Mitski’s voice is like a strong wind. The Howls House forces that are bound to blow you away, as you’re stuck in the whirlwind of her emotions. Since her 2012 debut Lush, Mitski has remained unfiltered; treating her guitar-laced, shoegaze-inspired songs like personal diaries. Her sound is deeply rooted in the emo-esque style of bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, but her place in events such as Lorde’s Melodrama tour in America positions her as so much more. You can call it pop, you can call it indie, but really it’s just Mitski being who she wants.
When I talked to Mitski over the phone a couple of Tuesdays ago, she was tired. Of course, her two-year streak of touring with very little breaks cannot be the easiest of schedules. But she wasn’t enthusiastic, just uncensored; maybe a little nihilistic. But as we delved into her new album Be The Cowboy, her return to the piano, amongst other things, it was clear that Mitski was a geyser just waiting to boil with passion and panache.
Now that the album is slated for release, how do you feel?
Umm, I don’t know how I feel. I’ve been sitting on this album for a while, and I’ve known that it would come out on August 17th for a long time. Yeah, I don’t know how I feel.
Can you tell me the inspiration behind the album title Be The Cowboy?
Well, I knew a guy in college who was incredibly charismatic on stage. He reminded me of a cowboy; he was electric. I loved seeing him live. His stage presence inspired me. I stopped seeing him around, and I remember really missing him on the stage. Then I realised that if I really wanted to see it, I should become it. I should become the cowboy.
You talk about how the album was inspired by someone alone on stage, with a single spotlight on them in an otherwise dark room. Is that concept in any way an ode to your busy touring schedule?
No, It’s more so a reference to self-awareness and how we feel things in general. The thing about this idea is that on one hand, people would be completely into the drama of someone performing in a dark room; with a single spotlight illuminating them. But on the other hand, if you take a step back and get a little cynical, it’s actually quite campy. You have this person on stage pouring their heart out, and in ways, it’s funny. I wanted to express the fact that I love what I’m doing, but that I’m also aware that it’s a little silly.
You’ve talked about how when you were heading into this album that you weren’t feeling anything at all. What drove you into that state?
I’m a musician you know. That’s my job. It’s actually more than just a job. I’m naturally a person that creates; a person that makes songs. Not being in touch with the wellspring that inspired my music was kind of scary, and it was a new thing for me. But I leaned into it, and I explored the feeling of being a little down and nihilistic.
You delve into a lot of fictional and narrative-based stories throughout the album. Did you find yourself finding parts of your reality within these songs?
You know what? That’s an interesting question. I think I will have to live with the songs a little bit longer to truly understand what I’ve learned. I also think that I’ll have to perform them live and connect with people to really immerse myself in them.
On this album, there’s a strong return to the use of piano. What inspired you to return to the instrument?
I missed it. It was like an old buddy I hadn’t seen in a long time; I just wanted to go back. Sure enough, I had become very bad at it. It’s kind of like muscle. Because if you don’t practice it you can lose it. But it was kind of nice to approach songwriting in a different way. I think the way I write songs depends on what instrument I’m using. Writing with the guitar is a lot more cordial, just because of how the guitar is. But with piano, I feel like I can focus more on counterpoints, melodies and notes.
The song ‘Geyser’ to me is a standout on the album. It feels like expression in its purest form. even though it’s lyrically vague. Do you feel as if the world we live in limits people from feeling free?
Yes, but we can’t be feeling free and still function as a society. That’s not how capitalism works. You have to go to work, be responsible; you have to work around people. Sure the world restricts you, but that’s what helps the world run.
‘Geyser’ is complimented even more by the imagery in the video. Do you think the scenery and nature is something that directly influences your craft?
I really do. I look to nature often. As humans, we are a part of this world. I think when something happens to us a parallel happens in the environment as well. A lot of my inspiration comes from trying to find those parallels.
Control seems to be a strong theme in your music, and that can be something hard to grasp in the world today. What can you do to maintain control when the world is falling apart?
I think a lot of it has to do with understanding that you have no control. Being okay with not having any is a part of learning how to maintain it.
We live in an era where creativity is boiled down to streams and album-equivalent units. As someone who primarily runs all her own business, does this make you feel dehumanised or disheartened at all?
Yes (sigh). But what are you going to do you know?
Lastly, Be The Cowboy to me represents breaking the stigma that emotion is a weakness; a stigma that has fuelled misogyny and discrimination for a long time. As someone who is primarily an open book in their music, what advice would you give to someone who struggles to express themselves?
Think of it as this extended metaphor. You could work hard at a job that you don’t like, and your company could still collapse; you could still get fired; anything could happen at any time that would stop you from working this job you despise. So why not try and work a job that you love? Because the chances for failure are the same anyway.
Mitski’s new album Be The Cowboy will be available August 17th. You can preorder it here.