If Kim Petras had her way, every profile written about her (and there are more and more of them being published every week) would refer to her as a “pop super fan songwriter” and “that’s kind of it,” she told HuffPost last Wednesday.
But the 25-year-old hitmaker, whose new video for the single “Heart to Break” racked up over a million views in just four days, isn’t offended by being dubbed a “pop star” or even “bubblegum pop princess.”
“I’ll take it,” she said with a laugh.
She’s admittedly less enthused about being known as a transgender singer, even though she’s proud of the fact that she is recognized as one of the youngest people in the world to undergo gender confirmation surgery when she was just 16.
“I just hate the idea of using my identity as a tool,” Petras explained.
Below, Petras discusses her thoughts about her first on-camera kiss, why you won’t find her on dating apps and her controversial decision to work with ― and stand by ― Dr. Luke in the aftermath of Kesha’s sexual assault charges against him.
If I were a betting man, I’d put money on “Heart to Break” being the single that launches you into the stratosphere of super fame. Are you ready for that?
Damn! Being super famous? I’ve spent the last six years working in studios with no one but my friends and my family knowing my music. I’ve worked so hard to get to a point where I can get in front of people and have them finally hear my songs. I’m really excited about having a shot — a real shot — so I want to take this opportunity and maximize it and make it the biggest thing it can possibly be. The fame might be one part of what comes with all of the hard work, but mainly I just want to be a performer. I want to have crazy performances with crazy outfits and crazy choreography. I want to have people at my shows singing my songs back to me.
Has that happened yet?
It happened at The Rosemont in Brooklyn at the beginning of this year. That was the first time I thought, OK, something is going on here! People had shown up to my gigs in like WeHo before that, but there was a line of people around the block trying to get into that Brooklyn show, so it was just insane. Everybody was just screaming the words to the point where I couldn’t even hear them myself. Then I played The Abbey [in West Hollywood] three weeks ago, and the same thing happened. It was bananas.
Tell me about the early days of your career, when you first came to Los Angeles from Germany.
I had a couple of friends who were producers and songwriters that I knew from YouTube and who had sent me tracks to write over when I was living in Germany. When I turned 19, I got to LA and stayed with two friends the first few weeks I was there and then I had a friend with a studio and a couch and I spent about a year on that couch. But it was cool because to me, just being in LA was very, very valuable. Every day I told myself, OK, you’d better write as many songs as you can and you’d better meet as many people as you can.
You were disciplined.
Definitely. Before I got to LA, I was writing in my mom’s basement in Germany all of the time. I didn’t go to parties. I didn’t really go out much at all. I had one or two friends that I’d see occasionally, but mostly I was just in my room being like, I’m going to write a hit song. That was the goal the whole time ever since I was 13. I saw a documentary about Carole King and I got really obsessed with songwriters. I was obsessed with Max Martin and [Dr.] Luke. I was obsessed with The Bee Gees and Queen and Blondie — all of the awesome artists that actually write their own shit.
I wish I was like the person you see in my music videos all of the time, but really I’m just a normal person sitting on the couch eating potato chips and watching Netflix.
Was there a moment when you realized your career was finally taking off?
I got a song in a “Bratz” movie. [Laughs] It helped me to meet more people and then I was writing with artists. I wrote with JoJo for a whole month — I think we did like 14 songs. I was working a lot with The Stereotypes and they were really big supporters of mine. Then I wrote a song and one of the songwriters I worked on it with sent it to Interscope [Records] and Fergie recorded it. For a while, it was going to be her comeback single and so then every publisher was fighting over me and that’s when I really started buzzing as a songwriter.
When they met me, they learned I had like 200 songs already written — just a crazy number of songs that they could pitch. That’s when it really started — it was about two and a half years after I first came to LA. I was on the verge of being like, Shit! because the last time I went to LA on a tourist visa they told me the next time I wouldn’t get back into the country if I didn’t have a [work] visa. So I was panicking but then I got a publishing deal and a visa and it all worked out. But it was stressful.
It seems like there’s a tension between the Kim Petras we see in your videos and on stage and the Kim Petras who’s sitting next to me now. How much of the “real” you — however you define that — do you put in your work and how much of who we see is a character?
I think I’m always thinking about what’s best for the song — what does the song require me to be? All of my songs come from a “real” place — a real emotion — and then I create the most dramatic version of whatever that feeling is and put it into my music. I wish I was like the person you see in my music videos all of the time, but really I’m just a normal person sitting on the couch eating potato chips and watching Netflix. It’s definitely all me — it’s different versions of myself. I don’t feel like faking anything. It’s just showing off the different sides of me, which is really fun. There’s a distinct difference for every single song — there’s “Faded” Kim and “I Don’t Want It At All” Kim and “Heart to Break” Kim. It’s like Malibu Barbie and Sporty Barbie and … [laughs] whenever I write a song, I’m thinking, This song needs these colors and these dances moves and this hairstyle. Something visual always comes with each song.
Where do you see yourself fitting into the pop music landscape right now? Or maybe you don’t...
Pop is in a really interesting spot right now. There’s definitely a mainstream sound going on that I know that I’m not a part of at all. Everything is about very whispery vocals and feels really low-key and laid-back, but my songs are influenced by [Madonna’s] “Material Girl” and [Culture Club’s] “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me.” Those songs are the reason that I’m making music. I don’t care about fitting in. But anything can be pop now. The lines are very much blurred and there are no genres anymore really. Everything is influenced by so many things. Even in my music — everything has trap high-hats. Everybody is taking everything they love and mashing it together.
We’ve now arrived at the transgender portion of the interview.
[Laughs] Ohhhhh shit!
I was watching “American Idol” a few weeks ago and Katy Perry was advising a contestant to really lean into her identity as a Latina woman and use it to cultivate a fan base, but you’ve taken the exact opposite approach with your identity as a trans woman.
[Sighs] I just hate the idea of using my identity as a tool. I’ve never written a song specifically about being transgender. It made me the person I am and that’s a big part of me, but I think music is about your feelings and your fantasies and it goes deeper than your gender or your sexuality. I really fell in love with music and I hope that people can see me for my music and all of the things that I am. Sometimes it feels like people want to make you into this one thing and you can’t be anything else. So, I originally released my singles without even a picture of me ― just my neon logo. And then it was New Music Friday and nobody knew who I was, but my song went to Number One on the viral chart on Spotify and it was just about how good my music was. I think an artist doesn’t have anything if they don’t have the songs. The songs are everything and then you figure out everything around it — your look, your dancing, what your message is. But all of that other stuff is 10 percent of the total package and the songs and the talent and the work is 90 percent.
Many of the reviews of “Heart to Break” I’ve seen don’t mention you being transgender at all. Is that, ultimately, your goal?
But I don’t get the impression that talking about being trans bothers you.
That’s the difficult part because I’m very much part of the transgender community and part of the LGBT community. I will always fight for it and I have for my whole life. The first documentary I did was when I was 12 and it was only about being transgender and then I did a bunch of documentaries about it. I really let people look into my life and see what it was like to have such supportive parents and see how positive that was for me. I tried to help other people become educated about being transgender. And I still want people to be educated about it, but I think the ultimate goal for me is if a transgender person can be known for anything but being transgender. That would be a really great thing. That’s my goal. There are still too many people who think being transgender is very freaky. And they think you can’t live a happy life and try to tell their kids not to transition because they’re afraid their life will be harder. I want to help, but I also am very proud of my work and my talent.
Being trans made me the person I am... but I think music is about your feelings and your fantasies and it goes deeper than your gender or your sexuality.
You had your first on-camera kiss in the video for “Heart to Break.” Was that experience as weird as I’m imagining it was?
I thought it was going to be really weird. I brushed my teeth like 500 times before we did it. I was really scared. But then I just went into autopilot and did it. There’s a camera, there are a million people watching you — it’s the opposite of romantic. And [the guy I kissed] was super cool about it. I think he’d done another on-screen kiss before and he was like, It’s chill — don’t worry about it. And when we finally did it, it was just really technical, so it wasn’t awkward at all. [Laughs] I’d totally recommend everybody try it.
What is it like trying to date when you’re famous?
I can’t really relate to that yet. Whenever I go to clubs and places that aren’t gay clubs, it’s pretty normal — nobody knows me.
Do you use dating apps?
Noooooo. Not at all. I’m so terrified of apps. You’re putting yourself out there so hard. I’m scared of meeting up with someone I’ve never met in real life before. You swipe right on each other and you know you’re into each other but from there, I wouldn’t know how to act at all. I feel like I’d be so awkward. Plus, I’m hopelessly romantic — I want to meet somebody in person!
You just played The White Party. You’re playing Los Angeles Pride next month. You’re always turning up in gay clubs. Tell me about your love affair with gay men.
They’ve been my best friends. I magically get along with a lot of them — not with all of them. Some of them fucking suck. There are terrible gay men out there too. [Laughs] But most of them — we just love each other. My friends in school were always gay guys. They were the ones who understood me. I went to school in latex dresses and Doc Martins or pink fluffy fake fur jackets. I always expressed myself to the fullest, and my gay friends were the same way. We were outcasts together. I had friends who would get spit on for wearing blush. I had drag queen friends. I had lesbian friends. I love the gays.
You also have spoken about your love for Dr. Luke, even though many other musicians have cut ties with him in light of Kesha accusing him of sexual assault. Where’s your head at with that?
It’s ongoing litigation and I don’t want to involve myself. I respect both of them a lot. My experience [with him] has been very positive. That doesn’t mean that Kesha’s experience was positive but I’d like to stay out of it and just let the case do its thing.
You recently told NME, “I would like my fans to know that I wouldn’t work with somebody I believe to be an abuser of women, definitely not,” which some people have interpreted as you calling Kesha a liar.
That was just me saying I haven’t experienced any of it. That doesn’t mean she hasn’t, but I want to let their case speak for itself. Honestly, it’s not my place to say anything.
Let’s fast-forward to Dec. 31, 2018, at 11:59 p.m. What do you want to be able to say you’ve accomplished this year?
I really want to chart. That’s the first thing I need to get done. Ultimately, I want a Number One really, really badly. I’m not going to stop until I get a Number One. Hopefully, I’ll have finished my first tour as a supporting artist or whatever that turns out to be. Hopefully, I’ll have written at least half of my second record. I’m always writing. Whenever I have a free day, I write. I’ve started to collaborate with SOPHIE — I’m such a huge fan. I’m so excited about that. I love meeting new producers. I feel like I’m very much on a new thing with my writing right now. This first record is full of the music that made me want to do music — it’s my core and the sound I wanted to start with but there are so many other sides I want to explore. I’m also doing a bunch of features and hooks for other artists. I have a ton of songs lined up to be released and I want to do a record a year.
Rihanna-style. Or at least pre-“Anti” Rihanna.
Old-school Rihanna style! I love that. In this musical climate, I don’t think you can take time off.
No one has an attention span these days. If you’re not right in front of listeners giving them a new reason to care about you, they forget about you ― especially when you’re just starting out.
Right! And you have to constantly be putting out quality records. That’s why I think Drake is so amazing — he always stays at his top level. It’s so crazy! How the fuck does he do it? But that’s what separates him from everyone else and why every single song he drops is Number One — because everything he puts out is quality. And you can tell he spends every free minute in the studio. You can tell with people if they’re, like, spending their time drinking wine on a ranch or if they’re in the studio every night and every day. [Laughs] I want to be one of those people who is in the studio all the time. I want to be giving my fans top quality ― always.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.