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Mitski's 'most American' album is 'united by love'

Mitski says love ties together the narratives on her new album. "Sometimes the love is not good for you, and sometimes it's a respite from a dark situation."
Ebru Yildiz
Courtesy of the artist
Mitski says love ties together the narratives on her new album. "Sometimes the love is not good for you, and sometimes it's a respite from a dark situation."

The title of Mitski's newest album came to her as a joke sometime during the pandemic.

She imagined crossing state lines and seeing a welcome sign along the road. Instead of the usual slogans —like "The Land of 10,000 Lakes" or "The Constitution State" — the sign read "The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We."

It was a joke with a kernel of truth. "It's feeling really inhospitable in the United States right now," she told NPR's Morning Edition.

Mitski is revered by fans and fellow musicians. Iggy Pop once told BBC 6 she was "the most advanced American songwriter I know."

Her lyrics have a literary quality. She may not have lived the stories in her songs, but her characters offer emotional truths. A problem drinker sees a bug at the bottom of a glass. A lover bends "like a willow" around their beloved. A narrator finds frost in an attic and remembers a late best friend.

Mitski calls The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, which was released last Friday, her most American album. And she spoke to Morning Edition about the new project.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can hear this conversation using the audio player at the top of the page.

Leila Fadel: What makes you want to inhabit all these different characters like that, in each of the songs that you sing?

Mitski: On one hand, most of the narratives in the songs I write are narratives that didn't happen in my real life. Sometimes fiction or made up stories is actually the best path towards speaking some sort of personal truth. So I am all of these characters. In my mind, all of these songs are true in essence. But I'm just putting it through a character that doesn't exist or a narrative that didn't happen because that happens to be the best way to express how I really feel.

You've called it your most American album. What do you mean by that?

I'm always trying to figure out what it means to be American. But especially with this album, I think I'm trying to reconcile all my various identities with being American today. I feel like I've always been seeing my own identities through the eyes of other people who haven't lived my identities. And I kind of think maybe that's also very uniquely American. I'm Asian American. I'm half white, half Asian. And so I don't really fit into either community very well. I am an other in America, even though I am American. And I almost feel like a majority of Americans are actually other, and that's kind of what makes America what it is.

There was a moment in 2019 where you intended to leave music. Like you were done with the industry. But you came back. What brought you back?

Well, to clarify, I never intended to leave music. But I think it was about whether I should do this as a job. Mostly I was uncomfortable with being in the public eye. So I decided to leave the industry for however long it would take for me to get my heart and soul back. But eventually, I kind of looked around and realized just how lucky I was to get to create the music I want to make and have my music reach other people. And I just realized. You know what? I need to buckle up in a sense, and just take all of the good that comes with the bad.

Was there something empowering about walking away for a moment, thinking about yourself and coming back and realizing people still wanted to hear the music you were going to make, even if you took a moment for yourself?

Nothing was consciously empowering in the moment. I really made that decision to leave out of desperation because I felt like I was just at my limit. I couldn't see a way out of my situation. So I just left it all. But walking away, and sort of sitting with myself helped me realize what were my choices and what I could control. And that in, and of itself, I think in retrospect was very empowering.

It doesn't feel like the world has defeated you, even if things have been hard sometimes.

Yeah. I mean, granted, you know, I have had one of the more luckier lives. So maybe if I were pushed a little harder, I would be down. I did go quite down mostly of my own doing. I was at a point where everything around me felt completely dark. And I realized that if there's no light around me, it's kind of up to me to be the light for myself. And I think that light is love for me as long as I just hold on to my love for people, for the world, for getting to live. Then my world will have love in it.

The digital story was edited by Treye Green. Milton Guevara contributed.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Taylor Haney is a producer and director for NPR's Morning Edition and Up First.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.