COWBOY imagery is everywhere in 2018. There have been memes, runway looks, and articles decreeing their dominance over style.
In music, the ultra-American emblem is everywhere. Country albums have crossed over to the mainstream (Kacey Musgraves) while pop artists have dived head-first into the genre (Kylie Minogue, Miley Cyrus). A 11-year old who found viral fame after yodelling in Walmart has signed a deal with Atlantic Records.
With the rise of this trend has come the motifs. The lapels, the lassos, the fringed shirts, the Dolly Parton-blow out
In the past, the cowboy has been imagined as the peak of masculinity, but the image has always straddled contradictions: It’s earnest but artificial, rugged while camp. And as it re-emerges, the symbol also celebrates that being an outlier can be both freeing and isolating.
So it’s fitting that 27-year old musician Mitski Miyawaki would lean into this archetype for her fifth album Be The Cowboy. The name of the record was inspired by a former fellow music student at university, whose stage presence and bravado always impressed her.
Speaking to me over the phone from outside of Philadelphia, Mitski says the directive is a reminder for her to embody that same energy: “I should be the cowboy I want to see in the world,” she says.
MITSKI has made a name for herself writing vulnerable, melancholic songs cocooned with a keen self-awareness and wry wit.
But there certainly is a new boldness presented on Be The Cowboy. ‘Nobody’, the album’s second single, is pure disco-pop delivered with aplomb; Mitski repeating the song title over and over again in a soft, silky monotone that builds up to a kind of despondent mantra.
In the song’s video clip, she tries to hold hands with an animated arm sticking out of a wall, and dances in her bedroom (hairbrush as microphone and all) with a bunch of cardboard cutouts.
Mitski came up in New York, moving there to study film at Hunter College until she transferred a year later to music at Purchase College. She recorded her first two albums –
Graduating in 2013, and no longer having the extensive resources of a music college, she stripped things back. Bury Me At Makeout Creek (recorded in a makeshift studio) and 2016’s follow-up Puberty 2, were fuzzy guitar albums filled with songs about primordial, messy angst.
There were odes to being jobless and idle, accounts of doomed or unreciprocated romances, thoughts on crushing alienation. But what separated Mitski from the pack was her calculated, sharp observations: her songs sounded like you were listening to someone in the middle of both handling and analysing their own despair.
Her songs were also calibrated to make you cry, something that has become a running gag for fans and critics alike. (A recent twitter meme: ‘oh you listen to MITSKI????? NAME AT LEAST 5 COFFEE SHOPS BATHROOMS YOU’VE CRIED IN.’)
In November 2017, when I saw her play in Sydney, the crowd that coalesced around the stage was mostly sniffling, teary-eyed teenagers and young women. They hung onto every note.
But there is a burden in becoming an avatar for sadness. There are presumptions. That writing vulnerable, emotional songs equates to a lack of finesse or technicality. That her songwriting is all feeling, not thought.
The deliberateness and the intricacy of Be The Cowboy feels like a response. The album was recorded in-between tours in LA, Philadelphia and New Jersey, with Mitski’s long-time collaborator and producer Patrick Hyland. Mitski tells me she thinks it is her most thoughtful record to date.
"I grew up very much sort of friendless, and very much learning how human beings worked based on movies and TV."
She was also cautious of not repeating herself, or playing it safe. There are none of the cathartic, distorted guitar wails of Puberty 2. In its place are organs, elements of disco and shimmery synths.
And while Be The Cowboy contains some of her most danceable hooks (‘Why Didn’t Stop Me’, ‘Washing Machine Heart’, and ‘Nobody’), it’s also home to her most introspective, gloomy ballads.
Mitski ventures into new emotional terrain, too. She has said that fans looking for songs to sob to might be disappointed: “Every time someone on social media is like, ‘I can’t wait to cry to your new album,’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know if you’ll cry. I’m sorry.’,” she recently told Pitchfork.
The shambolic, charged emotions of her last two albums has been muted. On Be The Cowboy, the feelings of sadness and isolation are a resigned, world-weary kind.
“There’s a sort of loneliness when you’re an adult,” she says. “You might be depressed or you might be angry, or you might not feel like going to work but you have to go to work. And you have to get along with your co-workers, and you have to be a good neighbour, and you gotta make sure that you put other people first. And I think that there’s a sort of loneliness in that, in being a real life adult.”
The aimless, wandering cowboy is also a good cipher for Mitski to imbue with her experience of being a prolific touring musician. This year alone, Mitski has undertaken a 16-date stadium tour with Lorde, played a small run of solo shows, and has already started touring off the back of her new album, with no clear end in sight.
“The longer you tour, the more far away from everyone else’s life you are. It’s very hard to be part of any kind of community … your schedule and your experiences are just completely different from everyone else’s, and that I think creates a sort of fundamental isolation or loneliness, just being apart from the whole world.”
MITSKI has always been something of a rover.
She grew up constantly moving around with her parents, living in 13 different countries during her youth.
This kind of transient living meant that Mitski became reliant on popular culture to shape her understanding of social norms. “I grew up very much sort of friendless, and very much learning how human beings worked based on movies and TV,” she says.
The tensions between reality vs. fantasy are written all over Be The Cowboy. Film tropes serve as the perfect backdrop. The record is peppered with kitschy references: there are “movie kisses”, blue diners, horses, metaphors about school gymnasiums.
“There’s a sort of loneliness when you’re an adult.”
She told FACT some of her new songs were inspired by the icy, freakish anti-heroine of Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, played by Isabelle Huppert. Even the press photographs for the album have Mitski, under a yellow-ish glow, posing in a vacant cinema.
Often these romanticised ideals fall short. On ‘Why Didn’t You Stop Me’ she laments over her inability to find a photograph that captures a person the way she remembers. On ‘Me and My Husband’ she lets out a big sigh before almost comical, jaunty trumpets and guitars come in.
“Me and my husband/We’re sticking together/Me and my husband/We’re doing better,” she repeats in the song’s chorus. Her placid, almost saccharine tone, exposes the cracks of seemly uncomplicated domesticity.
On ‘Come To The Water’, a ghostly ballad, she announces, “Maybe I’m the same as all those men/Writing songs of all their dreaming”; a line I initially read as a critique, but it’s not.
“That’s just sort of being attracted to someone for incredibly classic, stereotypical reasons. Like, ‘Oh, that person’s hot. I’m attracted to you’, you know? And I’m making up all these fantasies about you in my head because you’re so hot. Maybe I’m not immune to it. I objectify people just as much. I’m just a weakling!” she says.
Many of Mitski’s songs have concerned themselves with the turmoil of longing for something that is out of reach. But on her new record, these kind of feelings are presented as far less raw and far more inevitable.
If Puberty 2 was the title used to define the state of prolonged adolescence in your early 20s, then Be The Cowboy is an instruction for the period that comes after. Mitski has given the characters contained in her songs license to be their flawed, fractured and dejected selves, without regret or shame.
It’s a more mature, empowered pose. And while she’s still singing about loneliness and fraught relationships, Mitski, for the first time, seems unabashed to be on the outside looking in.