SXSW is exhausting. If you throw yourself into it, by the end of the week your feet hurt, your ears are ringing, and you probably contracted a cold. But if it’s tiring for industry people to be at SXSW, then being a musician at the week-long festival is downright hellish. You traipse from showcase to showcase, only to play a short set at each and exchange a few words with onlookers before moving on to the next venue. It’s sometimes fun and it boosts your ego, sure, but it’s also inordinately stressful if you’re a new act taking SXSW for the first time.
It’s impolite to say that someone looks tired, but there’s no other way to describe the hardened fatigue clouding Mitski Miyawaki’s face when she stepped onto the outdoor stage at Austin’s Liberty bar accompanied by her band, Maggie Pakutka and Kat Casale. This was their last SXSW show, and moments before their soundcheck it started to rain. Heavily. Still, the audience crowded around the stage, stooping under the awning if they could, eager to see one of the most exciting emergent acts of last year. When Mitski released her third full-length album, Bury Me At Makeout Creek, in the fall of 2014, she proved that her brand of sad songs shouldn’t make you feel sad. Instead, they’re triumphant moments of misery exploited by addictive melodies and an unbridled sense of self-imposed empowerment.
“Townie” is the ideal example of Mitski’s tendency to interweave the sorrowful with a sense of humor, so it’s fitting that she chose to play it first, followed by the album’s first single, the cavernous ballad “First Love/Late Spring.” Mitski’s live presence is arresting. Like the dualistic nature of the Bury Me At Makeout Creek tracklist, her hot pink bass is the candy coating that makes that weary, furrowed brow seem a tad less severe. Nothing about being Mitski is easy — she works hard up there on stage and won’t let anyone think that kind of performative existence is effortless. After a rendition of “I Don’t Smoke,” the album’s heartbreaking centerpiece, Mitski looked out at the crowd. “I’m so tired,” she said without any look of resignation on her face. “But,” she paused and half-smiled, “I would rather be tired doing music than be tired not doing music.”
With that, she began to pluck at the bass line of her seemingly sentimental song “I Will.” “I will take good care of you/ I will take good care of you/ Everything you feel is good/ If you would only let you,” she sang in muzzled falsetto. The louder Mitski wailed the song’s chorus to deafen the rain, the more it became apparent that “I Will” isn’t about a relationship, not about looking for love in empty spaces. It’s a song about knowing yourself well enough to recognize that you’re worthy of all that you’ve been given, everything that you’ve worked for. “All I ever wanted is here.” I’ve seen my fair share of Mitski shows, but looking around at the drenched faces beaming up at the 24 year-old singer, many of them witnessing her performance for the first time, “I Will” sounded paralyzing. Never again will there be a more pointed and declarative moment to play that song.