King Princess on working with Taylor Hawkins, drinking in her underwear, and why 'it's okay to be messy'
It's only 8 a.m. at Los Angeles International Airport, but King Princess has already cleared security, been acknowledged by a fan, and is ready to board a flight to Chicago for a pair of high-profile gigs (at the House of Blues and Lollapalooza) to celebrate the launch of her sophomore LP.
The Brooklyn-born, 23-year-old singer-songwriter and burgeoning queer icon (born Mikaela Mullaney Straus) is as articulate and youthfully cool over the phone as she is fronting the dozen gorgeous, vulnerable tracks on her new full-length, Hold on Baby. From the dusky intimacy of "I Hate Myself, I Want to Party" (which rises to a triumphant chorus of "And only I can bring me down") to the resigned but optimistic closer, "Let Us Die," the album is a modern indie-pop tour de force. With production from go-to collaborators like Mark Ronson and Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner (the National), its often-uncomfortable truths, rendered beautifully, keep coming. It's a bumpy ride, but you can't help but stay strapped in.
EW caught up with the artist to talk about her musical love letter to her girlfriend, collaborating with late Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, and how drinking at home in her underwear helped her make her best work yet.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How much did growing up in Brooklyn influence your music?
KING PRINCESS: A lot. I had a really "neighborhood" upbringing. I had friends with houses or apartments that had garages we would practice in. I had my dad [Oliver Straus, recording engineer and owner of the studio Mission Sound]. My best friend growing up, Liam, his dad's a musician, and we would have "band practice" every Friday at his house. Williamsburg was weirdly suburban when I was young.
You got to see it become super trendy.
I feel like I'm young, but I mean, there was definitely not an Apple store and Sephora and Lululemon then.
Did you go to big shows in the city when you were a kid?
I guess the bands my dad would record, including the National, who would play at, like, Terminal 5. I did see Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Maybe at Radio City… or it could have been Carnegie Hall. That was amazing. I went to a very eclectic mix of shows. I saw Jethro Tull at City Winery.
That seems weird!
My mom and my stepdad and I wanted to go see Jethro Tull. I don't know, I was a weird kid. You know, I wanted to see f---in' Ian Anderson!
Was Broadway an influence?
I saw a lot of plays. I love stage productions. The way they build these sets — the actual construction and costuming is incredible. In high school, my best friend Cecily and I put on a production of Cabaret as our senior-thesis project. I did the musical direction. She did the regular direction. I was originally doing both, but I was also starring in it because I cast myself as the lead. We actually camped out and got tickets to see Michelle Williams in Cabaret [on Broadway].
This is only your second album, but you've been on Saturday Night Live and had such immense success with your song "1950." Did you feel pressure making Hold on Baby?
I don't know about success, but I think that as far as the actual songwriting and the craftsmanship, this is a better record than my first record [2019's Cheap Queen]. So in that way, I think I'm successful. I know I did my best work on this record that I've done thus far. I spent a lot of time working on the art. That's my zhuzh! I make music based on my thoughts and feelings, and that's all I got to give.
How did COVID and quarantine and the state of the world impact this album?
Well, it definitely made this album a lot more introspective, because I had all this time — as did most people — to stop moving. I was not touring. I wasn't going out. I wasn't drinking. I was drinking, but I was sitting at home in my underwear thinking about my life. And being like, "I don't know if I really like myself." You're so distracted when s---'s moving. And then when you're still, you're like, "Oh, I didn't deal with all this mental health s--- that's been going on for f---ing years." It was more, "Wow, I really have to assess some stuff." And the only way I know how to really assess things — besides seeking therapeutic help — is to do my therapy, which is writing. Which I did. And that's how the album was formed.
"Hold on Baby" is an interlude, a short song on the album. Why did you decide to make that the title track?
I feel like that's what I've been saying to myself for five years now: "Just hold on. We'll be bumpy." I think it summarizes the record — like speaking to yourself, assuring yourself. At the end of the day, that's what everyone has to do in order to survive: have self-assurance. You can't really rely on other people to validate you. You have to look at yourself in the mirror and say, "You got this."
"Winter Is Hopeful" is a great song — vulnerable, sort of retro, and very specific. Your girlfriend Quinn's name is in it. How does she feel about that?
She was not thrilled when I told her that her name was in a song. Also, the song was originally called "Quinn." But then she heard it and was like, "This is phenomenal." It's a very vulnerable thing to do. It's definitely not for everyone to date someone who's airing your business, right? It's definitely a nightmarish situation, but Quinn's a champ. She's an artist, she gets it, and that song is a love letter to her. I'm sure people have feelings about their own partners, and when they listen to it, it's like, "Oh, I felt that way." Or, "I've experienced some of these feelings." And that's really the point, right?
There's vulnerability in "Sex Shop" too — in the lyrics "but I fear that you won't love me / If there's something in my body that wants to change." Can you express that sort of thing to people in person or only in songs?
I mean, it's complicated, right? It's definitely hard to express feelings like that to people because it's having to do with my gender identity and s--- about myself. I've been gay for a long time. But there's this other exploration — that we've only in the last 10 years had vocabulary for — that has always existed.
Things make so much more sense when you have representation, when you have people going, "I feel this way too" in media and music and art. It's a lot easier to be like, "Oh, well, that's how I feel. That's how I felt when was little." I think that's always been a part of my music, and whether it was subconscious or not, talking about being nonbinary — or talking about not feeling like I fit into an assigned form, a gendered form — is ever-present, even in the words I choose. But to write a song like that… It's taken me 23 years to figure out how to put that into a song.
You've said Cheap Queen was "for everybody, but I feel like the gays will especially love it." Who would you say Hold on Baby is for?
I would say it's for anybody who needs to be reassured that being vulnerable is okay — anybody who feels their feelings and emotions are too much. This is like a wink-wink, nod-nod to the extra people who feel like that. It's okay. That's how we do it. Dumbing yourself down, muting yourself, pushing things back, being afraid to be honest and vulnerable is a plague, and it's hard. The world is fucked. Terrible s--- is going on every f---ing day.
I'm sure — I'm positive — that young people, especially right now, are just like, "What the f--- do I do with myself?" It becomes too much, and so you have to channel it somewhere. For me, it's with music. For others, it's different forms of creativity. But the overarching theme is that creativity and art is how we get through these things. So I hope people listen to this record and find some solace and respite from their feelings, and understand that it's okay to be messy. It's okay to be depressed.
You have the late Taylor Hawkins playing drums on Hold on Baby's last track, "Let Us Die." How did that come about?
Well, Mark [Ronson] heard the demo and was like, "I really think there needs to be a live drummer." I agreed. The thing we love about rock music — the thing that resonates with us about listening to the Foo Fighters and Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins — is that you feel there are living individuals behind each instrument, leaving their mark on it.
I was like, "Who do you think?" Mark said, "Taylor." And I was like, "Oh, my God, do you think we can get Taylor?" He said, "I asked him. He's down." So we FaceTimed. He was recording in L.A., I was in New York, and it was crazy. I was in my childhood home — my dad's recording studio — listening to Taylor make my record better than I ever thought it could be. He added something to that song that goes so beyond just laying down a drum track. He really showed me a level of musicianship and also respect and kindness that I will never forget. It makes me emotional, obviously. I didn't know Taylor that well. I just felt so supported by his musicianship, and I can't believe I have the song.
It seems like "Let Us Die" was clearly the way to close the album.
Originally, "Sex Shop" was the closer, but when we finished "Let Us Die," it's just such a catastrophic song. Everyone on my team, including me, was like, "It just feels like a finale." The way you start and end an album is really important to me. As far as the arc of the album, I wanted to go out on a really sad but optimistic note.
Hold on Baby is out now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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