If there’s a woman in music who embodies the millennial approach to technology, it’s Rina Sawayama.
Inspired by the bubblegum pop and R’n’B of the 90s, the London singer addresses modern issues against a nostalgic backdrop, her debut single Cyber Stockholm Syndrome highlighting a generation’s struggles with socialising outside versus the safety felt behind a screen.
Upon releasing the music video for the song late last year, Cyber Stockholm Syndrome gained comparisons to the likes of Aaliyah and TLC, owing to her unique sound and the style of the music video. Alongside the inclusion of a Motorola flip phone (yes really), and backing dancers, Rina undergoes a multitude of costume changes while performing the song amid a variety of settings – not unlike TLC’s No Scrubs.
BN1 sat down with Rina to find out more about the inspirations behind this fascinating up-and-coming musician, ahead of her performance on the VEVO Stage at Wagner Hall on Fri 18 May as part of The Great Escape Festival.
BN1: Hi Rina! So, talk me through the style of your music. Can we expect the same 90s nostalgia to come across in your live performances?
RS: I feel like, especially in the UK, a lot of musicians are too concerned with acting really ‘cool’ on stage, but the gigs I used to see growing up were completely different. I want to make the people who come to my gigs to feel really happy, and leave people with a feeling afterwards. People are so worried about looking like they’re trying too hard – there’s such an aversion to that, which I suppose it what makes the UK and London what it is – but then I grew up watching Britney and Beyonce totally killing it and perfecting their craft on stage, and that’s where I want to get to.
BN1: Do you feel that’s something you’re achieving?
I’m still not even double digits with my gigs so I’m having to learn really quickly. We’re constantly rehearsing, but it’s something I’m super involved in and want to get right.
BN1: How long have you been doing the live shows for?
RS: So I’ve been making music for around three years, but until November was working another job. The touring started around then, after I dropped my first mini-album. We sold out to 300 people for one show in a week which was great. The second show was supporting Kelala at Roundhouse, which was like ‘woah’ – a really big jump. But then I did a US tour of five shows, and sold out The Garage (Highbury & Islington venue). Literally within six months, my headline shows have more than tripled in size, from a 200 capacity to 600. It’s still really intimate which is great – you want to make sure everyone is getting their money’s worth and enjoying it.
BN1: Especially if it’s selling out – do you find there’s a pressure there to really crank up your performance?
RS: Yeah, exactly that – it gives me the motivation to work harder when rehearsing. I haven’t been dancing for long at all – that really just started when we were putting together the Cyber Stockholm Syndrome video in June last year. I was never a dancer, but had to learn really quickly.
Actually, I really want to shout out Joelle D’Fontaine from At Your Beat – it’s one of the first ’empowering’ dance studios. If you go to the big ones like Pineapple and you’ve never had any prior dance experience, it’s really intimidating. But his company is all about helping you get better – everyone cheers each other on and it pushes you. My dancers are even instructors at his company.
BN1: I actually wanted to talk to you about your backing dancers. You don’t get to see much of that anymore as people seem to have labelled bubblegum pop as cringey…
RS: Yeah, but it made people happy. Pop can do a lot of things – it’s very powerful. It can inspire and make you think politically. But if you go and see a show you want to feel really good afterwards. You want to feel elated.
BN1: It’s definitely a unique approach. So tell me a bit about your songs and the lyricism – considering the nostalgic vibes, there’s definitely a massively modern/futuristic edge to them…
RS: So my whole first album aims to polymerise our relationship with technology. It’s fiction, but also non-fiction at the same time. Cyber starts with a girl who’s trying to get ready to go out but she just feels anxious because she’s been on her phone too much and feels detached from the ‘real world’. It’s a story all young girls I think are familiar with. When you’re at a party on your own, you’re always on your phone now – you always want to make sure there’s people around you, rather than just seeing what’s going on. That song for me really concludes the album. I didn’t want to say whether our relationship with tech was good or bad – I wanted to say it’s both. I wanted to tell it in a way that hasn’t been told before. At least not in music.
BN1: To what extent does that reflect how you feel about it personally?
RS: Yeah. I grew up with dial-up and broadband didn’t really start until I was a teenager. I had MySpace, and MSN Messenger, which started off the whole social media obsession where you’re judged by your peers on how your MySpace looks or whatever. So I’ve grown up with it to a degree, but I can’t imagine what young people are growing up with now – it’s all happening so quickly. You can’t grow up online without making mistakes, which leaves you open for others to dig up years later. For the first time, people can find something you wrote when you were 16 and hold it against you, it’s really silly.
BN1: You seem to be creating quite a discussion for it though.
RS: I think it’s really important to keep the discussion going as artists. Janelle Monae has discussed it in the context of love which was beautiful, and I’m definitely fascinated by it. I’m currently reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (which focuses on the life of Monica Lewinsky, and the mob mentality of Twitter), and I’m going to see how that pans out. It’s not going to be all I write about though.
BN1: So I also wanted to talk to you about your stage wardrobe, which obviously has had a lot of thought put into it…
RS: I guess it’s just part of me thinking it’s not just a gig but a show. I’m putting on a show, with costumes, and I find it so fun. I’ve been in fashion and modelling for longer than I’ve been doing music as a profession, so the two definitely come hand-in-hand. I was actually only able to create my early music videos due to my connections in fashion. At the moment that’s a huge perk of being independent – I can still have freedom over my appearance and control over what I can do. I have nothing to lose. It pushes you as well.
Rina Sawayama returns to the UK with a show at London’s Heaven on 19 Oct.
For more information, visit Rina’s Bandcamp page here.
Image credit: Sean Carpenter