Cover Feature Queen of the Camp: Rina Sawayama

Gearing up for a mammoth festival season including her long-overdue debut Glastonbury performance, Rina Sawayama is riding the crest of smash second album ‘Hold The Girl’ into her most dominant era yet.

“Oh, I will not be tenting, babes – I’m there to work. I mean, I hope my tour manager has sorted me something other than a tent…” Rina Sawayama is talking, with flawless comic timing, about making her Glastonbury debut: another milestone moment for an artist whose career trajectory has been climbing skywards for well over half a decade now. Last September, her stellar, genre-blending second album ‘Hold the Girl’ entered the UK Album Chart at Number Three, cementing her status as a Main Pop Girl with a unique musical vision. Lead single ‘This Hell’ saw her taking on anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment with a Shania-style country strut (“Let’s go girls!” she says with a wink at the start); ‘Catch Me in the Air’, a rocky tour-de-force about Rina’s “intense” relationship with her mother, was designed with The Corrs pitching to Gwen Stefani in mind.

As well as touring the album and talking about it a lot – Rina reckons she’s given “over a hundred interviews” during this era – the 32-year-old has somehow found time to promote her first film, John Wick: Chapter 4, which came out in March. She earned rave reviews for her performance in the bloody blockbuster as Akira, a formidable fighterwho really holds her own next to Keanu Reeves’ ruthless assassin. “That [press cycle] felt easy because there was no pressure for me to really sell it,” she says today. “John Wick has its fans, and it’s a great movie, so it came out and instantly went to Number One all over the world.”

Still, Rina has been so busy that when DIY catches up with her in early April, she calculates that she’s spent just six nights in her own bed this year. Speaking from her South London home, she’s enjoying some much-needed calm before the storm of festival season. “It’s been so nice just clearing out my back garden and not engaging at all with anything,” she says. She may be doing an interview on a supposed day off, but Rina is warm, witty and willing to talk about anything. She even continues our chat for a little longer than specified while making her way to an appointment. “I’m walking now so don’t worry if I sound out of breath!” she says with a laugh.

This brief pause is only possible because, contrary to rumours that gathered traction in January, Rina was not competing at the Eurovision Song Contest last month. Until newcomer Mae Muller was unveiled as the UK’s representative, Pop Twitter seemed convinced that Rina was very much in the running. “I mean, it was really interesting because we’d actually – maybe a couple months ago, well, like a while ago – been approached, but then we returned the call and then nothing happened,” she says. “Basically, we didn’t get anything back. So in another universe, I might have been doing it but I didn’t actually hear [back].” Wait, that’s ridiculous! “Yeah, it was all go and then it kind of went quiet,” she says. “But it actually worked out well because I really needed a break; I hadn’t really taken a proper break for three years. Honestly, it’s really good that that happened because I probably would have burnt out or something.”

Rina Sawayama reflects on 'Hold The Girl', festival season and Glastonbury 2023 Rina Sawayama reflects on 'Hold The Girl', festival season and Glastonbury 2023 Rina Sawayama reflects on 'Hold The Girl', festival season and Glastonbury 2023
"Once you lean into the unpredictable nature of festivals, you start to play with it a bit, and now it’s the most enjoyable thing.”

It’s easy to see why many fans wanted #RinaForEurovision – she’s a bold pop star with a big voice who can really put on a show. “I grew up watching Eurovision, I love Eurovision, I like to call it ‘straight camp’ because it’s so camp but it’s for straight people,” she says. “So yeah, I feel very lucky and honoured that people were putting my name [out there]. I kind of played into it a little bit because I thought it was funny that this rumour kept getting bigger. But [I wish] all the best to Mae.” With those Eurovision rumours cleared up, we dig a little further into Rina’s‘ straight camp’ concept. What else would she define in this way? “Oh, John Wick is very straight camp,” she replies. “The whole series is inspired by Greek mythology and very melodramatic – I love it. There’s a lot of great things that are straight camp.” Later, we suggest that Strictly Come Dancing - the BBC primetime show on which she performed ‘This Hell’ wearing a sparkly silver cowboy hat – also falls into this category.

“Oh my god, Strictly is straight camp – 100 percent!” she says. “I love that phrase, I’m using it all the time.” Anyway, back to business. Glastonbury is far from the only festival Rina is playing this summer - she’s booked and busy from June onwards with sets at Governors Ball in New York, Mad Cool in Madrid, NOS Alive in Lisbon and Reading & Leeds in the UK, to name just five. As a performer, does she look forward to festival season? “I used to really hate it actually, because it used to scare me,” she says candidly. “I guess a lot of people might not know that, unless you’re the headliner, you don’t get a soundcheck. Most people [performing] will be rolling in that morning. And so you’re coming off, potentially, a very long flight and then doing a show straight away. For me, flying causes quite a lot of vertigo, so I used to kind of struggle with that.”

The turning point came when Rina played Danish festival Roskilde last July. “That was the first timeI thought, ‘Oh my god, this is actually really fun’. You rock up with no idea what you’re gonna get. Once you lean into the unpredictable nature of it, you start to play with it a bit, and now it’s the most enjoyable thing.” Rina also gained in confidence after performing at last year’s Coachella and styling out a technical glitch caused by desert dust in her soundboard. “At a festival, it might not be the most polished performance you’ve done, but it might be the funnest,” she says.

Rina is also brutally honest about what festivals mean to her brand and all-important bottom line.“ You know, we are constantly turning down festivals we would love to do [because] the slot isn’t right,” she says. “We always wait until the slot is right. And for a lot of artists, festivals are where we actually make income.” She points out that only top-tier superstars can make a mint by charging “£500 fora VIP circle” ticket. “There are a lot of overheads, especially if you want to put on a pop show at a very high level,” she says. “That requires a large investment, and how you balance that financially is to do festivals. I don’t make any money off my headline shows."

"My favourite pop girl is the hun pop girl.”

Rina is enough of a live draw to have packed out London’s 5,000-capacity O2 Academy Brixton in October, but she says putting on a show is always a matter of conjuring “smoke and mirrors” on a budget. She would “love to add more dancers,“ but currently can’t afford to because this would mean having to hire a second tour bus. “As an artist, I always want to put on the best show,” she says. “We’re actually redesigning the show for this run [of festivals] so it’s more theatrical and more about storytelling. And because I’m quite aware that there will be cameras on me because of festival live streams, I want to make it as photogenic as possible.” Still, the line between spectacle and practical is always a thin one. “Again, it’s about making all that possible while making [the show] transportable and able to be pushed out on stage in 15 minutes,” she adds. “It’s a lot to think about!“

Rina is also looking forward to festival season because it gives her an opportunity to reconnect with ‘Hold the Girl’ after a draining promo campaign. Sonically, her second LP is a genre-smooshing headrush, incorporating everything from bhangra to UK garage and J-pop to industrial rock, but her inventive productions are underpinned by deeply emotional songwriting. “I’m trying to be normal, but trauma is immortal,” she sings on ‘Frankenstein’, a lacerating indie banger about self-loathing. The brilliantly bombastic ballad ‘Forgiveness’ finds her grappling with the realisation that “forgiveness is a winding road”. “Sometimes I blame you, sometimes I don’t,” she sings. “Sometimes it flips so fast, I don’t know.”

Though Rina has been careful not to get too specific, she has previously said that discussing the album’s painful subject matter was “re-traumatising” for her. “I did so many interviews that the album kind of lost meaning for me,” she elaborates today. “When you’re talking about something over and over again, you’re almost rewriting how you perceive that story. And I became really quite detached from what was important, I think.”

Rina says she threw herself into giving “entertaining” interviews and making equally entertaining TikToks, but now wonders whether this all-guns-blazing approach was a slight misjudgment. “The story of the record is actually very sad and very intense,” she says. “And I don’t know if I was really able to honour that, because the goal at the time was, ‘Let’s do maximum exposure and push this record as far out as possible.’ But that really diluted the message.” With the benefit of hindsight, Rina says she wishes she had given herself “a couple of months” to figure out how to tell the album’s story. Instead, she dropped lead single ‘This Hell’ just five days after completing a tour in support of her 2020 debut LP ‘Sawayama’.

Rina Sawayama reflects on 'Hold The Girl', festival season and Glastonbury 2023
"At a festival, it might not be the most polished performance you've done, but it might be the funnest.”

Trailed by dazzling singles ‘STFU!’, ‘Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys)’ and ‘XS’ – the latter sounding like Britney doing nu-metal – the musician’s debut marked her out as an incredibly smart and seriously exciting pop visionary. As more and more people discovered the album, the buzz kept building: ‘Sawayama’ reached its UK chartp eak in November 2021, more than 18 months after it first came out.

Elton John joined her for a new version of ‘Chosen Family’, a touching ballad about her queer support network. She collaborated with Lady Gaga on a joyous remix of Gaga’s self-empowerment anthem ‘Free Woman’, and teamed up with Charli XCX on ‘Beg for You’ - an irresistible chart hit that cleverly reinvented September’s Eurodance classic ‘Cry for You’. Along the way, she also became an agent of change. Though she has lived in the UK since she was five, when she and her parents moved to London from Niigata in Japan, Rina revealed in July 2020 that she wasn’t eligible for the Mercury Prize because she doesn’t hold British citizenship. For the same reason, she was effectively barred from the UK artist categories at the BRIT Awards.

Rina holds an indefinite leave to remain visa, which guarantees the right to live and work in the UK permanently. After saying in a statement that it felt “heartbreaking” that she would never “be considered a British artist in the eyes of the awards of a country I call home,” the musician attracted so much social support that she got the rules changed. The BPI, which runs the Mercury Prize and the BRIT Awards, now recognises anyone who has lived in the UK for five years as an eligible British musician. Gratifyingly, she was nominated in the Best New Artist category at this year's BRITs – her second after aRising Star nod in 2021. “It’s one of those things that I haven't had a chance to take in,” she says today. “While I’m clearing my back garden that’s the kind of thought that pops into my head. Like, ‘Wow, I actually changed the rules’."

Work on Album Three will begin once Rina has taken a minute to process everything and recalibrate. “You have the regrets and joys of the first album, and the regrets and joys of the second, and then you get to combine it into an amazing third album,” she says. After the emotionally-draining campaign for ‘Hold the Girl’, was she struck by what Ellie Goulding said recently about writing and releasing the “least personal” album of her career? “One of my friends screenshotted that and sent it to me with [the word] ‘You’,” Rina says with a laugh. “It is very iconic. And the truth [that Ellie is expressing] is very important. Sometimes you just want to make music. You don’t want to dig deep and go there emotionally. Like, I’ve done that with the last two albums and it’s been really great. But the personal cost to me has also been great. I want to be doing this job when I’m 60 – am I constantly going to try and find something wrong with myself?”

With this thought in mind, we end on a lighter note by talking about fundamentally fun British pop legends Girls Aloud. “Honestly, the production on ‘Sound of the Underground’ is very inspiring to me. It’s the perfect mash-up of two very contrasting genres,” she says. “But also, there is this whole era of British pop that never made it to the US, so it feels like it’s ours – groups like Sugababes and Liberty X and Girls Aloud. And that era is very much hun culture, which is the culture I grew up with. My favourite pop girl is the hun pop girl.”

No hun pop girl would dream of sleeping in a tent at Glastonbury, so let’s hope Rina’s tour manager has got the memo.

‘Hold The Girl’ is out now via Dirty Hit.

Rina Sawayama plays Glastonbury (22nd - 25th June), Roskilde (24th June - 1st July), Open'er (28th June - 1st July), Mad Cool (6th - 8th July), NOS Alive (6th - 8th July), Osheaga (4th - 6th August), Lollapalooza (3rd - 6th August), Reading & Leeds (25th - 27th August), Lollapalooza Berlin (9th - 10th September), and Life Is Beautiful (22nd - 24th September)

As featured in the Festival Guide 2023 issue of DIY, out now.

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