As of late, there have been a handful of soul singers coming out of the United Kingdom. Most prominently, and now sadly departed was the tortured soul of Amy Winehouse. But since then a handful of artists such as Adele, Jessie Ware, and many others have had their voices heard.
But if there were to be someone who would rise from all that commotion, it would be Japanese born and London raised artist Rina Sawayama. Leaving Japan at the young age of five, she’s always known that she had wanted to make music.
Earlier this year, her first single “Sleeping In Waking” slowly crept up and made a huge splash on the net and sent chills down many ears. Her swooning vocals encapsulated and made listeners want to hibernate into a warm cozy bed with a mountain of pillows and an ocean of blankets to let their sorrows wash away.
And who would’ve thought that a demo she had been sitting on since she was 18 years old would have this kind of effect.
But now at 22, her songwriting has matured and her single what was originally a folk arrangement was brought to life by producer Hoost. The song transformed like a Phoenix and was enhanced with warm, lush, and deep production values. Her mature vocals strongly flow confidently.
Featured on her debut release, a lovely vinyl 7” single for “Sleeping In Waking” is the B-side “Who?” It’s another glorious soulful gem from the Sawayama’s songwriting chest of gold.
We were given the opportunity to premiere “Who?” and ask the songwriter some questions about what makes her pen tick, what makes her groove, and which Justin Timberlake tracks she likes from his new album The 20/20 Experience.
You were born in Japan but raised in London. How has the change in scenery affected your songwriting? Did the culture clash have any influence?
I moved here when I was 5, which is too young to really notice a big clash. I consider myself a Japanese Londoner, and sometimes I have some weird slips (for example I have trouble saying “oven” and “olive”), but everyone has those, right? In terms of songwriting it’s given me the best of both worlds.
2. How long until after going to a Japanese school in London were you able to branch out and discover music that really influenced your songwriting?
It actually all started with Avril Lavigne. I was 12 when I saw her on TV and begged my dad for a guitar. He caved, and I taught myself chords and begun writing that way. It was then that I actually started looking for music myself, and all my pocket money went into buying CDs. I gave myself the much-needed lesson in the history of music: Clapton, the Doors, Zombies etc. When I was 16 I’d sneak into random gigs and it taught me so much about performing. I think it also really helped that I went to a performing arts school so the equipment was great and we were always encouraged to perform.
In a previous interview with The Line of Best Fit you said that Japan was behind when it comes to music innovation. It does seem like Japan’s music scene does hold on strongly to the roots of certain genres of music such as reggae, hair metal, etc. But there have been also interesting artists such as Pizzacato Five, Cibbo Matto, Towa Tei, Cornelius, etc. Are there any Japanese artists that you’ve found influential on your music?
I didn’t mean to generalise the lack of innovation to all Japanese music. Don’t get me wrong I think Japan produces some of the best musicians overall. Utada Hikaru was a huge influence; I remember “Automatic” was the first song I sang to my parents in front of the tv and it was the first time they took my singing seriously. She wrote that when she was 16! I also listened to a lot of Sheena Ringo when I was quite young because of my sister, her lyrics are beautifully grim and I’m attracted to that still. Nowadays I think Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is art, Perfume are great, and they aren’t Japanese but I have a massive soft spot for Girls’ Generation (SNSD) too. I secretly want to be the 10th member.
Also, you were a politics major at Cambridge. Does politics play into any of the songwriting as well? What themes are you usually attracted to when writing?
I find it hard to write a straight-up love song, and prefer to write about conflicts and what comes of them. I guess I’m naturally drawn to writing about injustices in my life and in other peoples’. My songs are often born out of frustration, and politics (in a world view and in personal relationships) can often be incredibly frustrating as well as conflicting and unfair. Now that I think about it, the two mix in a very unexpected way!
I read you’re a big Justin Timberlake fan! Same here. What’s your favorite track on the new album? I think “Strawberry Bubblegum” is a pretty sweet track.
I love that one! That song has like 5 hooks in it – perfect because I’m a total hook junkie. Speaking of junkie, I love Pusher Love Girl too. Tunnel Vision and Let The Groove Get In are two songs that go round and round in my head all day. Like many girls (and guys) my age I have such a soft spot for JT; I used to bunk school in year 8 with my friend and wait in front of the hotel he was staying at for like 2 hours only to miss him because he left through the back entrance. We did catch a glimpse of him though, and suffice to say it was the best moment of my life.
If you had a chance to collaborate with Timbaland would you? Do you think your music would completely stray from where it’s headed now?
Uhhh yes! Are you kidding, I would let him take my music wherever. I was a massive fan of Shock Value but obviously because I’m such a JT fan I would hope to share some of that vibe too. He can Aaliyah me up anytime too.
Speaking of Timbaland, you were in a hip hop group called Lazy Lion. Any hip hop groups or scenes you’re really digging now?
I love rap but to be quite honest I hesitate to call myself a hip hop fan because I cant keep up with the scene right now. I love the crazier kids like Brooke Candy, Mykki Blanco, Riff Raff – some more than others but purely for the irony/entertainment value. Feature artists are so ridiculous nowadays; I have a theory that 2 Chainz, Meek Mill, Rick Ross, Gucci Maine, Drake, French Montana, Big Sean, Wacka Flocka Flame and Pusha T all go round in a big group to different studios offering up their services, and sometimes an artist will want all of them on a track and sometimes, like on Cassie’s new album, they’ll want to spread them over an entire mixtape.
Now onto your new single “Who?” It’s shorter than “Sleeping In Waking” and although it carries the same sultry vocals and vibe, it sounds a little bit more uplifting. What was the inspiration?
Well, it’s about this time at a pizza restaurant where I had to sit opposite the guy I really liked flirt with his new girlfriend. We’d had some history but I hadn’t been straight with how I felt, so I played it cool even though I was dying inside. To be fair I had a boyfriend at the time so it all was a bit messed up. The song goes dreamy => bittersweet => pissed off in 2 minutes. It’s a lullaby for the crazy bitch.
Anything different musically compared to “Sleeping In Waking?”
I wanted to capture the bittersweetness of it all so I stripped it back, production wise. I wanted it to be dreamy and a little bit tongue-in-cheek. It’s not as sexy-sounding or as complex as SIW, so I think it was a perfect B side in that sense.
Both your songs “Sleeping In Waking” and “Who?” really highlight your vocals. Are there any vocalists that you look up to when it comes to singing? There are definitely a lot of soul singers coming out of the U.K. these days.
I look up to strong female singers such as Aretha Franklin, Beyonce, Alicia Keys (circa A Minor) Janelle Monae, Karen O. However lately I’ve been singing so much Taylor Swift and it’s becoming a concern.
With two great singles out there – when can we expect more songs? You’ve talked about releasing singles that would have its own “moment.” Would an album still be in the picture in the near future?
Yes, definitely. I like taking time with song-writing and actually writing something meaningful so I’m in no rush. I have a back-catalogue of great songs that I cant wait for people to hear, and its important that every song has its moment.
Listen to “Who?” below: