Hayley Kiyoko doesn’t just have fans; she has disciples. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but the L.A. singer-songwriter is called “Lesbian Jesus” by stans who appreciate the authentic queer representation in her music. The way she casually sings about same-sex attraction on her 2015 breakthrough hit ‘Girls Like Girls’ – “Girls like girls, like boys do, nothing new,” – made her an instant favourite on gay Twitter.
Three years later, she released ‘Expectations’, a brilliant debut album that blended polished pop songwriting with experimental production flourishes. Alongside fellow alchemists like Janelle Monáe, Christine and the Queens and Years & Years, Kiyoko was part of a new wave of LGBTQ artists using music to normalise the queer experience. A case in point: the album’s infectious third single ‘Curious’, which was inspired by Kiyoko’s experiences dating women who weren’t fully comfortable with their sexuality.
Now she’s back with ‘Panorama’, a stellar second album that documents a tumultuous and transformative period of her life – one in which she turned 30 and focused on getting healthy. Executive produced by Nate “Danja” Hills, the Timbaland associate known for his work with Britney Spears and Nelly Furtado, it features both unstoppable bops (like Kiyoko’s summer anthem ‘For The Girls’), and honest soul-searching.
For Kiyoko, the album’s title is a metaphor for pausing to appreciate everything you’ve achieved. “When you go on a hike, you’re hiking to get to the top of the mountain to take in the view,” she tells NME. “But as you go up, there’s a view at every point. And so I had this realisation [as I was] going through my mental and physical health struggles, that there are highs and lows at every point in our journey.” Kiyoko firmly believes that even in your darkest moments, you have something worth celebrating. “You have overcome so much in life just to get to that point,” she says. “What ‘Panorama’ means to me is acknowledging that and celebrating those highs and lows.”
The resulting album is not just a level up for Kiyoko, but also an utterly life-affirming listen. For the latest in NME’s In Conversation series, we met the singer during her recent London trip to discuss life, love, music, food and drag. Here’s what we learned.
Super-producer Danja helped her to value her own voice
Kiyoko was thrilled to work with Danja because the era-defining hits he produced – Britney Spears’ ‘Gimme More’, Nelly Furtado’s ‘Promiscuous’ – were “massive songs” for her growing up. When he came on board, ‘Panorama’ was already written and recorded, but she felt something was missing. Through a process of “muting things and refining”, Danja helped Kiyoko realise her vocal parts needed to be more prominent.
“It was a very challenging process, but it was an incredible process, because he reminded me that my voice needs to be heard,” she recalls. “I love walls of sound: I grew up listening to Arcade Fire and Coldplay. But sometimes those walls of sound compete with my voice, and so with this album, he was like: ‘Hey, I want to hear you.’ So we found that fine line of having those walls of sound and letting [the music] take you away, but letting my voice speak for itself as well.”
She’s used to being told her videos are “too queer”
Kiyoko’s witty and infectious ‘For The Girls’ video, which she directed herself, is a queer riff on US tv show The Bachelor. “We had 15 queer contestants and shot it multi-camera, kind of like a reality show,” she recalls. “And we were all trying to find love!”
It’s hardly the first video where Kiyoko has shown precisely why fans call her “Lesbian Jesus”. Check out 2018’s super-romantic ‘What I Need’, in which she and Kehlani play lovers on a road trip. At this point, Kiyoko is used to being told to “tone things down” – and ignoring it.
“I’ve had tonnes [of those comments] from inside my circle and outside my circle,” she says. “I’ve also had brands pull out of music videos because it’s ‘too risqué’ or ‘too bold’ when they’re really just talking about queerness. So I’ve had a lot of hardships creating these visuals. But you know, when it’s hard and you’re doing something different that makes people uncomfortable, it’s probably something you should go through with. Because we need that representation.”
She’s still processing her visit to the White House
In May, Kiyoko was invited to a special event commemorating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. “It was a random Thursday afternoon, I got the text: ‘Hey, do you want to come to the White House on Tuesday?'” she recalls. “So I said, ‘Absolutely, let me clear my schedule!'”
Though Kiyoko had to walk in alone because she had no plus one, she soon found an old friend to chat to: Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan. “My mom’s an ice-skating choreographer, so I grew up with Michelle,” she recalls. “It was wonderful to be surrounded by our community and see amazing people doing incredible things for our community.”
She also got to meet both POTUS and the Veep. “I shook President Biden’s hand, and I got a group selfie with him and a group selfie with Kamala Harris,” Kiyoko recalls.
However Kiyoko is slightly enthusiastic about her choice of footwear for the occasion. “The walk to the White House Rose Garden is very long,” she says. “I was wearing high heels because they don’t tell you: ‘Hey, you’re gonna walk a mile to get there.’ So I definitely threw my lower back out afterwards; but I’ll never forget it. It was amazing.“
Appearing on RuPaul’s Drag Race was a life-changing moment
Kiyoko was mentored by fan favourite Vanessa Vanjie Mateo – a.k.a. Miss Vanjie – on RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race, a 2020 spin-off series in which celebrities underwent a full-on drag transformation. “I learned so much from doing that show,” she recalls. “I was crying the whole time. It was very vulnerable for me because I have always struggled with finding the fine line between my masculine energy and my feminine energy. And when I think of a drag queen, I think of feminine energy. Vanjie helped me so much.”
Because drag is fundamentally about “being who you want to be and being who you are”, Kiyoko says she “walked away with so much more self-love and confidence”. For her, drag was “definitely like therapy. It is therapy.”
Switching to an anti-inflammatory lifestyle has dramatically improved her health
Over the years, Kiyoko has experienced various mental and physical health difficulties: an ongoing battle she shared in an April 2021 Instagram post. “When your body is in pain and not functioning properly, you are forced to advocate for it,” she wrote. “It can be exhausting trying to find the answers. For myself, the medications I’ve been on have only made things worse for my physical and mental health.”
Today, she says a turning point was having “a mental breakdown” that made her realise she needed to overhaul her lifestyle. “I had this moment where I was like, [the doctors] are telling me I’m having an inflammation issue, so I’m just going to cut out foods that cause inflammation,” she recalls.
So, after reading numerous books on anti-inflammatory eating plans, Kiyoko cut out coffee, limited her alcohol intake and piled her plate with fruit, vegetables and lean meat. “Man, it’s been a game-changer,” she says. “I started eating clean and I started healing.”
Hayley Kiyoko’s new album ‘Panorama’ is out July 29