why rina sawayama is no ordinary superstar
All singing, all dancing, Rina is your ultimate 90s popstar, reimagined for 2018.
This article originally appeared in i-D's The New Fashion Rebels Issue, no. 352, Summer 2018.
Everything seems to be going to plan for Rina Sawayama. The universe seems to agree that it’s her time. The stars are aligning. Musicians she admires are reaching out left, right and centre to work with her. “People are flying me places to play music!” she smiles. “Stuff I never would have imagined has happened.” When we first featured Rina in i-D, back in April 2016, the recent Cambridge grad had just dropped her debut single, Where U Are, into the world . A reflection on time spent observing the disconnect between the digital and IRL existences of her friends, musically it paired a Mariah Carey obsession with laid back R&B production. It felt like nothing else. Rina stormed onto the radar of music fans across the world.
It’s been a big two years since. She released the critically acclaimed poptastic not-so-mini album RINA, in October 2017, and at the start of this year she cut her long bright orange hair into a fierce bob and dyed it cherry red. A bigger change still saw her mum move back to Japan, leaving Rina solo with no other family members in the UK. “It feels like I’m an adult… I mean, about time! Fucking hell. It’s scary but I feel like I’m ready to take on everything.” She’s 27 now, but says that she often feels more like 72, though sometimes 21.
So far she’s taken a resolutely DIY approach to her career. Now headed for the big time, the Japan-born, London-raised popstar is slowly learning to hand over some responsibility to her growing team. Focusing all her attention on her craft; writing, recording, singing, dancing, turning her once intimate music into an expansive live show. She recently found herself opening for Kelela at The Roundhouse, delivering “lettuce realness” in an exaggerated green Jeremy Scott dress, with an accompanying hairstyle extravaganza she likes to call “samurai bushido triple pony”.
“Basically, any opportunity I get given, I just want to make the most out of it. You know, maybe I went a bit over the top… but, I just think, it’s The Roundhouse! Of course I’m gonna do it! People can be quite casual about their gigs, but I think if people are paying to see you, you’ve got to put on a show for them.”
It’s in her live performances that Rina is really growing and coming into her own. It’s ridiculous to think that not only was her first live show as recent as November, but that The Roundhouse gig with Kelala was just her second. Joined on stage by her producer and DJ Clarence Clarity, performing with her backing dancers Windy and Louise, she’s electric. With fabulous stage looks and polished early 00s style dance routines, she’s an energetic, mesmerising stage presence.
“I feel so confident on stage,” Rina begins, “but there’s a vulnerability too, with all these people looking at you. I put so much work into the shows though, that when it’s actually show day I feel so ready.” The live element is the most exciting and important thing for her, and knowing that she has a solid fandom (who call themselves ‘Pixels’) that keep coming back for more, Rina wants there to be a clear progression each time. She’s currently working on a new segment in which she plays guitar – her old but faithful seafoam blue Fender Squier. “It’s really exciting but at the same time I try not to think about being on stage, because it gives me great anxiety. I’m just going with the flow.”
Part of the inspiration for Rina’s very ambitious shows is that she’s spent a lifetime obsessing over Beyoncé’s tour DVDs. “I have them all. She hasn’t released one in ages but there’s this person on YouTube that stitched together all the visual and audio clips from the Düsseldorf show of her Formation Tour to create a full two-hour concert. Super dedication.” Soaking up a different vibe altogether, as a London teen, Rina would regularly be down the front for her favourite indie gigs, and has a stand-out memory: “I was watching the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Karen O came out in a squid costume – she was just so powerful! I want to do something like that. I want to do something weird.”
For every influential artist from Rina’s past who’s still going strong, there’s another who has veered off into not-okay-in-2k18 territory. “I feel like, as millenials, we’re caught between two worlds,” Rina says, reflecting on her generation. “The people we grew up watching are now potentially problematic, so we’re having to adjust our preferences.” She’s talking about 00s stars like Justin Timberlake, who she loved as a teenager, only to find, circa Man Of The Woods, that it’s probably less okay to feel that way now. “It’s much easier to be critical of something when you don’t have this memory attached to it,” she admits. “I feel like brands are being held more accountable too, with Diet Prada, More Models of Color and Shit Model Management, who just put up a list of people accused of abuse. Stuff like that is great, but things on the internet can often get taken so far and become so hateful that it stops being productive.”
The release of Rina’s album also changed her feelings about modelling, an industry in flux. Having previously done it to pay the bills, she’s grateful to now be in the position to build relationships and work with some of her favourite fashion faces thanks to her rising musical profile. She just worked with Nicola Formichetti on a song for his Nicopanda x MAC collection, before casually appearing on the new cover of his Free Magazine with her face covered in chains and studs. The duo have proven to be something of a Japanese dream team and they are apparently keen to keep on collaborating.
Although eventually learning to love her heritage, Rina just wanted to fit in at school, and rejected her Japanese identity for much of her childhood. “The more you embrace your cultural identity, the more other people mistake that for an opportunity to stereotype you,” she says. “I’ve had times where, because I’ve said that I’m proud to be Japanese, people will put their view and version of Japan onto me. So it’s important for me to check that there’s no stereotyping, but also that I’m not appropriating other cultures as well. For me, that’s a new realm. A lot of my inspiration is from Japan, but also R&B, so I’m always trying to be careful of that – it’s a constant evolution and something that I’m thinking about all the time.”
Forever figuring out what it means to be East Asian in a western world, Rina is channelling her findings into her music and wants her next work to be different to previous releases, especially lyrically, “but putting those ideas into verse is a very difficult thing. It’s not easy to write something political about how you feel and make it poetic,” she continues. “That’s the next challenge for me. I’m trying to write a pop record that addresses those cultural issues.”
For now though, Rina Sawayama will keep on working hard, digging deep into her inner self to extricate what’s burrowed inside. “Know yourself, that’s so important. A lot of people don’t know themselves so they make brash decisions and remarks.” How does she recommend they go about finding themselves? “Ask questions. Experience a lot of things. Make mistakes.”
Photography Clare Shilland
Styling Eliza Conlon
Hair Alfie Sackett. Make-up Rebecca Wordingham at Saint Luke’s using HydroSkinCare. Photography assistance Jodie Herbage. Styling assistance Annabelle Peacock.