“I’m glad people are crying,” Mitski Miyawaki tells me over the phone, just hours after the release of Bury Me At Makeout Creek. It’s her third album, and one that regularly causes listeners, including myself, to break down in tears. After we both giggle, she clarifies: “I was crying the whole time I was writing it, so it means that people get where I was coming from, and I’m glad I got to access that part of people.”
Mitski is used to being the new girl. She has performed the role so many times she is unable to list all the countries she has lived. Mitski was born in Japan, but just barely. The Miyawaki family was living in the Democratic Republic of Congo back in 1990, but since they wanted their daughter to have Japanese citizenship, Mitski’s mother “flew her pregnant belly to Japan, gave birth, and then took her newborn child and flew back to Africa.” From there, the moves are too numerous to list. Eventually, Mitski’s family settled in Turkey, around the time she was a senior in high school.
Mitski never actually completed senior year, in the traditional sense. “I got to the army school I was going to and I realized I had all the credits needed to graduate,” she explains. “I went to the principal’s office and just asked for my degree. So I graduated early.”
It sounded pretty ideal, but then reality hit: Mitski had no idea what to do with herself. This led to a period of what she describes as “hanging out and getting up to no good in Turkey.” Fortunately, this period of aimless mischief led to her burgeoning interest in songwriting. She wrote her first song while “still fucking drunk,” she says. Thanks to a fortunate stroke of serendipity, Mitski sat down at the keyboard and penned “Bag of Bones”. In a recent Facebook post, she reflected on that night in Turkey: “By the time it was done my heart was pounding like I just saw the rest of my life. I was fucking doomed.”
But Mitski needed to travel across the world to discover the intensity of her passion. She decided to move to New York. “I hadn’t really experienced much of the U.S., so in my mind, New York was America,” she explains. She began at Hunter College as a film student, but soon transferred to SUNY Purchase to pursue music instead.
At SUNY Purchase, Mitski made her first two records, Lush and Retired From Sad, New Career In Business. The records were her junior and senior projects, respectively. Recording in an academic setting allowed her to focus on extreme details and work in fancy studios; on her second record, she collaborated with a full 60-person student orchestra.
Mitski finished school feeling grateful, but completely spent. “I was really, really exhausted. I was in school, and working to pay my rent, and working on the two projects and trying to graduate from college and by the end of it, I was so tired.”
This exhaustion was the driving force behind her third record, Bury Me At Makeout Creek. After the tiring professionalism of her second album, it was time for a drastic change. “I wanted something that I could use to let out this rage and work on in a more solitary setting, on my own terms, on a much lower scale,” says Mitski. Instead of working with professionals and academics, Bury Me was recorded in houses and makeshift studios with a select group of musicians and friends. And finally, after years of being the “trope solo-piano girl,” Mitski picked up the guitar.
Bury Me At Makeout Creek is a far step away from Mitski’s classical training, and that’s clear from the first minute of the album.”It’s beautiful out today / I wish you could take me upstate,” she sings. It’s a quiet declaration of longing to a lover that soon grows massive and unhinged. “You keep your socks on in bed / Keep our hearth warm.” From there, “Townie” is pure rock and roll, an ode to youthful recklessness. It’s also the song that perhaps best displays Mitski’s wildly diverse vocal range, from the silky opening to the song’s explosive chorus: “And I want a love that falls as fast / As a body from the balcony, and / I want a kiss like my heart is hitting the ground.” If Bury Me At Makeout Creek proves one thing, it is that passion comes in many forms.
In between songs at a recent performance at Bard College, Mitski pauses to confess. “My whole life I have been told I am both pretty and ugly at the same time,” she begins. “This would have been less confusing if I wasn’t convinced that whether I was pretty or ugly determined whether I was good or bad. This wouldn’t be such a big deal to me if I didn’t want so badly to be good.” From there she launches into a song while her audience stands stunned. To us, there is no question.
As listeners, it can be difficult to explain why we are affected by to certain music. Certain sounds draw out emotional responses. But we also can when we’re able to understand and relate to the pure feelings at play. When Mitski sings, “And I was so young / When I behaved twenty-five,” the words carry both a personal significance but also express an abstract and relatable feeling. Perhaps empathy explains, at least in small part, why Bury Me At Makeout Creek resonates so strongly.
“It’s really life affirming that other people understand these things I was going through,” she confirms. “I feel like a lot of people who want to be weird or deliberately say they’re weird aren’t weird because really weird people try desperately not to be weird. I spent my whole life feeling like I was really weird or really alone or the only person feeling something. I put my heart on the line for the songs so whenever people catch it and say they got it, it’s like, ‘Oh thank goodness, thank you for understanding.'”
“Heart on the line.” It’s an apt explanation of the process leading to songs so open and honest and heartbreaking.
At the end of the night, I ask Mitski for permission to quote her on something she’d said earlier. Her answer: “Take all of me.”