Mitski interview: "When you listen to an album, it's yours. It's no longer the artist's, so you can do what you want with it."
On Friday Mitski will release Be The Cowboy, her fifth studio album and first in which she’s dealing with a massive weight of expectation, following the breakout success of 2016’s Puberty 2. She doesn’t seem to show any signs of pressure when we meet though, being every part the collected professional she’s built herself into, dealing with the demands of her new status matter-of-factly, comfortable in the understanding that this is her job and her business – and each part of the process is a necessary step to success. On the other hand, she’s also the caring mother figure that she’s become renowned for, ensuring that I have ice in my drink on this hot day, turning down the air conditioning when she senses I get too cold, and speaking to me with attention and focus throughout our discussion.
Whereas on Puberty 2 Mitski won over hearts with her deeply personal lyricism about the difficulty of cross-cultural relationships and the destructiveness of obsession, Be The Cowboy instead sees her painting 14 individual characters in each song. While it may not be strictly her experiences that have fuelled them, there is still tangibly her perspective, wit and honesty embedded within each of them. I was keen to explore these perspectives with her, and how she has arrived at them in her life, as we delved into each of the tracks on the wonderful and emphatic Be The Cowboy.
Judging from the fact that there’s no cowboy imagery associated with Be The Cowboy, and no mention of cowboys in the lyrics, you have a slightly different version of what a cowboy is - it's more of a state of mind, than an actual cowboy?
The cowboy in my mind is powerful in that he's free; free that he's able to ride into town, wreck shit and then leave without thinking about it. There's a strange power in not caring. I'm interested in that idea of power.
Who is the quintessential cowboy in that mould?
The Marlboro guys.
Well, they certainly wrecked a lot of people's lives with their cancer. It's also interesting that cowboys are an archetype of American culture, which is something you've dealt with a lot; was that on your mind?
Yeah. I'm very fascinated by America, because I'm supposed to be American, but I'm not really from there. I never grew up there and I've spent my adult life trying to figure out what it means.
Has Be The Cowboy helped with that?
Well, I've driven through a lot of real cowboy country now. America's so big I feel like half of understanding it is seeing all sides of it that aren't just LA and New York.
Anywhere you would live?
I get to see the whole world, and what you realise is there's so many wonderful places that it becomes hard to choose just one place to live. There's always constant FOMO for other places.
Yep, I know that, for sure. Let's talk about the album itself. I'm fascinated by this image that you and [producer] Patrick Hyland focused on as sonic inspiration, "someone alone on a stage, singing solo with a single spotlight trained on them in an otherwise dark room"; do you know what put that into your mind originally?
There's just something campy about it. And in my real life I'm pouring my heart out performing, putting my all into it, but there's also a very kind of dry cynical side of me, watching myself do it and being like "that's embarassing." I think in a lot of musical theatre there's a lot of that, where it's just like one spotlight on one singer theatrically performing, but there's also something very kind of funny about that.
I was trying to think about movies where this kind of image comes up, because I feel like I can picture it perfectly, but the only ones I could think of were Camerion Diaz in The Mask and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall….
[Laughs] Yeah... I mean it's not even just the act of singing, it's that as a metaphor for something, its campness and theatricality; being both fully into it and also watching yourself do it.
Would you say that the songs on this album vary in their "cowboyness"?
When I was writing the songs I wasn't thinking of the title.
But now, looking back at the songs, can you identify which ones feature characters that are more like the cowboy you imagine?
I think there's a lot of characters in the songs that are trying to be that person. It's not so much being the cowboy, but telling yourself "be the cowboy" like "do it!" like "be confident! You can do it! Why are you this way? Be stronger!" I think that's more the idea.
When you talked about opening track ‘Geyser’ with Bob Boilen you said that it's about your connection with and devotion to music; it makes me think that you know who you are and what you want and that it's this connection to music, so through that self-confidence you are “being the cowboy.” Is that the most cowboy song on the album?
I think actually the most cowboy song might be 'A Horse Named Cold Air', not just because it's about a horse, but also because it's about someone who has ran like a storm but sort of has grown old and kind of looks back on that.
I have to ask about the glitch at the beginning of 'Geyser', because I know it's confused people, and I wasn't sure it was intentional until I heard the song from different sources. So did you put it in there just to fuck with people?
That was Patrick's idea. At first it was like "uuuurgh, people won't like it," but then I was like "fuck it, it's cool, it's fun." Evan from the label, when he first heard it, he was like "is this glitch intentional?" and Patrick responded via email saying "you are experiencing the art."
Aha, I guess that's what everyone who's hearing it is "experiencing the art" then. Was it the first song written for the album?
Yes, well it was the first song I started to write. I started to write it in college; it's the song I've taken the longest to write. It had become my White Whale - Moby Dick reference - where I couldn't get it right. Every time I thought I'd finished it it just didn't feel right, so I kept changing it. It's gone through many iterations; probably people who went to school with me, who've been in seminars with me, are like "wait, I heard that somewhere..." And then I finally got to a point where I was like "you know what, I need to end this, I'm never gonna be happy with it so let me finish it." So I did.
But even though it’s been around for years, it's still just as relevant to you now.
I think in my mind I'm gonna have to keep working on it, I'm gonna change it over and over in my mind.
Maybe in the live show you could change it for each tour.
We'll see. I don't think that's what people want.
People don't know what they want! I love how reading the words of 'Geyser' doesn't really tell the whole story, and that's true of a lot of the songs on this album. How much do you think about tone and delivery of the lyrics?
It's very important. I'm very particular about the vocals. They're done last, and I do them on days when I feel prepared, and I take them very seriously.
Do you have a certain mindset you need to be in? And is it different for each song?
Yeah. It might be a different zone, but it's the same sort of intent and focus.
'Why Didn't You Stop Me' seems to me like someone who really isn't a cowboy; someone who's lost control and is completely given over to this other person and wants them to make all the decisions for them...
I think it's actually one of the more cowboy songs, just because there's a certain amount of selfishness in saying "I know I did this, but why didn't you stop me?" And there's a sort of very cowboy power thing going on, where you kind of ride into town, wreak havoc and be like "this is your fault." That's where I was coming from with that, like "I know I fucked up, I know I was the one who left, but why didn't you stop me?" It's a power move.
Ah, cool! There's a big kind of stadium-sized outro on that song, were you imagining playing bigger crowds with a moment like that?
When I was recording this I wasn't thinking about the live show. For Bury Me At Makeout Creek I was thinking about how I would translate it live and how I would keep it pared down, which is what was within my means at the time, but for this record I just decided I wouldn't think about the live show until I got there.
So the big ending of 'Why Didn't You Stop Me' was a natural conclusion?
I love drama!
In 'Old Friend' you ask this person to "meet [you] at Blue Diner," what do you imagine this fictional diner to be like? What kind of music are they playing?
Maybe songs from a few decades ago. It's not pretty, it's very run-down, but been there for a long time. It's just like the local spot that's not on Yelp, but everyone knows it. It may be a little more discreet so the people in the spot can meet there without running into any of their other friends. It's like their spot that no one else knows about.
The perfect place to talk about secret desires, which is everything that's unsaid in this song. Tell me about the final lines, "Every time I drive through the city where you're from I squeeze a little."
In my mind visually it's like squeezing the steering wheel a little, just thinking about it. Just trying to hold it in; feeling emotional but just being like "nope." Gritting your teeth.
'A Pearl' really gets me, especially the line "you're getting tired of me, and all the things that I don't talk about." The economy of words is great... But I guess the overall message of this song is that it takes time to adjust to peace in a relationship; does that surprise you?
I think what's more surprising to me is when you're OK - but you're not used to being OK, and when you've been unhappy for so long that being unhappy is your norm and what you're uncomfortable with - so when you're not unhappy, when you're finally fine, you don't know what to do with yourself. You repeat self-destructive behaviours because it's what you know, it's what you feel you deserve and what you're comfortable with. If it's just your life then you can be as self-destructive as you want, but what makes it complicated is if you have someone else in your life who cares about you, if you're in a relationship, and you're supposed to be fine and you have someone asking about you and caring about you, but you just can't stop being unhappy, because being unhappy is what you want. That feeling of someone else being involved in your wellbeing, and not being able to be well for them.
Why does this manifest as a pearl in your song?
Because it's this little thing that's very pretty to you, and you roll it around in your hand, and it's almost like Smeagol from Lord Of The Rings, where it's just a pretty little thing in your hand that you hold on to. You don't have to hold on to it, but in your mind you feel you have to, and at night instead of going to sleep you wake up and look at it. And that's a metaphor for something unhealthy, something that's no longer serving you, but you can't stop rolling it around and looking at it.
'Remember My Name' is the first time death rears its head on the album, one of your favourite things...
My favourite thing!
This must be extra acute for you because people will remember your name for your art more than as a person...
Well, people won't remember my name.
For a short period.
But in this song it's more wanting the person to remember your name for personal reasons. What is that necessity to have someone remember your name? Where does it come from?
A desire for immortality in a way. Not wanting to die.
And having someone close enough to be that person, to be your witness...
Everyone wants to be remembered. That's why half the people who have children have children, because they want to pass on something of themselves, they don't want to pass into the ether.
Is that what the person in this song is desiring?
I think so, but it's also about wanting something that's just... you will never get that; you will die and you will be forgotten. In the chorus it's "I want something bigger than the sky," and there's nothing bigger than the sky - but you still want it.
Right, and then the line "just how many stars will I need to hang around me to finally call it heaven?" Such a sharp way of putting this constant dissatisfaction... which brings us on to 'Me and My Husband', which seems destined that it will become an anthem for married couples - because people don't always pay attention to the details, like the big sigh at the start of the track - so how earnest is this song?
I mean, I'm not married, so… I think a lot of marriages are like that because that's what it is; it's no longer about being in love. It's really hard to stay in love and keep the spark. When you get married and you're with someone for years and years, it no longer becomes about infatuation or having your heart aflutter. But the song is just about "you know what, this may not be love anymore, and I may be unhappy, and I'm going to die one day and this is just going to be my life." But then turning around and saying "this is the decision I made, and you're the person I chose, so I'm just going to stick with you. We have our problems, but this is our life and we're going to live it." And that's what it’s about.
Are there any particular couples that inspired it?
Ummm, I don't want to call any specific couple out [laughs]. But it's a type, it's a thing that's happening and will happen.
It's interesting that you decided to make it into a song though, considering you're not married...
I think a big part of me is retaliating against youth culture, because I'm getting older, but I'm in the entertainment business, where I'm expected to be young forever and sing about going to the club and being infatuated with someone and having your first love. But I'm 27, like...
You've got some of those things covered, maybe not the club part but the infatuation part...
Exactly! But I can't keep doing that and still being truthful, because the reality is I'm an adult now, and I'm getting older, and you get older you see a lot of sides of love, and you experience relationships that aren't just your first love. I think so much of music is so youth-oriented, when there are so many more stories to tell. A pop song doesn't just have to be about that young love, because there's so many more experiences that are worth singing about.
'Come Into The Water', coming off the back of 'Me and My Husband', at first gave me this image of domestic life, where the wife is asking the husband to join her in the bath – it’s quite an intimate scene…
But then also I read your favourite Bowie quote about going into the water just beyond your depth, could that also be something to do with it?
Oh, you know what I didn't even think about that! But that's a good take on it, and you should roll with it. I love that, I'm gonna reflect on that…
What is it about being in the water with someone?
The water is a metaphor, it's like "are you gonna leave me alone in this, or are you going to come in and join in and be in it with me?" Because a lot of the lyrics are about "I'm not gonna move until you show me how to." It's like literally taking the plunge; "are you going to take the plunge with me?"
And then we go into 'Nobody' where it seems like this person has not had much luck finding someone take the plunge with them.
Do you think much about the sequencing in that way?
The sequencing is more based on general mood as opposed to telling a story.
Was 'Nobody' always written as a disco song? Was that something you'd wanted to do?
Yeah it was. I just wanted to write a four-on-the-floor dance track, because I like dancing. And there's something about being so hopelessly lonely that you're like "all I can really do is dance. There's nothing else I can do; I can’t talk this away, I can't fix these problems, I'm just going to go out and dance."
There's the line "Venus, planet of love, was destroyed by global warming" - what causes global warming on Venus?
So I read an article that said that Venus at some point in its history experienced global warming, and now it's a planet that is post-global warming. So I just imagine that if there actually was a civilization on Venus that caused its global warming, and I thought "did those people want too much too, and is that what caused their global warming?" It's all hypothetical, but the fact that it experienced global warming is real.
That's crazy, I'll have to read about that. We have to mention the video for 'Nobody'; whose idea was that?
That was Christopher Good's idea; he sent me a treatment and I was like "this is great."
It reminds me of Michel Gondry's videos from back in the day.
Yeah! One of our inspirations was Michel Gondry's stuff with Björk, like the 'Bachelorette' video.
Ahhh. It actually reminds me of the one he did for Foo Fighters' 'Everlong'.
Oh yeah! That didn't come up, but I can definitely see that.
And also Eternal Sunshine, in terms of the colours and perspective stuff... you spent five days making the video, is it something you'd like to do again?
Yeah! I love making music videos. I just love filming. I was a film major for a year before I transferred to music.
Is that something you might pursue at some point?
I don't think so. I enjoy it, but in order to actually make film you have to be dedicated to it, and it's more something I just enjoy doing - I love films, but it's not in me to do it.
What if someone said "I've written this part and I think you'd be great"?
My ethos is usually just to say “yes” and see what happens, but I'm not a good actor so they're probably making a mistake.
The "one good movie kiss and I'll be alright" in 'Nobody' line makes me wonder if you have any particular favourite movie kisses?
The only thing that's popping up in my head is The Notebook [laughs]. It's just very, very heavy handed romantic stuff.
Is that the kind of thing that the person in 'Nobody' is dreaming about?
Yeah, something that's not real. Something that's just utterly romantic, and in the imagination, but not in real life.
It's that what's causing them to be even more lonely?
Is 'Pink In The Night' your direct image of what it feels to be truly in love? You feel like you're glowing pink?
Yeah, just that visual of someone glowing pink because they're so infatuated.
But even though in the song you seem so happy, your heart is breaking…
The heartbreak doesn't have to be a hard, horrible bad thing. It's just like "I'm so infatuated and in love that I feel myself crumbling... but in a good way!"
Waiting for someone to come to put them back together...
Rob, it doesn't have to be a bad thing [laughs]. It's just something very joyful and wonderful about breaking down, and kind of coming apart, there's something very delightful about that.
I see, wow... I don't think I've had that revelation yet...
Just you wait!
'A Horse Named Cold Air' seems like one that started with you just singing and recording and you thought it sounds good being so spare - were there any particular sonic inspirations?
I was writing it on piano and I thought "this is it, this is fine, it's better if it's sparse."
You started a lot of the songs for this album on piano, do you think that affected the overall sound?
I think so. When I'm writing on guitar I think more in chords, because on a guitar - at least the way I play it - when I'm composing on guitar I tend to think about the chord progressions. But when I'm writing on the piano I can think more about counterpoint and individual notes and melodies. I think that's the main difference.
The main image of 'Washing Machine Heart’ gives me an idea of peaceful domesticity. Why did you choose it?
It's about your heart beating so loud that it's going DUNDUN - DUN. Like there's a shoe in it.
I was thinking about how the washing machine is very useful, but it's also quite unglamorous the job it has to do...
Yeah, people just carelessly toss their dirty shoes in there.
Yeah, they just take whatever throw at them and they're happy to do it.
There is that too... there can be more than one meaning.
What is the symbolism or source of 'Blue Light'?
Have you ever been in a completely dark house, but there's a TV on somewhere, this weird blue light, it's sort of that idea. In that song it says "I'm walking through the house naked" and in my mind it's like a dark house, and you're kind of going crazy, but the TV's on.
And then there's that part where the song kind of breaks down and loses form, it feels like being lost at sea, it's kind of scary... did you want it to be scary?
Yes. I wanted to portray an uneasiness. Just kind of going crazy.
In 'Two Slow Dancers', the smell of the gymnasium sets the scene so well...
My idea is that it's two people at a school reunion...
That's what I thought; a high school reunion, lovers from a former life meeting again. It's amazing that that line "Does it smell like a school gymnasium in here? It's funny how they're all the same" conjures that so well.
Thanks! I went to a lot of different schools and I realised "you know they all smell the same."
It's a kind of gross beginning to what's a romantic song.
Is it gross?
I imagine the smell of a school gymnasium being mostly stale sweat...
The thing is it's not about a romantic relationship, it's about two real lives lived. And there's something very visceral and real about that. These two people have lived their whole lives, and they're older and they have problems, and their lives are complicated and they're just experiencing this one dance together where they get to pretend that they're young again. But it's in this context of life mess.
It's kind of like this one shelter from the storm moment, outside of time.
And this one's about death again!
Anyway, before we finish, are there any other books or TV or movies that you would recommend to people that might be related to this album?
I would recommend to people both the book and film of The Piano Teacher. I didn't read it or watch it while I was making the album, but it was in my mind the entire time.
It's about a woman, a piano teacher, who's very repressed and doesn't fraternise with anyone. She's kind of icy and cold... misanthropic I guess is the word. But a young man seduces her, one of her students, and she unexpectedly opens up to him, but it turns out she's way more than he can handle so he turns around is like "you're disgusting!" Highly recommended.
That sounds good...
Yeah it's great! The film is very different from the original book, but I recommend both.
And what do you think people should feel when they finish Be The Cowboy?
It doesn't matter. When you listen to an album it's yours. It's no longer the artist's, so you can do what you want with it.
Do you already feel like it's slipping out of your grasp?
It's already out of my grasp.
Mitski’s Be The Cowboy is out now on Dead Oceans.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 15th August 2018.