Rina Sawayama On Honouring Her Inner Child, And The Purpose Of Pop Music

There's a distinct element of storytelling flowing throughout Rina Sawayama's second studio album 'Hold The Girl' – a title which is a story in itself, and a powerful statement too.

Rina Sawayama - Image © Thurstan Redding

“I just think of myself as a storyteller, I don't view myself as a 'songwriter', I like to tell stories, and I like to tell stories that haven't been told before,” the artist – who has already made a huge impact with first album 'SAWAYAMA' – describes on our Zoom call. So far, Rina's storytelling and artistry has propelled her to US late night TV spots, festival gigs like Coachella and Radio 1's Big Weekend, and features on tracks by the likes of Lady Gaga and Elton John.

The overarching theme of this new album is one born from a particularly illuminating and “intense” therapy session.

“It was about inner child work, when you've gone through something traumatic when you're a child or a teenager, and you are actually able to heal yourself as an adult through honouring the feelings of the person that you were,” Rina says. This concept of holding on to your inner child was something that had a profound effect on the musician, who walked away from that session not only armed with a new way to acknowledge past trauma, but also a particularly poignant potential canvas for creativity.

“It's this interesting age where you're able to have a really great perspective on your younger self but also you're at an age that maybe your parents had you.”

Leaving her therapy session with the words 'hold the girl' written impulsively in her phone's Notes app, Rina had unknowingly conceived the blueprints for her second album. It's a body of work which, for the most part, utilises pop music's sounds and its ability to relate to its audience on more than just surface level, while simultaneously harnessing the extremely personal nature of country songwriting. The result is an album of lyrics which could just as easily be written for Rina as they could be written for a queer kid she's never met from the other side of the world.

“I think country writing is about being authentic,” Rina describes. “It's also about painting a picture and telling maybe boring details about something, and making it beautiful. I wanted to honour that side, but also infuse certain songs with country elements.

“Like, at the beginning of 'Your Age' there's a banjo in it, 'Hold The Girl' [the song] has country elements, but what I really loved about that sound, especially when I was writing this record and really longing to just not be locked down anymore, is that country has that duality of a sense of home but also a sense of freedom at the same time.”

The 'Hold The Girl' era began with the fiery, unapologetic, Shania-esque grooves of 'This Hell': a track proclaiming – and embracing – the apparently inevitable descent of the queer community into the underworld.

With lyrics like “got my invitation to eternal damnation” and “get in line, pass the wine bitch, we're going straight to hell!” it's not hard to decipher the message being sent here.

Rina puts it pretty plainly in conversation, too.

“I think I just wanted to come out with something that people were going to be like 'what the f...'.”

Funnily enough, Rina's description of the track could, in a way, be applied to 'Hold The Girl' in its entirety:

“It's technically interesting if I may say so myself. . . It's got a lot of chord changes and little details in the production, and the melodies are designed to tell a story.”

While the body of work is a colourfully chaotic Rina experience (she has acknowledged and embraced its genre-less nature recently in a social media post listing the likes of country pop, UK dance, trance pop and more), it has its pared-down moments, as well. One particularly heartstring-pulling track is the stark and sentimental 'Send My Love To John'.

Lyrically, it's a stellar example of Rina's earlier point about country writing – a painful letter, based on the lived experience of one of Rina's friends, written from the perspective of a mother who is acknowledging her mistreatment of her queer child.

“I wanted to tell the story of regret, I wanted to tell the story of shame, and the fact that shame is passed down through generations,” Rina explains of the song. “I wanted to tell the parental perspective of the regretful parent who has let their issues come in the way of loving their child to the fullest extent.”

“I wrote it, and I showed the person whose parent it was about. . . And they were so touched by it.

“They were touched by it because they knew their parent would never say sorry. They said that song meant a lot because it's the only sorry they're going to get and that's good enough.”

But the power of songs like 'Send My Love To John' doesn't end there. Rina is overtly aware of how impactful and far-reaching music can be, and this is something she kept in mind throughout the writing process of 'Hold The Girl' – an incomprehensible possibility that, even though the words throughout the album are coming direct from Rina's mind, and Rina's experiences, they could sit just as snugly in the hearts and souls of thousands of her listeners. Particularly her queer audience.

“I just think queer people go through so much, and emerge through so much to create so much beauty, and fun, and joy in the world,” Rina says.

“I love the songs that are club songs about celebrating us. . . But at the same time I really want to tell the sides of things that are a little bit more painful, and somehow turn them into pop songs that everyone can sing along to together, whether it is dance together or cry together. . . It unites people.”

“Maybe that's the purpose of music.”

Rina Sawayama's second album 'Hold The Girl' is out on 16 September.

Rina Sawayama Australia 2022 Tour Dates

Thu 12 Jan - Roundhouse (Sydney)
Fri 13 Jan - Max Watts (Melbourne)
Sat 14 Jan - The Triffid (Brisbane)

This story originally appeared on our sister site, scenestr.