In Under The Influence, The A.V. Club asks a musician to pair three of their songs with a non-musical influence.
Mitski Miyawaki, who uses her first name professionally, has always nestled piano ballads alongside fuzzy, soul-bearing rock songs—and never needed to justify either pursuit. It was 2014’s Bury Me At Makeout Creek, her third release, that began to garner Mitski the attention she deserved. The record sees her wearing her heart on her sleeve, all in service of a sound that plays like St. Vincent for the DIY set. Ahead of Mitski’s new album, Puberty 2, out June 17 on Dead Oceans, The A.V. Club talked with her about three songs from Bury Me At Makeout Creek and their poetic inspirations.
Song: “Texas Reznikoff” (Bury Me At Makeout Creek, 2014)
Influence: The work of poet Charles Reznikoff
The A.V. Club: How did you first discover Charles Reznikoff and his work?
Mitski Miyawaki: I don’t know why—I don’t know why I do anything—but I was reading a Paul Auster book of criticism. I don’t really know much of Auster’s work, but it was a really good book. I can even forward you the piece he wrote on Reznikoff, but yeah, that’s how I started reading Reznikoff.
AVC: What struck you about his work, and how did you find inspiration in it?
MM: In my writing I try to… it’s cliché to say paint a picture, but create a striking image in people’s brains. I think Reznikoff just does it so well. And a lot of his poetry is honestly just one sentence. It’s so precise. And with writing lyrics, especially, I find that you have a very, very short span time where you not only have people’s attention, but you have to fit these words into a melody or a composition. So it becomes so vital to be very precise and, in my opinion, make sure people get the image right away. Because it’s not like when you read poetry, you can go over the lines as much as you want with your eyes. With a song you hear those words once and you have to get the image right away, so that’s how Reznikoff really struck me—even though he’s not a lyricist, he’s a poet. His work is so immediate.
AVC: He has all these lines that can be four or five words, and they’re very evocative and stand on their own. Is that something you strive for with lyrics—to make them brief but still visceral?
MM: Yeah, and that’s inevitably how I approach all my songwriting. With this song in particular, I was in Austin, Texas, and I was just sitting on the driveway or something, and then the line, “the trees’ shadows lie in black pools in the lawns”—like I actually saw that in front of me and immediately remembered Reznikoff. That one line is actually a poem by Reznikoff and I quoted it in the lyrics. Maybe that’s completely lazy, but I just saw it and I was like, oh my god.
Song: “Last Words Of A Shooting Star” (Bury Me At Makeout Creek, 2014)
Influence: John Giorno’s cut-up poetry
AVC: This song is inspired by another poet, John Giorno. He had an interesting technique, a cut-up method of using found stuff and putting that together. How did that inspire this song specifically?
MM: John Giorno is one of my favorite poets, and cut-up technique is something he learned from [William S.] Burroughs—I don’t really read Burroughs—but he learned it from Burroughs. And with that song—first of all, the one thing is that the line in my song about how the Liberty Bell is a replica, I learned that through John Giorno’s cut-up technique poem. He did this thing where he just took newspaper articles—like lines from hundreds and hundreds of newspaper articles—and put them together seemingly randomly, but in his own way [made] it into poetry. And I read that and I looked it up and it turns out it’s true, and that inspired me to write that song.
It’s not like I cut up other people’s facts and put them in a song, it’s more just like—I took all these different moments in my thoughts and I kind of put them together. If you put all the little separate moments together, I find that sometimes when you step back it starts to mean something as a whole, if that makes sense. So that was my intention with that song. Especially, like the imagery I was trying to come up with was like someone in a plane that’s crashing, and when your life is passing before your eyes it’s like little moments put together into one second. And I wanted to describe that in the song by doing something like a cut-up technique where I put together little moments, and the things you notice in your life, little by little, and just smash them together.
AVC: With that in mind, were you working from a bunch of ideas that already existed and were tucked away in notebooks?
MM: The way I usually work, not just with this song, but especially this song, I have many notebooks and I just kind of combed through them and I picked them and put them all into one song.
AVC: Are you a fan of some of his other work too?
MM: I think he’s one of those artists who just seems to get better with age. I don’t know who said it, but the musician’s career ends when they run out of music. But with John Giorno, he keeps getting better. The cut-up stuff was in his early career, and he’s one of the pioneers. I don’t want to say he’s the pioneer of spoken word poetry—that’s a very sweeping statement—but he started performing and reciting his poems in a much more performative way than any of his contemporaries. He kind of started this thing where poetry was not only something that was read but performed and there was another art to it and things kind of blossomed from there. I’d recommend going on YouTube and looking up John Giorno’s spoken word. It’s kind of a pre-spoken word; right now spoken word is a whole genre and it’s a whole thing, so it’s more like a precursor. I had a really thick collection of poems by him that I lost in a flood. Very sad.
MM: I was referring to the recording process. And at the end of that song—first of all, I’m not a very aggressive person, so I was very wary of recording that song in general. And then toward the end of the session, Patrick Hyland, who is the producer of that record, was like, “Why don’t you just scream at the end?” And I was like, “No.” I, being the prim and proper vocalist, I’m like, “That would damage my vocals, I’m never going to do that.” And he was just like, “Fine, I’ll do it.” And then he went into the vocal booth—it was really just a mic in a dark room. But he just started screaming and then in that moment, something in me clicked, and I think he just knew me well enough that if he did that I would be like, “Get out of my way.” So I was just like, “You’re not doing it right and I could do it better,” and he got me to scream. So I am very gullible; I’m like a fucking bull with a red flag.
AVC: How did it feel to just go for it and scream your lungs out?
MM: It was so liberating. After that I started screaming at my live shows—I mean obviously I had screamed many times in my private life. But as a performance—I guess I’m a latecomer. Screaming has always been a thing in music, but by doing it over and over I would lose my voice, and then I figured out how to not lose my voice and scream, and I went deep into scream technique after that, so it definitely opened up my world.
AVC: Is that something that carried over for Puberty 2? That feeling that you could push yourself in directions you never knew you could go?
MM: Patrick is also the producer for Puberty 2 so it’s funny you should say that. And also, yes. I recorded Puberty 2 in a really, really short time frame. I had been touring for a straight year, I had two weeks to record Puberty 2 and I knew that right after I recorded I had to go back out on the road and play some more shows, so this two-week period became some sort of a refuge, or a means of getting away from everything and getting to record. So when I was finally in the studio, it was really liberating and I felt like I could experiment, because my mindset wasn’t like, “I have to create this good record,” it was like, “Oh finally, I’m in the studio and I can try things and I can do what I want.” And maybe you can hear that in the new record as well.