“I always had fantasies of being on stage and playing guitar and singing and kind of rocking out, just like any young kid does. Now that I can play guitar and I get to do that, childhood me is air-punching right now.”
On “First Love/Late Spring,” the first gorgeous single we heard from Brooklyn songwriter Mitski Miyawaki this year, she describes herself not as an adult, but a “tall child.” So, let the air-punching continue. The rest of her new record, Bury Me at Makeout Creek, out soon on surging indie label Double Double Whammy, is equally strong—sad and funny and tough but tender. Though she’d already released two records of heavily orchestrated, sad jazz vibes, this is her first set of songs since learning the guitar. The fuzzy feedback crunch gives her technically sound voice a new ballast to bounce off. She now makes disheveled basement rock that holds more than a little grace.
Having just returned home from a west coast tour with neighborhood pals LVL Up, she plays her only CMJ week show tomorrow night at Silent Barn, for Miscreant and Father/Daughter Records Conscious Coupling Party (with other cool bands like Girlpool, Amanda X, and Small Wonder). She’ll be back there on November the 13th to celebrate her album’s release two days before. She deserves to be kind of a big deal by then.
We caught up with Mitski when she was still on the road, in an attempt to get to know her a bit better first. Our chat touched on her well-travelled childhood and music school background, the combination of sadness and wit in her lyrics, the sad-sackery of Milhouse from The Simpsons, and the horrible possibility that someone might make you wear an old-timey Christmas bonnet.
Where are you from?
Originally? I live in Brooklyn.
Did you grow up in New York state?
The thing is, my father works for the State Department. He’s a foreign service officer with the State Department, meaning we moved to a different country every year or so when I was growing up. So the question “Where are you from?” is actually quite complicated for me.
But there must be a place that springs to mind first?
It depends on the day, really. Sometimes I feel very Japanese, so I say I’m from Japan. I lived in Malaysia for 3 years. Sometimes, I just randomly say that if it’s a person I know I’m not going to meet again and I’m feeling playful. Usually, it’s just easier to say that I’m from New York, because at this point New York is the place I’ve lived longest, which is 5 years.
Is this recent tour the first time you’ve seen the rest of the country?
Yeah! It’s really special to me because I haven’t really lived in the U.S. but this is my country I suppose. Going through the landscapes, it almost feels like a pilgrimage. “Oh, this is where I’m from!” The drive over here from Denver, it was like, tear-inducing. It was amazing.
And now that I’m out of New York, I’m staying at people’s houses where they pay like $200 a month for some huge space. Maybe I need to get the eff out of New York.
Ending up at SUNY Purchase to study composition, you must have had some recognition and drive to make music from fairly early on?
I had always been not making music, but learning music. It was only at 19 that I started making my own songs. Until then I had been studying music and I had been loving music, but it never occurred to me that I could make my own music. So I didn’t actually make my own music until my first year of college, actually at Hunter. I was a film and media major and then I just realized that this wasn’t what I wanted to do. I had to buckle down and actually do what I wanted to do, so I started writing my own songs. I had musical training before that, which is why I could get into the composition program at SUNY Purchase, which you can’t just get into without any experience whatsoever.
Listening to those first two records and looking at the credits, even if I didn’t know that you were making those when you were in music school, I think I might have thought so.
Yeah, the fact that I got orchestral instruments…how would any indie/unknown artist do that and then post it on Bandcamp?
Do you think your access to all that stuff guided your writing? Do you think the environment was definitive for the songs?
I feel like what I heard in my head already had orchestral sounds, but if I didn’t have an orchestra I would have done it another way. When I was in school, I looked around and said, “Wow, it would be stupid of me to not use these classical musicians who are willing to play for free, and all these facilities, and all these different resources.” I think it was a combination of both, but ultimately if I didn’t have those resources, I would have put out those songs anyway, in another form. I was just lucky enough to have that.
There is continuity in that it came from the same person, it came from the same me. I definitely think I had a different mindset. I was conscious about being able to play them live, and I think I definitely steered the songwriting and the arrangement towards things that would translate to basements or to smaller venues, or just to loud noisy places.
How was learning guitar compared to other instruments you’ve played?
With guitar, it’s really easy to get an elementary level of ability, which is what I have. I’m not good at it, at all. I’m able to do enough of it to like sing and play by myself. But there are actual good guitar players. When you start to learn Spanish you feel like you can speak the language and then after you advance a little bit, you realize that you know nothing. So, it’s kind of like that. I’m at the steep learning curve level of guitar where I feel like I can play guitar, but in reality I really can’t.
Playing with elements like distortion and feedback now, do you think of it is “arranging” those elements in a way?
I haven’t really thought about it but if I reflect, I definitely have been approaching it that way. That kind of distortion or noise, those gears, are part of the arrangement. A lot of those songs wouldn’t be the same or be what they are without that fuzz or noise.
Do you think that it’s letting you write different kinds of songs, or express different sorts of ideas/thoughts?
I actually do. When I’m writing a song now, it’s an element that’s in my head just like the orchestral stuff. Sometimes I would hear strings or horns in the same way. Now I feel like I hear distortion.