Mitski Had to Quit Music to Love It
M itski has been having nightmares. The 31-year-old musician has always suffered from performance-anxiety dreams, but lately they’ve gotten more terrifying, more elaborate. During one in particular, her cat was stuck in a tree, and she was late to soundcheck. When she finally arrived at the venue, she found out she’d be performing with an orchestra she’d never rehearsed with.
“Everyone was side-eyeing me,” she recalls. “As I was trying to do vocal warmups, the whole orchestra was like, ‘That’s a good idea!’ and started doing vocal warmups too. I couldn’t hear myself, so I kept trying to go deeper and deeper into the venue … and then I got lost.”
Perhaps the dreams are about the fact that Mitski is preparing to return to the road after nearly two years at home. Or maybe it’s because the last time she was on a stage, in late 2019, it was supposed to be the final show of her career. Either way, on second thought, she’d rather not talk about it. “Talking about dreams is boring, isn’t it?” she asks.
For the most alluring and enigmatic musician in indie rock, that’s hardly the case. Mitski’s music speaks to something deep within her audience, from the devotees who tattoo her lyrics on their bodies to the more casual fans who created so many TikToks featuring her 2018 single “Nobody” that pop-culture sites were forced to run explainers. She answered the door today in low-key civilian clothes — light-wash denim jeans, a lavender long-sleeved shirt, and primrose Brooks running shoes — that are a slight shock after the last time the world saw her, in her onstage costume from two years ago of biker shorts and knee pads.
It’s early November, and we’re meeting at the Bomb Shelter, a studio in Nashville. Halloween is over, and she isn’t happy about it. “Maybe I’ll watch a horror movie,” she says. “I can make October last as long as I want.”
Walking inside the Bomb Shelter feels like entering a friend’s secret clubhouse — or maybe it’s what Succession’s Kendall Roy wanted the VIP section of his 40th-birthday party to actually look like. The space is cozy, with vinyl-record sleeves covering the wood walls and ceiling. Plants that have seen better days adorn the kitchen counter, next to a cast-iron skillet hanging from a shelf and a gigantic jug of honey on top of a microwave. Margo Price’s family Christmas card is taped next to a fire extinguisher.
Mitski makes me a cup of sencha tea while mumbling corny jokes, boiling water (“You know what they say about a watched pot …”) and pouring it into a mug with the iconic New York logo (“Do you love New York?”). She moved to Nashville two years ago, though she told virtually no one about it at the time. “I think I’m becoming attached to Nashville,” she says thoughtfully. “I didn’t want to do L.A. or New York, because I felt I shouldn’t live in incredibly competitive, expensive cities when I’m quitting my job.”
Except Mitski didn’t quit. It was here, in this studio, that she made a new album and realized she still had a lot left to create.
Mitski knew the stakes were high when she performed to a sold-out crowd at Central Park’s Summerstage on Sept. 8, 2019. It was the final night on her tour for 2018’s acclaimed Be the Cowboy, and when she’d announced it as her last show “indefinitely,” her fans had freaked out, to put it mildly. Memes of crying animals with the single word “yeehaw” and declarations like “I’m so glad I’m seeing her this week or else I would’ve died right here and now” were not uncommon. The reaction was so frenzied that she had to issue a clarification on Twitter weeks before the show: “Y’all, I’m not quitting music!” she wrote. “I’ve been on non-stop tour for over five years, I haven’t had a place to live during this time, & I sense that if I don’t step away soon, my self-worth/identity will start depending too much on staying in the game, in the constant churn.”
It was all true — except for the first part. In reality, Mitski fully intended to leave the music business behind for good after that night. “I was thinking this was the last show I would perform ever, and then I would quit and find another life,” she says now. This is probably why it turned out to be one of the greatest performances of her career — it felt precious, finite. The crowd seemed a little more hypnotized than usual, her signature choreography a little too sharp. “This is all I ever wanted in my life,” she told the audience that had just watched her lie faceup on a table, singing into the night sky.
“It was beautiful,” Mitski says. “I performed, and I remembered how much I loved it. And I remember walking offstage, and I immediately started crying. Like, ‘What have I done?’ ”
Lucy Dacus, who opened for Mitski that night, remembers that Mitski seemed muted as she left the stage. “I asked her, ‘How do you feel?’ ” Dacus says. “The first thing she said was, ‘Oh, I’ve made a huge mistake.’ She verbalized it, and I felt a shade of terror for her.”
Looking back on it now, Mitski says the long years of nonstop touring weren’t the real reason she wanted to quit. Even when life on the road can be exhausting, it’s nothing a break between album cycles can’t fix. Many artists stay home, log off social media, and recharge, before eventually turning to new projects. For Mitski, it was more complicated than that. Be the Cowboy had turned her into an indie star — the kind whose fans feel an intense connection with a person they’ve never met — and she was grappling with what that meant for her life.
“I felt it was shaving away my soul little by little,” she says. “The music industry is this supersaturated version of consumerism. You are the product being consumed, bought, and sold. Even the people on your team who are your friends, the very foundation of your dynamic is that they get a percentage of your income. Every time I turned something down, it would mean that they would make less money.”
Mitski is speaking slowly now, trying to recall the series of events. Not only is it her first interview since before the pandemic, but, she says, the isolation of lockdown made her memory worse than it already is. (“It got so bad, to the point where I was living in a white room with nothing in it,” she says.) She’s sitting on a charcoal couch at the Bomb Shelter in socks, her shoes neatly positioned on the floor in front of her. She ordered vegan doughnuts from Five Daughters Bakery, cutting two in half for us on the nearby coffee table.
“In order for me to survive in the music industry as it exists, I had to stuff a pillow over my heart and tell it to stop screaming, and be like, ‘Shut up, shut up, take it,’ ” she says finally. “After a few years of doing that every single day, my heart really did start to go numb and go silent. And the problem with that is that I actually need my heart — my feelings — in order to write music. It was this paradox.”
Being a popular musician, it seems, worked for her until one day it simply didn’t. “This is what really made me quit,” she says. “I could see a future self, who would put out music for the sake of keeping the machine running. And that really scared me.”
Mitski claims she is “bad at naming things,” but her five previous albums suggest otherwise. Her titles (Retired From Sad, New Career in Business; Bury Me at Makeout Creek; Puberty 2) form a wry running commentary on twentysomething angst, raw desire, and often unrequited love. She named her latest, Laurel Hell, after a folk term for the thickets of mountain laurel found deep in the southern Appalachians. The flowers are gorgeous, like little rhododendrons, but the plant is poisonous, with low, twisted branches that are impossible to pass through. “There are laurel hells that are named after people who died in them, supposedly,” she says.
Although she’s never seen one in person, the concept of trying to break free of such an entanglement appealed to Mitski. “It was just too perfect,” she says. “I’m stuck inside this maze … I can’t get out, but it’s beautiful.” This imagery trickles into the first line of Laurel Hell, which Mitski sings in a tone as spooky as the films she binges on her Shudder account: “Let’s step carefully into the dark . . .” She explains the song as a metaphor for the way her art exposes her secrets. “I don’t show even the people I love most, but I’ll show you this darkness in me,” she tells me.
Mitski wrote “Working for the Knife,” the single that marked her return to music, toward the end of 2019. Only a few weeks earlier, she’d been sure she was exiting the music business, but she’d since been reminded that she owed her label, Dead Oceans, another record. “I contractually had to release it,” she says. “I just didn’t know whether I would ask the label to take it and keep me out of it, or I would actually go out and present it.”
By early 2020, she had made up her mind. “Working for the Knife” details her painful reluctance to return to the stage over ominous synths: “I used to think I’d be done by 20/Now at 29, the road ahead appears the same.”
In the song’s video, Mitski silently enters a Brutalist concrete auditorium and sheds her cowboy hat — a cheeky send-off to her Be the Cowboy era — before working up to a stylized outburst of choreography, slamming her palms on the floor, chaotically jumping up and down, and thrusting her head every which way so her hair becomes a shiny, majestic blur. The camera closes in on her at the end, exhausted and sprawled on the ground. “What it came down to was, ‘I have to do this even though it hurts me, because I love it,’ ” Mitski says. “ ‘This is who I am. … I’m going to keep getting hurt, and I’m still going to do it, because this is the only thing I can do.’ ”
Mitski describes “Working for the Knife” as the beacon of the record, the compass she’d use to find her way back if she veered off the path. Because Laurel Hell is the longest she’s ever spent on an album — most of the songs were written in 2018 — this happened quite a lot.
“This album went through so many iterations,” she says. “This album has been a punk record at some point, and a country record. Then, after a while, it was like, ‘I need to dance.’ Even though the lyrics might be depressing, I need something peppy to get me through this.”
“The Only Heartbreaker” is a disco-ball rager that sounds like Kate Bush meets A-ha. “I needed that Breakfast Club dance-sequence music,” she says. She wrote it with Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, the professional hitmaker who has worked with Taylor Swift, Adele, the Chicks, and others; their collaboration marks Mitski’s first time having a co-writer on one of her albums. “That was a real struggle,” she says. “I’d held on so long to my music being mine.”
The song had gone through at least 20 revisions and was about to be left off the record entirely before Mitski met Wilson in Los Angeles, during a co-writing session for other musicians. “The song was sitting in my head for too long and rotting,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘This is a person who has much more experience than me. Maybe I could punt this to him.’ And I’m glad I did, because he did come through and lead me to conclusions that I wouldn’t have arrived at otherwise.”
Lyrically, what makes “The Only Heartbreaker” so potent is that it flips the traditional pop-songwriting narrative in which the protagonist is hurt and we take their side — a perspective that Mitski has nailed on past songs, like the subtly spellbinding “Washing Machine Heart” and the lovesick anthem “Your Best American Girl.” This time, she embraces the role of the bad guy.
“I’ve often found myself in a situation where, narratively speaking, I’m the bad guy,” she says. “We can acknowledge more than just black and white. If you present something that feels true to you, there will be other people who are like, ‘This is true to me too.’ ”
When Mitski Miyawaki was a child, she went through a phase where she would start every sentence with “No,” for reasons that still puzzle her today. “You’d be like, ‘Do you like apples?’ ” she remembers. “I’d be like, ‘No! I like apples.’ I guess that’s an easy way to get someone’s attention, or assert yourself immediately.”
It’s an endearing memory that paints the portrait of a young Mitski. Her father worked in the U.S. State Department, so her family moved frequently, living everywhere from Japan, where she was born, to Turkey to Alabama. She was always the new kid, the one who told unsolicited ghost stories to her peers and woke up first at sleepovers. “I ran into the parent in the kitchen and small-talked, and put breakfast together for myself while everyone else was sleeping,” she recalls with a smile. “I was that kid.”
In the eight years she’s spent getting national press, Mitski has frequently been described as “private.” She avoids talking in detail about her family, saying that her parents are retired and her little sister is “a really good person,” and she kindly requests that I don’t reveal her cat’s name for fear of being tracked down. “The stuff I’m not candid about is when it affects other people,” she says. “I have people in my life who aren’t in the public, and I don’t feel like I have a right to talk about them when they never consented to this dynamic.” But the truth is that Mitski is quite candid and open — during our many hours together, she never once declines to answer a question. It’s time to debunk the idea that she’s an especially secretive person, and she’d like to have a word about it.
“I have developed this theory about this,” she begins. “When the world put me in this position, I didn’t realize that I was making this deal where in exchange for giving me this platform and attention, I was supposed to give myself.”
That’s not how it worked in the world where she began playing music, she continues: “I came from a DIY punk scene where there are a bunch of white-guy bands, and they got to just put out music, go on tour, and then go home. I thought that applied to me. I didn’t realize that I was breaking this contract that I’d entered into. Keeping some things to myself makes people very, very angry. Because they might not be conscious of it, but they think I have not come through on my end of the deal.”
She references the infamous Esquire profile of Megan Fox from 2013, where the writer compared the star to a human sacrifice. “It was ridiculed at the time, but I thought it made a good point,” she says. “We have it hard-wired in our brain that we need this ritual. We prop up a beautiful woman and then shit on her and destroy her. Thankfully, I am 31 now, so maybe I don’t qualify anymore.”
Mitski turned 30 in September 2020, and celebrated at home in lockdown. “No exaggeration, I woke up and shed one single tear because I was so fucking glad to be out of my twenties,” she says. She spent much of that year making vegan baked goods (particularly pies), bingeing horror films, and gardening. “The real me is not living some idealized life,” she says. “I’m just on a couch, watching TV. My fans should not meet me because they would be disappointed.”
She finds it comforting to think of the space that separates the person watching The Haunting of Hill House and planting cucumbers from the artist whose music has magnetized Iggy Pop and Dave Grohl. “I wouldn’t say it’s an alter ego, but I have anxiety around social situations, and I don’t like going to parties,” she says. “As a performer, onstage I know my place. I’m sure of myself. There’s no doubt. It’s just existing, and it’s so lovely to get to be for an hour.”
We meet up the next day at Shelby Bottoms Park and embark on a four-mile walk along the Cumberland River. Mitski fits in like a local, arriving in a forest-green fleece sweater with a black backpack, ready to show me around.
While strolling by wetlands and plants both native and invasive, we discuss Moonstruck (“Nicolas Cage looks like some sort of god in that movie”) and TikTok (“I don’t want to put too much pressure on Gen Z, but we’re really counting on them”). Mitski is upbeat and animated, mocking a woodpecker with furious head movements and stopping to observe pink lace underwear on the ground. But the artist within her makes an appearance every now and then, like when the conversation turns to bats. I say the winged creatures are both ugly and cute, and she turns around and looks at me intently through her eyeglasses: “Beauty is horror, right?”
Mitski immersed herself in music growing up, listening to the Spice Girls as a kid and singing in a choir through high school. “I remember I auditioned in seventh grade for a short solo part,” she recalls. “The teacher and everyone looked at me. I was like, ‘Oh, this is something I can do.’ ” She discovered more of her talent when she wrote her first song on piano at 18. “I’m sure a lot of teenagers experience this,” she says. “I didn’t see a purpose in myself, and then I was able to write this song. It was just a relief.”
But she still didn’t have enough confidence to pursue music in college, so she became a film major instead. “I was surrounded by people who genuinely wanted to make movies, and meanwhile, I was sneaking into the music department’s practice rooms every day,” she says. “It was a wake-up call.”
She transferred from Manhattan’s Hunter College to SUNY Purchase, an hour north, for her sophomore year, enrolled in the music program, and met Patrick Hyland, who has produced all of her albums following her self-released 2012 debut, Lush. “Making an album is a vulnerable process for me,” she says. “I have to allow myself to be weak and ugly, and I find it hard to do that in front of just anyone. But I’ve done it enough with Patrick that I trust him.”
Hyland recently pointed out to Mitski that she makes records “in twos,” exploring an idea on one album and elaborating on it with the next. “Lush was in college, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, there are studios! There are other instrumentalists!’ And then Retired From Sad, New Career in Music was taking orchestral instruments and refining piano music. Bury Me at Makeout Creek was very DIY, punk-influenced, and guitar-driven because I had left school. I didn’t have any more of those resources. I just had a guitar that I was learning how to play.”
By this point, Mitski was gaining a devoted audience with her bare-bones, emotionally turbulent performances at bygone New York venues like Shea Stadium and the Silent Barn. On her next album, 2016’s Puberty 2, she perfected that sound, from the quiet and brutally honest “I Bet on Losing Dogs” to the ecstatic punk outburst “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars,” and won even more renown. “Her music is really visceral,” Dacus says. “She’s connected to a part in herself that wants to scream. Maybe you don’t live in a space where you can scream, or maybe you don’t have the words for what has happened to you. Mitski provides a space for that.”
Naturally, Mitski went in the opposite direction next, largely putting aside power chords and screams for Be the Cowboy, in favor of glossy synths, disco chic, and understated songs about loneliness and pining. That pining is usually for a kiss — “I just need someone to kiss” (“Nobody”), “Somebody kiss me, I’m going crazy” (“Blue Light”), “I know I’ve kissed you before, but I didn’t do it right” (“Pink in the Night”) — which has inspired some very funny fan-made memes. “It’s very Old Hollywood: ‘Let’s make this kiss mean so much because we can’t show any more,’ ” she says. “I always feel like a kiss is so much more intimate than any other act. Maybe because it’s one of the first acts you do with somebody, so it’s the most special.”
Puberty 2 won her an opening slot on Lorde’s Melodrama tour and rocketed Mitski to an entirely different level of fame and audience; in the weeks before she came back with “Working for the Knife,” she had an impressive 6.8 million monthly Spotify listeners. While she’s grateful for that success — “Everything I say is with the caveat that I’m a one-in-a-million luckiest person in the literal world” — she can’t hide the fact that it began to weigh heavily on her. Thinking back on her Be the Cowboy tour, she says, “I was just trying to get through it every day. I was disassociated through most of that.”
In the past year, as she’s planned her return with Laurel Hell, Mitski spent time setting boundaries for herself and being aware of her limitations. She’s even worked with her team to ensure that her schedule has mandatory breaks so she can eat and unwind. (In December, weeks after this interview, it was reported in Billboard that her management company had dissolved following a sexual-harassment allegation against her manager. A representative for Mitski says that this person is “currently transitioning out of the role of being Mitski’s manager”; the manager did not respond to a request for comment.)
“I think this break has been good for me,” she says. “I had physically neglected my health because I was on tour so much. I didn’t have health insurance. Basically during all of my twenties, I had no time or space to figure out who I am. I needed to actually figure out how to take care of my body.”
We exit the park and catch an Uber for a late lunch at the East Nashville vegan restaurant Wild Cow. Our driver is incredibly chatty, explaining that the increased rent in Nashville recently caused him to move to nearby Hendersonville. Mitski seems genuinely interested in the conversation, asking follow-up questions like “How long have you been here?” and “Have you noticed traffic getting worse?”
Within minutes, the driver reveals he’s a struggling musician, whose Southern-rock band of seven years broke up during the pandemic. He tells Mitski all about his plans to become a singer-songwriter, his new producer, and the pitfalls of the streaming industry. “What do y’all do for a living?” he asks. “I guess we’re in music too,” she says.
She seems comfortable with herself these days — as if, after running away from her career and then choosing to resurrect it, she’s made peace with what it means to be on her level of success. “I guess fame is relative,” she tells me earlier. “There’s Taylor Swift fame and then there’s local-DIY-scene fame. The real struggle for me in getting bigger is, how do I maintain integrity in the performance? How do I make sure the audience experience is still intimate and emotional in this 8,000-cap room? How do I not resort to flashy pyrotechnics onstage? Because I don’t want my show to be about that — I want people to enter into a place with me and have an experience, and then leave having experienced something important.”
As we reach the restaurant, the driver drops us off without realizing he just spoke to one of the biggest names in indie rock. “Good luck,” Mitski says, shutting the door. “I’m sorry about your band!”