Indie darling Mitski asks herself, ‘now what?’

Cult pop sensation Mitski is poised on the brink of mainstream stardom. The 31-year-old Japanese-American musician occupies a rare and coveted artistic space: independent, and beloved by fans and critics alike. But there is nothing simple about the musical career she has created—and to make it all work has required a careful balance to maintain a sane headspace between the intensity of her fame and learning to live, work and maintain creativity. Christopher Booker reports.

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  • Christopher Booker:

    By nearly every measure the artist known as Mitski seems to have cracked the code. The 31-year-old occupies a rare and coveted artistic space; independent and beloved by fans and critics alike. But there is nothing simple about the musical career she has created….and to make it all work has required a careful balance between the intensity of the audience staring back at her and the way the contemporary world allows her to see that glare.

  • Mitski:

    I'm not on social media. I very thankfully have a manager who runs my social mediums. I think it got really unhealthy very quickly for me to have access to thousands, tens of thousands of strangers opinions of me and whether it's positive or negative feedback, I mean, obviously, no one wants to hear mean things, but also all the sort of aggrandizing, strangely worshipful commentary about me, it doesn't make any sense, and it's not good for my self-image like I can't read that and then go through my life with the commentary in my mind that there are people who think I am perfect and great. It just doesn't– It's not good.

  • Christopher Booker:

    While Mitski may not spend time on social media, social media is certainly spending time on Mitski. According to Mitski's label Dead Oceans, 2.5 million user-generated videos have been posted to TikTok using her music. Her song " Nobody"—a song streamed on Spotify nearly 200 million times–has become a go-to background song for many TikTok videos, and this past week multiple Twitter accounts, many with tens of thousands of followers, have been counting the down the days until the release of her new album.

  • Mitski:

    I still, even though it's been a long time, I still haven't wrapped my head around it. It doesn't. My brain doesn't know how to process how somebody else has understood and heard something I made.

  • Christopher Booker:

    How do you approach when maybe an interpretation is different than you would expect it?

  • Mitski:

    Well, I've let I have let the interpretations of my music go. Once you make it and you put it out, it's not yours anymore. It's up to the listener to do with it what they will. I think I prefer that. I don't want people to be listening to it, imagining my experience. The whole beauty of listening to music, at least for me, is that you get to put yourself into it and hear someone else say something you felt.

  • Christopher Booker:

    This detachment is a trick developed from a childhood spent on the move…while Mitski is careful with the details, she will offer that her family's regular relocations play a role in how she navigates the world as an adult.

  • Mitksi:

    When you're a kid, especially, it just gets to be too much to become attached to people or places and then be torn away from it. You just stop attaching yourself. And I think that's the source of a lot of my loneliness. Sure, it's that I didn't grow up in one place. I didn't have consistency, but also I had created a wall so that nothing came in or out. And that creates loneliness.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And this is perhaps a bit of where the origins of her artistic approach rest. Her 2018 release 'Be The Cowboy' catapulted Mitski into the upper echelon of indie stardom. The album recently surpassed two billion streams across all streaming platforms globally, but the attention proved a heavier burden than expected. By the end of the tour that followed, Mitski was re-evaluating.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Is it fair to say that when 2019 ended, you took a break?

  • Mitski:

    Yes.

  • Christopher Booker:

    That was on purpose?

  • Mitski:

    I had quote-unquote "made it," I guess and I started to hear this voice in my head: 'Now you have to keep this up. Now, you can't lose this.' And I was afraid that that voice would lead me to writing songs for the sake of staying in the game and I just felt like something in me was dying a bit and I felt like I needed to step away before it completely, irreparably died.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And meanwhile, the universe is like, 'Hold my beer.'

  • Mitski:

    [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. Yeah, yeah. Timing-wise, it was very strange.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Of course just a few months later, much of the world was also taking a break and Mitski found herself working on songs again. The first release of this effort came last October with her single, 'Working for the Knife' and then just this past week the full album, 'Laurel Hell.'

  • Christopher Booker:

    What is 'the knife'?

  • Mitski:

    I would like for the knife and working for the knife to be whatever the listener needs, needs it to be. For me, I think a knife was a good metaphor because it's something that's sharp and that hurts you and it's also cold and it doesn't care about you. It's hard, I think. I think it was important that it was an object without feeling or empathy.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And was that a byproduct of your experience becoming a musical figure? A public figure?

  • Mitski:

    Yeah. I mean, the thing is, I think the idea of the song can apply to any working adult. The song is basically about when you're a kid, you have dreams and then you grow up and you enter the working world and you have to make compromises and you might not like the way your life is, you might not like the things you have to do, but you're an adult and you have to work and– I mean, sure, there are things specific to my work that are hard for me, but I think if it wasn't this job, it would be another job, you know? I don't know how to negotiate sort of trying to stay an artist, but also being a working person. I always, I always thought, like, I'm just going to have to struggle. And then I got there and it's like, Oh, no, now what?

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