“Be The Cowboy”
Mitski Miyawaki has always been wary of being turned a symbol, knowing we’re quick to put women on pedestals and even quicker to knock them down. Nonetheless, after the breakout success of 2016’s Puberty 2, she was hailed as the new vanguard of indie rock, the one who would save the genre from the white dudes who’ve historically dominated it. Her carefully crafted songs have often been portrayed as emotionally raw, overflowing confessionals from a fevered chosen girl, but in her fifth album, Be The Cowboy, Mitski introduces a persona who has been teased but never so fully present until now—a woman in control. “It’s not like it just pours out,” she says about her songwriting, “it’s not like I’m a vessel. For this new record, I experimented in narrative and fiction.” Though she hesitates to go so far as to say she created full-on characters, she reveals she had in mind “a very controlled icy repressed woman who is starting to unravel. Because women have so little power and showing emotion is seen as weakness, this ‘character’ clings to any amount of control she can get. Still, there is something very primordial in her that is trying to find a way to get out.”
Since Puberty 2 was released to widespread acclaim, ultimately being named one of the best albums of 2016 by Rolling Stone, TIME, Pitchfork, The Guardian, Entertainment Weekly, New York Times, NPR, and SPIN, Mitski has been touring nonstop. She’s circled the globe as the headliner, as well as opening for The Pixies, and most recently, Lorde. The less glamorous, often overlooked aspect of being a rising star is the sheer amount of work that goes into it. “I had been on the road for a long time, which is so isolating, and had to run my own business at the same time,” Mitski explains, “a lot of this record was me not having any feelings, being completely spent but then trying to rally myself and wake up and get back to Mitski. I was feeling really nihilistic and trying to make pop songs.”
We want our artists to be strong but we also expect them to be vulnerable. Rather than avoiding this dilemma, Mitski addresses directly the power that comes from appearing impenetrable and loneliness that follows. In Be The Cowboy, Mitski delves into the loneliness of being a symbol and the loneliness of being someone, and how it can feel so much like being no one. The opening song, “Geyser,” introduces us to a woman who can no longer hold it in. She’s about to burst, unleashing a torrent of desire and passion that has been building up inside.
While recording the album with her long-time producer Patrick Hyland – “little by little in multiple studios between tours” – the pair kept returning to “the image of someone alone on a stage, singing solo with a single spotlight trained on them in an otherwise dark room. For most of the tracks, we didn’t layer the vocals with doubles or harmonies, to achieve that campy ‘person singing alone on stage’ atmosphere. We also made the music swell louder than the main vocals and left in vocal errors like when my voice breaks in “Nobody,” right when the band goes quiet, all for a similar effect.” Not a departure so much as an evolution forward from previous albums, Mitski was careful this time to not include much distorted guitar because “that became something people recognized me for, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t repeat myself or unintentionally create a signature sound.”
The title of the album “is a kind of joke,” Mitski says. “There was this artist I really loved who used to have such a cowboy swagger. They were so electric live. With a lot of the romantic infatuations I’ve had, when I look back, I wonder, Did I want them or did I want to be them? Did I love them or did I want to absorb whatever power they had? I decided I could just be my own cowboy.” There is plenty of buoyant swagger to the album, but just as much interrogation into self-mythology. The music swerves from the cheerful to the plaintive. Mournful piano ballads lead into deceptively up-tempo songs like “Nobody” where our cowboy admits, “I know no one will save me/ I just need someone to kiss”.
The self-abasement of desire is strewn across these 14 songs as our heroine seeks out old lovers for secret trysts that end in disappointment, and cannot help but indulge in the masochistic pleasure of blowing up the stability of long-term partnership. In “A Pearl” Mitski sings of how intoxicating it is to hold onto pain. “I wrote so many songs about being in love and being hurt by love. You think your life is horrible when you’re heartbroken, but when you no longer have love or heartbreak in your life, you think, wasn’t it nice when things still hurt? There’s a nostalgia for blind love, a wonderful heady kind of love.”
Infused with a pink glow and mysterious blue light, the performer in Be The Cowboy makes a pact with her audience that the show must go on, but as we draw nearer to the end, a charming ditty recedes into ghostly, faded melancholia, as an angelic voice breaks through to make direct communication. “Two Slow Dancers” closes out the album in a school gymnasium, though we’re no longer in the territory of adolescence. Instead, we’re projected into the future where a pair of old lovers reunite. “They used have something together that is no longer there and they’re trying to relive it in a dance, knowing that they’ll have to go home and go back to their lives.” It’s funny how only the very old and the very young are permitted to indulge openly in dreams, encouraged to reflect and dwell in poetry. In making an record that is about growing old while Mitski herself is still young, a soft truth emerges: sometimes we feel oldest when we are still young and sometimes who we were when we were young never goes away, leaving behind a glowing pearl that we roll around endlessly in the dark.
Videos & Press
[The New Yorker] By Jia Tolentino Mitski, the twenty-eight-year-old singer-songwriter who, this past August, put out “Be the Cowboy,” one of the best albums of the year, is a star. This isn’t a question of crowd size—although she did open for Lorde on an arena tour earlier this year and, at the beginning of December, […]
Pitchfork #1 in 50 Best Albums of 2018 Mitski Be The Cowboy At high noon, in the Wild West of our collective imagination, America began to romanticize the wrong kind of power. The cowboy strolled in—spraying bullets down Main Street, burning saloons to cinders—and his reckless bravado became something to be admired, not scorned. But […]
[Paste Magazine] There were times in 2018 when everything just felt like too much. We saw a divided nation grow even further apart. We witnessed mass shootings, the #MeToo movement’s successes and heartbreaking downfalls, a slew of devastating natural disasters and a chaotic administration try to patch it all up. But in the two years […]
[Paste Magazine] Yes, the album is still relevant in 2018. Even as we become more likely to stream playlists or shuffle the works of an artist on Spotify, it’s worth taking a look at music as an artist intended, a package of tracks, sequenced with care, offering a snapshot view into a singular creative endeavor […]
[New York Times] By Jon Pareles Indie rock was just a detour for Mitski. On “Be the Cowboy,” her fifth album, she embraces the possibilities of full-scale pop — not to formularize her emotions, but to give them an even larger canvas. It’s exactly the right choice. Since releasing her 2014 album, “Bury Me at […]
[NPR] Mitski Miyawaki says she’s lived many different lives in her one body. On her new album, she’s taking on the spirit of a charismatic, swaggering cowboy. “I just kept telling myself, ‘Be the cowboy you wish to see in the world.’ Kind of a play on, ‘Be the change you wish to see in […]
[Billboard] Carly Rae Jepsen, Mitski, Jamila Woods and Phoebe Bridgers discussed specificity in songwriting at the kickoff for NPR’s 200 Greatest Songs by 21st Century Women list. NPR Music celebrated the launch of its 200 Greatest Songs by 21st Century Women list with an intimate performance and panel discussion with Carly Rae Jepsen, Mitski, Jamila […]
[Stereogum] By Julia Gray Iggy Pop gave Mitski and Justin Vernon his seal of approval today on his BBC 6 show. “She’s a great talent. For me she’s probably the most advanced American songwriter that I know,” he says of Mitski. “If it’s not her, maybe I would say Justin Vernon, the Bon Iver guy. […]
[NPR] By Bob Boilen “I think this is one of my vaguest songs,” Mitski says in this conversation about her new song, “Geyser.” “Usually my songs have a narrative of some sort. But this song is all feeling.” “Geyser” is the leadoff song on her new album Be the Cowboy. And there’s nothing vague about […]
[Rolling Stone] The singer-songwriter’s last album, ‘Puberty 2,’ expanded her reach – winning over Iggy Pop and Lorde – now she’s ready for something new By Simon Vozick-Levinson Mitski Miyawaki is used to seeing her songs tattooed on strangers’ limbs. The most frequent choice seems to be “A Burning Hill,” the acoustic sketch that closes […]