When I spoke to her on the phone, Mitski Miyawaki was in New York on a brief reprieve from her seemingly unending tour schedule. She sounded calm and centered, even though the anxiety that comes with releasing a highly-anticipated album was hitting her full force. (“sorry to everyone i haven't texted / emailed / messaged back. in related news, my record comes out august 17 !,” she tweeted a few days earlier.) Despite being on the road for much of the past two years — from conventional, full-band tours to more unconventional, solo adventures — she managed to make Be the Cowboy, her stunning fifth studio album.
Her lyrics are as smart and heart-wrenching as ever, but on Be the Cowboy we see more of Mitski the storyteller as she builds a specific character — a woman who is perhaps wound a little tight trying to keep it all together on a stage — as its star. Together, the songs on Be the Cowboy tell a story of tension between control and confusion, its musical variations tapping into the multifaceted adult anxieties related to maintaining an identity. Aside from the heavy stuff, the album maintains a sense of buoyancy as it leans into the inherent campiness of performance. It’s fun to listen to, and just as fun to belt out along with.
Mitski talked to The Outline about her new album, dealing with industry expectations, and what it means to “be the cowboy.”
How did you come up with the album title Be the Cowboy? I’m very interested to know what your definition of a cowboy is.
I definitely wasn’t thinking about the real working cowboy that exists today. I was thinking more of the Marlboro commercial cowboy, that incredibly exaggerated myth of the western cowboy. The album title kind of came from the fact that I would always kind of jokingly say to myself, “Be the cowboy you wish to see the world,” whenever I was in a situation where maybe I was acting too much like my identity, which is wanting everyone to be happy, not thinking I’m worthy, being submissive, and not asking for more. Every time I would find myself doing exactly what the world expects of me as an Asian woman, I would turn around and tell myself “Well, what would a cowboy do?”
It also came from [remembering] this guy in college who was an excellent performer because he was swaggering and confident. There was something mysterious about him; I didn’t really know him as a person but he as a performer was just so charismatic. I stopped seeing him live, and I missed seeing that presence on stage. And I sort of turned around and thought well, if that’s something I want to see on stage then why don't I try to embody that which I want to see on stage?
You’ve said that you wrote this album while you were on tour, coming from a place of tiredness. How do you push yourself to create when you’re feeling that way?
It’s just about leaning into it, about understanding that being an exhausted adult is also a universal experience. I was moving away from the internal pressure I put on myself of like, “Oh, I need to write about adolescent feelings” or “I need to write about love, I need to write about infatuation,” stepping away from that and leaning into, “What does it mean to be an adult? What does it mean to like push down your emotions in order to be responsible and fit into the working world?” Not turning away from it.
Did you use any instruments or techniques for the first time on Be the Cowboy?
I did sort of change up how I record vocals. I’ve always sang right up at the mic so that my my mouth touches the mic or touches the foam in front of the mic, but I’ve learned to step back and project more.
I think it just comes from having more confidence in my vocals. I used to not be able to project as much, so I would have to be right up at the mic, but now I can step back and be confident that my voice would still reach the mic in a good way. That also translated to not doubling any vocals. Most of the music we listen to, even though it sounds like one voice singing, it’s actually doubled where there's a second layer of vocals singing the exact same thing to make the vocals sound fuller. But I didn’t do that and I have very little harmonies, which I’ve always done a lot of on past albums. I left it bare a little more.
“The point isn’t for me to sound pretty. The point is to express something.”
Was that scary?
Yeah, but it’s kind of similar to my change in outlook about getting my picture taken. I used to be really self-conscious about wanting to look pretty in pictures, but I kind of realized that doesn’t actually make for a good photo. It makes for a better photo if I am more focused on making an interesting photo rather than looking pretty. That also translated to my vocals. I realized it's OK if I’m a little pitchy or my voice cracks. The point isn’t for me to sound pretty. The point is to express something.
The bio for the album says you were careful not to use distorted guitar because that became something people knew you for.
The whole point of marketing is to distill a complex human being into an easily digestible symbol. And it’s not just marketing. It’s very hard for the human brain to take in everything so we just pick out the things that stand out and that is what we retain. I wanted to make sure that I was always seen as a sort of artist in a holistic sense. I didn’t want to be known as the person to turn to if you want a distorted guitar. I wanted to be bigger than that. I wanted to be more complex and human than that.
Were there any other challenges you put on yourself for recording Be the Cowboy?
I very much am a people pleaser. I want everybody to be happy, so what I tend to do is overcompensate by making sure I do what people might not like. But often it was often hard to go in that direction, because I’m just like everyone else and what other people like tends to be what I like as well. I’m very much a pop enthusiast. For example, my heart’s desire is to just write a pop song form just like verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, bridge, chorus. A very standard pop song form is genuinely what I like, but I pushed myself to move away from that just to challenge myself and maybe challenge the listener, too, and try to figure out ways to pace a song that wasn’t reliant on classic song form.
You eschew traditional choruses a lot on this album. But at the same time I feel like you were also doing a lot with repetition — the word “nobody” on “Nobody,” “baby at blue diner” on “Old Friend,” or “why not me” on “Washing Machine Heart,” changing them slightly each time.
I think there’s something incredibly manic about it, or maybe I’m thinking more maniacal. I’m not sure, but obsessive repetition like that sort of illustrates that mind set. I don’t know about other people, but I get obsessed a lot or stuck on words a lot. I think it has something to do with my brain or my psyche, so I wanted to express that feeling of like, “Oh, is the protagonist a little off?”
Tell me more about the protagonist you had in mind.
This protagonist is a person who’s in me. It’s just I’m not this person all the time. It’s this woman who feels powerless and overcompensates by exercising extreme control on herself and on her environment, and just trying to be powerful within her own the limits of her her body and who she is, but kind of just unraveling a little bit because the amount of control she's exercising on to herself maybe isn’t healthy or isn’t natural. There’s something more warm and human inside that she’s pushing down in order to appear strong to the world.
You explore that character on this album in a lot of serious ways, but one song, “Me and My Husband” is darkly funny. Can you tell me about what the images you had in mind for that song? I’m especially thinking of the line, "So I bet it all on that furrowed brow,” which for some reason I found super funny.
I try to keep a sense of humor about all this stuff. I’m not married, I don’t have a husband, but I was just thinking about being a woman with a man in a long term relationship. I used a stereotype of the suburban, old-fashioned housewife to kind of accentuate my point. But I think that dynamic still exists today even in like urban people or people who consider themselves no longer old-fashioned. There’s something about being the person in the relationship who is dependent on the other person — whether it’s financially or it’s just in terms of identity — and maybe not being happy, but saying, “This is the life I chose and this is the person I chose and this is my identity, so I’m going to hold onto it and I'm going to do this until I die. Maybe in the next lifetime I will be somebody else. But in this lifetime I’m sticking with my husband. I am maintaining my position in this relationship. And it doesn’t matter if I’m happy.”
“The music industry is not a place where balanced people survive.”
I’m glad you brought up dependence because when I read that you wrote “Geyser” about your career, I couldn’t help but think about the whole album in those terms. How do you find a balance between devotion to work and dependence on it?
It’s very hard. I’m constantly not in balance. The thing about it is the music industry is not a place where balanced people survive. You really need to want it and you need to sacrifice your well-being to a large extent in order to survive it, or you need to shape your identity around what is needed of you as a musician. So I think the pursuit of a career in music in and of itself is not balanced, at least not as long as we have the music industry as it currently is.
I try to maintain balance in very practical ways, maybe turning down some opportunities or turning down some tour dates to make sure that I go to the doctor or making sure I put breaks between tour dates. Just learning to say no to opportunities when everyone’s telling you this is your only chance, because I realized everyone says everything is your only chance. I don’t drink on tour, so I don’t drink at all because I’m always on tour, and I try to get as much sleep as I possibly can. I don’t smoke at all, either. I think it’s less about finding holistic balance and more about finding a unique balance within a fundamentally unbalanced situation.
Do you feel like you learned something new making this record?
I did. I learned that I need to put limitations on myself during the creative process or else my anxiety takes hold and I give my brain room to doubt. For Puberty 2 I only had a two-week span to do it, so when I was recording I was very much making decisions based on instinct and wasn't looking back every time I made a decision. It was just about trying to get it done.
I think that actually helped my creative process. For this album, the process was really stretched out. It was whenever I had time between tours over the course of two years. That gave me a lot more time to doubt myself, to second guess, to go back and try to fix something and then forget what I was even trying to say in the beginning. So yeah, I’ve figured out that I need to be my own mom. I need to create a mom for myself or an authoritarian figure in my head or some kind of limitation to make sure that I actually follow the creativity and I don’t get in my head too much about it. I actually need limitations, which is counterintuitive because you’d think that creativity is about being unlimited.
I also realized I am smarter than I thought. I think because my previous records were so much about following instinct there was a part of me that doubted that I had the brains to create music rationally. For this album, I made a lot of very thoughtful, rational decisions because I had a lot more time. I realized, “Oh, my music degree did do something.”