Airplane Mode: A Conversation with Rina Sawayama

The singer and anti-agency model discusses her process, obsession, and closing all the tabs in her mind.

Victoria Chiu

January 20, 2016 | Cult | Fall 2015

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The Internet is its own mega-cult: it’s where the entire world and all its netizens are able to converge and mingle, sharing and spreading new ideas, art, music, and concepts. Taken as a whole, the Internet is the biggest collective of artists in all of history—and it’s easier than ever to find fantastic content created by equally amazing people.

Rina Sawayama is one such person. A London-based singer-songwriter and Anti-Agency model, she’s unapologetic, eclectic, and genuine. She’s an online creative through and through, and she’s intent on showing the world her lush and magnetic art in her own way. From the moment I stumbled across her work with the London clothing brand Lazy Oaf I was totally entranced, and as I explored the scope of her anime-bright world it became increasingly evident that she had a certain je ne sais quoi worth talking about. I recently got the chance to chat with Rina about her music, teenagehood, modelling, and everything in between.

Victoria: You love to spend time online whether it’s uploading new photos to your Instagram or posting your thoughts on Twitter, and you release all your music and videos exclusively via digital platforms. What do you love most about sharing your work online?

Rina: I love that I’m able to talk to anyone in the world with an Internet connection. It’s an incredible feeling. I can’t sleep the night before I put out a new video because I get so excited.

“Tunnel Vision” was inspired by anxiety from the overwhelming amount of notifications and Internet-related inundation that comes with your career. How did you manage to just stop, take a breather, and put all those responsibilities to the side for a bit to help yourself recover? I find that it’s hard sometimes to truly put your mental health first when you’ve got a million things going on at once and life seems to be barreling past you.

It’s quite literally insane. I just broke up with WhatsApp because it was taking over my life, and I was convinced I’d run out of things to say to people when I saw them. I have quite an obsessive personality so I tend to binge on an app or website to the point that I actually have to delete it. I write so much about the Internet in my music, but find that I have nothing to say if I’m in too deep—I have to keep that distance to be critical and stay inspired.

Having gone through that level of anxiety, do you take more precautions now to avoid overloading yourself? Do you have any self-care rituals that you like to go through on stressful days?

I haven’t been very good lately, but I try to leave my phone on airplane mode during the day and reply to emails once in the morning and again at around 4 p.m. If anything is urgent then people can always find a way to contact me via carrier pigeons.

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When did you first become interested in music? How did you go about pursuing a career in singing and songwriting?

I’ve been singing since I was a baby, and was always involved in music at school. Songwriting came way later—when I was about nineteen, I was in a band—and only then did I really start to write my own melodies. I’m definitely still finding my footing, but I find the whole songwriting process to be super cathartic.

What instruments do you play?

I play the guitar, flute, and a little bit of piano. I gave up all my music lessons because I have excessively sweaty palms (no joke). Guitar strings still rust on me after one practice session. Argh! ☹

“I have quite an obsessive personality so I tend to binge on an app or website to the point that I actually have to delete it. I write so much about the Internet in my music, but find that I have nothing to say if I’m in too deep— I have to keep that distance to be critical and stay inspired.”

One of my favourite things on the Internet is the “Tunnel Vision” music video collaboration between you and Arvida Byström. I’m curious: If you could collaborate with anyone right now, who would it be?

I’ve been working a lot with an up-and-coming director, Ali Kurr, for my next few videos. She really understands my vision and draws inspiration from such cool points in art history. We’re doing lots of videos around the idea of self-surveillance and self-addiction caused by the Internet, so topic-wise we’re moving a little bit beyond “Tunnel Vision” while staying in the same vein. I would love to work with Arvida again, but it’s a bit tricky as she’s based in Los Angeles. I miss her a lot—she was a huge inspiration to me and the music I’m making right now.

Has being immersed in the cultures of both Japan and London influenced your music and your aesthetic?

Oh, massively—and in very complicated ways, too. I mean, on the inside I feel like a delicious mix of both cultures, but on the street if people look at me I will always be “Asian,” not a “British Asian.” My face will always belong to a country I didn’t even grow up in, which is very strange to me. Musically, I’m hugely inspired by late 90’s Japanese pop stars, like Sheena Ringo and Utada. I think it’s made me more adventurous aesthetically—you can dress however you want in Tokyo and no one will catcall or say stupid shit to you. As a teenager who was visiting for the summer I would wear the most batshit stuff and no one would say anything. I couldn’t do that as much in London, unfortunately.

What was one of the craziest adventures you ever had as a teenager? What would you tell your teenage self if you could go back in time and impart your wisdom?

I would tell her to stop feeling so bad. I used to be a groupie, so my friends and I were always out hanging with bands, lying about our age, and going to drug-filled parties. My mum would literally track me down over MSN messenger and call the hotel, threatening the manager with lawsuits because we were fifteen-year-old kids pretending to be eighteen. We would get dragged out into a cab with coked-up PR people asking us if we were really legal and we’d say, “We have no idea who this woman (my mum) is; we’re definitely eighteen,” and drive off. We’d piss ourselves and shit our pants at the same time; it was so fun. One time I stayed in Paris for five nights in the apartment of a chain smoker I’d met once before; it literally had tar dripping down the walls and cat piss everywhere, and I endured it JUST so I could go to a gig. In hindsight, it was the most and least free I’ve ever been at the same time.

Has your degree from Cambridge’s Politics, Psychology and Sociology Bachelor of Arts program helped you out since your graduation?

Haha, no. You quickly realize after graduating that a degree does jack shit for a lot of creative industries. All of my friends who entered fashion, photography, journalism, and the like felt kinda robbed because we had all this education it wasn’t really helping us in the real world. But we did have an amazing time there and now we’ve developed an insane collective of some of the most driven, intellectual, and creative queers on the planet. We collaborate on all our work, and that sense of community is priceless.

I noticed your incredible wrist tattoo on Instagram. How many tattoos do you have in total? Do you prefer traditional tattooing methods or stick n’ pokes?

I have…seven? I’ve lost count, to be honest. For me, it’s more about the artistry and open-mindedness of the artist. I love Tati Compton (from Sang Bleu) and Ryan Jessiman (from Shangri La); I’m really into their thin lines and personalities. Some tattoo artists wanna put a piece of their art on you regardless of whether [or not] it suits your body or skin, which annoys me to no end. I’ve come out of some shops regretting tattoos when it feels like the artist was more concerned about their art than my happiness, and that’s not cool.

What’s your favorite emoji right now?

The double pink heart!

Who inspires you online and IRL?

My insanely incredible friends inspire me online and IRL!

How did you begin modelling with the Anti-Agency? What has your favourite modelling gig been?

I was scouted over Facebook about two years ago. My favorite shoot hasn’t been released yet, but I can tell you that it’s a pretty big Christmas campaign for a global brand (Author’s Note: The campaign Rina was referring to was likely this one for Esprit.) The production was amazing and the photographer and director were both incredible; it was just the most amazing three days.

What’s your favourite Nintendo 3DS game?

Professor Layton—always!


You find Rina on all the social networks: Soundcloud, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Image credits: via Rina’s Instagram.

Victoria Chiu

Victoria Chiu is a student chilling under an immovable pile of homework in Alberta, Canada. She loves cats, writing, and the Internet, and she believes in you.

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