Every so often, an artist comes about with the power to change the cultural landscape. In 2016, we saw the swift rise of pop singer Kim Petras, whose debut single “I Don’t Want It At All” became a viral sensation, with a sugar-drenched pop chorus paired with a music video cameo from Paris Hilton. The track, a shrewd commentary on LA’s plastic, money-driven culture, comes from observations the 25-year-old made about moving to the city from her hometown of Cologne, Germany. While she might not have reached Hilton’s level of international stardom, Petras amassed a great deal of fame herself at the age of sixteen, when she became the youngest person in the world to receive gender reassignment surgery. Being able to contrast that type of fame with LA’s notorious attention-seeking culture has given Petras a unique and intriguing perspective on public attention.
Today marks the release of Petras’ latest single, “Faded”, featuring Lil Aaron. To celebrate, we spoke with the budding star, who’s a true testament to how arts can go hand in hand with social justice in today’s world, about the LGBT+ community’s relationship with music, the dark underbelly of LA, and her goal to be happy.
You brought up performing in your hometown in Germany to me earlier. I’ve heard artists say sometimes that their hometowns are the hardest, which is surprising.
That’s always the hardest. For me, performing where I’m from is always the hardest. It feels so real, because you grew up there. I actually think it’s the hardest to get LA people to listen. I haven’t performed much in New York, so I don’t know, but everybody’s just social climbers at parties in LA. Even at concerts, people are always socializing and trying to meet industry people. I’m always like, “Shut up and listen to the artist.” [laughs] I don’t know how different that is here.
You came over from Germany when you were 19. When you were first going to LA, did you feel like it was a welcoming community?
There’s definitely so many songwriters out there that everybody knows somebody who writes songs. How it happened for me was that I did YouTube videos, and a producer from L.A. sent me tracks. We became friends, and he introduced me to two of his producer friends, and from then on I came more frequently to LA and worked with more people. I worked with every studio I could work in. I lived on a studio couch for the first three months. I had to be out of there by ten every morning and I had to leave so they could work in there during the day [laughs]. I just wrote with whoever I could. There’s like 20,000 songwriters in LA or something like that. It’s crazy.
When you’re collaborating with a bunch of different people, how do you keep up your own sound and your own vibes with each project?
For the first few years, I was only writing for other people. It came pretty easy, but I always kept my demo tracks away from everybody because I honestly felt like they were too weird. The music I was writing was for a lot of urban people, a lot of urban music, but stuff that’s easy to get to people like Rihanna, Rita Ora, Camila Cabello, Cardi B, all those types of artists. That’s who everyone is aiming for. I just wanted to do nostalgic, 80s music. I needed to find someone to encourage me to have my first track out there be my own sound. I always wanted to be a songwriter, have a hit with somebody, be recognized, then put out my own track and have people listen to it. That was my master plan, and it totally worked out that way.
You had to be patient with it. I feel like there is that impulse to just throw things out there, but sometimes you need to wait for the right time.
The first two years in LA, there was nothing. I was coming back and forth, but the security at the airport eventually told me I couldn’t come back without a visa. That trip I got my first placement with the Bratz movie. That was a huge deal for me to have a song in the movie. After that, people started reaching out to me and I started getting publishing offers.
When you’re writing your music, what themes do you find yourself gravitating towards?
I love heartbreak songs, and I’ve always been a little unlucky with boys. That’s just coming back, that kind of desperate love song. One of my favorite songs is “Lovefool” by The Cardigans, so I just love that “I want you and nobody else” kind of feel. I try to have that, but then again, LA is a big theme in my music. The way I imagined it as a kid was so different than what it is. I try to glamorize it in my songs and make it feel so spectacular.
How have you found LA to be different than what you imagined?
It’s a real place. You have to work really hard because everyone is also trying to work their way up. A lot of hustlers and strivers come out there to try and make it; it’s really competitive. It’s totally not glamorous, and I’ve lived in really shitty places.
Especially now with social media, artists can connect with fans in an unprecedented and very visible way. How do you interact with your fans?
I try to answer every single DM. I’m at that point where I can go through while I’m sitting in my bed at night and answer them. I’m just reading everything. I love the people that are following me and coming out to see me. I met people at my gigs, which was amazing. I did a documentary about being transgender since I was really young, and still to this day, people will reach out to me and tell me it helped them through the same thing. It’s super important to me to keep those connections and let people know that it means a lot to me.
That’s so interesting that people have been a part of your journey for so long, even before the music.
Yeah, since I was 12. It was a whole other chapter for me. It has nothing to do with the music, but it’s what I went through as a teenager. If that still inspires people, that’s amazing to me. People have come up to me at shows and said they’ve seen covers I did four years ago. They still had it on their phone because they downloaded it from YouTube [laughs]. It’s super cool that they knew me; they knew I’d make it. I had to break away from YouTube to really get into songwriting and start making moves, have a little more power, collaborate with people and companies like Spotify. I’m glad I took that detour to get there in the end.
So many things have happened for you in 2017. What’s next for 2018?
I’m still doing one more music video this year, so that’s my main focus right now. I don’t feel like I’ve fully gotten there. I know more music videos are coming, the music that’s coming out in the first four months. They’re some of my favorites, so I’m super excited. I’m dropping my favorite songs that I’ve written in the first half of next year, and that means so much to me. I want to tour. I’m doing a bunch of gay club gigs. I’m going to Las Vegas, San Diego, San Francisco. That’s going to be super fun, but I really want to be a supporting act for anyone, honestly, and be on tour and meet people. I’m gonna grind, make more music, and keep making moves. I have songs ready to go for a pretty long time, but if I go to the studio and think “This is the next one,” I can do that. I don’t have to go through a bunch of people to get approval. I can just make the decision.
How do you approach visuals, whether it be your videos, the album art, etc?
Most of the time, I have something in my mind. With “I Don’t Want it At All”, it was so obvious what I wanted to do. I needed to go have a bunch of credit cards with a bunch of dudes, and the cards all decline and Paris Hilton saves me. I knew it from the beginning. I’ve been super focused on the music and becoming a great songwriter. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I used to look at the backs of my favorite albums and see the same names over and over again. I was like, “Who are all these people that write these amazing songs?” That was my main focus, and then I was a studio rat for the past four years.
I didn’t see sunlight, but at the end I had all these songs. Then it became more about studio shoots, doing a video, stuff like that. I’ve always wanted to do that, so it felt real. There’s so much that goes into it that makes the difference between loving the video and hating the video. It’s really been about finding the right people and building a team. Working with people multiple times so you start getting each other is so important. I’m happy I had a little time in front of “I Don’t Want it At All”, because I had time to test it out and do shoots. I figured out a lot of stuff during that time. It’s so important to me to have this image of the artist burned into your mind after watching a video. You need to be recognizable, unique, and have something that makes your visuals stand out. It lifts everything.
Visuals have become so important for artists.
Yeah, it takes a whole team to make everything come together visually. You get sent these treatments that looks fantastic, and that comes from inspiration photos you sent over, and it’s like, “Yes!” Just what you imagined. Then, the video doesn’t look anything like that. I had this photoshoot with Charlie Rutherford, and she was like, “I just shot Paris Hilton, she needs to be there. I can get her.” It just happened, and it was immediately way cooler than all of the treatments. It’s a crazy world, getting into songwriting.
You’ve balanced that world so well. What’s your definition of success, either personally or career-wise?
For me, I used to watch music videos as a kid and forget that my life sucked. Nothing was going on in my town. I ran home from school to watch music videos on TV. Seeing songs over and over again, it was such an escape for me. I wanted to do that; I wanted to make people forget their problems. My personal aspiration is to be a happy person. That’s my definition of success. No matter how that manifests itself, I know that’s what I want to get to. I want to do a lot, and keep getting greater. I don’t feel like I’m there yet. I want to write better songs and make better videos. That makes me happy, to work really hard and become good at something.