Last Friday night, 27-year-old Mitski Miyawaki took the stage in front of an eager, sold-out crowd at the Blind Pig in downtown Ann Arbor. After opener Stef Chura (a Northern Michigan native) delivered a stellar, twangy-indie set, Mitski appeared, casually shrugged off her oversized black zip-up and slung on her silver electric bass.

The singer-songwriter — known for her versatile voice and knack for dissonance — stopped in Ann Arbor on the final leg of her American tour. In the coming months, the Japanese-American musician will be travelling to play Hong Kong, Japan and Australia before returning to the U.S., where she will open for Lorde’s Melodrama tour next spring.

In the dim, intimate grime of the Blind Pig’s standing room, Mitski kicked off the performance with the driving bass notes of  “Francis Forever” — a fan favorite.

Throughout her fifteen song set, Mitski wore an expression that fell somewhere between a laser-focused stare and a dreamy, distant gaze. Sometimes, her presence would shift to match her lyrics as they oscillated between the vivid metaphors of a poet, and the blunt angst of a heartbroken teen. During “Francis Forever,” as she sang the lyrics, “I look up at the gaps of sunlight,” Mitski tilted her head back and looked longingly — hopefully — at the ceiling, then gently wincing, she narrowed her eyes in icy clarity, her bass in crescendo as she sang, “I miss you more than anything.” Later, at the start of “I Bet on Losing Dogs,” Mitski patted her heart and raised her eyebrows slightly as she sang “My Baby, my baby / You’re my baby, say it to me,” as if trying to persuade a lover looking back at her from the crowd.

The set was speckled with these little tinges of the unfiltered emotion that fuel Mitski’s songwriting. With the backing of just a guitarist and drummer, the live performance enhanced the signature paradox of her recorded music: the distorted, chaotic urgency of the instrumentation juxtaposed against Mitski’s pure, angelic vocals.

At times, it was difficult to hear Mitski’s voice over the screechy guitar or thudding percussion, but an almost constant echo of the crowd spoke to the strength of her melodies — a quality she values in her work. In interviews, she has spoken about how she moved around a lot growing up, and much of her songwriting occurred on-the-go, with her voice as her sole instrument.

“No offense to all of the instrumentalists out there, [instruments] are not as important to me as the core composition, which is to me the words and the main vocal melody,” she told Rookie in May. “I want the songs to be able to stand on their own.”

During her hit rock ballad, “Your Best American Girl,” Mitski pulled back the instrumentation and let the song’s fluttery verse guide the audience (who followed along obediently). As the chorus dropped and the guitar cracked in a shock of electricity, the crowd yelled those iconic lyrics, “your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me,” right back at the band. Like the disapproval of a lover’s mother, Mitski’s performance was widely relatable, yet rooted in the sharpness of isolated, individual pain; she’s mastered this balance, and her bass set the common pulse of the crowd last Friday.   

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