She’s the Japanese-born, UK-raised, singer/songwriter/model and Cambridge politics graduate turned digi-popstar. He’s the wonky electronic producer. Together they’re making late 90s/early 00s R&B-inspired purposeful pop jams that deconstruct our digital dependencies. Meet Rina Sawayama and Clarence Clarity.
Beyond their gnarly hair colour choices and mutual love of Britney, the duo have a lot in common, both using their music to process the effects of being constantly plugged in and switched on to the world wide web. Don’t worry though it’s not preachy! Their first release ‘Cyber Stockholm Syndrome’ sounds like a sparkling Mariah Carey track and unpacks the influence technology has on our self-image as we’re encouraged to pursue and share our online ‘Best Self’.
Basically, Clarence is Timbaland to Rina’s Aaliyah.
What’s your process when you’re working together?
R: I sing to you loads of ideas and I say just tell me when it clicks. I want it to be inspiring for Clarence as a producer, like you can instantly hear the finished product.
C: It’s quite a cool way of working because it makes it very focused on the vocal or the lyric right from the start. With my own stuff, I’m crowbar- ring in the vocals and the lyrics at the end of a mental production when there’s no space for it, but with Rina’s stuff it tends to be right there from the start and everything serves that.
R: It’s just that I’m lazy, I don’t make the demos. I used to.
C: Yeah it’s funny you’ll be like ‘I’ve got this new song I want to play you and it’s 15 seconds of humming’. We’ve got this crossover of 90’s noughties R&B pop. It’s easy middle ground for us. Then maybe I’ve got slightly weirder taste perhaps. The Venn diagram looks good, there’s lots in the middle.
R: It’s like both our interests collide in the middle with Britney.
Is the internet evil?
C: I’ve definitely made real connections [online] from love life to everything else and I feel like it’s just the next step in human evolution, it’s that big. I don’t try and fight it. It’s probably totally fucking up our human psyches but I’m going with it, I’m letting it destroy my brain. It’s definitely not all constructive, I’m submitting to its evil ways and then reflecting on how that makes me feel in music.
R: In one way it spurs creativity because it connects you to so many people. Instagram has been completely integral to my creativity. At the same time that obsession with perfection that we have, that imperfect perfect that Instagram gives you, it stunts your creativity if you listen to it too much.
Do you think the machines will take over?
C: They probably already have.
R: There’s not enough warning for the next generations about how they should comprehend technology. Humans are very adaptive, think about fifty years ago, if they saw this current future they’d be like ‘what the fuck?’
C: I think we’d look like we’re at the mercy of all these machines. Our phones would look like our slave masters to people a 100 years ago, if you looked at a bus or whatever with everyone staring into their phones like zombies. We’re so far down the rabbit hole now.
R: With CSS I did think about the idea of captor and capturer and the whole point of why it’s called ‘Cyber Stockholm Syndrome’ is that you fall in love with your captor; your captor being the phone. Through writing that I realised it’s way more nuanced, it’s even more of a romantic relationship, it’s a tool for self discovery.
Do you feel free?
C: That’s a big question.
Ok well do you stick a sticker over your laptop camera?
C: Yeah, with an all seeing eye put over it. It’s meant to be tongue in cheek.
R: At the moment I feel pretty free but this freedom that I’m currently feeling comes with the awareness of the lack of freedom of other people. It’s freedom of privilege.
How do you feel about living in the UK right now with the Brexit debacle and everything?
R: Frustrated but also every single day I try to remind myself how lucky I am in that I have an indefinite visa status. For me coming from being ethnically asian but brought up here, it’s really important for me to address the position of asians in the western world and try to make something meaningful rather than pretend I’m white.
Do you feel that you’re fetishised for being asian?
R: It’s a double edged sword. I live in this bubble but outside of the bubble, when I left London for university for example, that was the first time I felt my race or ethnicity was a source of stereotyping. When you go to a place like Cam- bridge people are so competitive and stressed out, people want to make excuses for anyone who doesn’t look like them and form some sort of narrative around them as to why they got in and why they’re on the same level as them. So for me people assumed I was an international student, therefore I was paying more to be there, where as really I was in state education. Existing in these protective bubbles online for me has been good because it’s let me do what I need to do. When I had black hair and I looked more Japanese, I experienced way more fetishising.
C: The orange hair scared the perverts away.
R: I don’t get catcalled as much when I have big bright hair.
What is wrong with the music industry today?
R: There’s so much wrong. I’m not signed. I’ve had offers. There’s a power in saying no and you have to say no if it’s not right. If the advances they’re offering are so tiny that it’s less than a minimum wage job then fuck it, go independent. I’ve got an amazing team at the moment. I’m very fortunate to be able to do the modelling and that is essentially my label, that funds my music project, everything pretty much goes back into it. If I was to sign it would have to be the sickest deal and I would ask them to put in a clause that if the team leaves I leave.
C: We fall through the gaps of the traditional moulds. What’s frustrating is how both of us punch above our weight in terms of the interaction we get on the internet. We might not have the biggest following, but I think people can tell there’s not a machine behind us. Going back to the music industry, they’re all too shit scared. I went through a period where I was looking for help but now I do my own thing.
What are you going to call your album?
R: I don’t know.
C: ‘Simply Rina’ [laughs].