What Keeps Me Calm: Listening to Rina Sawayama
Nobody understands an identity crisis more than this Japanese-British musician, who takes on everything from family to womanhood to heritage
Welcome to What Keeps Me Calm, a series of movies, television shows, albums, books, and other works of media that are comforting us during these incredibly stressful times. On particularly sad and disheartening days, there’s nothing better and more consoling than to turn to our favorite things to read, watch, and listen, as these offer a respite from the hardships we face collectively and individually.
It can be hard to figure out who I should be in a time like this. This pandemic, coupled with all the bad news we get every day, compels me to think about how I can best provide for the people around me. But even as I continue discerning where I stand on a boatload of issues, life doesn’t stop; I’m still a friend, a student, a conflicted Filipino, a privileged man who has to unlearn decades of toxic conditioning. And for those of us who have been spending more time in close proximity with family, keeping the household sane can mean playing a part, too—striking up boundaries or letting pet peeves slide. And all the while I continue curating my online selves and battling the white noise of my inner thoughts.
To put it simply, I wish I could manage all these roles at once. And I don’t think there’s any artist who understands an identity crisis better than Rina Sawayama.
Born in Niigata but raised in London by her Japanese mother, the 29-year-old singer-songwriter has the influences of a ‘90s baby, the charisma of a Zoomer, and the wisdom of someone well beyond her years. She’s built her entire career around identity: her 2017 debut EP Rina revolved around the identities we construct, particularly those in online spaces. But her first full-length album—appropriately entitled Sawayama—explores the identities we inherit or find ourselves born with (as with our surnames).
Suffice to say, she’s way more interesting than me. But even if I would never claim to fully identify with Rina, encountering her music for the first time this year was a revelation: here’s somebody who also doesn’t know how all the puzzle pieces of her life fit together, but she’s making the best of them anyway.
That’s something that I have to constantly remind myself of: that I can still enjoy the process of sorting through these parts of myself that give me grief. On some level, I feel that Rina does that, too—with a dance-ready song for every time her identity is questioned or challenged. On “Commes Des Garçons (Like the Boys),” she slyly addresses the double standards that confident women like herself are held against. On “F*** This World,” she expresses the grief and the determination her generation feels taking on the climate crisis. And on “Love Me 4 Me,” Rina grapples with the totality of her identity, of being a bisexual and pansexual Japanese-British millennial: “Every day I wanna start over / ’Cause I remind me of me.” But in seeing how difficult the process is, she also knows that speaking up will open doors for other people, singing, “If I made it, I made it easy.” I’d say she’s made it.
What Rina gets rights about this road of getting back to inner peace and self-acceptance is that this process isn’t always pleasant. There’s nothing kumbaya in the survivor’s guilt that accompanies being coronavirus-free, or in fighting for our constitutional rights, or in realizing that I can still be that insufferable straight male whom I swore I’d never be. Rina understands that sometimes, if you want to calm down, you have to rage out, too.
So in songs like “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?,” “XS,” and “STFU!,” she brings some stadium rock and 2000s nu metal to her already dynamic mix of Japanese rock and ‘90s pop and R&B. As someone whose first favorite band was Linkin Park but who now mostly listens to pop music, I can’t explain how cool it is that Sawayama brings together the soundtrack of my childhood and the soundtrack of my quarter-life crisis into a single package that makes sense.
But as much as I find reassurance in Sawayama, it moves me even more to know that there’s still a lot to it that’s unresolved. The record’s most painful songs are the ones that lay bare her complicated feelings over her parents’ separation and the loneliness she feels being a child of the diaspora. The Evanescence-esque “Dynasty,” the J-pop of “Akasaka Sad,” and even the arcade-inspired “Paradisin’” all grasp for a time, a place, and a people whom Rina now feels distant from (eerily appropriate for our own lockdown). In the album’s single best song, the gorgeously written “Tokyo Love Hotel,” Rina even challenges the authenticity of her own longing: “Thought I was original but after all / I guess this is just another song ‘bout Tokyo.”
More than the album’s loud-and-proud production, more than Rina’s versatile vocals, it’s her self-awareness that makes Sawayama the most cathartic listening experience I’ve had in years. I don’t think Rina is interested in simply making us feel good, nor does she stop at admitting her own flaws (which she nevertheless does beautifully in a song like “Bad Friend”). Rina doesn’t just talk about identity; she talks about talking about identity. She reminds me that being able to navigate who I am and what I’m called to do is a privilege in itself—and it requires me to become incredibly vulnerable.
In the final track, the intense and foreboding “Snakeskin,” Rina knows that her pain can now be twisted and misunderstood by anybody who listens. And still she’s released her baby to the world. Because she knows that putting herself out there is worth it if it means others won’t have to feel as lonely anymore.
“We don’t need to be related to relate, we don’t need to share genes or a surname / You are, you are my chosen, chosen family,” Rina sings toward the end of the record. “Chosen Family” is a song that’s ostensibly for the Asian and LGBTQ+ communities she’s found over the years, but I feel like the comfort it offers is universal. It’s nice to be told that our multiplicity of identity—all these roles we need to fulfill, all these people we’re expected to become—they’re allowed to coexist. And that doesn’t make us strange. It makes us real.
Lead photos from Rina Sawayama/YouTube