Mitski's dreamy rock album Bury Me At Makeout Creek
resonates deeply with me. That doesn't make me unique or anything. It's actually become the calling card for this album, that strong tie between listener and Brooklyn-based Mitski, forged over the album's ten tracks. "I'm glad people are crying," she told Quinn Moreland at Impose after it was released.
"I was crying the whole time I was writing it, so it means that people get where I was coming from, and I’m glad I got to access that part of people.”
But for me, it's not just the album (her third, released on Double Double Whammy in late 2014) that resonates. That's what I realized after I spent some time on the phone with her, one show deep into the six she has booked for this weekend's South By Southwest. I can listen to Mitski talk (or sing) about anything. I hope by the time you're done with this interview you feel the same.
Mitski will play Bloomington's Blockhouse next Friday with LALA LALA and The Tourniquets.
NUVO: Just because I wish I could have been there so badly, can you tell me what you talked about at the panel at Smith College you spoke at with [Perfect Pussy's] Meredith Graves, Suzy Exposito and Imogen Binnie?
Mitski: It was amazing, because these are all people that I had been admiring from afar for a long time, and I was going to be sitting at a table with them, and listening to what they have to say, and get to ask them everything I've always wanted to ask them. Then it ended up being even better than I had expected. The great thing about that panel was that everyone was there to listen to each other and discuss with each other. A lot of panels I've been to [have] been about, “Let me speak,” or, “Let me hear my voice as I talk.” With this, it really felt like a discussion, and I really loved the amount of respect we all had for each other in that room.
So many people showed up, too. We were all very surprised. It was a 300+ seating room, and there were people standing. It was amazing that there were so many people who were interested in hearing what we have to say about gender, identity and authenticity in media and the music industry.
NUVO: So you're touring soon with Speedy Ortiz, Screaming Females and you're with Hundred Waters right now.
Mitski: Hundred Waters ended last night, unfortunately, in New Orleans. I kind of fell in love with them and now we have to part, so it's kind of sad. We do have plans to meet up again other places, so it's going to be fine.
NUVO: What is your relationship with these bands' music and how did you connect to tour with them?
Mitski: It's so weird that I'm getting to tour with these people that I've known from afar – well, Sadie [Dupuis, Speedy Ortiz' singer/guitarist/lead] I kind of befriended about a year ago through shows and the Internet. So, we were just talking anyway, and then Sadie was like, “Come on tour with us for some of our shows!” And that happened really naturally, which is crazy because I love their music.
The first time I saw Screaming Females was years ago, when I was at SUNY Purchase [where she studied music composition] and they came to play. That's the first time I heard them, and then they had put on such a great show that I ended up listening to all of their music. That [tour] happened because we were introduced formally by Joe at Don Giovanni. Then we just emailed and worked out a few dates together. I love how all of this has been through personal contact, and, “Hey, we want to play shows together, so let's make it happen!” … I'm still at the level where I can do that, and I think that I want to keep working with people who want to keep doing that.
NUVO: Soon you have a reissue of Bury Me At Makeout Creek coming out on Don Giovanni Records with unreleased tracks.
Mitski: Yeah! There are four bonus tracks and three of them are from a radio session that I did at WNYU that we recorded and liked, so we decided to put them on there. There's another where I'm playing a stripped-down version of a song from Retired From Sad, New Career in Business
on piano, and I recorded that on tape. It's not completely new tracks; it's all stuff that's been recorded, just live versions of them.
NUVO: One quote from an interview you gave to Wondering Sound stuck out to me, where you were talking about the difficulty of a female musician securing credit for the work she does in the studio. That's something that I think about all the time. It made me think to ask you: what can music journalists do to stand of the side of women making music, to advocate and assist?
Mitski: Oh my god, that's the best question. I'm so glad you're asking that, but I don't think I have an intelligent answer, just because I've never even thought to actually talk to journalists about how we can improve it together. Oh my gosh, bless you for that amazing question. I think it's just a matter of straight-up not assuming, and asking. I know it's hard not to ask leading questions, because on the journalist side you also have things you want to ask and things you want to get out of the interview. But at the same time, I think it would be productive to straight-up ask, “Okay, who worked on this? What part did you play?” Not even just trying to confirm everything they did, but, “What are you proud of doing?” or, “What did you need help on?”
The messed up part is that sometimes female musicians or non-male musicians don't do the production work, or the engineer work, or they just sing, or they just write the words, and that's considered not valid because they're not doing everything. As if it doesn't count as them being a good musician unless they've done everything themselves, and they can prove they've done everything themselves. It's just a matter of validity, and counting everything they do as valid, whether it's just singing, or actually producing everything.
I was actually talking to Meredith Graves about this. I was like, “Well, I arrange everything, I write everything, I don't engineer it because I have an engineer on hand, but I do a lot of the production.” I was talking to Meredith and she was like, “Oftentimes, I'm just the singer, or I write the words. And I'm not considered valid enough, or I'm not considered an important member of the band because I don't do what is valued” – and what is valued is often what males do. I don't know if that answers your question.
NUVO: Absolutely. I often want to talk about this — and feminism in general — in interviews. But I know that some artists aren't receptive to it. I think they think that acknowledging [issues] gives power to the patriarchy – and [they don't like] feeling like they have to talk about it. But I've read enough of your interviews where you bring it up to feel like you'd be open to speaking about it. Your response in Wondering Sound reminded me of that Bjork interview that Jessica Hopper did for Pitchfork.
Mitski: Yeah, I was going to totally bring that up. She nailed it so hard. I have three favorite artists: Bjork, MIA and this person called Micachu [Micachu and The Shapes
]. Bjork brought up MIA, and I was half-crying.
NUVO: Another interview you gave that stuck out to me was one I read [from Tri City News, by Hannah Walker]; That was a gorgeous interview, particularly when you talk about feeling the need to create something beautiful to make it up to the patriarchy that demands beauty from you. I literally gasped in the newsroom when I read that. That helped something click inside of me and that helped me understand [this album]. I wondered if you could expand on that thought, if anything has changed in your [interpretation of why you make the kind of music you do] since that interview, or if your feelings are still the same.
Mitski: That means a lot that you read that and you got something out of it, so thank you very much. … Nothing has really changed for me; I still feel that way, if not more strongly. Especially being at SXSW; you meet a lot of artists, and you're surrounded by “the industry.” Just yesterday, I was very aware of the fact that I wasn't dressing a certain way, or presenting myself in a certain way. I didn't have a lot of the things that are asked of me, or a lot of the things that would help me progress faster and further as a musician, being a woman. I've actually become even more aware of my … I don't want to say non-beauty, but non-adherence to these standards that would be very helpful for me to actually present myself as a musician, if that makes any sense. It really does motivate me or drive me in a sick way to make the music better, or to perform so well that people forget that I don't look a certain way, or that I'm not from a certain place.
I don't want to say that I'm glad that I'm not pretty, because sometimes in dark moments, it's just like, “Man, everything would be so much easier, if I just looked a certain way, or was of a certain heritage.” But at the same time, in a sick way, it's what truly drives me to make something that's actually good, that actually makes people forget that I don't adhere to those standards. But it's still hard, not just as a musician, but real talk, as a person. As a woman living in the world, and how you're valued, it's so dependent on how you appear. At the end of the day, deep-down, all I want to do is be loved. Everyone just wants to be loved. And it's easier to be loved if you fit certain standards, I suppose.
NUVO: I don't know how your creative process works, but I do know that when I've spoken with friends who fluent in multiple languages, they talk a lot about dreaming in other languages, or thinking in multiple languages. As someone who speaks English, Japanese and Spanish, are there non-English lyrics, thoughts, or inspiration that work their way into your songs?
Mitski: I don't remember many of my dreams lately, but I'd say that a lot of them are in English just because I'm very influenced by my environment. I've been in America since freshman year of college, so it's kind of scary to me how my first language, which is Japanese, is kind of disappearing, or I'm just not thinking in it as much.
The thing about being multi-lingual is that it's not just that you have one language you think in, and then you translate based on what environment you're in. It's more like, when you're speaking another language, you're almost a different person. You've had different experiences speaking those languages and thinking in those languages; those experiences shape who you are in that language, in my experience. So when I'm speaking Japanese, I'm not just speaking Japanese. I'm also thinking and feeling in the Japanese person that I am, who is a little bit different. Well, not different, but stronger in personality in certain aspects more than others, I guess. For example, I would have to force myself to write love songs in Japanese, because I've never been in love in Japanese, you know? I would have to translate my English love feelings into Japanese, in order to write Japanese love songs. For me, anyway. I can't speak for everyone who is multi-lingual.
I actually want to go back to Japan to revive my Japanese language. Sometimes I forget, and it's really sad.
NUVO: [You've] attributed part of the sonic change between Retired from Sad, New Career in Business and Bury Me At Makeout Creek to a changing of resources that you had available to you, because of graduation from college and the availability of certain things. Post-Makeout Creek, now that you've received a lot of attention and praise, the availability of resources might be changing once again for you, based on how labels, etc. are going to help you do what you want to do. Do you think you'll make another sonic change?
Mitski: I like to make plans, and I like to make lists, and I have ten different five-year plans depending on what will happen. Because I really want to go back to the orchestral stuff. I've been writing, not for orchestras, but non-band things, because I really miss it, and that's what I studied. But I just don't have the resources yet. Honestly, there is the press, but the reality is that nothing in my life has changed. I still have very limited resources. I'm thinking like in two or three years, I'll do a project that's not band-based. In the meantime, I want to be on tour and not have to worry about all of these different instrumentations.
NUVO: What is your live setup right now?
Mitski: I have Maggie on guitar and Kat on drums, and then I'm playing bass and singing vocals. I really like that minimal setup, because it just makes things easier. We toured with Hundred Waters, who has a crazy setup – which is all worth it – but they have lights and all these crews, and a tour bus. That would cost money, and time, and makes things complicated. Right now, I'm really enjoying this three-piece easy setup.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.