The first time I saw Mitski in concert, I spent the day after walking around Toronto calling all my friends, my mom, and my sister, telling them how unbelievable the show was. I had been moved by shows before–mostly huge, performative ones, like Kanye West in a stadium, or Broken Social Scene at a so-carefully curated music festival. I went to see Mitski with people I hardly knew, and these people got a glimpse into my personality’s bedrock—my layers were removed by Mitski’s incomparably moving music. On the walk home with these four near-strangers, I was glad that I was with people who didn’t have any expectations for our conversation. I was free to be speechless. The next morning, practically working as a telemarketer for Mitski’s music, I was far from it.
Over the course of her career, Mitski has released four expansive studio albums. Each of her songs feels precisely assembled thanks to touches such as the distinct pace of notes played on the bass guitar, or the skillful use of unlikely metaphors like, “I want a love that falls as fast as a body from a balcony.” Puberty 2, her most recent album, coming up on its first birthday, is filled with songs as emotionally forthcoming as their predecessors, but with instrumentation more adventurous than ever.
This week, I called Mitski while she was on a short break from tour. We talked about pop-music appreciation, trusting your collaborators, and saying exactly what you mean.
RACHEL DAVIES: You’ve talked and tweeted about how intimate your songwriting is–that, for example, the lyric “Texas is a landlocked state” from your song “Texas Reznikoff” isn’t literal but it makes sense to the person it was written for. Has this changed as you’ve gained a larger audience?
MITSKI: Regardless of audience, my songwriting has just evolved as I continue to do it. As an artist, I don’t want to keep talking about the same things. I change as a person, I grow up, I experience more things, and so my songwriting has become less about very specific details. Like “Texas is a landlocked state.” That doesn’t make sense in the context of the song. It just makes sense to me. I’ve started to do less of that, only because I’m branching out into storytelling. With “Dan the Dancer,” there is no Dan. I’m not Dan. It’s a story, but it expresses an emotion I had. So as I evolve as a songwriter, I’m starting to create narratives that serve the emotion that I’m trying to deliver without including those weird details. But it’s not really about an expanding audience. It’s about me as a songwriter finding that I’m growing and learning new things about how to write songs.
Do you write songs while on tour?
Whenever I have an idea or a glimpse of a song, I write it down, or record it on my phone, but I’m not really able to write whole songs on tour. I don’t have the amount of time and space to finish songs, so if I get an idea I’ll quickly jot it down and save it for when I’m off tour. When I go off tour, I’ll go through all of my ideas and organize them.
You originally trained as a classical musician but then, if what I’ve read is correct, picked up a bass quickly later on and made Bury Me at Makeout Creek. You also play some of your songs interchangeably, like “Class of 2013,” which sounds just as good on guitar as it does on the original piano. How do you decide on instrument choice with a song?
You know instruments, no offense to all of the instrumentalists out there, are not as important to me as the core composition, which is to me the words and the main vocal melody. I grew up moving around, where I didn’t know what I would have. I’d be in one place and have a piano, but then I would move to another place and I wouldn’t have a piano. I learned not to rely on the instruments in order to make music. It’s secondary to me. They’re interchangeable. A song could be played on the piano, or the guitar. I want the songs to be able to stand on their own. But it depends on the artist. That’s the way I work, but for a lot of people the instrument is the integral part of the composition.
Do you have any advice on acclimating to different places or feeling comfortable with moving around?
The hardest thing about moving around is that you only have your friends for [awhile]. Then you move. There is social media, so you can stay in touch, but it’s realistically really hard to maintain long-distance friendships, not just romantic relationships. I’ve learned that just because you won’t be able to see someone next year, doesn’t mean that your friendship with them doesn’t count. Every single year of your life counts. Every single relationship can be deep and meaningful, no matter how short or long they are. I used to close myself off because I didn’t want to develop relationships that were going to end anyway, but I learned that right now is what matters most. If you have a great friend right now, then there’s no need for you to close yourself off. You can always think about the goodbyes later. Right now you can just enjoy your friendship.
You’ve worked with a lot of great visual artists on merch and tour posters, as well as great directors for your music videos. I could be wrong, but it seems like you give visual artists just enough room to interpret your music as they will, while still staying true to your music’s message. How do you go about picking artists to work with?
I just find an artist who I think is good, and say, “Here’s the budget, do what you want.” I tend to gravitate toward artists who already know what they want and know what they like, so they’re able to handle that kind of pressure. It is a kind of pressure to be told, “Do whatever you want.” But with really good artists, I find that they work best when you trust in them, and when you let them make what they want to make. Then they actually put in the work to try to make something they like, and it ends up being a really good piece of work. Also, I think of the music video not as a representation of the music, but just a different aspect of it. I don’t really expect it to represent me. I more want it to represent that artist who made it. Same with a shirt. It might have my name on it, but I want it to represent the artist who made it. Just because it has my name, doesn’t mean that it’s what I’m all about. With artists, what’s best is when they’re given freedom and space. At the end of the day, I just want something good.
Do you feel the same way when working with someone more closely, like with Patrick Hyland who you’ve collaborated with on your albums?
Well, with that it gets a little more complicated. I’ve had to teach myself to let go. When it comes to the actual creation of my music, I get a little more neurotic, and a little more controlling. But again, I’ve taught myself to trust in Patrick, and trust in the people I’ve worked with. It’s important in that process to make clear what your intentions are and what you want so there’s no confusion about it. For example, in the studio, if I don’t make clear what I want, and let Patrick do whatever he wants, if I don’t like the result, I can’t tell whether it’s because it’s not what I wanted, or because it’s not good work—you know what I’m saying? But if I’m decisive and make my intentions clear in the beginning, and the result is not good or not what I wanted, then I can say, “Oh, this isn’t what I like, and this isn’t what I want, because these are my intentions.” It’s just another example of giving someone space to make good work. People don’t really make good work when they’re smothered, but you also have to make clear what your intentions are and what you want.
You’ve covered pop songs, performed pop covers live, and just reviewed Harry Styles’s album for Talkhouse. Could you talk a bit about your relationship to pop music?
I’m passionate about pop because that’s what I grew up on. I didn’t have any idea about a DIY scene. I didn’t know anything about independent music at all until I got to college and I saw other people my age performing rock music. I was like, Oh, there’s this whole other aspect to music that’s not pop. I was very much a pop child. It has to do with being abroad, and you know, I grew up without the internet, for a while anyway. What I had access to was what was on MTV, or what was on the one English-speaking channel, and that was usually the Top 40 stuff. The reality is, all that most people in the world have access to is the major label stuff. We can discount it all we want, but the reality is that it affects many people’s lives. It’s important to look at it, and talk about it, and listen to it.
Since you now have listeners abroad who may not speak English as a first language, and you grew up abroad, too, do you feel that language affects your songwriting?
The thing is my music is so heavily lyrics based. So much of my intention in the songs are expressed in the lyrics. It does make me feel good that people who don’t speak English still like my music because, to me anyway, it would probably mean that they genuinely enjoy the music itself, and that’s an area that I’m still not very confident about. I’m more confident about my lyrics, and my actual songwriting, than my actual music. When people who don’t speak English tell me they like my music, I’m like, “Oh, wow! You really do like the music!” But it is a different dynamic, especially when we’re playing shows. You can sense that people are getting something different out of it.
When I spoke with Ellen Kempner of Palehound, she said that guitar has always been a vehicle for songwriting for her. When you were first making music, was that also the case for you?
Yeah! Well, first of all, Ellen shreds but I feel the same way. I just needed a way to get the lyrics and my songs out there, and it takes a lot of guts to go out and sing your songs without an accompanying instrument. Most people don’t listen, so I quickly learned that I needed something to play in the background. For me, it started with piano, and I found the guitar later on.
What did you study exactly at SUNY Purchase?
I studied studio composition. I went to SUNY Purchase not because it’s an incredibly great school, I hate to say, but they had a specific program called studio composition that not only taught you music composition, but also taught you how to work in studios.
Had you ever worked in a studio prior to going there?
Not really! My senior year of high school, I sort of got into a studio, but that was because my part-time job was to do English language text books. It was a great gig, to be honest. I went in, they gave me a script, and I read it for people who were learning English and needed an audio guide. So that was my experience in a studio, but I hadn’t really worked behind the board in one before.
Are there any lyricists, poets, or writers in particular who inspire you?
There’s a Japanese [musician], but the lyrics are Japanese so it might not make much of a difference to Rookie readers. Her name is Shiina Ringo. What I get from her lyrics is that sometimes being specific and descriptive is really important. Describing a scene is really important in describing a universal emotion, so it’s more effective to be descriptive rather than saying platitudes. That’s what I learned from her. I also like people like Johnny Cash and Iggy Pop, people who have very, very simple–almost stupidly simple—lyrics. It’s actually very hard to express everything you want to express in five words or 10 words. I look up to them for that because it’s actually very difficult to be simple and effective. I don’t know who said it, but someone said that truly intelligent people, people who truly understand their subject, can describe and explain it to a five-year-old, or a six-year-old. That’s important for me to keep in mind. I want to take really complex ideas and describe them in simple enough terms for everyone listening to understand.
Do you have any advice for young songwriters?
There’s so much that goes into writing a song, it’s hard to think about just one thing. This is more abstract, but it’s important to think about…I know this sounds very obvious, but you have to think about what you’re saying means. For example, you can describe a scene that happened in your life word for word as it happened, but you need to understand why you’re describing it, and why it’ll be important to the listener. What is significant to you might not be significant to the listener. What I’m trying to say is, if you’re trying to express something through a scene or through a description of how things happen, you need to get to the point of the matter. I know I’m being long-winded for someone who’s talking about getting to the point, but when you think about the scene you’re describing you have to think about why it’s important to you, and why you want to express it to someone. Otherwise, unfortunately, everything that matters to you may not matter to the listener. That may sound really discouraging, but I’m trying to stress how important it is to be a good communicator. It’s not prose. It’s not like you have pages and pages of space to grab someone’s attention. You have to make sure that everything you say matters and has a point. That’s a more succinct way of saying what I’m trying to say. ♦