NATURAL Woman

Understanding the divergent perspectives of those around us can be difficult — never more so than in this great polarized year of 2016. But with this year’s Puberty 2, Japanese-American indie rocker Mitski Miyawaki has given the world perhaps the most impactful sonic statement yet on what it’s like to be, well, Mitski: a confident if sometimes confused 20-something woman navigating the 21st-century pitfalls of romance, gender, and loneliness, along with the social constructs that surround them.

Mitski’s take on such topics is informed by an unusual kind of experience: She spent her childhood bouncing between 13 different countries (including Japan, Malaysia, China, Turkey, the Democratic Republic of Congo) before setting in New York City, where she started playing music. Studying studio composition at SUNY-Purchase, she experimented with electronica, orchestral arrangements, and acerbic lyricism (see second album Retired from Sad, New Career in Business). But 2014’s Bury Me at Makeout Creek and Puberty 2 honed her swirling, hypnotic attack to a sharp point that cuts immediately through the fog, particularly on recent singles “Happy” and “Your Best American Girl.”

“I just felt like, by this fourth record, I knew how recording an album worked and I knew what outcome I wanted going into the process,” Mitski tells Folio Weekly. “I think I was just more decisive and confident from having had more experience.” And that extra confidence has resulted in gushing press for Puberty 2: features in outlets as diverse as Elle and NPR, along with a recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, where she performed her own music and sat in with Jon Batiste and his band for the duration of the show. “It was so different from anything I’d experienced,” Mitski says. “I went in, met the house band day of, had one hour to go over five of my songs that they’d never played before, and then went live right after. The adrenaline rush was crazy!”

Yet Mitski insists that all the glitz and glamour exist only on the surface, and that she remains a hard-working musician today, just as she has been since college. “It probably looks from the outside like my life has changed, but it really hasn’t,” she says. “All that buzz happens online, but my day to day is still the same. I don’t enjoy any particular luxuries — I’m just busier and there are now more people at my shows.”

But clearly those people are connecting with something raw — in Mitski’s voice, which retains a haunting quality even as it rises and falls. In her howling instrumentation, which mashes up the best of ‘90s grunge, ‘00s rock, and ‘10s intersectionality. And in her words, which cut straight to the quick (take the song “A Loving Feeling”: “What do you do with a loving feeling / If the loving feeling makes you all alone?”) 

Desire, chaos, sex, power, control — if these are the most common emotions that define the human condition, Mitski seems preternaturally in command of all of them, even as she accepts the fact that it’s OK for life to get messy sometimes. As she told NPR earlier this year, “I don’t think I’m alone in this: I’m obsessed with trying to not only be happy but maintain happiness, but my definition of happiness is skewed more towards ecstasy rather than contentment. Ecstasy can’t last forever, so there’s the inevitable comedown from that.” 

Another inevitable comedown? Critical interpretations of Mitski’s music that entirely miss the mark. After she released the video for “Your Best American Girl,” in which Mitski and a dreamy guy make eyes at each other until a Coachella-ready hipster girl invades the scene, hundreds of outlets gleefully held it up as a statement on the homogeneity of white indie culture. Mitski cautioned against such a broad reading, but also admitted that people saw the discussions of race and gender embedded in the video: “I have been pleasantly surprised by how so many strangers have seemed to understand what I meant.”

But still, there’s only so much we can assume we know about someone who retains such control over her career. She tells FW that she has yet to find a higher state of being than performing: “[That] human sensation has been similar for all humans as long as humans have performed, so I doubt it would change for me.” And when asked about whether her current marathon tour makes her homesick, she says, “I don’t get homesick because I have no home.” 

Whatever it is that Mitski is looking for, hopefully she keeps exploring it in song and on stage — here’s a situation where the old adage “the journey is more important than the destination” is devastatingly true. “I hope I find a place I’ll belong,” she finishes. “But we’ll see. No one on earth is free from social constructs as long as they live in society.”

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