Mitski quit music… and coming back fills her with dread

Ebru Yildiz

Mitski's vulnerable, enigmatic songs made her a star in the 2010s – but success sat uncomfortably on her shoulders.

The Japanese-American singer, born Mitski Miyawaki, first broke out with her scuzzy, lo-fi third album, Bury Me At Makeout Creek in 2014.

Her profile rocketed two years later with the single Your Best American Girl – a love story about a couple driven apart by their cultural differences.

The precision of the lyrics – "Your mother wouldn't approve of how my mother raised me / But I do, I finally do" – saw her named the "21st Century poet laureate of young adulthood" by US radio station NPR.

Her fifth album, 2018's Be The Cowboy, pushed her even further towards the mainstream. A collection of strange and beguiling vignettes about loneliness and love on the wane, it was her first album to chart in the UK and the US.

But as Mitski's shows grew in scale, the pressure of appeasing an ardent fanbase (some of whom called her "mom"), started to mess with her head.

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"You develop this constant ticker in your mind of people's potential criticism or commentary on whatever you're making, even in the in the middle of making it," she says. "And that will never really go away, I don't think."

Eventually, it became too much. In 2019, she announced that an upcoming gig in New York's Central Park would be her "last show indefinitely".

"It's time to be a human again," she tweeted, before deleting her social media accounts.

Mitski in concertGetty Images

The singer had been planning the break for over a year, saving money to keep her afloat after she played her final chord.

Fans were distraught but, she reassured them, she wasn't "quitting music", just "stepping away" to recuperate.

Except, that wasn't quite true.

"It was simpler to just explain it away as physical exhaustion which, of course, was part of it," she says on the phone from the US.

"But looking back, it was more mentally [about] being a working person in the music industry, which is like this super-saturated version of consumerism.

"I got really scared because I could see myself caving in and being swept away by that current, and putting out music that I don't really care about.

"I needed to step away to get out of that mechanism and just learn how to be human again, I think."

After that Central Park show, she left New York and moved to Nashville, intending to work behind the scenes as a songwriter.

But guess what happened next? Only a global pandemic…

"Suddenly, I was in this city I don't know anything about, locked down, and existing in this weird bubble for, I'd say, two years," she says.

"Some people do writing sessions on Zoom, but I realised I can't work like that… So I just had a lot of food deliveries."

MitskiEbru Yildiz

All the while, she was wrestling with the wisdom of abandoning a successful career.

"I was filled with regret and grief because I thought maybe I'd made a big mistake. You know, I'd worked so hard to get to that point in my career and, in my mind, I was throwing it all away."

The loss was so devastating that she found it hard to listen to other people's music, or even watch a movie, without crying.

"I would think, 'Oh my God, I wish I was still doing this,' and I would just tear up, which is pathetic."


Growing up, music was Mitski's main source of comfort.

She was born in Japan but had a nomadic childhood due to her father's job with the US State Department. Before she was 18, she had lived in Turkey, China, Malaysia, Japan, the Czech Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – always the outsider, always the new kid.

Music gave her a sense of purpose and, often, a "way in" with her latest cohort of temporary friends. She joined choirs, entered talent shows, and began to write her own songs as a sort of teenage diary.

That impulse never went away. Which is why in late 2019, still tormented by her decision to quit music, she poured her angst into a song called Working For The Knife.

"I used to think I would tell stories," she sang over an ominous, pulsing synth. "But nobody cared for the stories I had."

The song was a musical shedding of the skin. By confronting her fear of becoming a "product", and exploiting her vulnerability for profit, she found her way back from the wilderness.

"It was a real joy to be like, 'Oh, phew, I can write again. Thank God.'"

After living with the song for a year, she decided to start work on an album; hooking up with her long-term producer Patrick Hyland to begin rebuilding the career she'd torn down.

But progress was slow. Like so many of us, Mitski felt a "complete inability to feel motivated" during lockdown.

"Just getting up in the morning and doing something became so hard for no reason," she says. "So that got in our way."

In the end, the album took almost three years to complete. What emerges is simultaneously more desolate and more upbeat than her previous records, with moments of confessional intensity leavened by self-deprecating pop gems.

She's at her most devastating on Everyone – a slow-creeping horror about her tendency for self-sabotage.

"I opened my door to the dark / I said, 'Come in, come in, whatever you are'."

As she sings, her vocals occupy a different time signature to the rhythm track, creating a destabilising dissonance that heightens the sense of unease.

At the other end of the scale is The Only Heartbreaker, a synth-pop melodrama about a lopsided relationship. It starts with Mitski confessing to being "the bad guy in this play" but, as the song unfolds, you realise she's not the one at fault.

"I wanted to induce this realisation that maybe you are the one making mistakes all the time because you're the only person fully in the relationship," she explains.

"The other person isn't making mistakes because they're not in it with you. So you're just sort of shadow boxing in this relationship alone."

Recorded over three years, the album has been through several iterations before reaching its final form.

"At first, most of the songs were kind of maudlin, slow rock songs," says Mitski, "but, as the pandemic progressed, Patrick and I just stopped being able to handle these overtly morose songs.

"We needed something big, something extravagant because we were just inside in the same room every day. And what better era than the 80s to draw from for that?"

They drew inspiration from Giorgio Moroder, Abba, Vangelis and Ultravox – all moody synths and grandiose sadness. But the album's pop credentials truly peak with Should've Been Me, which plucks the groove from Hall & Oates' Maneater for a song about being emotionally unavailable (Man-repeller, perhaps?)

The hat-tip to the 80s synth kings was "less deliberate and more of a resignation", Mitski laughs.

"Patrick and I were like, 'Let's just allow it to happen, we can't fight this anymore. We love Hall and Oates'."

The album is named Laurel Hell, after a folk term for areas of the southern Appalachians, where the mountain laurel grows so close and thickly that it is almost impossible to pass.

According to legend, people have died trying to hack through the branches – and Mitski liked the concept of trying to escape the knotted thorns as a metaphor for her own struggles.

Some early reviews have portrayed the record as a triumph over adversity, with Mitski defeating her misgivings about music. As ever, life's not that simple.

"How does it feel to be releasing a record again? Terrible. Absolutely terrible," she says.

"It's like, 'Oh Jesus, here we go again. I thought I was having fun and now it's no fun anymore.'"

MitskiEbru YIldiz

Even touring is "tinged with existential fear" in the Covid-era, she says.

"The stakes are so high. If anyone on the crew tests positive, whether we feel sick or not, we're gonna have to cancel the show. And the reality is, if any show gets cancelled, I'll be paying. Which, you know, has helped me reassess my priorities because I would pay to play. I still love to play. But it is a bit of a bummer."

She says her own gig-going has been curtailed by the pandemic. Before booking tickets, she used to ask, "do I want to go to this show". Now, the question is, "Is this show worth getting Covid?"

How does she feel about fans coming to see her, having asked themselves the same question?

"Oh my God, that hadn't occurred to me," she exclaims. "But my immediate reaction to you saying that is, 'Oh, the pressure is terrible.'"

As someone who has booked tickets for Mitski's solo tour, I try to reassure her that the responsibility is all mine.

"Well, thank you," she laughs. "In that case, I'll make sure to hand a piece of Covid directly to you."

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