Matriarchs of Music is where our writers share their personal experiences in music, discussing female artists that have influenced and empowered them most.
Since the release of her most recent album, “Be the Cowboy”, indie rock artist Mitski has begun to reach a wider audience, selling out every single date on her U.S. tour. As a fan, seeing this success fills me with the confidence that more of the self-made female artists I love are capable of receiving the recognition they deserve.
It is especially impressive considering her journey as a Japanese American woman who spent her childhood adrift, living in 13 different countries before she settled down and studied music in New York City.
The influence of her Japanese heritage and the music she grew up listening to remains evident in her music; she even incorporates Japanese lyrics into one of my favorite tracks “First Love/Late Spring.” She once explained the meaning of this brief lyric, saying there is no clear translation, but it describes roughly a feeling of one’s heart bursting open. While this line in the song may cause an awkward pause and hum in my ritual shower time performances, I admire the unique and vulnerable decision she made to include it.
Mitski’s natural creativity and beautifully raw, soulful lyricism have brought me to tears more times than I should mention; most notably with tracks on her 2013 album Retired From Sad, New Career in Business, including “Class of 2013” and “Because Dreaming Costs Money, My Dear.”
This entire album demonstrates an emotional experience that was eerily applicable to circumstances and relationships in my own life at the time that I listened to it, and I know that so many other listeners also felt this way despite leading entirely different lives. The ability to touch people this significantly through music is rare, and one that drives my love for Mitski more than anything.
Not only did she defy the odds of becoming a successful female artist in the notoriously male-dominated indie rock scene, but she did so without ever sacrificing her authenticity. Without fail, every piece of music she has released exhibits some fragment of her complex, colorful human experience.
From the surface, most of Mitski’s discography seems to detail the strife of romantic relationships. In reality, the things she is singing about are often much more ambiguous. As a guest on the Daily Show, Mitski described her frustration with being viewed as a vessel for emotion and sadness rather than an artist that created a universe through sound.
The struggle to make this distinction clear is just one on a long list of things that makes Mitski’s success as a woman impressive. She caters to no audience, pours herself into her art, and is simply talented enough to have people like me love and appreciate her for it.
When I saw Mitski perform at the Pyramid Scheme in 2017, it became even more obvious to me that she was unaffected by the superficial pressures cast out by the music industry. Before the show, my friend and I waited in a coffee shop across the street from the venue. At some point, Mitski strolled in and sat down in a seat adjacent to us. For a few minutes we were unsure whether or not it was her, but even when we knew we avoided saying anything. This wasn’t because I felt starstruck or nervous, but because she seemed like such an ordinary, down-to-earth person it didn’t feel right to disrupt her before her show.
On stage, she didn’t wear the type of clothes an indie girl in “supposed to,” and she didn’t beg for the approval of the audience; her style of performance was straightforward and genuine.
At her Detroit show on the Be the Cowboy tour, I was able to see how she has grown as an artist and distinguished her own style of performing. Expecting the same stoic attitude as before, I was shocked to see her incorporate strange dance moves and periodically thrash around the stage. Through this change, she managed to create an even more powerful and entertaining display of her art.
The energy of the show matched well with that of the album she was performing, one of striking pent up feminine energy. “Be the Cowboy” represents the overwhelming and almost violent experience of being a woman with copious amounts of unspent passions, desires, and complex emotions that are often misunderstood. Through this album and the ones that came before it, Mitski has mastered the craft of exposing the post-modern woman.
All of these qualities contribute to the unique experience I have listening to Mitski’s music; I feel almost as if the words were written especially for me by a close friend. To have this feeling, and to watch as the woman who created it becomes successful and well-known for it is remarkable.
My second time seeing her perform and recognizing all the ways she has and flourished as an artist felt like a milestone in my personal life. I know this is only the beginning for Mitski Miyawaki, and I am more than excited to watch and listen as she continues to grow.