How Mitski Channeled Her American Dream Into 'Puberty 2' - Rolling Stone
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How Mitski Channeled Her American Dream Into ‘Puberty 2’

“I’m not an innovator,” insists singer-songwriter behind one of 2016’s most striking LPs

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Singer-songwriter Mitski discusses how her rootless childhood and years of self-doubt informed her stunning latest album, 'Puberty 2.'

Ebru Yildiz

For Mitski, American pop culture has been a lifelong infatuation, for better and worse. The 25-year-old singer – whose new album, Puberty 2, stands as one of 2016’s rawest and most assured rock LPs – was born in Japan and grew up shuttling around the world: China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Turkey, numerous stops in between.

She made uneasy peace with this unmoored life by clutching certain American exports. “I created this romanticized America in my head,” she recalls, although “the only access I had to America was The Simpsons, Britney Spears, ‘NSync and teen movies: We had a tape of The Breakfast Club I watched religiously.”

When she finally enrolled in an American high school, she discovered the gap between fantasy and reality. “I remember thinking this boy was cute, and I thought the way that American high schoolers fell in love was that they’d literally just look at each other until they said hi and started going out – because that’s how it was in movies. So I’d just stare at this boy. And one day in the hall he was like, ‘That’s her, she keeps staring at me!'” She scowls, evoking his disdain. “I was like, ‘Oh, noooooooo.'”

The story captures the wryness, yearning and rootlessness that animate Mitski’s best songs. She tells it over tea in San Francisco: She’s in the middle of a national tour, sharing a rental van with her band, crashing nightly on couches, air mattresses and, every so often, hotel beds. “It’s not that glamorous,” she says. She has no home to speak of: She gave up her New York apartment to save money, moving her stuff into her parents’ place in Pennsylvania and sleeping there when she isn’t on the road. “I haven’t paid rent on a place since April last year. It all goes into music, food and the occasional medical bill.” She smiles and adds, “New York is shitty unless you’re literally Taylor Swift.”

For Mitski (full name: Mitski Miyawaki), the wandering life is worth it for the gigs, where increasingly big crowds come to hear her lay beautiful vocal lines – and occasional screams – over fat, catchy riffs indebted to punk, garage and Nineties alt-rock. (Carrie Brownstein called Puberty 2 “one of the best things I’ve heard all year! And one of the only things constituting good news lately.”) “I’m not an innovator,” Mitski says. “Kanye West makes music in order to progress something – make something new.

“I don’t care about making anything new. I make music to express an emotion, and if the emotion is nostalgic, so be it.”

“I don’t care about making anything new. I make music to express an emotion, and if the emotion is nostalgic, so be it.”

Even though she was classically trained, at SUNY Purchase – after giving up on a passing dream of being a filmmaker – her love of pop remains: She’s covered One Direction and Calvin Harris live; in conversation, she rhapsodizes about Young Thug. “People don’t realize what he’s doing with his voice – he’s really expressing,” she says. She also cites a love of artists as varied as Björk (“The first time I heard Vespertine I was scared”), Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk (“They do shit that’s not straight classic jazz, but they’re never pushing away the audience”).

Puberty 2‘s title reflects Mitski’s interest in awkward emotional fumbling, which has dogged her well past adolescence. “It’s always about wanting something: happiness, or a place to belong,” she says. She recalls switching homes as a kid and trying on different personalities: “In ninth grade I decided I was gonna be friendly, outgoing, well-liked. Then I moved and I didn’t talk to anyone, actively didn’t have friends, and people thought I was weird.”

She believes that “being an outsider makes you a really good writer,” but her identity-juggling had a dark element, too. “I’ve always felt useless,” she says. “There are so many moments where I was like, ‘I could die and it wouldn’t matter. I should just kill myself, because what is the point – you’re just taking up space.'”

I ask if she was literally suicidal. “I don’t know if I can answer that. It’s more a state of not taking care of myself – doing things and having the thought ‘This is dangerous, this could kill me,’ and doing it anyway.” Does she mean drugs? “I shouldn’t answer that.” The point, she says, is that music helped her turn self-destructive impulses into productive, fulfilling ones. “I just couldn’t live without a reason,” she says. “But when I started making music, I was like, ‘This is something I can believe I was meant to do.'”

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