On the Road with Mitski
Mitski, the indie musician, was eighteen when she wrote her first song. That may not seem particularly precocious in an era when adolescent pop phenoms release entire albums that were recorded in their parents’ house. But Mitski Miyawaki, who is now twenty-eight, had not envisaged a future as a musician, or much of a future at all.
Mitski grew up all over the world. Her mother, whose last name she uses, is Japanese; her father is American and worked for the State Department, in capacities that she does not discuss. By the time Mitski was eighteen, she had lived in Japan, the Czech Republic, Malaysia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Turkey, Alabama, and Virginia. Changing schools almost yearly, she was always the new kid, always the foreigner, trying on personae—the studious girl, the party girl—with varying degrees of success and self-alienation. At a suburban school in Virginia, she decided to be the quiet girl, and barely spoke to her classmates all year. Then she signed up for the year-end talent show and performed Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” in the bombastic style of the Whitney Houston cover. Mitski has an astonishing voice—clear and supple and haunting—and so when I first heard the talent-show story I imagined it as a redemptive scene out of a John Hughes movie. She told me that it hadn’t felt that way at all. “When I was planning it, I’d envisioned it as much more cinematic and funny and grand,” she told me in a text message. “But the actual execution of it was much smaller in cinematic scope. I was just singing this melodramatic song to confused and alarmed faces.” Instead of forging a connection with her peers, she felt like a “carnival attraction,” an even weirder version of the outsider she already was.
Movies offered a refuge. Mitski admired Hayao Miyazaki’s lush animated films, especially the way they never fully explained the mysteries of the fantastical worlds they conjured. We talked about a scene from “Spirited Away” in which a very young girl embarks, alone, on a long train journey. “It’s so resolute, the way she’s looking out the window, especially because she has no return ticket,” Mitski said. “It’s the face of someone who’s made a decision.”
For an isolated child, immersion in movies can sometimes lead to social miscues. Mitski told me, “In tenth grade—this says a lot about how developmentally delayed I was—I had in my mind that it was the proper thing for me to have a love interest. And you’d see in movies where two characters instantly see each other and are, like, I’m in love!, and then it just cuts to them on a date or interacting. So in my brain I interpreted that as, if I just keep looking at this boy, that’s how it will start.” She went on, “A lot of my adolescence was like that. Me thinking I was doing the right thing by re-creating a movie scene that I’d seen but then realizing that’s not how it happens in real life.”
Like many young people, Mitski was intensely preoccupied with how she looked. “I spent all my teen-age years being obsessed with beauty, and I’m very resentful about it and I’m very angry,” she told Jillian Mapes, of Pitchfork, in an interview onstage in Brooklyn a few years ago. “I had so much intelligence and energy and drive, and instead of using that to study more, or instead of pursuing something or going out and learning about or changing the world, I directed all that fire inward, and burnt myself up.”
She knew that she had a good voice—she’d been singing in choirs since middle school, and had always stood out. Whenever she was lonely in a new house or city or country, she’d walk around and hum invented fragments of melody. But these acts of self-consolation were insufficient. “As a teen-ager, I didn’t want to be alive,” she told me. “Everything was so hard. I just wanted to be dead. I didn’t have anything I was good at, because I didn’t know I could make music yet. And I didn’t fit anywhere. And I took a lot of risks, and I just did a lot of things where I didn’t take care of myself.”
I asked Mitski what kinds of risk she was talking about, but she didn’t want to be specific, other than to say that the recklessness had been fuelled by “not loving myself.” Looking back, she now felt sorry for her mother—and she couldn’t help thinking that, if she ever had a child of her own, karma would give her a wayward one. This brought to mind Mitski’s 2014 song “Townie,” an evocation of sexual adventurism on the serrated edge of exhilaration and fear: “There’s a party and we’re all going / And we’re all growing up / Somebody’s driving and he will be drinking / And no one’s going back / Cause we’ve tried hungry and we’ve tried full / And nothing seems enough.”
Mitski graduated from high school a semester early, while she and her family were living in Ankara. But, she recalled, “I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I ended up partying a lot.” One morning, when she returned home before dawn, something shifted. “I had a keyboard in my room, and I just sat down and started writing this song for the first time. And I thought, This is something I can do? That’s amazing.”
She’d grown up listening mainly to the American pop hits making the rounds abroad—Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, ’N Sync. Once, though, she’d stumbled on a CD by the folksinger Jeff Buckley that made her realize there were other ways of writing songs. Eventually, she discovered M.I.A. and Björk, whose unconventional self-presentations confirmed to her, she said, that “you can do what you want—it doesn’t have to be this pop formula, and you don’t have to have this voice or look this way.” Mitski was fascinated by classical music, too; in high school, she bought the score for “The Rite of Spring,” in an effort to understand how the orchestral parts worked together. Still, she said, none of the music she knew “really expressed what I was feeling.” That morning in Ankara, “suddenly there was something that was coming out of me that I could sing—and it was just such a rush.”
“Bag of Bones,” the song that resulted, appeared on her first album, “Lush,” which she released online, in 2012. The song is sparer than her later music, which incorporates eighties-style synths, programmed drum machines, and propulsive guitar. But it’s possible to hear in this recording much of what Mitski would become. “Bag of Bones” juxtaposes an eerie melodica riff, like something from a Weimar-era night club, with tender vocals. It showcases her morbid sensibility and her talent for writing lyrics that are as taut and imagistic as an objectivist poem. The song’s narrator is stumbling home from a party, “after everything’s done and I’m all undone.” She observes, “You can hear my high heels walking on / Clickety-clacking through the night / I’m carrying my bag of bones.” The effect, as in many later songs, is sad and beautiful and creepy all at once.
Mitski often stresses that although she is a young woman who writes emotionally saturated songs, they do not pour out of her like diary entries. She is devoted to craft and control. “Bag of Bones” is one of her few compositions that arrived in a kind of fever state. And that moment of inspiration saved her. “I’m fundamentally just someone who needs to give myself to something,” she told me. “And so I decided on music.”
Mitski’s melodic lines often deposit the listener in unexpected places, rarely resolving in any conventional way. Iggy Pop has described her as “probably the most advanced American songwriter that I know.” Her love songs are often about passions held in secret, in the echo chamber of the narrator’s heart, and the over-all effect is often surreal: the beloved is rendered solipsistically, and the pledges of devotion are unsettling. “If I could, I’d be your little spoon / And kiss your fingers forevermore,” she sings, in “Your Best American Girl.” “But, big spoon, you have so much to do / And I have nothing ahead of me.”
A 2018 headline on the NPR Web site named Mitski the “21st Century’s Poet Laureate of Young Adulthood.” But her fan base is more particular than that. Young Asian women and young queer people make up a lot of it. Her L.G.B.T. admirers seem to respond to the way her songs evoke, with theatrical grandeur, the covert emotions of someone outside the mainstream. At her shows, I’ve noticed that an unusually large proportion of the audience is there alone.
The musician Phoebe Bridgers recalled playing a 2016 show with Mitski at which John Doe, from the punk band X, was in attendance. “He was, like, ‘All these kids look like they’re at a fucking church’—it looked like a punk-show crowd, but the kids were rapt with attention,” Bridgers told me. “He was blown away, and so was I. Mitski was playing solo, and the music was like this ethereal music from another dimension.”
Bridgers said that she admires the “weirdness of the creative choices that Mitski seems to make so confidently.” Mitski sings for prickly introverts, or for anyone who has ever wanted a lover to just go home already, so that she can yearn for him in peace. The lyrics in Mitski’s songs often project a paradoxical attitude that I associate with a specific type of millennial-feminist art—Sally Rooney novels come to mind—in which female strength takes the form of defiantly displaying a full range of roiling emotions, including self-abasing or submissive ones.
Michelle Zauner, the front woman of the band Japanese Breakfast, told me that one of her favorite songs is Mitski’s “I Bet on Losing Dogs,” from the album “Puberty 2.” Mitski sings, “I know they’re losing and I pay for my place / By the ring / Where I’ll be looking in their eyes when they’re down / I’ll be there on their side / I’m losing by their side.” Zauner said of the track, “It sounds like somebody so strong but also filled with so much self-hatred. There’s something so morose and menacing about that song, and the aura of just submitting to this ill fate.”
One bright, cold afternoon in March, I went to a studio in Brooklyn to watch Mitski and her band rehearse for a national tour that she was planning for the spring and summer. It was to be her second headlining tour in North America since her acclaimed album “Be the Cowboy” was released, in August, 2018, and she wanted to give audiences something new. She was working with Monica Mirabile, a performance artist and a movement coach, to devise elaborate choreography for each song. Both of them had lately become interested in a form of dance theatre, from postwar Japan, called Butoh, in which performers draw on chaotic internal emotions but depict them with precise, repetitive gestures. On tours for earlier albums, Mitski often performed with a bright-pink guitar; this had delighted fans, but she felt that it had become a crutch. She wanted to come out from behind the instrument, but, as she put it to me, she’d learned early in her career “that the jumping around onstage, getting everyone pumped up, doesn’t come naturally to me.” Nor was she comfortable wading into a crowd and letting people hug her or take selfies with her. She wanted to develop her own, idiosyncratic ways of maintaining a grip on an audience. To this end, she’d tried various disorienting strategies, such as standing perfectly still throughout a show, or opening it with a bloodcurdling scream.
Mitski is peculiarly attuned to the brevity and fractured nature of modern attention spans. Many of her songs last less than three minutes, both because she’s a concise writer and because she is mindful that nobody has to be listening to her. When she was starting out—a young Asian-American woman playing arty, anguished songs in dive bars—she knew that the clientele was unlikely to indulge her if she played long wailing guitar solos or sang endless verses. She recalls that, at one point, a heckler yelled at her, in a mocking Valley Girl voice, “You’re depressed! ”
For someone who writes vividly about emotional chaos, Mitski has a striking devotion to order and discipline. Zauner, who toured with her in 2016, told me, “I was from a D.I.Y.-punk environment with a lot of rowdy guys and a lot of drinking. On tour with Mitski, I felt like I entered this much more professional, healthy, regimented realm. At first, it was hard for me to adjust, because I’m a little bit goofier. It was, like, ‘What do you mean we’re not going to get an Airbnb together and party in the desert?’ ” But Zauner came to appreciate a different approach. “There are still a lot of things that happen on the road that are not the most supportive to women in music,” she said, noting that Mitski had a forthright way of dealing with them. “She’d go to the sound person, for example, and introduce herself and assert that she was going to be the one to talk to if they had any issues about tech. There are some dinosaur types who are rude to you, and a lot of times I would deflect to my male drummer—I didn’t want to be condescended to. I was impressed that Mitski took that on every night.”
Mitski told me, “Maybe it just boils down to: I’m a woman who’s really into her career, so I’m obsessed with the craft of my work. . . . There’s a romance in that for me.” She went on, “I obsess over one phrase of one line of music, over and over, and I switch out words. It ends up being my biggest relationship.” Indeed, some of her songs that address a “you” aren’t about a person at all; they’re about music itself. “Geyser,” which starts with a spine-tingling organ processional, builds to Mitski singing, “You’re my number one / You’re the one I want / And I’ve turned down every hand / That has beckoned me to come.”
“Geyser” took more than ten years to complete. That was extreme—in general, Mitski does not sit on a song for more than a year. But she often writes her music in snatches, over time, especially now that her touring schedule has become more demanding. “I do more sort of thinking—of a phrase here and there, or a sound there—and then writing it down in my notebook, or singing it into a Voice Memo, putting the pieces together later, like a puzzle,” she said.
Mitski can be wryly amusing in person, as she sometimes is in her songs. (“Nobody butters me up like you and / Nobody fucks me like me.”) She has a fluty, controlled speaking voice; a smile that blossoms slowly, taking in her eyes last; and the kind of lilting laugh that would suit an animated princess. She’s delighted by ghost stories and talked to me excitedly about developments in murder cases that she’d been following, mainly through podcasts. “Can I tell you about it? Do you have time?” she asked me before launching into an account of a fresh twist in the infamous Black Dahlia case. Later, she said that she was obsessed with these podcasts because she had been “just thinking about death” a lot.
We were in Bushwick, at an Ethiopian restaurant that she likes, drinking tea and sharing a vegetable platter. Mitski is a good conversationalist, in part because she likes to draw attention away from herself by asking smart questions, and in part because she has developed the elegant poise of a fifties movie star at a press conference. At one point, she noted that journalists kept asking her to show them “a day in the life of Mitski” and that she was bemused by what they had in mind. “I keep being, like, ‘O.K. Do you want to come to a few meetings with me? Do you want to come see me rehearse? Go on tour?’ And they’re, like, ‘No, let’s go out on the town, go shopping, look at vintage clothing.’ And I’m, like, ‘I don’t do that!’ ” Her theory was that people didn’t really want to read about women working: “They want to imagine women having fun, being sexual, lounging.”
We returned to the rehearsal studio, which had concrete floors, no windows, and a “Thank You for Not Smoking” sign. (A past user of the space had doctored the sign to read “Thank You for Pot Smoking.”) Mitski and her band were running through her show in sequence. Her longtime producer, Patrick Hyland, was on guitar. The other members of the band were newer additions: Bruno Esrubilsky on drums, K. Marie Kim on keyboards, Jeni Magana on bass.
Mitski stood in front of a white table and a chair—the show’s main props. She wore wire-rimmed glasses and a T-shirt bearing the words “West Texas Cloud Appreciation Society.” Her manager, Chris Crowley, an amiable young guy wearing overalls and a beanie, asked if anyone needed anything from the guitar store. Hyland said, “A quarter-inch headphone adapter, please.” Mitski—her head down on the table, her lustrous black hair spilling over the edge—began singing the phrase as a looping melody.
Mirabile and Mitski had devised strange, disarming gestures keyed to lines of the songs in the show, and the result looked more like performance art than like dance. At various times, Mitski plucked rhythmically at her shoulders; paced frantically; lay with her back on the table and mimed bicycling with her legs; crawled and slid on black knee pads; gazed disconsolately at her hand, as if it didn’t belong to her; and stalked the edge of the stage like a lynx. Mirabile told me, “The concept is that she’s initially this robotic, repressed woman who is very rigid in her behavior and actions, and that slowly starts to dissolve over the course of the show, so she becomes more the person she actually wants to be, drawing on a confidence that’s less rigid but still choreographed.”
The stylized format seemed suited to Mitski, given that so many of her songs resemble an elliptical short story told by a fictional persona. This mode is unusual—many singer-songwriters in pop work in a more explicitly autobiographical vein—and it sometimes leads to confusion among her listeners, because she’ll use the first person in her lyrics even when she’s telling a story that did not actually happen to her. It also explains some of the songs’ uncanny charge: her music can feel both emotionally flaying and oddly impersonal. She wrote the recent song “Me and My Husband” from the perspective of an older woman who’s implacably committed to a man with whom she’s no longer in love. Mitski was determined to see the woman not as pitiful but as someone who had made a conscious choice. “I’m so tired of the youthful song—the song about ‘I’m on the dance floor, and I meet you, and I have sex with you, and we then don’t talk about the rest,’ ” she told me. “There’s so much more to sing about!”
During the rehearsal, she periodically scrambled over to the edge of the stage and studied a notebook in which she had written directions to herself. She took long swigs from a giant bottle of water. A few hours in, at about two o’clock, she told the band, “I’m thinking we’ll go till about six or six-thirty, and then I need y’all to get the fuck out, ’cause I’m gonna practice on my own.”
To save her voice, Mitski sat, cross-legged, on the concrete floor and watched the band play a few songs without her. Then she hopped up and, tapping the beat out with her foot, walked around in circles, listening intently. “That was very good,” she said. “Let’s just do it one more time, for safety.” She bounded back onstage to sing again.
On the two days that I watched rehearsals, Mitski was unfailingly polite with her band and crew: she passed around a slice of chocolate cake that she had brought from a nearby bakery, and, after dashing out for a few minutes, she said, “Sorry to keep you waiting.” But there wasn’t much extraneous conversation or joking around. After a break, while the other band members talked about the difference between Sinéad O’Connor’s cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” and the original Prince version, Mitski seemed a little separate. She sat silently at the white table, eating her lunch and flipping through her notebook, like an executive with a desk job.
Last year, someone asked Mitski on Twitter to name music that’s good to listen to when you’re sad. She recommended Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” In college, she got some classical training, and it has helped her stretch the boundaries of pop songs. After high school, she moved to the United States on her own, landing first at Hunter College, in Manhattan, where she studied film for a year. She then transferred to the music conservatory at SUNY Purchase and took courses in composition and arranging. The school had several recording studios, and she experimented endlessly in them. Through the Web site Bandcamp, she soon self-released an album, “Lush,” which found a small but ardent following. The album was centered on piano-based chamber pop, but for some tracks she enlisted other conservatory students to play such instruments as strings and French horns. At her senior recital, she was backed by a full orchestra. Before graduating, in 2013, she taught herself to play the guitar, which was much easier to lug around than a keyboard, and started performing her own songs at gigs on and off campus.
Silas Brown, a SUNY professor who is a producer and sound engineer for classical and jazz recordings, and who taught Mitski, recalled her as “an articulate musician” from the start. He told me, “She can find those unusual notes—I think she makes a point of it and goes for that. ‘Nobody’ could be horrible pop drivel, but in her case it’s perfect. The further you go up into the extended notes above a chord—they still belong to the chord, but they cross over into the jazz threshold, and the more you do that, the more precision and technique is required to pull those notes off without it sounding out of tune. She has the vocal chops to do that and still sound like a pop musician. That’s Mitski—that was true in the very first stuff of hers I was listening to.”
Whereas many contemporary female pop artists sing in a languorous style, rolling the words around in their mouths—think of Adele, Lorde, and Halsey—Mitski tends to enunciate phrases with a bell-like clarity and achieves emotional effects through modulations in volume rather than through vocal acrobatics. She told me that she wants listeners to understand every word of her songs, and that her melodies “often follow the inflections of a word or sentence as they’re spoken.” This dovetails with her broader approach to songwriting. She’d recently worked on some songs with other artists and had found that often “the production comes first, and then they find melodies that go with that, and then words get added at the very end.” For Mitski, the words and the vocal melody are inseparable, and usually come first. Hyland, the producer, told me, “Mitski is very compositionally minded, and I have much more of an ear for arrangement and aesthetics. I often feel like, if she wrote something, you could turn it into a bossa-nova song or a country song or a punk song and there’s a small part of her that wouldn’t even care. She’s much more interested in the actual substance of writing.”
Even in college, Mitski was, as she put it, “an independent-study kind of girl.” She’d wander through the library, picking up books at random. “There was a phase freshman year where I was really obsessed with ‘Paradise Lost,’ ” she said. “My God, what a weird fucking kid! Something about it was so dramatic and romantic, and I read it over and over and would write phrases down.”
When I asked her, over e-mail, what music was currently inspiring her, she wrote that though she probably couldn’t “avoid sounding pretentious or douche-y for saying this,” she was “enjoying listening to traditional music from around the world, or specifically from outside of Europe.” She wrote glowingly of Ikue Asazaki, an eighty-three-year-old Japanese folksinger. Mitski also noted that she was “trying to study up on the Mughal Empire,” which ruled most of the Indian subcontinent from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century: “I’m listening to the diverse music that came out of that very large cultural region, trying to hear how each place’s music evolved.” She went on, “Obviously I’m not a musicologist, so I know absolutely nothing and I probably never will, but I just like to listen to what I have access to and form my own opinions. There is a lot of comfort in quote-unquote ‘world music’ because my father would only really play that in the house when he’d play music at all, but also I just want to listen to music that’s not dictated by the Western classical canon. It irks me when Western music theory nerds talk about how chord progressions in a song are ‘wrong,’ or when music from outside of the West is exoticised.”
At SUNY Purchase, Mitski began a long-term collaboration with Hyland, who was then a student in the studio-production program. They shared an ethos of working efficiently, taking craft seriously, and not setting much store by what Hyland calls the “cheesy” idea of just jamming until the magic happens. Hyland has been a producer on four of Mitski’s five records, and has played instruments on three of them. One of them, “Puberty 2” (2016), was recorded in Mamaroneck, New York, at the studio of their former professor Peter Denenberg. “Mitski and Patrick actually lived in the studio for several weeks, sleeping on the floor,” Denenberg told me. “Every few days, they’d walk to my house and take showers.” Hyland’s production never overwhelms Mitski’s voice; he sets it against unexpected textures, like woozy surf-rock guitar or skittering hi-hats or a spectral, staticky glitch.
“Puberty 2” had a breakthrough single, “Your Best American Girl,” a rock anthem about a breakup. (“You’re all I ever wanted / I think I’ll regret this.”) It has a thrilling roller-coaster drop of a chorus, but many people seemed to like it because it featured a young Asian-American woman shredding on her guitar, and because it seemed as if she were single-handedly invading the white-male bastion of indie rock. Mitski took to Facebook to counter that line of thinking. “ ‘Your Best American Girl’ is a love song,” she wrote. “A lot of reviews have agreed on a narrative that ‘she wrote this song to stick it to “the white boy indie rock world”!’ but I wasn’t thinking about any of that when I was writing it, I wasn’t trying to send a message. I was in love. I loved somebody so much, but I also realized I can never be what would fit into their life.” The video for the song, which was directed by Zia Anger, was memorably weird. In it, Mitski flirts with a conventionally hot guy, then looks on plaintively as he canoodles with a creamy blonde. Mitski starts making out with her own hand—Anger was impressed by how much she threw herself into it—and then whips out a guitar to create a triumphant wall of noise.
In 2018, Mitski released “Be the Cowboy,” which Pitchfork named the best album of the year, proclaiming that her “complex compositions warp the pop textbook into something more knotty and internal.” It sold reasonably well, but, like most indie musicians these days, she has built an audience mainly by touring an inordinate amount, working her way up from performing in campus coffeehouses to opening for Lorde in stadium venues and headlining sold-out shows. Last year, she spent nearly three hundred days on the road. She’ll close her current tour at SummerStage, in Central Park, in early September; she added a second show there after the first sold out within an hour.
It’s not a life style that’s conducive to domestic comfort or sustained relationships. Mitski doesn’t have a home at this point—the cost of renting in New York City, where she used to share basement apartments with roommates, became prohibitive, especially given that she was away most of the time. She is currently shuffling between Airbnbs, sublets, and hotels. She’s far from rich, but she told me that she felt lucky, after many years, to be “finally at a level where I can afford to go out to eat, I can afford health care, I can afford to turn down jobs to rest or take care of life.”
Her parents, who are retired, and her sister, who has an international-studies degree, now live in the States. Mitski stores stuff at her parents’ house, in suburban Pennsylvania, and sometimes stays there. Habits from her peripatetic adolescence—when she never really tried to hold on to friends, because she knew that she’d soon be moving again—have been hard to shake. Nevertheless, though she identifies herself as something of a loner, she resents it when she is described in articles as “intensely private.” In early May, she told me in an e-mail, “I have social media accounts, I answer honestly in interviews—and anyone who sees me perform can tell I’m in love with human beings, I want desperately to feel connected. Everything I do is for my love of, and yearning for, people. So press outlets nonetheless insisting I’m ‘intensely private’ feels vindictive, like a punishment for setting boundaries, and for not offering more of myself for content and exploitation.”
Among musicians, Mitski is known as a quietly generous colleague. Phoebe Bridgers told me that, after she signed her first record deal, Mitski wrote to her to say that being a performer “can be very isolating,” and offered, “Let me know if you ever want to talk about anything.” Bridgers added, “I know she’s done that for a ton of my friends, at varying levels of their careers.” The musician Sasami Ashworth told me that Mitski was “sort of a mother hen.” When Ashworth was about to go on tour without merch—she couldn’t afford any—Mitski told her she’d never make enough money just by performing in clubs, and immediately sent her five hundred dollars to have T-shirts printed. Ashworth also noted that Mitski is “very conscious of who she brings on tour—having opening acts she wants to uplift personally, financially, and professionally.” She went on, “Mitski doesn’t necessarily talk about feminism all the time on Twitter, but she has so many women of color and queer people working with her.” The two acts that opened for Mitski in 2016—Japanese Breakfast and Jay Som—are both fronted by Asian-American women. That triple bill was “sort of legendary,” Ashworth said.
One thing that Mitski dislikes about touring is that she lacks time to read, because, she wrote to me, she can “get sick from reading in cars (and I’m always in cars).” She’s been training herself “to read in vehicles again,” she said, “and my body is back to its childhood resilience when I’d do the day’s homework on the bus to school.” Lately, she has been trying to get through the Bible, “just to actually know what’s in this book a lot of people use as a reason for their actions.” She noted, “It’s been hard as someone who hasn’t grown up with it.” She has also been reading the short stories of Mary Gaitskill, on her phone.
The signature single from “Be the Cowboy,” the gorgeous “Nobody,” was shaped by the unusual rhythms of Mitski’s life. After a tour of Asia and Australia ended, she considered flying back to the States, but it was Christmastime and tickets were too expensive, so she stayed on, alone, in Kuala Lumpur, in a sublet. “I always think of myself as an independent woman who doesn’t need anybody,” she told me. “I was completely, unexpectedly crushed by the fact that I not only didn’t know anyone in the country but it was the holidays, and everyone’s with their family and I wasn’t.” She is nothing if not resourceful, though, so she bought a toy piano at a Toys R Us. Back at the apartment, she started plinking away, and sketched out a cri de coeur, set to an incongruous disco beat, that starts with the lines “My God, I’m so lonely / so I open the window / to hear sounds of people.” By capturing this moment in her life, and recording what it felt like, she was soothed.
Mitski sometimes tells herself that she doesn’t need a home, and can make a life for herself anywhere. But, she noted, “my friends are, like, ‘You really need to find a place to live,’ and I do think maybe it’s a little dangerous for me to not grow roots a little bit—to go further and further out into untethered rootlessness.”
Michelle Zauner told me that Mitski does not like to be thought of as some sort of “fevered priestess.” Yet an inevitable result of writing majestically emotional songs is that you incite a lot of emotion in response. It’s not uncommon for Mitski’s fans to say that they would die for her, which is a little distressing, even as a figure of speech. The comments on her YouTube videos are fervent: one poster wrote of hearing the song “Class of 2013,” “I die a sad and painful, beautiful death and am born anew.” The online following that she commands is loyal in a way that can turn militant—some people leap to her defense against presumed musical rivals, for instance, whether she wants them to or not—and she sometimes pleads with her fans not to “say hateful things on the internet.” Although the idea of being a role model makes her nervous, she occasionally offers her young admirers a broader perspective. As she recently wrote on Twitter, “alright. Honored to serve as minor clickbait profit generator + light distraction from the hellish real world for the day but i feel v empty from looking at this phone screen for so long, let’s all please stop and get out of here. Thanks to everyone who cares for my music, truly!”
The devotion of strangers freaks Mitski out, and the demands of social media alienate her. “I’m terrified of crowds,” she told me. “I’ve always been someone who’s outside of crowds and either at the mercy of crowds or just observing them. So seeing mob mentality unfold in front of me, because of me, is just terrifying.” Sometimes, she said, she wishes that she had adopted a distancing approach similar to that of the pop singer Sia, who conceals her face onstage and generally does not appear in her music videos. A few weeks ago, Mitski shut down her popular Twitter account. In an e-mail, she told me, “I always hated what social media did to my brain, and now that I’m not on it I feel a significant difference. It shortened my attention span, created a feeling of anxiety and distraction throughout the day, even when I wasn’t physically on it, and it demanded that I accept hundreds of strangers’ daily cruelty, simply for making them aware that I exist.” She’d stayed on Twitter to promote her shows and her records, but, with most of the current tour behind her and no record coming out immediately, she felt that she “could finally leave socials without it devastating my income.”
A few months earlier, in New York, she’d said, “It’s funny. It’s like there’s no way around being an object, whether it’s an object of hate or an object that people want to possess and consume. What really just eats at my soul is that I’m actively being consumed as a person—it’s not just my music that’s being consumed.”
Mitski seems to perceive her life in terms of a conscious trade-off: she presents herself to the public so that she can make a living making music, which is what she lives for. And performing for a live audience, unlike all the other ways she has to offer herself up, feels right to her. She is most like herself when she’s onstage, doing shows. “They’re the best part of my days,” she told me recently over the phone, from the road. She had been keeping a show diary, in which she wrote down moments of her performance that she thought she could improve. At the same time, she had been reading essays by the theatre director Peter Brook and thinking about how the flow of a performance shouldn’t be sacrificed for the sake of perfecting every detail.
On the opening night of her tour, in Pittsburgh, she executed all the odd, precise moves that I’d seen her working on with Mirabile in Brooklyn. The audience sang along with her to nearly every track, even though her songs can be hard to sing. For most of the show, there was a firm fourth wall: Mitski did not address any remarks to the audience or introduce her band members. Toward the end of the evening, though, she spoke back to the crowd. She said, “I want you to know, and I mean this sincerely—I love you. It’s a selfish kind of love, because it’s about what you do for me. But thank you for connecting. Thank you for making me feel less alone.” ♦