Hayley Kiyoko is one of a kind. The proudly lesbian, half-Japanese pop star feels as idiosyncratic as her self-directed music videos, which overflow with colorful costumes and soapy plotlines. “I love narrative,” Kiyoko explained, when we caught up over the phone last month. Case in point—the clip for “Curious,” in which Kiyoko seduces a girl in the bathroom of a house party, while her boyfriend waits outside. Kiyoko—nicknamed “Lesbian Jesus” by her fans—excels at turning her own experiences into material, even when doing so raises the hackles of the powers that be.
“I’ve had several music industry execs say, ‘You’re doing another music video about girls?’’’ said Kiyoko, in a recent interview. “I literally looked at them and was like, ‘Um, yeah … Taylor Swift sings about men in every single song and video, and no one complains that she’s unoriginal.’”
Swift chimed in on Tumblr, posting, “We should applaud artists who are brave enough to tell their honest romantic narrative through their art.”
Kiyoko’s career first took off on television, where she starred in films like Disney’s Lemonade Mouth (2011). She also spent several years in the tween pop group The Stunners, which also included Tinashe. When they disbanded in 2011 she went solo, releasing a handful of EPs including This Side Of Paradise (2015) and Citrine (2016). At long last, her debut solo record Expectations was released last Friday; it received immediate acclaim for Kiyoko’s strong melodies and frank portrayal of her own sexuality. Expectations is Kiyoko’s own queer love story, a pop Call Me By Your Name. For years, lesbian narratives have been co-opted by heterosexual performers to turn heads; think Britney and Madonna’s famous kiss, or t.A.T.u. Now, by ignoring the male gaze, Kiyoko has managed to illustrate a self-portrait that’s refreshing, compelling, and real.
JACK MCCREADY: Tell me about what inspired you during the process of writing Expectations?
HAYLEY KIYOKO: The album title, Expectations, is my biggest strength and my biggest weakness. It’s my biggest strength because I set the highest expectations for myself, and so therefore I always have to match those expectations. And it’s also my biggest weakness because I’m constantly setting those high expectations for everyone else. And not everyone can meet those expectations. So I’m constantly being disappointed by others because of myself. And the other side of the coin too is like, sometimes you wake up and you don’t feel well or your headspace isn’t right and you have to learn to set your expectations really low just to get through the day. “Expectations” are the red thread throughout my life, and it seemed right to name my album that.
MCCREADY: One thing I really enjoy about the album, and the videos you self-direct, is that both are really narratively driven. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about what attracts you to this kind of pop storytelling.
KIYOKO: Totally. I love watching movies, I watch movies all the time. I love visuals and I love writing a song and seeing a story in my mind and being able to fully execute that, and create that within a music video. And being able to connect with others through that visual, and being able to affect people with that and have them be able to relate to that and find comfort in that. I feel like, you know, everyone looks to art for different reasons. For comfort, to escape, for entertainment, and so I do the music videos and tell the stories so people don’t have to feel alone, and to give them that sort of comfort.
MCCREADY: On your older songs, including “Girls like Girls” and “Gravel to Tempo,” the videos center around high school plotlines. The videos from your new record involve more adult scenarios—what led you to change the focus a bit?
KIYOKO: I feel like this album is the first time I’m singing about the present. I think before I was singing more about the past, and getting comfortable with myself, and figuring out where I wanted to be. Expectations for me is the first time I’m really singing about current things, which is really exciting.
MCCREADY: What are some of your visual inspirations for your music videos?
KIYOKO: My inspiration comes from nature. I love color, so if I ever need inspiration I’ll go hiking. I just love color palettes, so I love to look at sunsets or art, like Claude Monet, and different color palettes and be like, “Okay what is this music video gonna be?” Is it warm colors? Is it cool tones? I also love watching movies. One of my favorite films is The Place Beyond the Pines. I also love Sound of Music. That’s one of my favorite movies because it’s so symmetrical. Like, if you watch the film literally every shot is so symmetrical. And it’s beautiful.
MCCREADY: What about your songwriting influences?
KIYOKO: Again, I’m very visual, so I have to say nature. I really love water, so if you listen to the album there’s like, water running throughout it, that ties everything together. I’m an Aries sign so, my sign’s fire, and I need water to calm down, balance and chill. I’m hoping that when you listen to the album you’re able to see the world that I was trying to create.
MCCREADY: It sounds like you’re describing synesthesia.
KIYOKO: Totally. That’s what I have. When I listen to music I see color, and when I write songs I’ll be like this is the color that I want it to sound like and I’ll show a picture of it and I’ll write and be like, this is what I want it to look like. I’d say the heart of a lot of my music is orange. But there’s a lot of green. With pink, I would say.
MCCREADY: Are your videos like “Curious” based off real life experiences?
KIYOKO: Yeah, it’s based off of my life because I tend to get myself involved with girls who haven’t been in love with girls before. That’s just normally how I tend to be, so the situations that I get myself in, they normally have been with guys before and so that’s why most of the songs are like that [laughs] So those are the situations that I get myself into. Which are not always the best.
MCCREADY: There’s a really big moment in pop right now for LGBT representation, with the likes of you, Kim Petras, and Troye Sivan all having a big year in 2018. Is it important to you to represent the community?
KIYOKO: Yeah I think it’s really important to sing about what’s important to you and what’s truthful to you. And also, you know, it’s a really exciting time to have that freedom to do so in the mainstream pop world. You know, we still have a lot to go, so much more to go. But it’s very exciting to have that chance and opportunity to potentially get there and help normalize it.
HAYLEY KIYOKO’S DEBUT ALBUM EXPECTATIONS IS OUT NOW ON ATLANTIC RECORDS.