The 28-year-old independent singer-songwriter dazzled critics and fans alike with her glossy first mini-album, 2017’s RINA, which authentically captured the nostalgia of turn-of-the-millennium pop while fusing it with multifaceted political messaging, from the lack of Asian visibility in Western pop music on “Take Me As I Am,” to digital age anxieties on “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome.”
But the rising artist’s latest single, “Cherry,” released Aug. 14, may be her most personal and political yet. Inspired by a girl Sawayama fleetingly encountered in the London tube -- “She just gave me a look -- the look,” the singer explains, laughing -- the fizzy, glistening bop recounts the Japanese-British performer’s struggle with internalized biphobia. It also serves as an epic pansexual coming-out anthem, and features a catchy hook that wouldn’t sound out of place on top 40 radio in 1999.
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The video for “Cherry,” released today, is a similarly fierce celebration of queer expression and femininity. Set to complex choreography depicting the sometimes delicate, sometimes aggressive dance between societal norms and self acceptance, Sawayama, who openly identifies as pansexual, is reborn in the breathtakingly intimate visual. As the singer is cradled and pulled to and fro by the dance troupe around her, she appears to grow stronger and more frantic in her movements. Eventually she re-emerges with a kaleidoscope of color on her face, seemingly inspired by kabuki performance makeup (called kumadori).
“There’s a princess in Japanese folklore that has ‘cherry’ in her name, and director [Isaac Lock] references that,” Sawayama tells Billboard of the video concept. “We were able to cast incredible dancers in a really short space of time, literally the day before rehearsals. It was an all-queer POC cast. Literally everyone on the creative team and on set was queer, so it was such a celebration. In the video I’m celebrating tenderness, the strength within that, and femininity, but in lots of different forms. That’s the message of the song as well.”
To celebrate the “Cherry” on top of a landmark year for queer pop, Sawayama opened up to Billboard about her parents’ reaction to the song, the LGBTQ artists who inspire her and more.
Were you nervous to essentially come out to the world on “Cherry”?
Well, I’ve been out for a bit in my personal life. I think this was the first time that I’ve written so obviously about it that I just couldn’t hide it. When releasing it as a single, I didn’t want to mask it as something that it wasn’t. It was really nerve-racking. I consulted a lot of people about making sure that the message was right. I didn’t want to further stigmatize the bi or pan community, or queer people in general... but the messages I’ve gotten from fans, and from people saying they came out because of me, it’s all just very emotional. It’s incredible. It was a risk worth taking.
Did you anticipate such a loving response?
I didn’t expect it. I was really worried, to be honest, because I think with things like that… messages can get really convoluted when it goes through so many different people and then goes to the press. I’m really happy that it was portrayed in the way that I purely intended it to. The song is about internalized biphobia and shame. I’m happy that releasing it was [in and of itself] an act against my own internal biphobia and thought process that it doesn’t matter, as if there was no need to tell this story. I’m glad that I actually put the story out there and that it was received really well.
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Biphobia is an extremely frustrating issue -- folks who are bi/pan often face invalidation from both hetero and gay people. Do you hope this song will make other people who are bi/pan feel seen and heard?
Definitely. This really validates what I was saying about biphobia and bi-erasure, but I didn’t receive any messages from my friends after I came out. That made me really sad, because they’re all queer people. Not that I was doing it for anyone’s approval, but like, if one of my friends came out as gay in the media, I would be there calling them and congratulating them for their bravery.
Obviously I want to preface this by saying that bisexual people don’t experience homophobia in the same way that people who are gay or non-bisexual people do. There’s an issue of passing and I get that, but at the same time, that was a bit hurtful. It spurs me on to make more of an issue about it. Because then, I hope, that people will realize that the bi and pan experience is very unique. It takes one to know one, I think, to understand what’s going on. It’s like with any sort of movement; we’re not erasing anyone else by talking about our issues. I just want people in the queer community to understand that.
I know you’ve spoken about the importance of making yourself visible as a queer Asian woman in a largely heteronormative entertainment media landscape. What sort of safe spaces have you found for yourself, as a young woman and artist who is at the center of non-monolithic intersectional identities?
I’ve found safe spaces online. Even this month, it’s bi visibility month, and I’ve looked through those hashtags. I’ve found loads of different anecdotes and people talking about their experiences, which has made me feel really welcome. The response from people, and people messaging me on Instagram and Twitter, is really meaningful. It doesn’t make me feel alone.
But also, you know, I was able to talk to my friends about what I just mentioned [about biphobia] and be like, "Guys, that’s what you did." I almost get them to admit that that’s something they need to work on as well. We’re all here for each other, we’re all really passionate about each other’s causes, so I think we’ve all got some things to work on in that respect.
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I know you’ve struggled with your mom not quite understanding or fully accepting your sexuality. Has she heard “Cherry” yet and, if so, has she come around?
Both my parents don’t understand, to be honest, and both my parents have heard the song. They’ve definitely seen the articles, but they have not mentioned my sexuality. Sex in Asian households is not something you discuss -- full stop. So I’m not surprised that they haven’t brought it up. I have another family, so it’s fine: my family of friends, my adopted family!
Are there any musicians who inspired you to tell your story and share your truth?
I would say the biggest influence was Demi Lovato. And Hayley Kiyoko and Troye Sivan and Gaga too, obviously. But I went to a Demi Lovato concert and it kind of changed my life. She’s always talked about loving both men and women; I think that’s really nice.
“Cherry” came out during a month where queer artists in pop really flourished: Hayley Kiyoko won a VMA, and Troye Sivan just dropped a mainstream pop album. Do you think pop is at its most political right now in the cultural zeitgeist?
Yes! And quite rightly. I think we’ve gone through a process of being very angry at the world as artists, and in politics, and what’s happening with the state of the world. And then we’ve kind of torn ourselves apart about it and then stitched ourselves back together and are now making art. It’s naturally taken several years to come, but I think it’s amazing.
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You recently announced a wristband project to help solo concert attendees connect at your upcoming shows. What inspired that?
To be completely honest, I don’t know if I saw it on Twitter or I dreamed it because I’m working, like, so much that I don’t even know where I’m seeing these things. So, I don’t want to take full credit for it just in case the idea came from a.) on Twitter or b.) in my dreams. I don’t want to get canceled! [Laughs.]
But anyway, gigs are a form of escapism. For me, that’s been the definition of going to a gig. I want people to lose themselves and find themselves and feel united with people. When I was 15 I traveled to Paris to live with this fan of a band we were both mutually obsessed with. She was like, maybe in her mid-30s, she had two cats and loads of tar on the ceiling. At home it was just really bad, and I was there for a couple of days and I remember feeling that form of escapism and true friendship from going to gigs. I mean, I definitely wouldn’t go to a gig alone, even for Demi! I just thought it’d be nice for people to be able to visibly see that someone else might be going there alone and make friends and talk about things that they share.
What’s next for you?
I’m hoping for an album. I want to be an album artist. That’s what I grew up listening to. I’d go to the Virgin Megastore and sit there and listen to albums. I don’t want to rush anything, I just want to make the best music I can. Find the right sound, find the right moment.