Rina Sawayama Is Redefining What It Means to Be a Pop Star

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That’s not to say that Sawayama was an overnight success story. Long before she released her critically acclaimed debut album, Sawayama, and started climbing the charts, she was grinding through her mid-20s—bussing tables, modeling, and taking on a few other odd jobs to self-fund her music. “Being an independent artist for so long was not about making music. It was about surviving,” she shares. “You want to make sure people are getting paid for their work, and I was always focused on how to fund the next thing, the next video, the next tour.” The hustle eventually paid off for Sawayama when she signed a record deal with independent label Dirty Hit in 2019. 

Sawayama’s success can be attributed to the artist’s gritty approach to pop music. While her vocals are traditionally within the realm of “pop,” she’s not afraid to sample melodies from a mélange of genres—including rock, country, and techno—to create a distinctly alternative sound all her own. She’s also not one to shy away from heavier topics. When probed about her writing process, she reveals, “At the end of the day, my goal is to have my music be like a Trojan horse, where you can hide deep and sad meanings within a song, but the melody and production have to be good.” That artful balance is unequivocally on display in breakout hits like “STFU!” from Sawayama and “This Hell” from her forthcoming album, Hold the Girl. Both explore the facets of her identity and her angst in navigating microaggressions and homophobia as a British Japanese pansexual woman in the 21st century.  

The music industry hasn’t always been receptive to exploring those topics, but Sawayama’s relationship with her label and dedication to her craft have cultivated the space for these conversations to happen. Musicians—specifically female musicians—have always been pushed to create in a way that adheres to a homogenous fantasy of what a pop star is, but that’s not the case with Sawayama’s team. “I’ve found confidence in my music and my creative process because they’ve trusted me so much,” she says. With the ability to sing about what she wants, wear what she wants, and even get help with the whole social media thing (Sawayama admits to being late to jumping on the TikTok train), she’s been able to define what a pop artist is on her own terms. With that, she’s found the freedom to hold space for herself.

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