Pop Culture

Rina Sawayama Plays the Change Artist, From Chameleonic Makeup to Her New Album

At the end of July, the England women’s national team was en route to a European championship, and the Japanese British musician Rina Sawayama, though not a soccer fan, told her go-to makeup artist that she wanted to show her support. “I feel like doing something from the 2000s,” Mona Leanne recalls Sawayama saying, and Bend It Like Beckham— the box office smash from 2002—came to mind.

It was a time, the pair remembered with some amusement, of pale, shimmery eye shadow and icy pink Nivea lip balm. Sawayama put on an England jersey, soccer-length socks, and London designer Martine Rose’s recent reinterpretation of Nike Shox (est. 2000); Leanne added a silver lip and frost-blue eye, teeing up a ready comparison to Sporty Spice.

Such alchemy is also present in Sawayama’s music. For the past five years, she has been releasing pop songs that refract past eras and outré genres through incisive writing and bracing spectacle. Her 2020 debut album, SAWAYAMA, launched the singer to wider recognition and critical acclaim, and this September’s follow-up is titled Hold the Girl. “What I wanted to do,” Sawayama says, “was get really refined as a pop writer whilst also retaining that core authentic, exploratory view of production.” She describes “This Hell,” an undeniable single off the new album, as emerging from a mash-up of a lyrical idea workshopped in an iPhone note and a multilayered homage to Shania Twain’s country pop: the twinkling stomp, the buoying key changes, the “Let’s go girls.” Her glitter-red cat eye in the accompanying cowboy-wedding-themed video is the clincher.


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The results of Sawayama’s explorations, in music and in makeup, have been prismatic and maximalist. A familiar front-row presence, she wore face jewels to the Schiaparelli couture show earlier this year, and a 1920s pencil brow to Balenciaga. “The great thing about Rina is she’s so open to ideas,” Leanne says—like an electric sweep of aqua shadow layered underneath the eyes.

With a tour kicking off this month and a role alongside Keanu Reeves in next year’s John Wick: Chapter 4, Sawayama anticipates further reinventions. “I never think of my face as a brand,” she says. “I would get way too bored if I had to keep the same thing going for a long time.” As with her songs, she shrugs off straight-on nostalgia, more interested in how the substance of those memories can be rewired. “We always go with the concept,” Sawayama says of her top-to-bottom styling. “What’s the vision? And then we go from there.”

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