Hold The Girl

Rina Sawayama

Hold The Girl

Rina Sawayama thought she was done with trauma. Her debut album, SAWAYAMA, which was released to widespread critical acclaim under the isolating restrictions of the global pandemic, was a deceptively bombastic pop record, the production serving as a disguise for the heavy, existential lyrical content. Had it not been for the paradigm-shifting events of 2020, which left Sawayama experiencing her breakthrough success through screens, the electrifying follow up, Hold the Girl, would probably have been a very different record. “The thought I was really confronted with during lockdown was that I just did not feel connected to myself or my body,” Sawayama tells Apple Music. “I was constantly running on adrenaline because so many exciting things were happening, the album was doing better than I ever imagined, but I was so mentally unwell and completely numb to any real emotion.” Hold the Girl is the result of two years’ worth of forced self-reflection and “brutal” therapy, or what Sawayama calls a “‘can you be alone with your thoughts for two years?’ experiment.” Musically rooted in country and western—inspired by what she calls the “beautiful” writing on Kacey Musgraves' Golden Hour and Dolly Parton’s appearance in the film Dumplin’—the album was intended to be recorded in Nashville to ground the songs in the culture she was referencing, but closed borders made travel impossible. Despite the unavoidable limitations, Sawayama has succeeded in capturing the spirit of the genre, tipping a Stetson to Shania Twain on the irreverent lead single “This Hell,” tapping into the atmosphere of a saloon at closing time with “Forgiveness,” and stitching mismatched elements of other genres like industrial metal and electronica into tracks like “Your Age” and “To Be Alive.” “I really connect with the storytelling aspect of country,” says Sawayama. “It’s very authentic, and grounded in reality, and that’s what I needed to tell the story of this record.” Here, she takes us through that story, track by track. “Minor Feelings” “The title of this song is kind of the secondary title of the record. It was inspired by a collection of essays called Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong. It’s the name she gives to this collective feeling that a lot of Asian Americans have about racial microaggressions, and I really connected with that, because for me it was a collection of all these minor feelings that has now led to a pretty major shutdown of emotions. In the music I wanted to play with the minor and the major chords, so in the chorus when I say ‘minor feelings’ it’s minor and then major when I say ‘majorly getting me down.’” “Hold the Girl” “I wrote this with Barney Lister and Jonny Lattimer in the first session I ever did with Barney. He was producing the song and I was throwing out all these ideas, like: ‘So, I want it to be country, and I want the beginning to sound like Bon Jovi, and I really also want to then do a garage drop.’ Luckily he agreed! It was a very, very hard song to balance: I think we must have gone back and forth about 20 times on the production, and then another 20 times on the mix. I was trying to make it really big and orchestral, but also a pop song. ‘Hold the Girl’ was the song that really unblocked me and made me excited to write again. It reminded me of how much fun you can have with production.” “This Hell” “On first listen, ‘This Hell’ could be a romantic love song, and I love that. It sort of has a double meaning—during lockdown there were certain people that I really held on to and it truly felt like ‘this hell is better with you’—but I’m specifically talking about my friends’ experiences of being shut out of religious communities for being queer. I wanted the music to channel the confidence Shania Twain has and tell the story like a country song, a bit tongue-in-cheek. I worked on it with Vic Jamieson, Lauren Aquilina, and Paul Epworth, who is one of my ultimate production idols. We were in Church Studios, which felt really apt, and I just remember ‘line dancing’ and lighting the whole studio up in red. It was one of the best moments.” “Catch Me in the Air” “One of the first in-person sessions I did for this album was with GRACEY in Oscar Scheller’s flat, and we couldn’t come up with anything. I just wasn’t feeling it. Halfway through, GRACEY was like, ‘Oh my god, Gwen Stefani is coming out with new music!’ As a writing exercise, we pretended we were going to be pitching to Gwen, and then the first melody flowed out. The song is about getting to a certain point in my relationship with my mum, and being able to see things from her perspective now I’m around the same age she was when she had me.” “Forgiveness” “I had to write this song over Zoom because I had just come into contact with someone who had COVID, so Jonny Lattimer and Rich Cooper were in one room and I was at home. The lyrics are about forgiving people in my past, and things I couldn’t control. It’s quite stripped back, as if I was in a grunge band, but doing pop. I asked Freddy Sheed to play the drums like he was exhausted and hungover, a little bit behind the beat. I wanted this feeling of dragging your feet down this path that you’re walking to get to forgiveness. I remember that I came out with the chorus melody pretty much straight away, but I hate using GarageBand and Logic so I was having to record it to my voice notes, then AirDrop it to myself, then send to Rich to put it in the song. It’s great when you have those moments where it just flows out, but actually getting the idea down on paper was so boring!” “Holy (Til You Let Me Go)” “This is where the record starts to get dark. The previous track talks about the idea that forgiveness is a winding road, and now we’re going off the beaten path for the next four or five songs. ‘Holy (Til You Let Me Go)’ is like the counterpart to ‘This Hell.’ I went to a Church of England school and I grew up hearing so much about religion and spirituality, but there was some dark stuff that went on there that was not handled very well, and I’m alluding to it in these songs. I think going to Christian girls’ schools can be very confusing. There’s this idea that girls are holy until a certain point in their life, and then they’re not. So I’m asking: ‘What does youth mean in that situation? What is good and bad?’ You can hear my friends Louis [a school friend] and Lauren Aquilina at the end, talking about what happened, and they’re just in shock about how the adults were behaving.” “Your Age” “‘Your Age’ started off with a banjo riff, but it’s massively inspired by Nine Inch Nails. The song is about the anger I had towards the adults that were around me when I was younger. Now that I’m an adult myself, I think I can legitimately be quite angry towards the adults of my youth, because I just never would have done things that way. I think when you get older, you look back at certain things you’ve experienced and the way the adults handled it, and you kind of can’t believe it. This was one of the last songs I wrote for the album; I wanted it to have this really dark moment. It’s a pretty direct message.” “Imagining” “So much of the confusion around so many mental health issues is that you don’t know if it’s real, and you assume that everyone else is feeling this way, so you minimize what you’re experiencing. It's like being in a club and feeling completely lost, which is the energy I wanted to have in the production. It’s very repetitive, the chorus is really shouty, and the lyrics don’t make the most sense. It’s sensory overload.” “Frankenstein” “I had two days in the studio with Paul Epworth, and we wrote ‘Frankenstein’ on the first day and ‘This Hell’ on the second. I was writing about realizing that it’s not okay to give one person in your life all this baggage to deal with—whether it's a lover or a best friend or someone else close to you—and asking them to put you back together when that’s not their job. I love Paul’s pop production, but for me it’s about the work he did with Bloc Party. It’s actually Matt Tong playing drums on this track, which is insane. I grew up going to gigs around my area in Camden, and it was one of the best, most hedonistic and chaotic times of my life, and I wanted to reference that frantic energy. I might incite a mosh when I perform it live.” “Hurricanes” “A little pop-rock moment: It’s about self-sabotage and running into situations that aren’t good for you. I originally wrote this with Clarence Clarity, and the production sounded a bit like The Cardigans, a bit ’60s surf, and it just wasn’t working. I needed it to sound more driving, like being propelled forward throughout the song, like a hurricane. When Stuart Price came on board later on, he was also working with The Killers, and he suggested listening to them as a reference for the drums. Once we rerecorded the drums, it all fell into place. ‘Hurricanes’ is probably my favorite track on the album right now. It ends on that nice major chord, and it’s like this resolve. The end of the chaos. It’s such a fun song to sing.” “Send My Love to John” “One of my really good friends has quite actively homophobic parents, and they’ve had a very difficult time because their parents have never been supportive of their queerness. Then one day my friend was on the phone with their mum and at the end of the call she said, ‘OK, I’ll speak to you soon, and send my love to John,’ meaning my friend’s long-term boyfriend. It was a breakthrough. And it’s insane because the mum is never going to say sorry, but this is something they can hold on to. A lot of people need to hear the word ‘sorry’ from their parents and they’re never going to get it, so I wanted to write from the perspective of a parent who regrets not supporting their child to the fullest extent.” “Phantom” “I can’t quite remember how this song came about, but I think I had written ‘phantom’ in my notes and I was like, ‘Let’s just try things and see how it sounds.’ We were having quite a free session, just coming up with ideas. It’s a proper rock ballad, almost a love song, about losing yourself and wanting that person back because you don’t like the person that you are now. I wanted it to have a real Aerosmith vibe.” “To Be Alive” “The production on ‘To Be Alive’ is inspired by ‘Ray of Light’ by Madonna. It’s got those propulsive breakbeats. I wanted to make an extremely euphoric last song, about the really pure realization that simple things can give us joy if we want them to. The last line of the song, and of the whole album, ‘Flowers are still pretty when they’re dying,’ is actually a lyric Lauren Aquilina suggested. It ends on a hopeful note, but it’s sad at the same time.”

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