Mitski's Indie Honesty: 'Hype Doesn’t Play My Shows'
Photo by Baohien Ngo
For Brooklyn-based songwriter Mitski, a penchant for acting hastily has made her a popular figure on social media. It also explains certain facts about the singer: why, for example, her cellphone has an Austin area code (she happened to be in the Texas capital when it came time to finally buy a mobile device), or how the 24-year-old came up with the title for her third album, Bury Me at Makeout Creek, her first with Don Giovanni Records.
“All of my important decisions aren’t really thought through,” she says over the phone while taking a brief break from a studio session in Westchester. “I was watching a Simpsons episode, and between recording and taking a break, Milhouse said that line in that one episode, and I was like, 'That’s the title!'?”
Born Mitski Miyawaki, the singer had a nomadic childhood due to her father’s work in an undisclosed government position. The constant coming and going didn’t allow her to become immersed in music until she was in her teens, but a lack of a musical role model had something to do with it, too.
“I got a really late start playing music because I didn’t grow up seeing anyone who looked like me, or had my background or what I wanted to do,” she says, referring to the fact that she's an Asian-American woman making music in a genre dominated by white men. “It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it. It was more like I couldn’t get up and get myself to do it because it stayed in my imagination."
Her first two albums, 2012's Lush and 2013's Retired From Sad, New Career in Business, were the product of her SUNY Purchase education, as she wrote and recorded them as part of her senior project. Powered by an orchestra and other classical musicians — resources that would be unavailable upon graduation — Mitski explored bigger, grander sounds, albeit in a traditional fashion. By the time she received her diploma, she quickly realized she wouldn’t have access to the facilities and musicians she did while in school. Instead of becoming a classical musician, she gravitated toward the DIY nature of punk rock.
The simplistic, straightforward nature of the music she was introduced to at clubs and DIY shows made for a revelation. Mitski quickly became immersed in punk and realized that she didn’t need to record in a fancy studio or play with a big orchestra to create music she liked.
“I really don’t think about what genre of music I’m making,” she explains. “I would always write songs that sounded like this, but I thought it was weird because I didn’t listen to music like this and didn’t know why it was coming out of me, since I never really liked it. When I started to go to shows I realized that it was less about fitting into a genre and more about simplifying things, and it doesn’t have to be complicated to be good.”
Bury Me was the game-changer. Her work was soon lauded for bending song structure and fusing orchestral elements while retaining a punk-rock edge. For the first time, she was able to perform her music live, something she says was previously unattainable.
Nearly seven months after Bury Me was released, the singer-songwriter is seeing her place in the music world at large change. She recently completed a tour with Speedy Ortiz and played a ballyhooed set at SXSW; next she'll be embarking on her first headlining tour, sharing top billing with Elvis Depressedly. Even as Bury Me continues to gain traction, Mitski says she’s already finished her fourth full-length, and she remains adamantly dismissive of the compliments that have been bestowed on her.
“None of that is real; hype isn’t real,” she says. “It’s very flattering, and without publicity I can’t get people to come to my shows. On the same token, hype doesn’t write my music and hype doesn’t play my shows. And it doesn’t pay me.”
Mitski plays Saint Vitus Bar as a part of the 2015 Northside Festival on June 12. For ticket info, click here.
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