Mitski on working life and the meaning of success
The compelling multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter plays November 18 at The Frequency.
In Mitski’s songs, feelings of loneliness, desolation and fear are not dismissed or agonized over, but become a source of strength. The New York-based songwriter’s voice is mournful, but crystal clear, and although the lyrics are often desperate, the music has a driving force behind it. While her songs usually start simply, some of the most satisfactory moments are when electric guitars blaze in to underscore a lyrical point or the song dissolves in a wall of screaming, fuzzy sound.
Mitski, full name Mitski Miyawaki, has a penchant for creating vivid imagery in her music and letting the “mundane” aspects of everyday life tell the story, as on the song “Francis Forever,” from last year’s album Bury Me At Make Out Creek (re-issued this year by esteemed New Jersey label Don Giovanni Records): “On sunny days I go out walking/ I end up on a tree-lined street/ I look up at the gaps of sunlight/ I miss you more than anything.” Survival is the thread woven throughout the album, a beating heart created from the willingness to be honest with one’s own suffering.
Mitski spoke with me over the phone recently, ahead of her Wednesday, November 18 show at The Frequency. We talked about what success means to her, working food service jobs, her favorite Drake song and her unlikely connection to the Spin Doctors. You can also hear an audio version of this interview on WSUM at 8 a.m. on the day of the show.
Tone Madison: Do you feel like you've succeeded your own standards and if you haven't, what else do you want to do? What are the most difficult aspects of this success?
Mitski Miyawaki: Actually, last night I was talking to my friend Felix who's in Told Slant. We went and got coffee and were talking about music and stuff, and I was talking to them about this like very mysterious term, "success." I definitely don't think I’ve achieved it in any way, I’m just a nobody. It’s true I’ve started to be paid to play shows and maybe I’ve been written up by bigger publications and so people see that and they think, “Oh, I saw her on Rolling Stone, she must be all set now," but that's definitely not my goal. I don't care about who writes me up. I care about, like, in 20 years if I get cancer, will I be able to pay for treatment with the money I made from music, or, in 40 years will I be able to take care of my parents, or if I have children will I be able to send them to college, will I be able to buy my own house, you know? I have these kinds of like, goals that if you were someone who didn't do music, if you did everything right, you'd just "get" as a natural progression of being an adult and working and stuff. But in the music world it seems like as a musician, as an artist making your own art and selling it, you have to do exponentially more just to get that normal amount. So I think success for me will be having the security to make the music I want to make while also having savings enough for emergency situations. It’s not about being well known, it's not about—I haven't even thought about leading any kind of luxurious life, that's never even entered my brain because it's never kind of been a possibility for me from the start. I just want to be able to be a happy adult who can deal with problems as they come, while also making art, if that makes sense.
Tone Madison: Yeah, I totally understand. That’s my goal as an artist as well, and it's kind of crazy to think that it feels near impossible, it feels really difficult.
Mitski Miyawaki: Right! And also there's so much, I dunno, there's so much politics around it that doesn't make any sense, where, for example, if I were in real estate then of course at some point I would buy my own house and have children and get older and get sick and die, hopefully peacefully, but when you're making music and selling your art, suddenly it's like if you're not in the basement playing to no one then you're not a real artist, or if you're not making art that no one understands and no one buys then you're selling out or you're pandering to capitalism or whatever, when the reality is that you can't live in America and not be a part of capitalism, but... anyway, I got into this whole discussion with a few friends so I have a lot to say about it.
Tone Madison: Did you have any really really crappy jobs, maybe when you were in college or high school?
Mitski Miyawaki: To be honest, I have been working for most of my life and most of my jobs have been crappy. I’ve been someone who's been working even while I was in high school. I quit high school for a year to work. It’s one of those things where it's like who I am; I’ve always been working. It’s never been like, this annoying thing that I have to do to buy an iPhone, it hasn't been like, "Oh, I’m better than this job but I have to do it to pay for this temporary thing." It's like, no, I’m a working person, what I do is work. I’ve had a shit ton of crappy jobs and I’ve always acknowledged that as part of what I have to do to live.
Tone Madison: Yeah. That’s come through in a lot of your music. In the song “Last Words Of A Shooting Star,” there's the lyric, "I’ve always wanted to die clean and pretty but I was too busy on working days.” That’s rung true for me as a person working at a coffee shop and at a restaurant.
Mitski Miyawaki: Oh yeah, I was in food service for almost 10 years, because I started working illegally, at an illegal age [laughs]. I feel like I could write a book about all the weird customers.
Tone Madison: I feel like it's kind of a blessing to have a job like that, because you have to deal with so many people who can be amazing and wonderful and terrible and there are so many things that are out of your control or in your control. it's about how you present a certain situation. I feel like it’s the kind of the thing where if everyone was able to do it, the world would be a better place.
Mitski Miyawaki: Oh yeah, totally, I agree.
Tone Madison: What’s your favorite Drake song?
Mitski Miyawaki: Oh Jesus. Um, well... I think it's "Own It" because it might not be his objectively best song, but it's the one I always go back to for some reason, and I’ve cried to a few times, and I don't even know why I’m crying, it just feels so beautiful. It’s so soothing to listen to it. I have a very complex relationship to Drake, because I acknowledge that a lot of what he does or what he says or what he represents is very misogynistic, but I also really enjoy his music.
Tone Madison: There was something really interesting I read about how you can be a feminist and enjoy that kind of hip hop music, that just cause you listen to it doesn't mean you're saying it's OK. And I was so happy someone wrote that, because I love that kind of music. It pumps me up, it makes me feel good and I love dancing to it, and it doesn't mean I’m not thinking about it critically and I’m not hearing what they're saying.
Mitski Miyawaki: Yeah, well also I feel like it's better to—for example, I feel this way about Lana del Rey too, where I’m very attracted to her music and her message and her brand, and I know that a lot of elements are problematic, but the problematic elements are what I relate to, so it's almost like a therapy session or a kind of purging. It’s just like accepting these things that are inside me that might not be politically correct but do exist because they're just ingrained in you from growing up in the world and I feel like it’s better to listen to this kind of music and acknowledge that you even enjoy the misogynistic sides of it and then have an opportunity to explore it and purge it or think about it instead of completely disconnecting yourself and being like "Oh no, I don't like Drake because he's a misogynist," when I reality you actually like the music, you're just not admitting it to yourself.
Tone Madison: That's something that not a lot of people can say—they want to say they're a feminist and they know what's happening in the world around them and they're not a part of it, they're not complicit in it. It's such a difficult thing. You're aware of what you're aware of but at the same time you were raised in this society and there's so much you take part in without trying to. There were art critiques I had were my art professors would point things out in artwork and be like, "You're painting luscious female nudes, and you're a feminist, what's up with that?" And I always thought that so interesting. Why do I find the female body so fascinating? It’s kind of a tangent, but—
Mitski Miyawaki: Oh no it's totally relevant! Yeah I agree.
Tone Madison: What did you learn from academia, and what have you learned since then? And has it been a growing process, where you built on what you learned in academia?
Mitski Miyawaki: Well I did go to conservatory for composition, but I was part of a very kind of free for better or for worse program. I don't know what it's like right now but I was part of the studio composition program—I might totally be throwing shade at SUNY Purchase right now—no I’m not, I love SUNY Purchase—but the program I was a part of during that time gave its students so much freedom, and I thrived off of that freedom, but I also felt like if I had more guidance and was pushed to take harder classes, I might have actually studied music and been more disciplined, which I feel like I should have gotten from college. Anyway my point is I don't think there was any one professor or program or whatever that just like pushed me in any way, I was more just using all the resources they provided me to create what I wanted to create, which was great, but, I dunno... oh, although the current program director, Peter Denenberg, fun fact, he recorded Spin Doctors’ "Two Princes" record, do you know that song?
Tone Madison: Yeah, that song is really good!
Mitski Miyawaki: Well, Peter Denenberg was the one who produced that and he was the one who did the Space Jam soundtrack, so he's amazing. He really helped me out, mostly outside of college. I recorded my next upcoming record at his studio. He's let me stay over at his studio when I didn't have a place to sleep, and he's been a really good guiding figure outside of college. He’s just been really giving and helpful. Sorry, I don't think I gave a very cohesive answer.
Tone Madison: No, that was what I was interested in hearing—that there were people you connected with and created enduring pathways and support systems for you. I think that's what art school is supposed to be about.
Mitski Miyawaki: Yeah, I think SUNY Purchase is a really different place even two years after I graduated. I don't know what it's like right now, but someone told me who's going there now, "People know who you are and people apply to the program for you," and I’m like, that's crazy because they won't be getting what I got during my time there.
Tone Madison: Yeah it’s the kind of thing where they have to apply to the program that will work best for them. I’m going to close with one final question. So Beyoncé said it's always important to take off your makeup before you go to bed. Do you agree with this, do you always follow it?
Mitski Miyawaki: Yeah. That is like some 101 shit. Life clogs your pores enough against your will, so why would you additionally clog your pores willfully?
Tone Madison: Oh man, I gotta go take off my makeup!
Mitski Miyawaki: You need to do it! You need to do it. Let your skin breathe at night.