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There’s raising the bar, and there’s snapping it in half - Rina does the latter.
Published: 16/11/2021
  Author + Photos: Eleanor Osada

I was quick to call Rina Sawayama a superstar, and it’s no wonder, because against the relatively grey, four-wall slog of the pandemic; her critically-acclaimed debut acted like a thunderbolt — striking and surging across her scene and beyond, with nothing less than rapturous magnitude. Roughly a year and a half after its release, anyone that knows good music is still feeling the aftershock.

‘SAWAYAMA’ is a musical epiphany, and feels as if it’s been fidgeting in the time between then and now, ready to burst - just waiting an age to have a second life as a live spectacle. The Dynasty Tour has allowed the sun to rise on this pop renaissance — but to simplify Rina’s craft as simply “pop” would be so naïve.

Any given write-up will credit the expanse of the genre spectrum she glides through: fusing stadium-ready rock riffs with perfect pastel pop melody, submerging into scathing nu-metal, or reaching the sparkling heights of timeless chart-pop that harks back to the start of the millennium. SAWAYAMA is truly a record with a home for any taste, and yet through careful craft, all these diverse parts feel harmonious.

But Rina’s production, in all its mirror-sheen lustre, overdubs lyrics of subjects and stories that are abyssal, and continue to raise relevant cultural questions, to scorn, celebrate, and to reflect. Whether that’s on a personal level, or looking outward, there’s an intelligent duality to her writing.

Rina is a force, in fact. Her impact has already been felt within the music world, and beyond - this year, she’s collaborated with Elton John - who said her debut “just blew [him] away”. He rang her up just to “tell her how brilliant it was”, and proceeded to work on a duet of the tender ‘Chosen Family’, for his own record, as well as Rina’s deluxe re-release. Not failing to mention her reworking of ‘Free Woman’ on Lady Gaga’s Chromatica Remix album.

No small feat for a woman who, at the start of 2021, was told by The Brits and Mercury Prize committees that she was “not British enough” to be eligible for either award - despite living in the UK for 26 years. Although painful - this opened up a necessary conversation - with #SAWAYAMAISBRITISH trending in the UK soon after the news came out.

Rina went on to meet with the BPI, the board responsible for both prizes, and sought after new rules. After several talks, she made systemic change: the criteria changed because she fought for it. Thanking the internet’s “collective voice”, Rina created opportunity for other immigrants, giving them the right to compete from this year onward, no matter their citizenship.

Rina’s efforts and tireless work to exist as someone true to her artistry, as demonstrated by her fully-funding this album at one point in time, are starting to be recognised, thankfully.

Named with purpose, SAWAYAMA is an album all about identity and belonging - something evidenced in the crowds of her live shows - and the paradoxical, urgent nature of life on this planet.

As prepared as I thought I was heading into SWG3, Rina’s long-awaited live show turned out to be unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Even when trying to check-in with past memories of the lovingly-dubbed ‘main pop girls’, Rina manages to meet - if not exceed - the greatness they upheld. There’s raising the bar, and there’s snapping it in half - Rina does the latter.

Leading with the album opener, ‘Dynasty’, a loaded, shame-heavy song about generational trauma that Rina feels obliged to carry, the spotlights fall on her atop a staircase, hand on hip - blue steel. It’s a hurtling, rich track, that builds to an insane guitar solo that’s only elevated by Rina’s vocals mirroring the shred, as she sings as closely into the pickups as distance allows. This, and Vic Jamieson’s ineffable playing, is pure theatricality - and it’s intoxicating to witness.

Rina’s stage presence is absolutely electrifying: her stance is so striking that it seems she could command an audience with just her gaze. But her authority doesn’t stand entirely alone - she’s reinforced by an all-women ensemble. The stage seems to radiate power — her dancers, Shola Riley and Nakai Warikandwa, slink in all-black with such regency, and occasionally the trio unleash choreography so fierce that it transforms the performance entirely. An emblematic live-pop trope that is as vibrant as it always was.

The setlist includes the entirety of Rina’s debut, along with an EP favourite, ‘Cyber Stockholm Syndrome’, and one of her most streamed - a stand-alone single, ‘Cherry’, reminiscent of some fun, Y2K cult-bop - all about a girl on the London Underground giving her the ‘look’. “This is my coming out song!” she shouts, beaming.

Sawayama deliberately falls to the floor after a gnarling performance of ‘STFU!’ to sit up and greet the audience with poise: “Glasgow… Something very LGBT is about to happen”. She’s met with cheers and laughter, obviously reading her audience well enough. This connection is important: Rina is a pansexual woman, confident in her skin — knowing her demographic, there’s comfort in both parties, and they’re able to relax into the night. She later summons the crowd to “raise your hand if you’re queer!”, and the sea of arms is immense.

An acoustic rendition of ‘Chosen Family’ is the phone-torch-in-the-air moment, where all the band sit together in the middle of the stage’s staircase and look out at their community. Rina sweetly has dubbed her fans as ‘Pixels’ for a long while now - because individually, they’re part of a bigger picture. “I wanted to write a song for my LGBTQ sisters and brothers,” Rina told Apple Music, “and it’s just a message and this idea of a safe space—an actual physical space”. Venue to venue, right on cue and borne out of softness, another refuge is dreamt up for the night. 
In Glasgow on a Saturday night, as COP26 was drawing to an uneventful close adjacent to the venue, Rina’s show provided a chance to both dissociate from our burning planet - dancing with friends in moments of lightness - and to listen to a stark call for change in ‘Fuck This World’, starring lyrics that honestly wouldn’t have sounded out of place in front of world leaders: “This is our mission impossible / May not be solvable / May not be viable / But it's worth trying”.

Via a costume-change - Labour MP Zarah Sultana’s speech takes the form of an unnerving audio interlude about climate change - featuring a hypothetical weatherman dishing out temperature highs of 80 degrees centigrade, and wind speeds of 1,000mph. It’s unfair to use the word “dystopian” or “futuristic”, even, because it feels as if the terror is on our doorsteps already. A section of the show that’s underpinned by Rina’s hardcore climate grief and an emotional fatigue from humans taking the earth for granted, has never felt more pertinent than when it’s vocalised in the same vicinity as the world’s largest climate conference.

Rina also treated the audience to a brand new, never-before-heard track, ‘Catch Me In The Air’. It’s guitar led and buoyant, and has all the qualities of an arena-rock anthem - her vocals soaring above the mix. “This song, I wrote it about my mum, who is a single mum. You know how intense that relationship is… they feel like a sister or a brother,” explaining the title, she added, “I felt throughout my life that my mum and I have caught each other when we’re falling”.

Another highlight was the abrasive critique on capitalist culture and intensive consumerism - ‘XS’. Arguably her biggest, most immortal sounding song to date, XS is saddled with clever double entendres - the very title playing on the ‘excess’ consumption the population demands, as well the size tag ‘extra small’, nodding to erratic sizing issues many large-scale clothing brands have, and how they only cater for the tiniest. This song should have been a mammoth hit, but with Glasgow’s crowd-based choreo and all the ad-libs echoed back extra loud, it felt as if it has been all along.

“My songs are deeply personal”, Rina starts, “but sometimes... You just need a carefree... Summer... Bop” and launches into last year’s SAWAYAMA b-side, a co-write with Lauren Aquilina, ‘LUCID’. And she’s right - it’s fun, transcendent, dreamy pop. It’s nowhere near as weighty as songs about your lineage and facing microagressions, but that’s on purpose. It’s time to let loose.

She closes with her remix of Gaga’s ‘Free Woman’, dedicating it to Britney Spears - who’d finally been freed from her 13-year conservatorship just the day before. Rina, then the band and dancers slowly leave the stage piece by piece, leaving the audience to bask in the glow. Britney’s ‘Toxic’ gets cranked up on the speakers as friends leave arm-in-arm, relishing in the joy. 

Rina Sawayama’s strength is in her hybridity, as well as her universal appeal. Her talent is captivating, and her future is blinding - so much so it’s stroboscopic. This feels like the dawning of the next biggest pop star, and it feels a privilege to see her before inevitably, she fills out a-Rinas.