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Rina Sawayama ​​is​​ Resetting the Status Quo

The Japanese-British recording artist and actor talks pop, power and paving the way for those who follow in your footsteps

Rina Sawayama wears the V-neck flared maxi dress by COS.

She has established a reputation for making music which defies genres – the record comes first​,​​​ its classification later – and stage productions which defy custom, with costume, lighting, choreography and set design all in their own realm entirely. Her two studio albums, SAWAYAMA and Hold the Girl are already cult classics, and she’s turned her hand to acting too. But if Rina Sawayama was once less than a household name, it was her decision to challenge the music industry’s status quo in 2020 that changed that forever.

How? In 2020, the Japanese-British recording artist and actor was told that she was 'not British enough' to enter the Brits or the Mercury Prize – because, in spite of having lived in the UK for 26 years and holding indefinite leave to remain, she was not a citizen. Against all uncertainty, and in spite of the fear of repercussions, she pushed back – and in February 2021, the rules were changed, so that now she and others like her can be celebrated for their contribution to British music. No small feat.

Rina was born in Niigata, Japan, and immigrated to London with her parents at the age of five. Her family had always intended to return to Japan, she explains, but when she was ten years old, they decided to stay. The cultural disconnect that the move instigated is the grit she has formed her pearl around; struggling to communicate with her peers and teachers, the young Sawayama spent a lot of time absorbing music and drama at school, with an eclectic appetite which spanned Motown, gospel, hip-hop and rock.

Her ambition has also taken her from music to Hollywood. Last year, she made her big​-​screen acting debut alongside Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 4. 'Chad [Stahelski], the director, was looking for someone who could act and do choreography', she explains. He 'saw my music videos and really responded to the acting and dancing in them, which gave him confidence I’d be able to pick up the stunt training’.

​It was intense, of course, but ​'​it​ was the most amazing experience,' she says, 'and of course I’d love to do more. There are a few conversations but to be honest, at the moment I am enjoying some time off to think, write, read and collect inspiration’. We caught up with Sawayama during this downtime to find out more about her inspiration, her efforts to create a more inclusive contemporary landscape and​, with International Women’s Day approaching, the women who continue to fuel her creative practice.

Rina Sawayama wears the double-breasted wool-blend trench coat by COS.

‘It's wonderful to take time to pay respect to incredible women but I also think it's something I think we should carry into every single day.’


THE ARTISTS WHO INSPIRE HER

'I always say this but it’s Hikaru Utada!' Sawayama met the Japanese-American pop singer, songwriter and producer, and her longtime idol, in 2019, and was floored by the experience. 'But for live performances I think my earliest inspiration was probably Britney. I remember her being the first person I was really in awe of.'
As for her current inspirations: 'At the moment, I’d say XG, Twigs, Mitski… There have been so many over the years, but I’m loving their work and careers.'

THE STORYTELLING POWER OF THE ALBUM FORMAT

'I’ve only ever really written and released albums', she says. The format is one that strikes her as a powerful vehicle for a shared journey with her audience. 'I think that 10-15 track structure will always be an amazing way to take the listener through basically every emotion. That’s something that I wanted to capture the essence of on both Hold the Girl and SAWAYAMA.'

PAVING THE WAY FOR OTHERS LIKE HER

'The hardest thing is when you feel alone in trying, but luckily with the Brits and the changes it felt like this big wave of support. I adore my fans and the way they got behind it. They looked at it, really understood the story and why it’s important to immigrants who work in the arts in the UK to be heard and recognised.
'Without them things wouldn’t have changed.' Sawayama has a fervent fan community, which calls itself Pixels. 'It means so much [to be able to foster a community of likeminded people]. Especially just coming off the back of the biggest tour I’ve done, seeing them around the world doesn’t feel real sometimes. I’m just very grateful.'


Rina Sawayama wears the double-breasted wool-blend trench coat by COS.

'I hope that people feel proud of their cultural identities. I feel like there’s been a definite shift in mindset amongst young people to embrace them more.’


FEELING BOTH JAPANESE AND BRITISH

'[Growing up in Japan] definitely informed the writing on both my albums', she says – and the performance element of her craft is shaped by her experience of two parallel cultures too. 'I want my live shows to take people on a journey through some of the amazing, but also difficult elements of what it’s like to have two identities.'

'Crystal [Lockhart]', the creative director who works on visuals for many of Sawayama’s shows, 'is someone I talk to a lot about this. She’s Korean-American. I love what she did with songs like Dynasty, for example, in the Reloaded live show. That really presented what can sometimes be a struggle between two cultures.'

By embodying this intersection in the work she makes, Sawayama hopes that she can inspire others to do the same. 'I hope that people feel proud of their cultural identities. I feel like there’s been a definite shift in mindset amongst young people to embrace them more. You can see this in films like Past Lives, which told that story beautifully.'

PERSONAL STYLE

'Incredibly relaxed and practical', she says, of what she’s wearing when she’s not on stage. 'On shoots especially I'm definitely wearing something super comfortable.' And for the piece she feels most herself in: 'Mainly pyjamas!'

GENDER EQUALITY AND INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY

'It's wonderful to take time to pay respect to incredible women but I also think it's something we should carry into every single day.' In the music industry, she has a strong sense of what that looks like: 'That women are given the same attention, devotion and support as everyone else, across the whole industry – from artists to people who work at labels.'

THE ADVICE SHE WOULD GIVE TO OTHERS STARTING OUT

'Take your time, and do as much as you can on your own without listening to other people!'

QUICKFIRE QUESTIONS

Your all-time favourite record to dance to?

Beyoncé, Love on Top

What do you collect?

Lego!

 What would you like to tell your younger self?

Be patient

Your favourite place in the world?

Tokyo

 

Words by Maisie Skidmore
Rina Sawayama wears the Spring Summer 2024 collection. Photography Karim Sadil. Styling by Jane How.

 


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