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In early 2013, London-based Japanese singer and producer Rina Sawayama released a sultry future soul single titled Sleeping In Waking. It was a breakout moment, but upon reflection, not quite the moment she was looking for. “Sleeping In Waking did quite well in terms of coverage,” she says. The song picked up blog support quickly and was championed by Zane Lowe, BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio 6. “It was exciting, but I realised that in a weird way, I didn’t feel like I’d earned it,” she admits. “I wasn’t that deep into songwriting yet. There wasn’t much meaning behind was I was writing, and I didn’t know what sort of sound I wanted yet.”
Like many aspiring musicians out there, Rina had a set of preconceptions about the music industry. “You grow up thinking these people on these websites have struggled and played gigs for years. Then when it happened to me, I didn’t feel secure in my musical legitimacy. I just didn’t feel like I’d earned it.” Taking that moment as inspiration, she turned inwards for answers. Rina carefully combed through her personal history and influences and spent countless hours in the studio and on stage.
When Rina was five, her family relocated from Japan to London. They had only planned for five years, but given Rina’s interest in music, her mother decided they should stay. During that half decade, Rina attended a Japanese school. “Everything was Japanese,” she reflects. “The school lunches were Japanese. Every textbook was Japanese. The whole culture was Japanese.” In her early teens, she shifted to a British school and with that move, Rina discovered the music of American chart artists like Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne, and Justin Timberlake. Having been primarily influenced by Japanese pop until then, she was blown away by The Neptunes and Timbaland driven sound of the time. From there, Rina began a journey that included time spent in several bands, a stint in a hip-hop group named Lazy Lion and university studies at Cambridge.
Through reflecting on all of this, she came to the realisation that her true sound was, as she puts it, “This weird mix of Japanese pop music I grew up with until I was about 10 and then the 2000s era mainstream RnB I was introduced to after that.” With that knowledge behind her, halfway through 2015, she dropped a vivid RnB single titled Tunnel Vision. In the process, Rina encapsulated the tension of keeping on top of your smartphone notifications whilst still remaining present and attentive in real life.
“How we relate through the internet is a very fascinating topic. I’ve made friends through the internet. I’ve made enemies through the internet. I’ve formed relationships over the internet. People maintain friendships across the world through the internet.”
Earlier this month, she released Where U Are, an opulent rework of Michael Jackson’s classic 1972 single I Wanna be Where You Are. Produced by London beatmaker Hoost, it sees Rina expanding on the techno-anxiety of Tunnel Vision with a poised lyrical investigation of the contrasts between online and offline relationships in 2016. “How we relate through the internet is a very fascinating topic for me,” she explains. “I’ve made friends through the internet. I’ve made enemies through the internet. I’ve formed relationships over the internet. People maintain friendships across the world through the internet.”
Where U Are points directly towards Rina’s forthcoming ‘Alone Together’ EP and with it, the potential for a moment of success and recognition that feels right in the ways Sleeping In Waking didn’t. “It’s frightening when you’re doing something, and there is no reference for it,” she admits. “No one in the charts is Asian and doing a fusion of Asian and British pop music. It’s a very specific thing I’m asking for, but I just have to try it out.”
Rina Sawayama’s single Where U Are is out now (buy).