Music

The DIY Issue: Kim Petras

The new princess of pop discusses growing up in rural Germany, her infatuation with Halloween and the pressing need for trans visibility.

It’s a warm summer evening in late August and I’m sitting in my flat in east London, waiting to be connected to musician Kim Petras, when, a couple of minutes before our Zoom call, I receive an email. In short, it tells me that today is Kim’s 28th birthday, and due to an extravagant surprise birthday party the night before, she’s unable to make the interview. I give an approving nod; of course she’s going to be hungover – which rising pop icon wouldn’t be on their birthday? When we finally connect just over a week later, she has fully recovered from the celebrations and is chatting to me from LA.

It’s been about five years since she made the move from her native Germany to the City of Angels, and it’s fair to say that the two are worlds away from one another. “I grew up in a village outside Cologne, so there were cows, grass, no neighbours. [It was] very unexciting and there were parts of it that were not fun. School was not very fun for me. I was transgender and I would just always dream of going to LA or New York,” Kim tells me. “I was definitely the crazy person in the little village I [lived] in. I would dress weird and looked strange to people, so when I came to LA I felt a lot more understood and I didn’t feel like a freak that much anymore. I still don’t look like everyone in LA, I’m not a beach babe, but it was more accepted to wear crazy fashion or make up and express myself.”

Before her foray into music, she’d already become a household name around the world after fighting to have early gender confirmation surgery. At the time she was 14 years old and seeking to have surgery at 16, but the minimum age in Germany for this was 18. Following a string of international headlines and TV interviews, she rapidly became an important figure within the LGBTQIA+ community, with many young transgender people looking to her as a source of inspiration. “Growing up transgender is tough, and I’m happy that I’m somebody to look up to for these kids that are transitioning. I’m getting messages from kids who are as young as ten and starting their transition, saying, ‘You are my biggest hero,’ and it’s the sweetest thing in the world, and it makes me really emotional and happy that I get to do that for them. They have made me feel like I belong somewhere. I think we inspire each other to be proud,” she says of her role within the queer community. “It’s been scary sometimes. It can overshadow [things]. You know, every article [is about me being] transgender and I’ve been so proud of my music, but for transgender people, it’s visibility. I’ve come around to talking about it as much as possible. I will never stop fighting for trans rights and LGBTQIA+ rights, I think that stuff is as  important as ever.”

I ask if she ever feels pressure being a spokesperson for the community, and constantly having to think about being a role model. “I’m happy that people see me that way and I get to inspire them, but I’m still an artist, and the biggest disservice would be to pretend I don’t have any problems,” she responds. “I’m just going to be honest and live my life the way I do. I don’t really feel pressure.”

Despite being recognised as an important figure among the LBGTQIA+ community, music was always at the forefront of her mind. She recalls growing up and being obsessed with musicals, Disney films and pop stars, namechecking the Spice Girls as a particular source of inspiration. “I was really young when I started writing my own stupid little songs. I would just sing different harmonies and I quickly realised that being a songwriter was a career. I taught myself how to write [throughout my] entire teenage years. People say [it takes] 10,000 hours [to become an expert] and I’ve definitely done that and I feel like I keep getting better,” she explains. “I’ve learnt from my collaborators, I’ve learnt from Aaron [Joseph], who writes everything with me. We’ve been on this journey together and I feel like, at every step, I get better and learn something new.”

Since the release of her breakout single in 2017, the frilly and joyous “I Don’t Want It at All” (for which the music video featured a hilarious cameo from Paris Hilton), her music career has enjoyed a rapid rise. Her debut album, Clarity (2019), received widespread acclaim,even garnering a spot among The New York Times Critic’s Pick. The album was a beast of her own making, with everything from the track list to the music videos being her own unique concept. “If I have a vision, I have to do it no matter what it takes. If I wasn’t allowed to do what I wanted to do, if some person was telling me [otherwise], that would make me feel so sad. It’s everything to me, that’s what artistry is all about – making your vision come true and doing anything for it.” She acknowledges she has a DIY approach. “I mean, I am an independent artist. I’m with AWAL [Artists Without a Label], and they help me stick to my deadlines, but creatively they don’t tell me anything, so I’ve learnt a lot on my own. One of my idols in that regard is Robyn. She has her own label and I thought that was so cool, and I could definitely tell in her music that she was super-different. It just felt free, and I wanted to be the same way. No one to tell me shit – I’m usually the one who’s telling everyone how it needs to be or, ‘This needs to get done,’ so I’m a pretty horrible boss at times, but nobody’s telling me anything!”

This has meant she’s had the freedom to work on personal projects that other artists likely wouldn’t have the scope to do. As such, it’s also meant that she’s becoming synonymous with Halloween, as she tends to drop a one-off project to mark the annual celebration. In 2018, she released the EP Turn Off the Light Vol. 1, before releasing what she described as “the whole damn story”, the album Turn Off the Light, in October 2019. “I have always loved horror movies. My mum used to be the only person in our little town who would throw Halloween parties, as it’s not really a thing in Germany. [We’ve had] awesome Halloween parties and everyone would come,” she says, excitedly. “I have always liked monsters! I always thought they were really chic and interesting, different and cool, so I was obsessed. I think I’ll always try to make stuff for Halloween and horror fans, but I am really focused on my next evolution and my next sound, which isn’t Halloween-themed. I found something new that I am very excited about finishing. I really feel like, on every project, I show a completely different side of myself. I started with very sweet, throwback-y pop and then I went into really dark horror and then Clarity is a heartbreak record. I think I like showing a different side to my personality. I change all the time and I love discovering new parts of myself, it’s just how I am and how I’ve always been, so I never want to get boring and start doing one thing.”

Her new project is very much still in the making and, despite pressing her for details, she remains coy about what it might look and sound like. What she does say is that she’s had “all this energy” built up inside her to write the record, and that she can firmly say it’s the best music she’s ever made. Whatever it sounds like, it’s guaranteed that her fans will adore it.

I was lucky enough to see Kim performing at London’s legendary club Heaven towards the end of last year and was blown away by her unrivalled, confident presence and ability to fire up the crowd. Her fans are ferociously devoted to her, hanging on to every word and cheering with delight at every song on the tracklist. She has an endearing quality that sucks you in – it’s atmospheric while still being extroverted and fun. It’s quite remarkable to see how this girl from a small town in rural Germany has gone on to become a globally known pop princess who dominates the stage. Considering her burgeoning fan base and the ever-increasing need to release music on a regular cycle, does she feel like she has to keep up the momentum? “I think right before [I release anything] I get nervous, but I don’t when I’m making the music. I’ve just got to think about what I feel and what I want to say. I just shut off the world when I’m in the studio, and I think that’s really important. I always take my social media off my phone when I write and then reinstall it later. I can’t let that influence my work in any way.”

With catchy beats, a cutesy image and an ethos dedicated to inclusivity and equality, there’s no need to guess why Kim Petras has become one of the music industry’s brightest new stars. Her journey from provincial girl to international star is something everyone has thought about. We’ve all, at some point, dreamed of running away to Tinseltown and, as clichéd as it sounds, “making it”, but Kim is one of the lucky ones. She’s manifested her dreams into her reality, and she’s got there on her own terms and in her own style.

As we reach the end of our conversation, I can’t help but wonder what her advice would be to young people who are in a similar situation to what she was: dreaming of a better future and hoping to break out. Her reply is simple, but mirrors her own experiences and her own life mantra. “Don’t try to fit in, work on what makes you different and stand out,” she says confidently, before leaving me with the catchphrase her fans love her for: “Woo-ah!”.

 

The DIY Issue is out now, get your own copy here.

28 October 2020