Mitski on her Piano Teacher-inspired, “saddest” album Be the Cowboy
Mitski makes music that codifies our desires to be seen and our distresses about being alive. After years of growing a nearly religious fanbase with albums like Retired from Sad, New Career in Business and the indefatigable Bury Me at Makeout Creek, she become an indie rock household name with her 2016 album Puberty 2. Her latest, Be the Cowboy, is self-described as her saddest ever, but it is also very much about maintaining command of one’s own world. April Clare Welsh caught up with the Dead Oceans singer-songwriter to discuss touring, nihilism and Iggy Pop and to get under the skin of Be the Cowboy’s woman in control.
On Mitski’s fifth album, Be the Cowboy, the itinerant singer-songwriter explores the solitude of touring through the eyes of a woman seemingly in control – a persona she explains was inspired by Isabelle Huppert’s award-winning performance in The Piano Teacher.
Just as repressed piano teacher Erika Kohut ultimately falls prey to her psychosexual desires, Mitski’s character must try to stem the overwhelming tide of emotion rushing through her body. “This character is definitely something that is in me,” she says. “I do find that I have to be very controlled as a woman in trying to navigate the world.”
As with Mitski’s previous LP Puberty 2 – one of FACT’s favorite albums of 2016 – themes of love, identity, heartbreak and vulnerability abound on the new album. But where Puberty 2 cranked up the distortion on her grunge-rock guitar, Be the Cowboy comes wrapped in a glossier sheen from long-time producer Patrick Hyland – and it’s often at odds with the album’s underlying sense of isolation. Take the glitzy disco-stomper ‘Nobody’, for example. “It’s got these desolate lyrics, but ultimately it’s a dance song,” she says.
Be the Cowboy is a deft experiment in narrative that amplifies Mitski’s voice as a vital indie rock innovator capable of reeling you into her made-up worlds as much as she is willing to draw from her own raw experiences. We’re all still working out who we are and where we want to be – and we’ll happily join Mitski on her journey of self-discovery.
You recently supported Lorde on her Melodrama world tour. How did your intimate live act translate to a pop-friendly arena audience?
Mitski: Nobody really knew who I was so it was a great chance to present myself. I just played a lot of classics and didn’t try and experiment too much. It was also like going to a really cool school every day. Obviously, arena shows are a very different live atmosphere from anything I’ve ever experienced before. There are so many more people working behind the scenes and I learned about so many different job descriptions that I didn’t even know existed.
This album touches on the realities and isolation of touring. Does having a band help you to keep you in check emotionally, or do you ultimately prefer working alone?
Mitski: I think it’s good for me to work with people. My tendency is to just assume that I should work alone – I always write alone and the recording process is pretty similar in that I don’t let many people into the studio. But with live music there’s something about the dynamic of humans just playing together… it’s always just nice to see the band playing. Whenever I see a singer with dancers and backing tracks, or maybe the band is unseen, that’s fine and I always enjoy the show but as a musician, I just like to see the band.
When did you first envision the album’s protagonist and is there any particular reason you decided to bring her to life now?
Mitski: I’m not very good at being outgoing on stage, so I got to thinking about other ways in which I can be effective and create a mood for people. I went the other way and decided to try being completely inward and controlled, and I then began to ask myself “why am I even doing this,” investigating it with this character. But it all initially came from just playing live and from figuring out how to create a space for an hour where people can forget about the outside world and just experience the show.
“I have to be even more controlled than my male counterparts because if I show even the smallest amount of emotion, it’s immediately interpreted as ‘she’s hysterical’”
Was she inspired by anyone in particular?
Mitski: She was inspired very much by the heroine in The Piano Teacher. Something about that character made something click for me. The album sounds nothing like the movie, it was just the first spark. I watched that movie and just thought there is something about that character, where she is what you would call frigid, doesn’t express much… repressed, I guess you would say. But she actually has these crazy whirling desires inside her that when the young man actually gets to know her he realizes it’s way above his pay grade and he can’t fucking handle it. Something about the ending where she stabs herself – it’s like she can’t do anything about the desire she is feeling so she hurts herself – it’s something about that instinct, that I felt. Thinking through that and analyzing that and working through it all inspired the character.
How much of your own personality pervades the character?
Mitski: This character is definitely something that is in me… it’s just not who I am while I’m walking down the street every day. You contain multitudes. You are many people in one body. And so there’s an aspect of this character in me and I think I just wanted to exaggerate it. I think Björk once said in an interview that each of her albums is kind of like an exaggeration of an aspect of herself and I relate to that – I’m just not this one person all of the time, but I recognize that in myself. I find that I have to be very controlled as a woman in trying to navigate the world. In a way, I’m running my own business, I’m the person in charge having to tell people what to do, having to make all the decisions. And I find that it’s very hard, especially in a business setting… because I’m an artist, I react emotionally, but that’s not effective when you’re trying to get something done. And so perhaps I have to be even more controlled than my male counterparts because if I show even the smallest amount of emotion, it’s immediately interpreted as ‘she’s hysterical’.
Do you feel like you have to keep these two sides of you very separate – Mitski the business woman in control and Mitski the creative artist?
Mitski: I think they kind of feed into each other. I do really actually enjoy being in control in terms of making my art because I feel like if I’m creating a world, I want to dictate every aspect of it. I want to really create the song, I don’t want to just do a little part of it and then leave it to somebody else. I thought about getting a creative director for this album but then I decided that was like giving away my favourite part about making an album to somebody else, so I decided I wasn’t going to get a creative director, I’m just going to figure it out myself. If I’m creating a universe within a song or an album, I really want to dig into it and give it my all.
I think Be the Cowboy is my saddest album
How does it feel to hand over the reins to a video director when making your visuals?
Mitski: I give a lot of control away for the videos because I find that as an artist I thrive when I’m just given the reins and told “here are the resources, do your best.” So I try and give that to the directors as well, where I just kind of give them the song, give them what I meant by the song and then tell them “you do what you need to do.” People tend to work better when they’re given independence and given the reins. You just have to find a good artist and tell them to do what they want.
Both Puberty 2 and Be the Cowboy deal with self-identity. What state of mind were you in when you recorded Be the Cowboy?
Mitski: For this new album, I wrote and recorded it between tours, whereas Puberty 2 was very much like “let’s book a studio for two weeks,” which didn’t leave much room for my anxiety. I think it’s actually good to give yourself extreme limitations when you’re making something so that you don’t let your brain over-analyze or criticize it, because you just have to get it done. But with Be the Cowboy, I was just on tour, I was tired and I had a lot of time to ruminate over the recording after I’d done it. But I liked the idea of being tired and then making music that’s kind of rallying myself. With ‘Nobody’, for example, it’s got these desolate lyrics, but it’s ultimately a dance song. I kind of draw comparisons with Andy Warhol’s pop art, where it’s bright and colorful and pop, but he often said he had no real meaning in mind, he’s very nihilistic about it.
Would you say there is a nihilist element to your music?
Mitski: Obviously there is my personal meaning behind each song – I’m not saying my music doesn’t have meaning – but I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think this is my saddest album. It comes from the saddest place, but in the same way that I have the idea of this protagonist who is this woman in control, I kind of want to put upon this jolliness or upbeatness to it, because I think that it makes it somehow sadder.
Iggy Pop’s music is often spoken about in the same breath as existential nihilism. How did it feel to get his seal of approval?
Mitski: Iggy Pop is one of my heroes. I watch his live performances online and just listen to his music whenever I need reminding what I want out of music and what I want out of a live show. And he always reminds me of what is important. I finally got to see him at a music festival recently. I don’t know how old he is but he’s still fucking amazing. He’s just one of those people. So hearing him say that about me in his gravelly voice… I still haven’t processed it.
You end the album with a sad, slow song about an old couple. Do you feel older than your years?
Mitski: The road really just wears you down… this is why I think that so many rock bands have more and more songs about ‘the road,’ as their career progresses. You see more and more rock bands make more and more unrelatable albums, but I think that’s just because you’re in such an isolated society and you don’t have experiences that the rest of the world can relate to anymore, because it’s just such a specific way of living. So I’m really conscious of that and I try to avoid that. I always want to make sure my music is relatable to not just touring musicians. So I think that the challenge for this album was using metaphors that people would understand for experiences of being on the road, and I hope that it all makes sense.
April Clare Welsh is a freelance writer based in Lisbon. Find her on Twitter.
Elina Abidin is FACT’s social media assistant.