King Princess: “When Harry Styles tweeted about me, it was a huge deal”

The genre-blurring star, currently in the studio with Mark Ronson, reflects on viral fame, ‘queer pop’ and her love of gak (not that kind)

“I consider myself a rock star,” Mikaela Straus grins, exhaling a fog of misty vape-smoke. “The spirit of rock’n’roll is within me; it lives there.” The Brooklyn-born 21-year-old, who releases music as King Princess, has been twisting classic old sounds into new shapes since her debut track ‘1950’ exploded two years ago. The retro-pop song first shot into the spotlight when Harry Styles tweeted a song lyric in March 2018: “I love it when we play 1950.”

Nailing the particulars of love fading and falling to pieces, her 2018 EP ‘Make My Bed’ and last year’s full-length record ‘Cheap Queen’ ooze an aching sadness, harking back to old school balladeers laying their pain bare for a chattering, smoke-filled room. Yet new single ‘Pain’, released earlier this week, is a rollicking pop song that teams an upbeat melody with devastating lyrics (“I feel it now / Pain”).

NME Big Read King Princess 2020
Credit: Matt Salacuse for NME

She set the table for this new approach earlier in 2020 with ‘Ohio’; the song is a thrashing headbanger that captures the excess of classic rock. The accompanying music video shows King Princess first as a glamorous drag queen performing ballads for a room of cheering, shirtless men, before transforming into a prowling rock star. Delirious stage invaders are hoisted away by security. In between smashing up guitars, and getting her hairspray touched up mid-shredding solo, King Princess makes out with her girlfriend at the side of the stage, and runs around, as she put it to NME, “titties out”.

The second part of the video is all live footage, recorded at famed Los Angeles venue The Wiltern. The stage, says Straus, is where she feels the most able to “over-exaggerate the parts of yourself that you may have always wanted to be, or that you’ve always felt”. She adds: “It’s powerful; it’s like some form of magic. Pop stars don’t destroy their guitar, their mic stand, the piano stand, their guitar player’s guitar and run away.”

Straus is speaking to NME from New York (she currently lives in LA) and is dipping in and out of the studio; she spent yesterday nerding out over guitar recordings with her label boss and production whiz Mark Ronson. Ronson is renowned for adding mainstream bells and whistles to transgressive artists’ material (see: Amy Winehouse, The Black Lips), but King Princess insists of her uncompromising material: “I don’t give a fuck if people are threatened. People have a really hard time watching women sexualise themselves if it doesn’t look like it has been curated by a man.”

NME Big Read King Princess 2020
King Princess on the cover of NME

King Princess (who uses she/her pronouns) is genderqueer, meaning that she doesn’t identify with either of the binary male and female genders. She sees herself as sitting somewhere roughly in the middle – but notes that “some people do not view being genderqueer as half-and-half”. She’s not interested in diluting this from her work.

“Rock’n’roll is about sex,” she continues. “When you see somebody being raunchy, sexy and dirty and doing it of their own accord, it hits this point in some people that makes them feel uncomfortable, because it’s not the type of manicured sexuality we have been fed. I’ve always sexualised myself, and I don’t think very much about what men think about my sexuality; it doesn’t even occur to me. I don’t exist in a world, luckily, where I have to be like, ‘Can I show my titties today?’ I just do whatever the fuck I want. Nobody on my team is being like, ‘Hey – tone it down.” She adds with a laugh: “Nobody would dare!”

In conversation, Straus swears like a bawdy sailor who accidentally docked up in Brooklyn and stumbled across Urban Dictionary. While puffing on a vape, she decorates her sentences with various comedy impressions, campy invisible italics, versatile use of the word “motherfucker” and kitschy slang (see: zhuzh, daddy, gagged, gak).

“I consider myself a rock star”

Gak in particular is a King Princess favourite – though it’s not a term that transcends the Atlantic particularly well. “It means [cocaine] in your country, right?” she asks. When King Princess says “gak”, she explains, “it is the personification of the sound that queer people make out of excitement, joy or fabulousness: ‘‘I’m gakked’. And from there she riffs away: “‘Tonight’s going to be a full gak.’ It can be a verb or an adjective. ‘I’m going to gak’; ‘Did you gak?’”

In person, Straus couldn’t seem further from the musician who wrote so brutally about heartbreak on ‘Cheap Queen’. “And your clothes are still in my drawers,” she sings on that record’s melancholic centerpiece ‘Isabel’s Moment’ “like you’re haunting my home.” Loneliness seeps out of the husky and noir-ish ‘Prophet’, while ‘Homegirl’ conveys the burden of hiding away in the shadows: “We’re friends at the party,” Straus sings, “I’ll give you my body at home.”

Her debut album’s only outlier was ‘Hit The Back’, which shifts from smouldering piano to a tender anthem about bottoming (wielding power in a more submissive way, usually during queer sex). “Ain’t I the best you had?” she boasts rhetorically, “and I’ll let you throw it down, hit the back”. The track showed the subversive, mischievous side to King Princess. This is set to continue, she says, as she gets stuck into album number two.

“I think women talking about their glorious wet fucking pussies is incredible,” Straus explains, also citing Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘WAP’. “How long have men being talking about their fucking huge dicks?” she asks. “All day [they talk] about how they’re gonna fucking pipe everybody in sight. That’s so normal. ‘My dick, my dick, my dick. My dick’s this, my dick’s gonna give it to you, my dick’s gonna…’ Duh!”

NME Big Read King Princess 2020
Credit: Matt Salacuse for NME

While ‘Cheap Queen’ traded in heartbreak, it seems that its successor will find King Princess dancing away her troubles instead. Though ‘Pain’ is quintessential King Princess in some ways – it’s about self-sabotaging tendencies and, she says, “my very bold and interesting choices in women to date” – the song finds her drawing influence from a different, more hedonistic space: “I listened to a lot of ‘Erotica’-era Madonna, a lot of George Michael, a lot of deep-cut remixes that we all kind of gag for when it comes on in the club.” The garish, ’90s-themed music video was directed by Straus’ girlfriend Quinn Wilson, who is also Lizzo’s creative director.

“I really like this project’s whole zhuzh,” Straus says (in King Princess’ world, the word roughly translates as je ne sais quoi). “‘Pain’ is my favourite song I’ve ever written. It’s the summation of all my music’s messaging: I can’t help turning my love into pain.”

She explains that the album as a whole has “gak sensibilities”, before insisting she can’t say more – and then saying more anyway. “Part of [the new album] is like: ‘Sorry to my close friends for being such an asshole for three years’. The second part is: ‘I’m sorry, baby we have some things to discuss.’” She laughs cryptically. “It’s a good title – I might write that down.”

“I don’t like my music being prefaced with ‘queer pop’. Fuck that!”

Though the new album only exists in a loose sense – currently, it’s more of a “collection of songs” – things are already coming together. Straus is working primarily at Mission Sound; she says she practically “grew up” at the Brooklyn studio (her dad, Oliver Straus, is a sound engineer and owns the place). Perhaps as a result, she feels less guarded than she was during the making of ‘Cheap Queen’.

Back then, Straus felt she had to prove herself as a musician and producer who didn’t need to rely on the likes of Mark Ronson’s expertise. Although Ronson didn’t produce any of ‘Cheap Queen’, he acted as a kind of creative sounding board towards the end of the recording. “I was very protective of that process [on ‘Cheap Queen’] – to a fault,” she admits. “As I get older and mature in my ability to let go of my tendencies toward needing to do everything, it’s a lot easier to accept the help of someone as masterful as Mark.”

NME Big Read King Princess 2020
Credit: Matt Salacuse for NME

Deep down, Straus is a hardcore studio nerd: she waxes lyrical about Neve mixing consoles and Magnatone boutique amps. Growing up, acts such as Missy Elliott, Cyndi Lauper and The National would record at Mission Sound, and she found as many excuses as possible to loiter in the studio – when Arctic Monkeys came to record 2009’s ‘Humbug’ (and 2011’s ‘Suck It And See’) Straus would wander in to ‘borrow’ some milk. “I would make sure I was in there as much as possible, really,” she says. “That’s where I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Straus co-produced every song on ‘Cheap Queen’. Misconceptions – particularly the sexist assumption that she wasn’t producing her own stuff – grated. “People will say: ‘So what’s it like having Mark produce your stuff?’ I get constant questions like that. Regardless of whether I’m collaborating or writing and recording stuff solo, there’s no Wizard of Oz figure making the music behind the scenes.”

She adds: “There’s obviously more pressure on female-presenting people to either sit back and do fucking nothing, or do everything. There’s no middle ground; you’re either the figurehead of this team of fucking writers per song, or you’re doing everything.” Of her own approach, she explains: “I collaborate, but at the end of the day it’s my ship.”

“Women talking about their glorious wet fucking pussies is incredible”

This isn’t the first time that Straus has felt unhappy with the way that her work has been represented: “I don’t like my music being prefaced with ‘queer pop’ or ‘gay pop’. Fuck that! I don’t want a fucking preface; it’s so annoying.”

Ever since her debut single ‘1950’ explored societal attitudes towards queer relationships, taking influence from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt (which was later adapted into the film Carol), King Princess has been a mainstay of various playlists and listicles dedicated to LGBTQ+ artists, and headlines often centred around her being a queer artist. ‘Pussy Is God’ appears as the third track on Spotify’s ‘Alternative Pride’ playlist alongside other contemporary artists sometimes credited with queering up the pop world: girl in red, Clairo, Christine and the Queens and The Japanese House.

Straus waves her vape around animatedly. “I think my goal with my music is [for] the straightest motherfucker in the world and the gayest motherfucker [to sing] it at the same time, at the same concert. You don’t get to tell a group of artists – because of whatever they do in bed – that they should be in the same fuckin’ playlist. That doesn’t make any sense… I don’t want to be compared to gay people. I’ve said this before: ‘Put me in the ring with some straights and we’ll see what happens.’”

But is there any part of Straus that can see a possible upside – that these labels might also help to elevate valuable LGBTQ+ perspectives into a more visible place? I know that, growing up, I might have felt less alone after seeing an artist like King Princess pasted across a billboard and celebrated as a queer icon.

NME Big Read King Princess 2020
Credit: Matt Salacuse for NME

“You’re gonna identify with them regardless,” she insists. “Telling me that [an artist is] gay or queer doesn’t make me more intrigued, personally, because it doesn’t have anything to do with the merit of the art. I don’t listen to music ’cause it’s gay.” Yet she concedes: “I understand the point. You need people to connect to. But I think you can still connect to gay artists and have them not prefaced as gay artists. You’re gonna find them. Gay people have a very sneaky way of finding things they relate to.”

Straus, who attended the fee-paying lower-Manhattan school Avenues, is the great-great-grandaughter of Isidor Straus, who founded the New York department store Macy’s (he died on the Titanic with his wife Ida Straus after refusing to board a lifeboat while women and children were still on board; their story is portrayed in the film Titanic). Straus has said she received financial aid towards Avenues’ sky-high fees ($56,400 per year) and inherited none of the Macy’s money. Still: does she think the current wave of so-called “queer music” is doing enough to elevate a diverse range of voices from different backgrounds?

“A lotta white gays,” she nods of the aforementioned scene. “There is so much work to be done, and it’s not the job of POC artists or trans artists. It’s the industry’s job to be like: ‘This shit has always been here; when are we going to open up the lane for people who aren’t white? [We’re] good on like, white twinky gays’” – she quickly adds, “including myself”, and continues, “Why do you wanna hear the same narrative over and over? Good music should be good music, no matter what or who you are: gay, straight, whatever. That’s definite. But if that lane is actively being barricaded for certain people, that’s not fair.”

King Princess also points out that her own career benefited from being given a boost by somebody with a huge platform. “For what it’s worth, when Harry Styles tweeted about me, having a sign-off from a major cisgender male artist was a huge deal. He did something beneficial for me and young queer kids in that moment, and that’s what I expect from that tier of musician.”

NME Big Read King Princess 2020
Credit: Matt Salacuse for NME

At the time of writing, ‘1950’ has been played 391million times on Spotify. To adopt Straus’ favoured vernacular, you could well call it the ‘Daddy’ of her back catalogue, and she refers to the song often during our chat. “With the first record, I think I was just a little freaked out in general with everything,” she remembers.

As well as being a record about heartbreak, ‘Cheap Queen’’s downbeat love songs find her often weighing up an infatuation with newfound glitz; she veers between being whisked away and resisting. On the title track, Straus sings: “I’m getting too cocky / Since everyone wants me / It’s harder to be myself,”. On ‘Watching My Phone,’ her voice cracks when she admits: “I know I can’t be the million girls you’re gonna meet.” And ‘Prophet’ seems to relay a vacuous party with a group of strangers, all chatting their faces off “on the molly”. While some artists deal with the more surreal, superficial sides of fame by keeping aspects of their lives very private, Straus struggled to peel the two apart.

“I’m not a woman – I am a fucking drag queen”

“I think there are people who really thrive off the separation between themselves and popularity or fame, the idea of personhood,” she says. Though King Princess is an exaggerated version of Straus, she doesn’t see the moniker as a character: “I am a clown, yes, and I turn into a crazy version of myself a lot, but I don’t think there’s a persona,” she says. “Although I respect [artists who have separate personas], it feels very mentally troubling to lose your humanity to the idea that you’re somehow better than other people.

“I just want to be a good person. I’m striving to be a good friend, a good sister, a good partner, a good daughter. I don’t want to be a raging psychopath. I can be – but I don’t want to. Actively fighting that is the first step. I don’t want to spend my time thinking about celebrity or the industry. Being [back] in New York has reminded me of that. I’ve been hanging out with my two friends from high school, watching movies – they’re getting stoned as balls, I’m drinking and we’re having the best fucking time. It reminded me of myself.”

NME Big Read King Princess 2020
Credit: Matt Salacuse for NME

King Princess shows her goofier side through a series of house-tinted meme remixes on her Soundcloud, which sample Sex And The City actress Kim Cattrall scatting, Meryl Streep’s blood-curdling scream on the TV drama Big Little Lies and porn actors Sophie Anderson and Rebecca More, aka The Cock Destroyers. Now beloved gay icons, the latter duo first shot to viral fame after declaring themselves “cock destroyers, babe” in a YouTube video. Straus’ sampling led to an enduring friendship with them both.

“Rebecca More and Sophie Anderson are the kindest people,” Straus says. She originally crossed paths with More after asking The Cock Destroyers to record a birthday message for her manager – now, she and King Princess are “Instagram homies”. She adds: “She sent me the cutest message, like: ‘Big snogs! Happy birthday.’ I was in shambles! I make sure to wish her a happy Mother’s Day as the premier MILF of the 21st Century.”

King Princess is all about opposites: in the video for ‘Prophet’ she plays a dishy jock with gigantic American footballer shoulder pads, while the cover of ‘Cheap Queen’ shows her as a lounging drag queen. Even her moniker is a gender collision. “I thought of that name before I could even articulate these ideas and thoughts,” she says. “That was probably me as a young person saying: ‘This is me.’ That’s why I don’t think it’s a persona.”

NME Big Read King Princess 2020
Credit: Matt Salacuse for NME

Exaggerating different sides of herself through her work, she explains, is “really the fun part of the job other than making music… You get to think critically: ‘What part of myself can I unlock for this song, or photoshoot or video, and how is this character like me, and not like me?’ It’s acting coming from truth. There’s never a character I portray who isn’t a part of me. That’s not in my being.”

She concludes: “I am a fucking drag queen. I’m not a woman. I see myself the way I see the people I looked up to – these rock lords who defied gender,” referencing David Bowie, Boy George and Prince as examples. “It’s that shit we connect to with these rock gods: they’re a genderless entity, a spiritual being of rock. Playing around with that is part of the healing process. The middle is kind of tough, and a little challenging – but really fun.”

King Princess’ single ‘Pain’ is out now

CREDITS:

Makeup by Asami Matsuda at Artlist NY
Styling by Carla Ibazeta