Image by Ebru Yildiz
Oh, you know that 2016 yeah? Worst year ever mate. It was all rotten, top to bottom. The bad guys won and the good people dropped like flies. Someone even decided to stick an extra day in it just to mess with us. Honestly, quarantine the thing and let’s just try and pretend it never happened. Nothing good came out it, surely.
I exaggerate, obviously. (I hope.) Even a period so full of geopolitical horrors and personal tragedy for many will still find itself the canvas for some kind of goodness and beauty. A case in point then: last year was the year that Mitski went from a cult concern to an internationally loved musician on the back of her remarkable fourth album, Puberty 2.
Having already tackled a plethora of sounds, styles and concepts in her previous work – from the grandiose yet small-scale piano ballads of her debut Lush to the raw, punk-informed folk of 2014’s Bury Me at Makeout Creek – Puberty 2 still emerged as her most powerfully realised and expansive work to date. Tackling themes of identity, anxiety, heartbreak and belonging with a forensic honesty and ruthless intelligence, it’s an album that rightly brought her a new wave of critical attention and a whole new fanbase. With her time increasingly in demand, I was fortunate enough to pose a few questions to Mitski about her art and her rising status ahead of a UK tour that brings her to The Cluny in Newcastle on Saturday 11th March.
Discussing her newly raised profile, Mitski is clear that there was no expectation from her end that Puberty 2 would prove to be such a breakthrough release. “I didn’t really have the time or energy to think about what the album would do, as I recorded it in a short two week break between tours. So I was focused on getting it done and then moving on to the next thing. It was simply what I felt I had to do – I am a musician, so I make music. I find that often if you just keep single-mindedly doing something and sending it out into the world, then people eventually start to catch on.”
I am simply more than one sound or more than one idea – my music is a reflection of my humanity
One explanation perhaps for the success of the album is her shift from the arrangements on her previous work, written so as to be easily translatable for live performance, to the heavily layered and immersive textures that fill up Puberty 2. From the electronic doo-wop of Crack Baby to the digital shoegaze of Your Best American Girl and the profound minimalism of current single A Burning Hill, the shifting soundscapes magnify the power of Mitski’s songs. “It’s been good for me to have the mind-set that the performed song is different from the recorded song”, she explains, “as it keeps me from getting caught up in trying to recreate the recorded music, and instead helps me focus on giving the live performance what it needs. It’s less ‘I want it to sound like this’ and more ‘this is how it sounds with people in front of me, so how do I make this good.’”
Despite the sonic upheaval though, Mitski is certain on the continuity present in her work. “There are no different people who made them, there is the same me who made them all. I am simply more than one sound or more than one idea – my music is a reflection of my humanity, not of a concept or a band formed on a concept. And as a human I contain multitudes, as it’s been famously said. I’ve stopped trying to make my music sound any particular way because it would fit better into one genre or another. It’s not only a waste to deny your art of all the tools in you that you’re able to employ to create it, it’s also antithetical to artistic expression itself.”
With her lyrics having received acclaim for their bleeding of confessional poetry with something more elusive and slippery, I asked her about any defining influences on her writing. For her though, it’s a more complex scenario than having a simple rollcall of ancestors. “I’m sure everything I’ve consumed has influenced me. I do take care to keep in mind that lyrics are different from written prose or poetry, in that the listener must be able to capture the intended image after hearing the words only once. You can read a line of poetry over and over to uncover its layers of metaphor, but with sung lyrics you get one shot to paint a picture. That’s why even the best lyrics often sound incredibly stupid when you read them on a piece of paper.”
Turning to her forthcoming live dates, I inquired about Personal Best, her hand-chosen choice of support for the tour. “I met Kate from Personal Best when she played bass for Trust Fund, who I toured with on my last European run. Trust Fund played a cover of a Personal Best song, I fell in love with it, and I wanted to keep hearing it every night, so I asked Kate if Personal Best could tour with me next.”
Whilst some musicians can find the modern touring grind a detriment to their work however, Mitski takes it in her stride. “I just think of performance as a different creative process than writing or recording. So yes, touring keeps me from recording new music as quickly as I’d like to, but I wouldn’t say that’s a hindering of the creative process, just a prioritizing of one over the other for a while.” Anyone at The Cluny for her performance there will surely be glad of this prioritisation at least.