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Mitski on lyrical undertones, metaphors and 'Puberty 2'

MitskiEbru Yildiz
  Play Now [7:10]

by David Safar and Mitski

July 26, 2016

David Safar: When you were in music school and starting to make music, did you ever envision that you'd be making an album like Puberty 2?

Mitski: No, I'm always living in the now and that sounds very enlightened but I can only take things a day at a time.

Is there an album that when you were in school, or maybe even today, that you have in your mind like, "Someday I'm going to make that album"?

There is a Japanese artist, Shiina Ringo, her — I'm going to say this in Japanese, it's a long title — Kauk Samen Kuri no Hana, and maybe someone out there will be inspired to write that down and look it up, but it's my favorite album in that there's so much attention to detail, so many instruments. It was a great feat for her as a solo artist to make, so I think I was turned to that album.

"Dan the Dancer" is my favorite song on your album Puberty 2.

Really? I don't get that much. Out of all the songs people say they like in the album, I don't get that song much. I think it's because it's not as flashy as the others one maybe.

I think it's really playful and fun. When I listen to it and I listen to the lyrics, the question comes up: Is Dan a person you know?

Oh, alright. We're getting right into it. Dan is a metaphor.

A metaphor for what?

I just thought about someone living their life, hanging off of a cliff, and that in itself as a metaphor. And then I thought, well, what if that person wanted to fall in love and then they wanted to hold hands with somebody? What would they do when they're hanging off of a cliff? What if they let go of one hand to hold someone's hand? Now they're hanging off of a cliff with just one hand. What do they do? I pursued that thought.

That's an interesting idea because if you're hanging off of a cliff and you reach out one hand and the person doesn't reach back, then you might be in trouble, right?

[laughs] Yeah.

A lot of the songs on Puberty 2 are about love, that seems to be a theme. I've read that the title came out of a conversation with someone in a studio but didn't have a specific meaning at the beginning of it all.

Yeah, it was with Patrick Highland who I recorded everything with. It was just me and him in the studio for the whole entire process. We were just riffing off of what the title should be. He mentioned it as a joke and I latched on to it.

What was the joke?

We were just riffing, y'know, on what the album title should be. I don't know, it was just something studio. I don't even remember, but he said that and I was like, "Oh, that's it!" And the rest is history.

This is your fourth album. A lot of musicians don't make a third album, even. A lot of musicians run out of inspiration, stop playing, maybe they don't like the job of being a musician. From Lush to now, a lot has changed. Going into making this fourth record, what lessons did you take with you into the studio?

That's a good question. Well, by my fourth album I felt like I knew how to record an album. I think for my first and second ones at least I was still a student in college, in music conservatory. A lot of that recording process was just about learning how to even record an album, learning how to direct people, learning how to give good performances in-studio which is very different from live and different from playing privately. So by the fourth one I think I got the hang of it and I could actually focus on the music, which I guess doesn't make much sense because the whole point of recording an album is to make the music. I think for my first three albums, a lot of the recording wasn't — I shouldn't say wasn't about the music — but I was really caught up in just doing the thing and I wasn't thinking about the thing itself as much.

You also write extremely compelling lyrics, lyrics that a lot of your fans and critics like to dissect. "Your Best American Girl" has been interpreted many times by critics and press. A lot of the interpretations of the song come down to gender politics, sex, race. You use social media to clarify some of the meaning behind the song, saying it's a love song. Are there undertones of gender politics, sex and race in that song?

Here's the thing: Everything is an undercurrent. No woman of color can be in love without it being political. I can't walk through the world without being a political entity just by being who I am. So when I fall in love, it is political. When I'm in a relationship, everything is political. The personal is political and the political is personal. I wanted to make a distinction that when I wrote this song, it wasn't a rallying fight song. It wasn't me attempting to be political. It was more just like me writing something that is truthful to me and emotional to me and obviously it has all those undertones. I kind of like that there are many interpretations of the song because I think a song is successful when it says many things at once.