scorecardresearch Skip to main content

With her upcoming tour, Rina Sawayama is reclaiming creative control of her story

Rina Sawayama performs at Mass MoCA June 9.Charlotte Rutherford

Catch a Rina Sawayama show in the next few months, and you might be greeted with scaffolding, draped mesh, and a desolate atmosphere that lends itself to a construction site or a boxing ring. Through an onstage portrait of dilapidation, Sawayama wants to upend the expectations for a pop concert.

Before, a Sawayama concert might have had flashing lights and an imposing platform that foregrounded the pop star. Now, the British-Japanese pop singer presents a redesigned show that retains pop tropes but also experiments with minimalist and mutable elements.

“Here are pop fans who are coming to see my show. What can I give to them that still satisfies that pop but also is slightly different and is memorable?” Sawayama said in a Zoom interview with the Globe.


“Hold the Girl: Reloaded” is the second tour for Sawayama’s sophomore album, “Hold the Girl,” released in September. She kicks it off with a date at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art on June 9. A moving follow-up to her genre-bending, iconoclastic 2020 debut “Sawayama” — a favorite of Elton John’s — “Hold the Girl” explores queer identity, the re-evaluation of childhood trauma, and immigrant parent-child relationships. Like her debut, the album contains multiple genres, this time ranging from country to stadium rock.

The album did well on the UK charts, and Sawayama did a flurry of press interviews. But commercial success was conflicting for the 32-year-old artist, as she found herself rigorously tracking her ascent and prioritizing her achievements over her artistic values.

“It actually made me feel upset because this was such an important album, and I had commercialized it,” Sawayama said.

Sawayama, who lives in London, gained fame during the pandemic — a peculiar time to rise to musical stardom. Amid global strife, “weirdly my dreams were coming true,” Sawayama said. Yet the realization of her ambitions felt precarious.


“When something that you wanted to happen literally your whole life starts coming true, you pour everything into it because you’re scared that you’re gonna lose it,” Sawayama said.

So the first album tour and second album promotion happened in quick succession. With “Hold the Girl,” she says she relinquished creative control and was unable to fully focus on executing her music videos or her tour the way she wanted. After a particularly disillusioning trip to Los Angeles in March where she was “talking about how great I am” in meetings, Sawayama took a two-month break to reflect.

Rina Sawayama's upcoming tour will be completely redesigned, with new visual and musical styles.Thurstan Redding

The revamped tour is a result of that creative reset. The performances are constructed to avoid being “too self-absorbed” and to convey a specific story and emotional arc, she said. Sawayama describes the show as “theatrical” with the narrative and flux of a play.

She is working with Amy and William Bowerman, a married couple and cofounders of music direction company WFB Live, for the tour. William acts as music director through WFB Live, and Amy is Sawayama’s creative director, separate from the company.

The show, which will be organized into four acts, will have a plot and dancers who are “more like cast members,” Amy Bowerman said. Sawayama will play a character who is “an exaggerated version of herself.”

Audiences who saw her on the earlier tour can expect new costumes and choreography. The biggest visual difference is that in lieu of a platform with a ring of lights, there will be a cube in the center of the stage. The structure will be adaptable and can go from being opaque to empty, with different colors and props to transform it into a symbolic space (for example, a boxing ring) that reflects each song. Fans who are familiar with the album’s concepts of safety and self-evolution will recognize the structure’s meaning.


“It’s Rina’s home base. It’s where she comes back to. It’s a safe place,” Amy Bowerman said.

The show will also be musically unconventional to reflect Sawayama’s “very intelligent pop music,” William Bowerman said. “It’s not been about making things bigger and louder and grander. It’s actually sometimes been, how little can we do at this moment?”

This stripped-down mode allows Sawayama to fully communicate the album’s themes. According to Amy Bowerman, storytelling begets intimacy.

“Everything around Rina during the show has become a vehicle to be really open, really personal, really confessional,” Amy Bowerman said.

The storytelling component is crucial for Sawayama, who sees the tour as a way to more accurately communicate the significance of her second album. Despite the amount of press she did for “Hold the Girl,” Sawayama said she was unable to express what she meant about its personal nature.

“I don’t think I really got across the pure, real emotion behind this record and how much it really affected me privately,” Sawayama said. “I think I was trying to cram that into a pop show.”


With her upcoming tour, Sawayama wants to take away, simply, “creative fulfillment.” That personal happiness may transfer to whoever’s watching.

“I want the audience to feel a certain way and then to be able to go away feeling really good,” she said.


At Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams. June 9 at 8 p.m. $45.

Abigail Lee can be reached at