Topping charts all over the planet with Sam Smith, and with a whole new era ready to kick off, Kim Petras‘ main pop girl phase has arrived.
Words: Abigail Firth.
Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.
Stylist: Davey Sutton.
Make Up Artist: Francesca Brazzo.
Hair Stylist: Martin Cullen.
Kim Petras is busy. Things are already kicking off just one day after the release of ‘Unholy’, her collaboration with Sam Smith, and she’s very much “up for the ride”. “It’s really exciting to be part of a song that’s doing the things that it’s doing,” she says from a hotel in Las Vegas. Kim’s also just been to London, where she recorded a BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge session with Sam, ahead of a weekend writing trip to Sweden to work with living-legend Max Martin (who she also worked with on upcoming single ‘If Jesus Was A Rockstar’, but more on that later).
Having just landed in Vegas for a festival performance with Sam, Kim’s already drunk too much coffee ahead of our interview. In a couple of days, she’s off to Los Angeles to finish her upcoming album. “It’s not done, but it’s all written. All the sexy skeletons are there. Now we’ve just got to flesh them out and put little outfits on them,” she explains before asking if that sounds too gross.
Rather than feeling exhausted or overwhelmed by the demands of balancing international promo with finishing her major label debut album, though, Kim is just excited. “I definitely think that this is the control one,” she says of her new record. “It’s the one where I just control absolutely everything about it.”
Kim knew ‘Unholy’ would be a smash the moment she heard it. The explosion on TikTok as the pair teased it in the run-up to its release further solidified that confidence. “It’s felt special since Sam sent it to me,” Kim says. “I’m really honoured and touched that Sam wanted me on it. We had so much fun writing it. It’s been the dreamiest collab. I feel like I have a new friend for life.”
That genuine connection is one of the reasons it’s reacted so well on TikTok (being an absolute banger hasn’t hurt either). In a world of awkward pairings for clout, Sam and Kim seem like they genuinely had the best time together. “With any collaboration, I want there to be that energy,” explains Kim. “It’s what happened when I worked with Charli XCX (‘Unlock it’) and SOPHIE (‘1,2,3 Dayz Up’) or any of my other collabs I’m proud of. It’s just easier when people have a passion for the song and get along. It’s why I say no to a lot of collaborations.”
During the creation of ‘Unholy’, Sam encouraged her to bring “that authentic Kim Petras experience,” she says in a British accent. “There were six dudes working on the song in the studio, then me and Sam being absolute queens. That could have been a scary atmosphere, but they really had my back.”
“I’m really honoured that Sam wanted me; it’s been the dreamiest collab. I feel like I have a new friend for life”Kim Petras
“Over the past few years, I’ve learned what I want to say with my music and what is a Kim Petras song,” she continues. “I’ve become a bossy bitch in the studio. I just know what I want now, whereas before, my insecurities were always very present.”
That confidence is present in ‘Slut Pop’, the flamboyant seven-track EP Kim released earlier this year, and ‘If Jesus Was A Rockstar’, her upcoming guitar-driven single.
“It’s a fun song, but it’s also really lyrically intense,” says Kim. She describes it as a choose-your-own-adventure track in terms of what it could mean to people, but for her, it was written after she struggled with her spirituality over the pandemic. “As a kid, all my friends would go to things like communion, but I always felt excluded. Maybe if religion was cooler and more accepting of LGBTQ+ people, maybe I would have gone to church and found a place for myself in it, but I didn’t and probably never will. Today, I just believe in my own things.”
The track was a dream come true moment for Kim, with Max Martin producing the song as well as providing backing vocals. “I didn’t even know he was going to be there,” says Kim. “I went there to work with Savan Kotecha and Ilya, and he was just sat on the couch, saying hi. I’ve studied the guy for so many years, so I was starstruck and nervous, but I played it pretty cool,” she laughs. “We all got together, talked about the song, then threw spaghetti at the wall to see what stuck. It was so much fun.”
‘Jesus’ is also the first solo song Kim is releasing without controversial producer Dr. Luke on the credits. “I just wanted to try something new,” says Kim. “I tried a million new things and worked with other people for this album, and it was great and really inspiring. It’s just fun to switch things up.”
It marks the start of a new era for Kim. “No one’s heard anything like this from me before. Gay club music was always my shit before, but now everyone is doing that, so where’s the excitement? If I did it again, it would just be boring.” Instead, Kim decided to “sing about something deeply meaningful, something that I struggle with and something that is just honest.”
“I’ve become a bossy bitch in the studio. I just know what I want now”Kim Petras
Past projects like ‘Clarity’ and her ‘Turn Off The Lights’ series of Halloween EPs have been driven by escapism. “I was so into the idea that I hate my life, that I needed to make up stories,” explains Kim. “This is the first time I’m talking about something real. I don’t know if there’s a character this time around. I think it might just be me.”
It follows hot on the heels of ‘Slut Pop’, which saw Kim reclaiming sexist slurs and tackling the shame she felt as a trans person via gleeful club music.
“I don’t know why I did so much thinking about my childhood during the pandemic,” she starts before explaining one of her friend’s mum was a prostitute. “They were the nicest people, but everyone was so mean to them. There was also the stuff that happened with OnlyFans (where the platform restricted the type of content people could upload and threatened to ban sexually explicit content altogether), where a lot of my friends and people in the trans community were freaking out about losing their income. It’s so weird that people are so against sex work when it’s clearly something humans need based on the huge demand for it. Why make people ashamed about it? ‘Slut Pop’ was my way of celebrating sex and sex workers. I know people have a lot of opinions about that record, but I’m really proud of it.”
“It does hurt when it feels like even your own community sometimes doesn’t support you”Kim Petras
Between ‘Jesus’ and ‘Slut Pop’, Kim is becoming more comfortable talking about herself rather than constructing elaborate characters. Back in 2018, she was accused of being an “apolitical pop star”, with her actions not aligning with her identity as an out trans musician.
“I think if your childhood is very traumatic and intense, and there’s not much happiness in it, you just want to find fun in life and not think about it,” says Kim. According to her parents, she knew she was trans since the age of 2 and spent her teen years appearing on talk shows and petitioning the German government to change the law to allow her to undergo sex reassignment surgery at the age of 16 instead of 18. She was successful, and a documentary followed, with the intention of educating and supporting other kids struggling with their identities. It also put Kim in the international spotlight, though. “All I was to people was transgender,” says Kim. “But I saw music as this beautiful thing where that didn’t matter.”
She’d wanted to be a pop star since she was a child and worked hard on her craft, “but the record label meetings I had in the beginning were crazy. People would ask me the most ridiculous shit about being transgender, and everything would come down to how they would market that. People really didn’t believe in me as an artist,” dismissing her music as “too gay”.
“I do it for all the people like me who don’t really fit in, who feel like they’re aliens in a world that hates them”Kim Petras
“It was extremely hard to get anything released,” says Kim. Now those same people approach her, wanting to know how to get new artists in with the LGTBQ+ community. “Fuck off,” is the only answer they get. “It’s just so offensive,” says Kim. Still, Kim believes that as a trans artist, she is held to a different standard than other musicians. “It does hurt when it feels like even your own community sometimes doesn’t support you.”
“People assume I’m a spoiled brat because that’s the fantasy I wanted to create, but my journey to becoming who I am today has not been an easy ride. I’m not perfect,” she adds. “Everyone says some shit that they don’t necessarily stand behind after. I think if you really listen to my music, and look carefully at my interviews, you can hopefully tell I’m not a shitty person.”
For ages, Kim saw her teenage years as a “painful and dark” chapter and tried to avoid it as much as possible. “‘Slut Pop’ is me turning that around, making it fun to talk about sexuality, and especially transsexuality. It’s not a thing I need to run away from now.”
She explains how a lot has changed over the past five years and for her. “SOPHIE was always such a ray of hope. I learnt a lot from her and feel the need to continue what SOPHIE was doing, which is to keep normalising being transgender. I just want to make music that touches people. I do it for all the people like me, who don’t really fit in, who feel like they’re aliens in a world that hates them.”
On this new album, Kim is “really trying to talk about genuine feelings. There are moments that are very uptempo and very fun, but there’s no elaborate character. It’s basically my diary. Every song is its own little world, with its own story, and there’s no overall concept.”
This isn’t Kim’s first attempt at a major label debut, though. Back in 2021, she released two singles (‘Coconuts’ and ‘Future Starts Now’) from a European pop-inspired record called ‘Problématique’. Others songs like ‘Hit It From The Back’ and ‘Revelations’ were performed live. Taking influence from Britney Spears’ ‘Blackout’, Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born To Die’ and Marina’s ‘Electra Heart’, the concept record would see Kim playing the “most fun” version of herself. However, earlier this year, that entire record was leaked alongside other songs from the vault.
“It was intrusive. That’s the way that leaks are. It felt not great,” she says before once again encouraging fans to listen to the leaked songs. She doesn’t know when, or if, the tracks will ever be released. “I still love that album, though. It’s full of bangers.”
Thankfully, Kim was already working on the record that’s due to come out, with ‘Problématique’ intended to act as the quick follow-up. “The leaks didn’t turn my world upside down. It just made it shitty for a few days,” she explains.
Her upcoming album has “changed so much” over the past couple of years. “I was really pushed by the label to beat the shit out of every song. The end result is something I really believe in. I’m doing the absolute most I can on this album.”
Playing host to a lot of “really weird influences”, Kim listened to a lot of The Prodigy, The 1975, Becky G and German heavy metallers Rammstein while she was making her album, alongside the likes of Madonna’s ‘Ray Of Light’, Cher’s cover of ‘Walking In Memphis’ and M.I.A., who soundtracked Kim’s “teenage rage phase”.
“Maybe I’m just a little shithead who doesn’t like giving people what they want”Kim Petras
“I went through a breakup recently, and after that, music was the only thing that made me feel ok,” so every waking second of Kim’s life at home was accompanied by music turned up way too loud. “I just rediscovered what I’ve always loved about music.”
Kim has also been inspired by Queen’s Freddie Mercury (“a really theatrical artist who did whatever he wanted and didn’t give a fuck what anybody thought”) as well as Madonna and Charli XCX. “They’re both constantly looking at what’s out there and thinking about what’s next. Unique people like that are hard to come by. That’s the sort of artist that inspires me, and that’s the sort of artist I want to be.”
Despite several breakout songs to her name, Kim’s desire to change genres, eras and characters has meant she’s never had one fixed identity as an artist. “I don’t know what, if anything, has held me back,” she explains. “I just know that the entirety of my discography over the last few years is more important to me than a single hit song. I’m extremely proud, because every project introduces something new. There’s so much joy in experimenting with different voices and styles.”
“This era isn’t about chart success. For me, it’s about what I’m about as an artist.”
Sure, she says that now, but maybe she’ll change her mind as the glitzy, celebratory run she’s on with Sam Smith as ‘Unholy’ tops charts around the world.
“I’m so thankful Sam gave me this platform just because they think I’m a dope person, but I built my career performing in gay clubs. I have a cult following that sells out my shows, and that’s what’s most important to me and why I feel successful,” says Kim. “Being in a room full of people who understand you and your music is the most incredible feeling in the world. They’re the reason why I feel so confident in my own skin. I was such a different person before I had that community.”
“This is the first time I can confidently be myself and not get shoved in different directions or do things to impress people,” she adds.
So, just how confident is Kim Petras about this new era? “It’s hard because there’s definitely part of me that’s always self-doubting, and I hate to hype myself up. I just make the music I want to make. I want you to decide if it’s any good,” she explains. “But if I had to judge this album, I would say it’s pretty fucking good. I’ve grown as a storyteller, a songwriter and a singer. I sound better than ever, and I’ve been more involved in everything.” If you couldn’t already tell, she’s very excited.
Kim describes her new album as crazy but isn’t going full metal or art-pop like Bjork. “I wish,” she laughs. “What an icon. But my album is still pop. That’s the one thing that connects everything I do, no matter what I’m writing about. If I’m inspired by being a killer or a slut, my music always manages to be pop.”
“I hate being put in a box, though,” she continues. “So whenever I feel like people think they know what’s coming next, that’s when I want to introduce them to something new.” She laughs. “Maybe I’m just a little shithead who doesn’t like giving people what they want.” ■
Taken from the November 2022 edition of Dork. Kim Petras’ single ‘If Jesus Was A Rockstar’ is out 11th November.