Mitski in Nine Acts
New York magazine|January 17 - 30, 2022
If the musician has to reveal herself at all, she’d rather do it one short burst at a time.
E. Alex Jung

1.

ON A BRIGHT NOVEMBER day, Mitski is waiting for me in my hotel lobby in Nashville. She’s dressed practically, in a hunter-green f leece, jeans, and light-lavender sneakers. Her face is bare, with spots of acne dotting her jawline; her hair is a clean bob that sways above her shoulders. There’s an understated audacity to Mitski’s person. She’s deliberate and resolute in her decisions, including the hiatus that sent tremors through the Mitski fandom when she said her performance at Central Park’s SummerStage in 2019 would be her “last show indefinitely.” She had been planning on the break for a while, making sure she had enough money saved up before she pulled the plug. ¶ Then she moved to Nashville. She wanted to live in a place that wasn’t New York or Los Angeles and still had ready access to music studios, but she has spent the past two years like most of us: in a hole. It might be the ordinariness of her regular life that makes her feel worlds apart from the movie stars she loves, like Julia Roberts and Nicolas Cage. That “It” factor?

She claims not to have it. “I’m not a star,” she says. “I can say that with confidence because I have met real stars. And I have cowered before them.”

Mitski recalls being backstage at a benefit concert: Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, St. Vincent, Blake Lively. “I started to get a headache and heart palpitations. My hands started to shake. I thought I was gonna throw up, I really did. I told my manager, ‘I need to get out of here,’ and I practically ran out. I remember Taylor Swift talking to me, but I don’t remember what I said back to her. I remember her saying, ‘Well,’ and then leaving.” She laughs.

“Is it stardom or is it power?” I ask. “Maybe that’s what it is,” she says. “It was like all the people around them together emitted an energy that made me feel like I was on a bad high. I think you’re always conscious of something when you feel you don’t have it.”

We’re taking a trip to Mammoth Cave, the world’s longest known cave system. I’m driving—Mitski doesn’t drive. As we head north on I-65, I think about the opening to her song “Lonesome Love”:

I call you, to see you again

So I can win, and this can finally end

Spend an hour doing my makeup

To prove something

Walk up in my high heels

All high and mighty

And you say, Hello

And I lose.

2.

A MITSKI SONG lasts about as long as it takes to poach an egg. It is small and will knock you out, like a pearl slipped inside the left ventricle of your heart. She has suggested that the brevity of her songwriting comes from a need to make herself known upon entrance, an awareness that she has only a short time to make an impression. She has tried her hand at lengthier forms of prose but finds her attention flags. The song is the ideal vehicle for the emotional journey she wants to create: an economy of words suffused with an oversaturation of feeling. Her lyrics speak to the lonely hearts aching in the corner, waiting for a furious love to crush them.

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