As I sit down to chat with Kim Petras, my left knee starts to bounce up and down involuntarily. It’s a bit of a nervous tick, cropping up now because I’m absolutely excited and anxious about talking to the pop star whose music has completely ruled my summer. Anyone who has talked to me since May, knows how much I adore Petras’ music. I belt along poorly to “Can’t Do Better” and “Heart to Break” every time I get in the shower. I have one-woman dance parties in my bedroom where I blast “Hillside Boys” and “Faded” on repeat. I jam out to “All the Time,” well, all the time.
The German singer and songwriter released her first single, “I Don’t Want It At All” in August 2017. The single made it onto Billboard’s “Dance Club Songs” charts, and earned Petras a spot on Charli XCX’s Pop 2 mixtape. Since then, Petras has been steadily releasing singles, of which “Heart to Break,” has become an easy favorite across pop lovers of all kinds. In May, gay heartthrob Troye Sivan announced that Petras would be joining him on his Bloom tour, which the two are currently on. You can catch them in Washington D.C. at the Anthem this Thursday, October 4; in New York City at Radio City Music Hall on October 9; or in Chicago at the Chicago Theatre on October 19.
Kim Petras’s music marks a new direction for pop music. Masterfully blending dance, synth, and electro, Petras’s style has transcended into something that can only be described as “hyper-pop” because it takes the genre to a whole new level. With whimsical exaggerations of musical conventions and lyrics that focus on boys, clothes, and parties, Petras’ music proves that girly, lighthearted music can come with strong vocals and superior songwriting. Even in her darker moments, like her brand new Halloween mixtape Turn Off the Light Vol. 1, Kim’s music sticks closely to dance club beats, simply finding new ways to play with the genre that she seems to have perfected. It’s spooky and funky and utterly Kim: track after irresistibly dance-worthy track.
There was, of course, no reason my knee needed to be shaking: Petras couldn’t have been sweeter. Like her bubbly music, Petras is exuberant and optimistic throughout our conversation. She describes her own dedication and resilience with great pride, and she lovingly praises her fans at every opportunity. It’s clear how grateful Petras is for her recent success. I’ve even seen her ask her fans to send her pictures of their faces over social media so she can try to spot them in the crowd, for example.
Petras hasn’t always had the easiest life. She’s been living as a trans woman from a very young age, and often speaks about being bullied as a teen. But when she talks about her music, her fans and being able to perform, there’s nothing but sheer delight in her voice. And when she tells me that her main goal with her music is to “make people happy” there’s an almost child-like genuineness to her words that comes across so thoroughly in her feel-good music.
BYT: With “Heart to Break,” you really blew up. I mean, since May, I’ve been hearing you in every gay club. How has that felt?
Kim Petras: Really amazing. I mean, the gay-club blow-up was insane. It was just so, so awesome walking into clubs and all of them playing “Heart to Break…” You know that feels so great, because I’m part of the LGBT community, and I pretty much only party in gay clubs. It’s really lit. It’s like, “the fam loves me.”
BYT: On that subject, I know you’ve talked about not wanting the media to focus on your trans identity, but you’re also a vocal supporter for LGBT rights. How do you balance those things?
Petras: I think it’s all in the balance. What I’m proud of is really my music and that I’ve hustled really hard to get to the point where I have a push behind my music and where people believe in me. I’ve worked on being a great songwriter since I was 14, my whole life basically. So, I’m really proud of that, and I love talking about music and what inspires me. I always think that being gay–or [one’s gender identity], or gender in general–says nothing about a person. To me, sometimes, it can be frustrating when it’s like, “Trans Artist Kim Petras,” because I feel like I’m so much more than that. When people focus on that it seems like the only thing I can be.
But at the same time, I’m trying to just be openly transgender. And I’m proud of being trans, and I want to support the community. I want it to be easier for younger generations, and I want to help trans visibility…I have trans fans–like a lot of them–and I feel like they really feel empowered that a trans woman can be so much more than just being trans-y.
Wow, that was a lot of “trans.”
BYT: No, that was great. So, how long did you just say you’ve been singing and songwriting?
Petras: Singing since I was a child: harmonizing with my sisters to jazz songs. My mom is really into Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, and Judy Garland. We used to listen to that when I was a kid all the time, and we just used to sing all the time.
And then I think at 13/14 I saw a documentary about songwriters, and I was like, “Well, that’s what I want to do.” I was like: “nobody’s ever gonna write me a song if I want to be a popstar…[I] have to learn how to write songs [my]self.” I made YouTube videos, started meeting producers online who would send me tracks, then I would start writing over tracks. Or, make my own little tracks on my little keyboard in my bedroom. I’d come home from school and just make demos all day and all night and watch Gwen Stefani music videos. I’ve just worked on it really hard and relentlessly since 14.
BYT: Has it always been this incredible bubblegum, hyper-pop style?
Petras: I’ve always wanted to do hyer-pop, but I feel like I’ve tried a bunch of different genres–you know, tried writing all styles of music. I’ve gone through phases where I was really into Ska music, and then I went through phases where I was really into rap. Or where I was really into Sade or Queen or David Bowie or Blondie. So, I feel like I’ve experimented a lot.
In my teens I made a lot of weird shit. Not all of my songs were always great. I used to really not be good, and now I’ve just improved and started writing better stuff…I’m making the music now that I’ve always dreamed of making. I just needed to write hundreds and hundreds of songs to get to this point.
BYT: That’s amazing. But why has pop been the music that you’ve always wanted to make? What does the genre mean to you?
Petras: I’ve always been really inspired by it. I think one of the albums that make me really want to make music was Gwen Stefani’s Love. Angel. Music. Baby. That album just changed my life. And then Gaga’s The Fame. I loved that so much. Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor. Cyndi Lauper records and Blondie records. I think that’s the core of why I’m making music.
I feel like I also put a lot of different styles and influences into there. I think there’s a lot of LA and West Coast music on songs like “Hills.” There’s classic RnB vibes on “Slow it Down.” I definitely like to mix it up…but whenever I’m sad I put [pop] music on, and I feel much better. I feel like I can escape into a bubblegum pop world.
BYT: You’ve talked your music having this kind of escapist quality before. Can you tell me a little bit more about that and how you hope it reaches people?
Petras: A lot of it is exaggerated. A lot of it is Fantasy Kim and Real Kim. I wrote “I Don’t Want it at All” when I was sleeping on a futon in a shitty apartment. I wrote a really bratty rich girl anthem. So, for me, I just fantasy write about my dream life. I always hated my life when I was a teenager in school, and I just got home from school and put on music videos and could forget about my problems. To me, that’s pop music. You can just put it on and have a good time and forget that maybe things are shitty in your life. I think that’s one of the amazing things about music. It can be so impactful on your mood. It can change your whole day and your way of going about things. I think that’s really important…I just like making people feel happy.
BYT: Do you think pop has a tendency to get dismissed for not being as serious as other genres?
Petras: Yeah, not just a tendency: People just don’t like to take pop seriously. People are like, “that’s not real music because nobody’s playing a grand piano in it.” So, yeah, I definitely feel like it gets dismissed. I definitely think that fun music gets taken as aimless and dumb, but I don’t think it is. Most of my favorite songs are really good pop, really well-written and all of that. I like all kind of genres, of course, but I think it is kind of a craft to do well-written pop. And I think a lot of people don’t think that. But that’s fine. Totally cool.
BYT: Your music videos are so beautiful and also have a similar aesthetic. What inspires your style?
Petras: I’ve just always been really into fashion. I used to buy Vogue with last pocket money instead of food or something…I’m really inspired by Audrey Hepburn and Rihanna and Billy Idol, Cyndi Lauper. I follow style a lot and think about it a lot. I just love dressing up differently depending on my mood. I think fashion is another escapism thing where you can create a fantasy, and I’m so into that.
BYT: What are some of your favorite things about having your name out there?
Petras: I’m just waking up every day super happy that my life is the way it is. I’m just so excited that I get to perform to full crowds of people. I used to play in clubs all the time, and nobody would be there, and nobody would know a single word of any of my songs. So, it’s just really, really dreamy for me. I’ve always wanted to have this life. I get to wear amazing fashion at photo shoots; I get to put outfits together; I get to perform for people; I get to write new songs; I get to collaborate with amazing artists that I love. It’s only been a year since my first single dropped and nobody knew anything about me. It’s been such a crazy year. I just feel like I keep learning and keep growing as an artist.
But my favorite thing, for sure, hands down, is my fans. They make me so happy, and I feel so much less alone since I’ve known them. I’ve always written songs to be understood, because sometimes I can be really nervous. I can not say things the way I want to say them because I’m nervous or anxious. So, songs have always really thoughtfully put together how I really feel. And just that people get that is so cool. I love [my fans] they’re so sweet and cute and awesome.
Feature photo by Thom Kerr