Q&A: Mitski Goes Back To Her Roots On Puberty 2
Halfway through Mitski’s Puberty 2, there’s a short, scratchy blast of noise called “My Body’s Made Of Crushed Little Stars.” If you’ve seen Mitski Miyawaki live at any point over the last few years, there’s a good chance you’ve heard her power through this one like an anxious ball of energy: “I wanna see the whole world, I wanna see the whole world/ I don’t know how I’m gonna pay rent, I wanna see the whole world,” she sings, and the implication is deafeningly clear: Mitski is gonna make that happen.
“I don’t want to be a musician’s musician,” she says at one point in our conversation over tea in the East Village. “I want to be an everyone’s musician.” That ambition is realized on her powerhouse new album, which marries Bury Me At Makeout Creek’s live-wire indie-rock with the compositional inventiveness of her earlier work. Puberty 2 is more open and sonically adventurous than its predecessors: Mitski messes around with new textures, from the crunchy drum machine of the opening track to the billowing “Thursday Girl” to the exhilarating in-the-red static of “A Loving Feeling.” Some of these sound incongruous next to each other, but her singular vision pulls every disparate thread together.
In fact, Puberty 2 often relishes in that sort of tonal whiplash, as it makes a larger point about the volatile economy of emotions that results from life’s ups and downs. It treats love and happiness as currency: who has it, who doesn’t, what we do when it’s gone and the drastic measures we’ll take to get it back. It’s about managing expectations — both society’s and our own — and learning how to grow up without giving up. It’s a powerful testament to resilience and self-reliance. It’s one of the best records of the year, and it’ll guarantee that Mitski gets to see the whole world.
Read our interview below.
STEREOGUM: Bury Me was such a breakout in so many ways. You had two other albums before it, but that was the first one that was kind of a thing. Did you feel a different kind of pressure going into writing and recording this album that you didn’t before?
MITSKI MIYAWAKI: When I record, it’s this very precious and insular thing. And so after doing the whole Bury Me thing, recording this album became even more of an escape. So instead of feeling pressure or feeling like I had to make something that everyone would like, it became this very juicy time where I finally could get to do music again. Because I felt that, with promoting Bury Me, I was so out of touch with music. So, yeah, I wasn’t thinking as far ahead as oh god, I have to put it out and is it going to be as good as the last one…
STEREOGUM: That’s very zen. I feel like the pressure would get to me a little bit.
MIYAWAKI: I think the pressure gets to me when I play shows and there’s more people in the audience than I’m used to. Playing Bowery Ballroom [later this month], which will be the biggest room I’ve ever headlined. I think the physicality and reality of actually having people in front of me gets to me more.
STEREOGUM: How does playing shows in a DIY space where you’re vaguely friends with half the people compare to playing a room where you know no one?
MIYAWAKI: Both are fundamentally performative, and it’s good that I’ve done both to broaden my range. What a small DIY space requires of an artist is different than a big space. I don’t think I would’ve been able to play the bigger spaces effectively without coming up through smaller spaces.
STEREOGUM: Did you look back towards your first two records more while making Puberty 2? Because I feel like Bury Me was so abrasive in its own way, and your first two albums are softer and more focused on the compositional side of things. Did you try to tie all three of those together into the new one?
MIYAWAKI: Yeah, I think so. I think I quote-unquote “went back to my roots” a little bit. With Bury Me, my focus was that I would be able to play specifically for these small DIY spaces with the equipment that was there. I didn’t want to make all these grand compositions and then not be able to realize them in my reality, which at that time was Brooklyn and spaces like the Silent Barn. But when I was making this fourth record, I wasn’t thinking so much about whether I could play it live anymore. I was thinking more about how I could make these recordings good for what they are, and I knew that I could always just recreate a different version live.
STEREOGUM: Do you think subconsciously you felt a little more freedom because you knew that you would be playing these bigger spaces this time around so that you wouldn’t necessarily have to worry so much about having to just plug in and go?
MIYAWAKI: Yeah, maybe… I don’t know if I consciously thought about that, but looking back, yes, definitely. For Bury Me, I was so focused on putting myself out there that everything I made was filtered towards how can I get people’s attention? how can I reach people?, and maybe it was more abrasive because I was like… listen!!! Whereas for this fourth record, it was more centered around I’m gonna do what I want. Like, I would still be able to play the songs off the new record in smaller spaces, but there was more of a sense of safety. It wasn’t that I thought that I would be able to play bigger spaces, it was just more like, I’ll be OK if I can’t play these live, or I’ll be OK if I have to figure out a different way to perform these later, or I’ll be OK if people don’t like it.
STEREOGUM: Did you write any of this record on the road? Is that something you can do?
MIYAWAKI: Writing on the road is hard for me. On the road, I get little snippets of inspiration but I can’t follow through, so I’d make a voice memo and then I’d have to go somewhere. Tour isn’t good for writing, but it’s good for inspiration. The record was made over a long period of time of having hundreds of snippets and putting them together into a cohesive thing in the end. But I can’t write on the road because I need a space and a focus that you just don’t have in that environment.
STEREOGUM: What was the recording process for the album like?
MIYAWAKI: I went to this place called Acme Studios in Westchester, NY. It’s defunct now, but it was run by my former professor at SUNY Purchase, Peter Denenberg, who produced the Spin Doctors and also the Space Jam soundtrack. He teaches now, he’s the head of the department and I stayed close with him, as did Patrick [Hyland], who produced the record. So he let us use the studio for a reduced price, and we just booked two straight weeks and stayed in there and got it done.
STEREOGUM: So it was just the two of you recording?
STEREOGUM: Do you like that?
MIYAWAKI: I really enjoyed it. It’s our third record working together so we know our rhythms. A lot of times, we wouldn’t have to discuss things, we’d just understand. I know when to give him space and when to jump in. That’s what made it so quick. It only took two weeks because we were able to work really fast. While he was working on something, I could trust him to do it and go work on something else.
STEREOGUM: Is that a process you think you’d want to stick with going forward, or do you think you’d want to have more outside influence as a creative spark?
MIYAWAKI: I’m not sure… I’m fearful of that becoming stagnant or a crutch. I don’t want to become dependent on that process. I want to make sure that I’m always challenging myself or making something new. I feel like, on one hand, following the same path would be a very comfortable way to make music again, but I’m also afraid that it would end up sounding similar to what I did before. So we’ll see. I’ll figure it out, but there is that fear of I don’t know whether I should keep doing the same thing.
STEREOGUM: Does the idea of recording with a live band in the future appeal to you?
MIYAWAKI: The whole live band aspect of it scares me on a trust level. I’m kind of a control freak, so I like to make sure that my hands are on every layer. With live bands, it’s so hard for every single instrument to sound good in one take unless you’re a very tight band. So I think my work style will always be layer-by-layer so that I can edit each one. But maybe that will change, maybe I’ll feel inspired to do a band thing, but it hasn’t happened yet.
STEREOGUM: Does that inclination comes from the way you came up in music? Going to college for composition, do you think that’s ingrained in your brain in some way?
MIYAWAKI: Yeah, I actually think that’s true. A lot of these bands that are coming up started out in bands when they were 13 in garages, whereas I started out as someone who looked at a sheet of music and wrote out the parts. So the way I think about music and composition and recording music isn’t like, the band is gonna sound this way. It’s more the layers are going to sound this way.
STEREOGUM: Thematically, would you say this is a happier record than anything you’ve ever made? Obviously, there are moments of sadness, but it feels a little more tempered.
MIYAWAKI: I think it’s just that I’ve grown up a little bit. When you’re a teenager and you’re sad, the world is ending. But when you’re an adult, you can be sad and still go to work. Or your life can be fucked up, but as an adult you understand that your life isn’t the world, and the world goes on and you just deal with it in your own way privately, or talk to a friend. In The Breakfast Club, there’s this quote that goes, “When you grow up, your heart dies,” and that’s such a teenage perspective of what I’m talking about. I used to be afraid of that, but now that I’m older, I’m just like, no, your perspective grows and you realize that your one intense sadness isn’t everything.
STEREOGUM: Do you think this record is about managing your emotions more effectively? The title is sort of a redux of a very tumultuous time in everybody’s life, and then you kind of have the chance to do it over. You experience the same emotions as you did then, but you know how to manage them better because you’ve already gone through it.
MIYAWAKI: I think there’s a sort of cynicism, too. A little bit of cynicism can be healthy. It’s also just self-awareness. In previous records, what worked was that I was so in-the-moment and in my feelings, and on this record there’s more of a perspective and objectivity to my emotions. And that’s why I feel, lyrically, I used a lot more metaphors and a lot more characters than I did before. I feel this way, this is what happened — there’s less of that.
STEREOGUM: Did you really set out to write a lot from different perspectives? I know there’s “Dan The Dancer,” but do you think that the songs on this record more so than your previous ones came from someone else’s perspective rather than your own?
MIYAWAKI: I think that all the perspectives are still mine, but I think I’m just becoming more aware of the layers of who I am. No one is just one person, no one is just one feeling. Just like with writing fiction — even though this isn’t fiction — sometimes the best way to convey an emotion isn’t just to straightforwardly describe it, but to imply it through metaphor or use characters. There’s a quote that goes like, fiction is closer to truth than nonfiction, and I think that with this record, I focused more on finding the essence of whatever I’m feeling and describing it so that it’s more about that essential emotion rather than my personal one.
STEREOGUM: In terms of specific emotions… On this album — I’m thinking of “A Loving Feeling” and “Happy” in particular — there’s a lot of lyrics about how there’s this feeling that you get, and then you have to also feel the absence of that feeling. It comes and it goes, you have this love but then you have no one to share it with and it sometimes makes you feel more alone. Do you give a lot of thought to the sort of transactional way that emotions work? How the absence of something is often stronger than the feeling itself? Does that make any sense?
MIYAWAKI: Yeah, it makes sense. I’m a Libra… I don’t want to make this about astrology, but I’m so very focused on balance. When I’m writing a song, I’m always thinking about the placement of things, how a composition will be balanced and how it will move. It’s the same with emotions. Feeling really, really happy is actually scary for me because I understand that, in the balance of life, you have to bounce that much lower to balance things out. I guess it’s very zen, but… It’s like caffeine or drugs — when you’ve had it, you know what it’s like to have had it, and by taking it you’ll also experience the not having it, and not having it will be more intense than having had it at all. And maybe that comes with maturity and experience and stepping back and seeing how life goes — how getting up too fast is a little dangerous because nothing can stay up that way forever. It has to go down. But also, if you go really down, it means you’ll go up soon.
STEREOGUM: I mean, sometimes when you’re down it feels like you’re never going to go up, which is even scarier. It’s very hard to be in love or be happy and know logically that it probably won’t last.
MIYAWAKI: Oh my gosh, I know. It’s so unhealthy because I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t trust happiness anymore. When I’m too happy, I’m just waiting for something to happen, and that ruins my happiness.
Puberty 2 is out 6/17 via Dead Oceans.