BBC Sound of 2019: 'Queer icon' King Princess is the runner-up
Type "King Princess" into Google, and the headlines are overwhelming.
"A gay icon in waiting," says the NME. "A queer pop star for a new generation," agrees DIY magazine. "All Hail King Princess, the newest member of queer pop royalty," declares The Guardian.
And King Princess is agreeably relaxed about the role she's been assigned.
"If they need me to do that, then hell yeah," says the 20-year-old, whose real name is Mikaela Straus.
"When I was a kid, I wanted somebody to look up to, whose music I was excited about, who was gay. That would have been really cool, so I'm down to take that on."
Born in Brooklyn, the singer has been surrounded by music all her life. Her dad is recording engineer Oliver Straus – and bands like Arctic Monkeys, Mumford and Sons and The National would often drop by his home studio.
"I was used for background vocals a lot," she laughs.
Shortly after turning 11, Straus was approached by Virgin Records, but she and her dad turned down a record deal – an experience she describes as an important lesson in the power of saying "no".
It wasn't until last year that her career really took off with the release of 1950 – a tender ballad of forbidden lesbian romance, which explored how the queer community used to have to "hide in public, and how that affects the way that we love each other now". (Long used as a slur against gay people, the term queer has been adopted by some people who see traditional definitions such as gay, lesbian and bisexual, as being too restrictive.)
Unexpectedly, Harry Styles tweeted the lyrics, then blasted it from the speakers on his world tour; Kourtney Kardashian gave it a shout-out on Instagram; and Mark Ronson made King Princess the first signee to his record label.
With the Make My Bed EP and follow-up single Pussy Is God proving 1950 wasn't a fluke, King Princess has earned second place on the BBC Music Sound of 2019 list, which picks out the best new talent for the coming year.
The winner will be announced on Friday.
1950 has made such a big impact. Do you remember the moment it came to you?
I do, and it was really sad. I was in college, in the shower, and I was like, "Oh, oh, oh, this is the idea!" So I ran out of the shower and grabbed my guitar – literally naked – and I said to my roommate, "Can I borrow your phone?"
I kind of mapped it out in my dorm room and there was just something about that first recording. I don't know, it was really cool. I was like, "Damn, that's a good one."
Is it true that the lyrics were inspired by Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt – which became the film Carol?
Yeah. I read a series of lesbian books when I was in high school and college, to try to counteract all the straight material I was reading in class. So I read The Price of Salt and it's a beautiful concept about queerness and how it was kept private for so long. There were still interactions between queer people in public but there was almost like a gay "nod" to say, "I know where you're coming from".
It's a really interesting study of human nature and how we thrive, even in the crappiest of circumstances. I loved that, so I put it in the song.
- Listen to a playlist of King Princess's influences on BBC Sounds
The song blew up really quickly. How prepared were you for the attention?
I don't think anyone is ever ready for that. It's really not something you can mentally prepare yourself for – but I have amazing friends and the perfect group of people taking care of me, so I'm not as worried as I could be.
Coming from a musical family must help, too. What was it like growing up in such a creative environment?
I don't remember a lot of that period of my life, but I really enjoyed being in the studio and mucking around, or sitting in the back of sessions when people were making music, and taking it all in.
But I was also watching people use music as a way of catharsis and I think that's how I figured out it was my thing, too – because I was unhappy when I wasn't making music.
What were the emotions you were trying to process?
When I was young, I always felt like I was the observer in friendships – mostly because I was super-gay. So I was writing about young love and that feeling of attachment. I still look back on stuff I wrote years ago, and I'm like, "Oh my God, that's so cute!" We all need to feel extra and emotional.
More Sound of 2019 interviews:
- 3. Soul-searching singer Grace Carter
- 4. Grime and punk collide with slowthai
- 5. Rosalía is bringing flamenco to the masses
- Sound of 2019 full coverage
Your music talks very openly about queer identity – but when you were growing up, that was still very uncommon. Was there any music that really spoke to you?
That's so true. We didn't really have access to big gay pop stars. I have people that I adore and love, who taught me it was OK to be gay – but they weren't gay artists.
When I was a kid, the music I gravitated towards was 70s rock. I was obsessed with the fluidity and gender queerness of these rock boys – Zeppelin and T Rex and Bowie and Elton John. There was this ambiguity from the people who were on stage, like, you don't have to be a boy, you don't have to be a girl, you can wear tight-ass pants.
I was just like, "This seems like my lane. I like this type of showmanship. This is making me feel comfortable about my sexuality. These guys are totally gay."
Do you have that showmanship on stage?
I think I'm learning it. I'm a beginner, you know? The first tour, every day was hell. Before the show I was like, "I don't want to be here," then I got on stage and it was fine. It took three tours for me to be like, "When's the next show, bitch?"
What's your signature move?
Oh God, it's just me accidentally kicking beers around!
I don't like drinking on stage but when we played Europe, I'm the legal drinking age, so I was like, "OK, well I'm going to enjoy this beer". That's when I had to learn placement. Like, where do you put the bottle? You can't put it on the ground, 'cos then you're going to punt it into the audience.
So is the lyric in Talia true: "Four drinks and I'm wasted"?
Yes, unless I ate a grown man's portion of food, in which case I could maybe make it to five.
Finally, when will we get to hear some new music?
I've been working on a record for what feels like a long time – but we're in the last couple of weeks of trying to get this thing finished. I think it's gonna be really beautiful.
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