You think you know Mitski, but you have no idea. The singer-songwriter’s new album, Be the Cowboy (out 8/17), strays further from her distorted indie roots than ever, with brassy showtunes influences and plenty of eerie synths soundtracking her evocative lyrics.
“We weren’t really attached to using any specific instrument,” she explains over coffee in Manhattan about her and producer Patrick Hyland’s studio alchemy. “We approached it as, ‘We have this sound in mind — what can we use?'”
Mitski spoke with EW about all the films, music, and moods that inspired her beguiling new sound.
The Piano Teacher
“The book by Elfriede Jelinek and the movie by Michael Haneke are very different. I saw the movie first, which is where most of my inspiration is from — how the protagonist carries herself, how she’s this repressed woman who dresses really conservatively. There’s something elegant about her (she loves music and art) but there’s something incredibly closed [off] about her, too. This young man seduces her lightheartedly, but she gets into it — and when she opens up, he rejects her. But she’s already opened up, so she doesn’t know how to close it. At the end of the movie, she stabs herself. Something about that film and character was very inspiring for me.”
Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl and the video for Massive Attack’s “Voodoo in My Blood”
“I love Rosamund Pike — she’s so good in Gone Girl and in the ‘Voodoo in My Blood’ music video. The video is inspired by Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, which is weird and really intense — it’s one of my favorites. I kept imagining Pike’s character from Gone Girl — this woman who’s worked to be the perfect wife, but at a certain point feels screwed over and decides to change her life and everyone else’s in a really vengeful, violent way — in that music video, which features a conservatively dressed woman in a subway station losing her mind. The video is like a visual representation of what happened to the character in Gone Girl.
“The first Hitchcock film I saw was Psycho. What triggered it is an installation on top of the MoMA, where someone recreated the house on the museum’s roof. I went into it knowing only the famous [shower] scene, but I was surprised how quickly the protagonist was killed — and that she’s not really the protagonist. Hitchcock’s perspective is very misogynistic. His films are beautiful, but he’s obsessed with blonde, beautiful, old, mysterious female characters. Watching those characters unravel in his films, I keep thinking, ‘Who are these women when Hitchcock isn’t watching them?’ We’re seeing them through his perspective, which is the male gaze. What are they thinking when they’re alone in their room?'”
“Tomita made a lot of orchestral music using synths — ‘Clair de Lune,’ ‘Pictures at an Exhibition,’ ‘The Bermuda Triangle.’ My producer Patrick Hyland was very influenced by Tomita. We did away with a lot of the distorted guitar in my previous work and wanted to find other things to heighten the mood. All the synth tones and sounds are very much Patrick — I’m not very production-minded, so all I can do is explain to him what I want in an abstract or compositional way, and he translates it. He’s very good at analog engineering and working with all the machines. In ‘Pink in the Night,’ he recorded the sound of pure electricity running through the synth. It’s really cool, because it makes you feel like there’s a thunderstorm and there’s electricity in the air. It’s really romantic.”
This album’s my most “theater” album—when you’re taking your grand solo, there’s a spotlight on you, and it’s very dramatic. It’s incredibly melodramatic, and as a performer, you’re really feeling it—but when you step back, it’s very camp and silly. I was exploring that for this album: the duality that exists as a performer. You’re in your feelings, but you’re also outside of yourself, understanding that it’s kitschy.
Toto’s Dune soundtrack
“David Lynch is a big influence on me — not consciously, but I always find myself doing things influenced by him without noticing it. The soundtrack is so grandiose. ‘Geyser’ sounds very Dune to me. I’m hoping that people come around to Toto the same way people have come around to Dave Matthews Band. Toto was so big and dramatic, and all the guys in that band were hardcore session musicians before they joined Toto. They’re really good musicians at the top of their game, thinking about pop music to construct something big and amazing. I have no shame about liking Toto.”
Nile Rodgers on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories
“His guitar tone was a huge influence on ‘Nobody.’ I wrote that song in Malaysia between tours, and I didn’t have an instrument. I went to Toys ‘R’ Us (RIP) and bought a toy piano with two octaves and wrote it on that. I knew I wanted the song to be disco, and when we went into the studio I was like, ‘Oh! Nile Rodgers’ guitar tone, that’s what I want.'”
The Kinks, “Wicked Annabella”
“I turn to a lot of that era of recorded guitar music because it sounded live. There’s not so much live music anymore in recordings — it’s computer music. I love Ariana Grande just as much as the next person, but what I want to do has organic feeling to it. I keep errors and bad vocal takes because it makes it sound more live. I’ll re-sing choruses separately rather than cut-and-paste. Something about music from that age — that, at the time, you had to play it live — affected the sound.”
Cat Stevens, “I Think I See a Light”
“I got this from Patrick. It was just the groove and tone that we wanted for ‘Me and My Husband.’ That era of songwriting is very adult, and that’s what I pursued for this album as well. My previous albums were very associated with adolescence, but now that I’m 27 I don’t want to pretend that I’m still 21. That’s a trap that, as musicians and entertainers, we all fall into. What sells is youth, but it’s not my experience anymore, and I want to make sure I’m making art that’s relevant to who I am at the moment. On Twitter, people are like, ‘I can’t wait to cry to your album!’ But the point to my album this time isn’t about crying on the floor — it’s about adult sadness, and a little bit of exhaustion and emptiness. ‘I’m heartbroken, but I still have to go to work.'”