve: “I think we just both have quite short attention spans creatively,” he said. “You do one thing then it’s like, cool, great, that’s done.”

After Rina showcased Sawayama’s pop sensibilities, her 2020 debut album turned them on their head. While most remembered for its harsh juxtaposition of nu-metal guitar against melodic pop vocals (it’s hard to forget the whiplash of “STFU!,” which Billboard described as akin to “Limp Bizkit if Fred Durst were JoJo”), Sawayama also had soft, introspective moments, like “Bad Friend,” which are explored even further on Hold the Girl. Her debut earned critical buzz, even with the limitations that came from an early pandemic release. “I was fully in hermit life during lockdown,” she says. “And then coming out of it and not only the world’s completely changed, but I felt like my life had changed a lot in ways that I didn’t understand.”

While appreciative of the album’s success, it was difficult to bask in it while the pandemic was raging. “Throughout promoting my first record, I just felt like, this is so not important. People were dying and here I am trying to promote a single like, ‘Here’s my new video for ‘XS!’” she says. “I got quite nihilistic about it. But I had to put that aside and realize what my job is: to try and make people happy and entertain. And I think when I realized that I cannot save people from the global pandemic … that’s when I felt value in what I was doing.” Quarantine albums like Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now gave her the inspiration to keep creating.

It was at this time too that Sawayama was doing the self-reflection that would become Hold the Girl, looking back on her youth and watching movies like Eighth Grade, and arriving at the theme that she’s described as “reparenting” herself. “I think when you’re in your 30s, you really feel like you’re an adult,” she says. “And being able to look back on some experiences that I had when I was a teenager and knowing how actually they were quite wrong, or they would be something that I as an adult would want to protect a young person from, really opened up a lot of floodgates emotionally and lyrically.” One of the big concepts she was grappling with was her relationship with her mom, who raised and financially supported her after her parents split when she was 10, which is captured most prominently in the poignant “Catch Me In the Air.” She says the song was inspired by the “embarrassment” a child can feel due to the “cultural gap” between them and their immigrant parents. She’s previously said she and her mother were once estranged for an 18-month period, but “Catch Me In the Air” is a celebration of their improved relationship: “Mama look at us now / High above the clouds / Yeah, I hope that you’re proud.”

Some of the record’s storytelling came from Sawayama’s interest in Americana and country music, piqued by Golden Hour. “I had dreams of writing this record in Nashville and I couldn’t, so I was really craving that sound,” she says. While the album is still pop-forward, the country flourish helps flesh out the personal themes and inspires some new music video looks. But the western influence is on full display on the standout “Send My Love to John,” a touching, narrative-driven ballad complete with an uncharacteristic acoustic guitar. The song is told from the perspective of an immigrant mother, inspired by a queer friend of Sawayama’s strained relationship with their homophobic parent. Their mom eventually acknowledged her child’s relationship by signing off a phone call by saying “send my love to John,” referring to the friend’s partner.

Though Sawayama looked inward for Hold the Girl’s songwriting, that doesn’t mean the songs are smaller—quite the opposite. “My goal with this record was to write bigger songs than my first record,” she says. In addition to Clarity, she enlisted prolific producers like the Oscar-winning Paul Epworth (Adele, Florence + the Machine, Paul McCartney) and Stuart Price (the Killers, Pet Shop Boys, Dua Lipa) for the record. “I just wanted to know what it would be like to write with the greatest writers and producers.”

The result is lush arrangements and soaring choruses, paired with Sawayama’s songwriting that gives the record a feeling of catharsis. Take the slow burn of the album intro “Minor Feelings,” in which echoey strums envelop Sawayama’s voice as she reminisces on writing fairy tales, building forts, and daydreaming about growing up. As she comes to the conclusion that “All my life I’ve felt out of place / All my life I’ve been saving face,” most of the instrumentation drops out, mimicking the feeling of an emotional breakthrough and setting the stage for the meditative album. The sweeping “Forgiveness” contemplates the struggles of moving on and builds to a southern rock bridge that could’ve been straight out of a Lady Gaga A Star Is Born song. “Phantom” is evocative of Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway,” as Sawayama mourns the loss of her younger self. She meshes the sounds of her new collaborators with her already large arsenal of pop reference points. Hold the Girl is not as shocking as some of the tracks on Sawayama, but it’s denser and more vulnerable, expanding her musical palette as she reveals more about herself.

Meanwhile, as Sawayama’s music career is climbing, she’s still looking for another world to conquer: acting. After sending out self-tapes and auditioning for years without booking any parts, she got a call from John Wick director Chad Stahelski. He was looking for someone to play Akira, Hiroyuki Sanada’s character’s daughter in the fourth installment of the Keanu Reeves vehicle, preferring someone with a performance background who would be up for action scene stunts. The search was fruitless until it led him down a YouTube rabbit hole of Sawayama’s music videos. “It was a quick clip of Rina, where she had this orange hair wig on,” Stahelski says. “I just remember saying, ‘Well, that’s an interesting look …’ I Google her and literally in every video she had done, she had a different look. She had just this sense of style that I thought really fit in the Wick world.”

After Stahelski met with her and loved her enthusiasm for the project, her casting was announced in May 2021, and soon enough she was in Berlin for two and a half months of training. Filming wrapped that November, and the movie is set for a March 2023 release. “It was insane in just every single way. I’ve never done that much exercise in my life. I was just training every day in the same room as Keanu,” Sawayama says. Though even the regular hours of training weren’t enough for her to prepare for those fight scenes with Reeves. “[She was] always going, ‘What can I do more?’ Literally had to kick her out of the gym like, ‘OK, you’ve had enough. Get out, go home,’” Stahelski adds.

Ultimately, she brought to set the versatility that first drew Stahelski toward casting her. “When you have anybody that’s super creative, has a very good sense of humility about them, they’re very adaptable,” he says. “That’s what I find with most of the great creative people. And she’s incredibly adaptable. She takes her creativity [and] throws it into something.”

Sawayama’s prediliction for adaptability and reinvention is something that’s made her an integral part of the alternative-leaning pop scene (think Charli XCX and Caroline Polachek) followed by internet-savvy queer fans. These are fans that treat pop as the highest-brow endeavor, and get excited by Sawayama’s experimentation with the medium. “I wouldn’t ever say Rina stylistically panders to the fan base she’s built or anything like that,” Clarity says. “But I think there is a feeling that the fan base or the success that she is building is about not being pigeonholed. It is a celebration of many different things, and people from all walks of life can find something in it that they’re going to enjoy.” Sawayama thinks relatability plays a part in the strength of her fan base as well. “I tell stories and write songs that are just about my immediate life, whether it’s about myself or about my friends. And my friends are queer and I’m queer, so it just ends up speaking to the queer community,” she says. Plus, she knows how valuable a stamp of approval from LGBTQ folks is: “Queer POC, they’re the culture, so if they think I’m good, then we’re doing pretty well.”

Her fans’ palate for excellent pop means Sawayama wants to deliver on all fronts, down to the album cover, and Sawayama thinks a Halloween homage equals success in that department. She hopes to see the rotund, inflatable skirt on the cover of Hold the Girl make the trick-or-treat rounds this year. “You can’t actually walk in it, it’s like you’re waddling like a little penguin,” she says of the getup. “But I felt like it really connected with the theme of the record, it being so visible and so striking. … And also, I guess, I look like a douche, and I also look like an eight ball. I don’t know. I look like a lot of different things that people are telling me. But whatever, I think it’s iconic.” With her pop culture expertise, she would know.