The electro-pop singer crafted one of the year's weirdest breakout hits

By Nolan Feeney
Updated August 30, 2016 at 03:49 PM EDT
Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Some artists toil for years in hopes of reaching the hallowed grounds of music festivals like Lollapalooza. Not pop singer Kiiara, who had only played five shows by the time she hit the music festival stage in late July. Yet the 21-year-old’s greenness didn’t stop thousands of fans from braving the rain to see her—or from singing along. That’s no small feat considering her breakout single, “Gold,” features unintelligible cut-and-paste vocal samples that have hypnotized everyone discovering it on Spotify (where it’s been streamed more than 238 million times) or on TV (where it was featured in an Apple Watch ad).

No one is more surprised about the song’s success than Kiiara herself. “We thought maybe a thousand people would hear it,” the singer (born Kiara Saulters) says. Hailing from Wilmington, Ill., Kiiara first wrote “Gold” on a classical guitar a few years ago before giving it an electro-pop makeover in 2015 with producer Felix Snow, whom she had never met until she got on a plane to go work with him in Los Angeles. “I didn’t know if I was going to die,” she jokes of their initial encounter. “When you first meet someone [from the internet], you don’t know.”

Before including “Gold” on this year’s low kii savage EP, Kiiara uploaded the song to SoundCloud last summer in semi-anonymity. Back then, photos and biographical details were few and far between, which she says was intentional. “I wanted the main focus to be the music,” she explains. Now that “Gold” is scaling the charts—it’s currently No. 20 on the Hot 100—the soft-spoken singer is still getting used to all the attention. She admits that she sometimes reads the comments on her YouTube videos—though she laughs when people accuse of her ripping off Rihanna and Selena Gomez, whose most recent albums came out after “Gold”—and she’s tired of talking about how she worked at a hardware store when “Gold” first hit. Kiiara knows it makes for an enticing origin story, but it’s not a complete one: She also had stints as a college student, and by the time song was released, she was already flying out for recording sessions. “I had a life outside of that,” she says.

There are upsides to the spotlight, however. Now, EDM tastemakers like Dillon Francis and Marshmello are hitting her up on social media to collaborate on songs for her debut full-length, expected in early 2017. She’s tight-lipped about the details, saying only that her new music is “heavy”—whether that refers to dark lyrics or a lot of bass, she won’t specify. She will reveal, however, that she’s done with the chopped-up vocal samples that have become her trademark. “It was a one time thing. It’s cool, but what’s next?” Kiiara says. “I want people to be surprised.”