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Rina Sawayama Says Pop Music Became a ‘Way to Fit in’ at School as a Japanese Immigrant

Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, and Gwen Stefani helped bona fide pop star Rina Sawayama connect — and fit in — with her white classmates after her family immigrated to London from Japan. In a new interview with Them, the “Hold the Girl” star shared how the music allowed her to connect with her peers before being fluent in English.

Pop was “a way to fit in,” she told Them. “If you’re new to that school or whatever, it can really connect you to the rest of the students.” She said she’d sometimes create imaginary girl groups to connect with her classmates at the Catholic school she attended.

It was also through her own pop music — and her new album Hold the Girl — that Sawayama found healing for her “inner child,” whom she says was gaslit into “not believing in [her] own truth.” Her experiences as a queer woman and child of immigrants also translated onto much of the record.

Sawayama spoke about her track “Send My Love to John,” inspired by a real-life experience of a queer friend who wasn’t immediately accepted by their family. With it, Sawayama wanted to give an “empathetic view” of parents who immigrated to America “and wish so many things for their child that never worked out.”

“I hope that song can set a lot of people free, in terms of the people who have never said sorry to them or who will never see them for the beautiful human being that they are,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of people who carry that with them, [feeling like] they represent embarrassment or shame to others. I think those people deserve a sorry.”

Sawayama says the LP is her way of “infiltrating therapy into pop music.” It’s providing healing for herself but also for those who listen.

 “The idea of, where do I start and where [other people] begin is something that I’ve only really truly learned recently,” Sawayama said. “I think when you spend your whole life trying to make other people happy, whether it’s your parents or school or this societal notion of what’s good […] you genuinely forget what you want to do. What makes you happy? What are your values? I think this record overall is about finding out what those boundaries are.”

A Rolling Stone review of Hold the Girl by Rob Sheffield praised the musician for her ability to marry so many different sonics on a still-cohesive LP.

“It seems the isolation of lockdown made her bolder about looking inside herself. The most exciting thing about Hold the Girl is that you can’t even guess where Sawayama might go next. She’s a cultural-pastiche artist on so many different levels,” Sheffield writes. “But these songs make it clear that Sawayama can blast off into any future she wants.”

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