Mitski Doesn't Bother With Labels. She Prefers Excellence

Ebru Yildiz
Mitski Miyawaki, who performs with her band under her first name, grew up in a biracial, multicultural household. During her childhood, Mitski lived in Japan, Malaysia, China, Turkey and the Democratic Republic of Congo. But it wasn't until she returned to the U.S. that she had a racial designation imposed on her.

“I discovered I was an Asian American when I arrived in the U.S.,” says Mitski. “I didn't identify as that before I came here. People started calling me that, and I started being treated in a specific way.”

In the U.S., Mitski was regularly asked what most biracial people – her being half Japanese and half Caucasian American – are asked at least once in their lives: “What ARE you?” Mitski doesn't particularly identify with American or Japanese culture, and her parents didn't encourage her to choose or adopt either.

“I think growing up the way I did has made me a lot more objective, and that's important in the process of writing and trying to look at subjective matter that way,” observes Mitski. “Being an outsider at the time nurtured my eye as a writer.”

Growing up playing piano and singing, Mitski was exposed to American and non-American pop music. By age seventeen, she'd started writing her own music, and in college at SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music, she picked up guitar and bass and started playing music with other people.

While the school had a student center that other bands played, Mitski opted to perform in dorm rooms and apartments. She was excited when she learned that other acts toured internationally without a record label's support.

“I investigated how they did it and found out they had booked those tours themselves,” recalls Mitski. “It was a revelation when I realized it was something I could do. Before that I thought I had to go through all these systems and get a booking agent. I learned it myself and then figured out how to get to play the bigger stages.”

Mitski's 2016 album, Puberty 2, has been variously described as emo, surf rock, dream pop and folk punk. Certainly all those genres can be heard on the album. But at its heart, it's a powerful, poetic exploration of living as a sensitive person navigating the world while refusing binary categories; it digs into the alienation that comes from failing to fit into society and also music scenes that help audiences navigate different types of music.

All of those tensions and a spirit of acceptance make the record a heady and satisfying listen, crafted by someone who refuses to aim for any standard other than creative excellence and emotional honesty.

Mitski with Half Waif, 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 19, Bluebird Theater, 303-377-1666, $16-20, 16+.