Rina Sawayama on Meeting Lady Gaga After Her Tour Bus Broke Down, Becoming Friends with Elton John

Rina Sawayama's sophomore album, Hold the Girl, dropped Friday

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 29: Rina Sawayama attends The Fashion Awards 2021 at the Royal Albert Hall on November 29, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/BFC/Getty Images for BFC)
Rina Sawayama. Photo: Gareth Cattermole/BFC/Getty

Rina Sawayama is ready for world domination — well, sort of.

Despite enchanting legions of fans around the world and finding plenty of A-list support, the pop star, 32, admits she still struggles with impostor syndrome. But she has a unique way of dealing with insecurities.

"When I'm having a bit of a down day, or if I'm getting down on my music, I always remember, 'Well, Elton John thought it was good, so you're doing pretty well!'" Sawayama says in the new issue of PEOPLE.

Indeed, after Sawayama released her acclaimed self-titled debut album in 2020, John, 75, reached out to the rising artist, becoming a fast friend, mentor — and eventual collaborator. Last year, Sawayama and the music icon released a reimagined version of her ballad "Chosen Family."

"His friendship is so special to me," Sawayama says of John. "He's given me so much love and support."

And confidence — which should only be boosted further Friday, as glowing reviews continue to pour in for Sawayama's sophomore record, Hold the Girl, an experimental, genre-spanning collection of alt-pop bops and bangers.

The album was written and recorded throughout the pandemic, as Sawayama worked through some painful moments in her past.

"'Hold the Girl' was the first song I wrote. That came after a very intense therapy session I had that morning, and it was about how do you deal with a new perspective in trauma as an adult, basically; it's about reparenting and holding your inner child," Sawayama says of the title track.

The rest of the album features similarly weighty subject matter, which Sawayama is comfortable tackling at this stage in her life.

"I came into this [industry] very kind of late as a standard for pop musicians, I would say — I signed my first album deal when I was 29 — but it really allowed me to have some incredible experiences outside of the music industry that I feel have given me the kind of unique perspective and sound that I have now," she says. "Whether people say you're too, people can't say your surname or whatever…You work hard, you do it right, and you will get there."

Born in Niigata, Japan, and raised in London, Sawayama has enjoyed an unusual journey to stardom.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Matt Cowan/Shutterstock (12904925u) Rina Sawayama Coachella Music and Arts Festival, Weekend 1, Day 2, Indio, California, USA - 16 Apr 2022
Rina Sawayama. Matt Cowan/Shutterstock

"There haven't really been East Asian [solo] pop stars," Sawayama says. "Fans, especially Asian people, come up to me like, 'You've literally changed the way I see myself.' If I'm the first, then maybe there'll be so many more others that follow."

Representation is important for Sawayama, who says, "I didn't see people who looked like me when I was growing up.

"I idolized white women — and Beyoncé — and people who didn't look like me at all. But they gave me something that I really needed, which was feminine strength," Sawayama adds. "I feel like people have a stereotype that people like me, Japanese people, don't have that kind of strength, especially women. So I think they represented in me this amazing feminine energy. I think that's why a lot of queer people really gravitate towards them as well and just see them as queer icons, because they have this just incredible energy and power."

Sawayama, who is pansexual and celebrated her identity in her recent "This Hell" music video, has found a strong queer fanbase herself. And last year, she was able to collaborate with one of her own queer icons, Lady Gaga, when she was featured on the "Free Woman" remix with producer Clarence Clarity, which appeared on Gaga's Dawn of Chromatica remix album.

Sawayama was in Berlin filming Keanu Reeves' upcoming John Wick: Chapter 4 (out next year) when she cut her vocals for the song.

"It felt really cool to be like, 'Sorry, guys, I got to take the afternoon off, because I have to go and record a Gaga remix,'" Sawayama says with a laugh.

Despite the collab, Sawayama didn't actually get to meet Gaga until after the song dropped.

"After [the 'Free Woman remix] came out, my tour bus broke down outside of Vegas, and Gaga was playing," Sawayama says. "I texted her manager, and we saw her jazz show. I was able to meet her afterward. She was just like, 'Rina! How is your tour bus?' She has very maternal energy. It gives a whole new meaning to Mother Monster."

John and Gaga aren't the only famous fans Sawayama has, either. Charli XCX recruited her for her dance hit "Beg for You" earlier this year. And Rosalía, Phoebe Bridgers and Shania Twain follow her on Insta. Kacey Musgraves has also messaged her, which Sawayama calls a pinch-me moment.

"She DM-ed me and told me she likes my music," Sawayama says. "The amount I've listened to her [Golden Hour] album is really quite pathological. For two years, that's all I listened to; genuinely, my Spotify Wrapped was all songs from it. Just artist to artist, I just respect her songwriting so much. Her music really inspired this new record."

Sawayama's new album, Hold the Girl, is out now.

For more from Sawayama, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere now.

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