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King Princess Comes To Terms With Her Rapid Success On 'Cheap Queen'

Oct 28, 2019
Originally published on October 28, 2019 4:35 pm

"It was really important to me to write about what happened," Mikaela Straus, the musician known as King Princess, says, referencing being thrust into a career that she wasn't as prepared for as she'd imagined.

Straus' debut single, "1950," dropped in February 2018 with little-to-no promotion from her label. "They were like 'We're just going to put it out and see what happens,' " she says. What happened is that people listened — the first week after its release, "1950" reached a million streams. After that, the pace increased by almost a million streams a day.

The aftermath of that breakout became the inspiration for her first full-length record, Cheap Queen, which she wrote and produced in full and released this past Friday. Aside from going on tour and posing for photo shoots, things she had never done before, Straus says she was "asked to be public."

At the time she wrote "1950," during a stint in college, Straus had been fielding meetings with record labels for almost half her life, but that didn't mean she was necessarily ready for the spotlight. In fact, she's most used to working behind the scenes.

Straus grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, splitting time between her parents' places — one of which was her dad's recording studio, Mission Sound.

"It was really cool to grow up with my toys being recording equipment," Straus says."I think for a kid, it's really magical to be around that many buttons and lights and pieces of gear."

With her dad at the console, Straus began recording when she was little, a working relationship that continued as she grew older and started to take music more seriously. "It was cool because I could be like 'I'm going to record a f****** crazy guitar solo' and he'd be like 'Yeah, here's the right amp for that,' " she says.

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As King Princess, Straus was the first signee of Mark Ronson's Zelig Records, an imprint of Columbia Records. Her stage name, she says, is "a dichotomy. It's two things [that are] meant to be different, smashed into the same person."

That describes both the person and the music she makes.

When Straus says she was "asked to be public," a lot of the misgivings she had in the midst of her accelerating fame stemmed from concerns of the privacy of her romantic life. It's ironic that the song that put her in this bind addresses the same fears.

"I wrote ['1950'] with the idea of unrequited love and how queer people, even when you're allowed to be romantic with people in public — even when there's not an imminent safety threat — there's still this repercussive trauma from our history that bleeds into how we treat each other in public spaces," she says.

Straus was inspired by those contradictions — love, its presence or absence, its ability to be expressed or not — after reading The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith.

"I was so compelled by the story," Straus says. "It popped into my head that 'playing 1950' could be a metaphor for unrequited love."

This time around, requited love and its dissolution are central themes on King Princess' new release. "It's a full-heartbreak record," she says. "Full heartbreak, honey! Start to finish."

Straus wrote 40 songs over the last year, cataloguing her experience navigating the music industry as well as "a catastrophic break-up," although originally many of the tracks were love notes rather than anthems for heartache.

"Homegirl," for instance, is about "this feeling of being gay and, regardless of whether you're comfortable with it or not, the way that the world perceives queer love in public can be brutal," Straus explains. "Men can be really nasty and disrespectful. I think writing that song was really cathartic. It's sad, but there is a moment of empowerment within it where I realize and recognize that regardless of how I'm going to be treated in public with you by men, I'm not going to act that way towards you."

"If you think I'm going to act like those boys," she sings on the track, "I'd never."

The role of "Homegirl" in the King Princess discography epitomizes what this artist means to an increasingly vocal community of people who hunger for music that adequately expresses their experiences.

"I wasn't going to put [it] on the record originally," Straus says. "But I went on Twitter and there were all these angry gay kids being like 'Justice for "Homegirl"!' I was so incredibly flattered and so moved by the fact that this was a song I played on tour, for two tours, and then stopped playing, and there were kids who liked it so much they were out here petitioning on Twitter.

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"People are trying to understand [queer music] as though it's a subgenre within the music community, like people are setting out to make queer art. It's like, 'No, honey,' " Straus says. "When something is your identity, if you're writing in a way that is authentic, then that identity is embedded within the music. There is no choice. There is no separation ... you can't remove that part of yourself.

"I've noticed," she continues, "And what I'm so proud of about this record is that, when I listen back, I feel like my gender queerness is just woven into the tapestry of the music. It's not about my gender queerness, it just is. It is. It is a part of me. When I write, the words I chose — literally down to the words I chose to describe things — reflect that identity."

"I hope that people start to see identity in music as just a fact. It makes it seem like straight music is the norm, and I'm bored. I'm bored of that."

Cheap Queen is out now on Zelig Records.

NPR's Denise Guerra and Ned Wharton produced and edited the audio version of this story.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Mikaela Straus practically grew up in a music studio. Her father made a living recording musicians in Brooklyn. He began recording her as a little girl and into her teens. Those sessions led Straus to become King Princess. Her lyrics are deeply personal. Last year, she shared them in the song "1950." It takes inspiration from a novel about two women in love at a time when it was strictly taboo. The song was a breakout hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1950")

MIKAELA STRAUS: (Singing) I love it when we play 1950. It's so cold that your stare's about to kill me. I'm surprised when you kiss me.

I read "The Price Of Salt," which is a Patricia Highsmith novel. And it's brilliant. It's, like, I think, one of the best queer texts we have available. And, like, so kind of, like, compelled by the story and how she wrote it. And it kind of pops into my head that playing "1950" could be a metaphor for unrequited love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1950")

STRAUS: (Singing) So I'll wait for you, I'll pray...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now King Princess is out with her first full-length album. It's called "Cheap Queen."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEAP QUEEN")

STRAUS: (Singing) I can be good sometimes. I'm a cheap queen. I can be what you like.

It's basically a journal of the last year of my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEAP QUEEN")

STRAUS: (Singing) I'm getting too cocky since everyone wants me. It's harder to be myself.

It was really important to me that I wrote about what happened after I put out "1950" because I was kind of thrusted into a career, like, asked to do things I've just never done before. I was asked to go on tour. I was asked to be in photo shoots. I was asked to, like, be public and, like, also in turn, like, be public with my romantic life. And I think that it's, like - the only way that I could see myself getting through it was by writing about it, like, as if these songs were my journal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOUGH ON MYSELF")

STRAUS: (Singing) I'm so bad with attention, so my good intentions get bad when you hold me.

I'm so proud of this record. It's a full heartbreak record - full heartbreak, honey. Start to finish.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOUGH ON MYSELF")

STRAUS: (Singing) Sitting alone, making fun of myself.

I wrote 40 songs over the last year. When I picked the songs, I realized that they weren't heartbreak songs to begin with. They started as love notes or kind of expressing my feelings. And then when the relationship ended, it was clear to me that the record was going to be the trajectory of this entire relationship.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOMEGIRL")

STRAUS: (Singing) They stare when you walk in the room like they're looking at heaven. Oh, you know that those boys will do more than just look if you let them.

Love - that song is called "Homegirl." And it was very much so, like, a reactionary song to, like, I was not worth being in public with (laughter), which is, again, like, kind of like "1950" - this feeling of being gay. And the way that the world perceives queer love in public is - can be brutal. Like, men can be really nasty and, like, disrespectful.

It's sad, but it's - there is kind of a moment of empowerment within it where I realize and recognize that, like, regardless of how I'm going to be treated in public with you by men, I'm not going to act that way towards you. And I think that's a really - that was the strength of that song - is figuring that out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROPHET")

STRAUS: (Singing) You call when you want it. Everyone wants something from your soul on the molly.

I think that it's really easy to be like, yeah, you're writing songs about gender identity and sexuality. But for me, it's like, what else would I do? I'm going to lie to you. I'm going to tell you, like, I'm going to write songs about men and, like, not express the fact that I don't feel like a woman. What I love about authentic queer music is that people are trying to understand it as though it's a subgenre within the music community. And what I'm so proud of about this record is that when I listen back, I feel like my gender queerness is just woven into the tapestry of the music. I hope that people start to see identity in music as just a fact. Like (laughter), you know, it's like - because it makes it seem like straight music is the norm. And I'm bored. I'm bored of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROPHET")

STRAUS: (Singing) I can only think about you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Mikaela Straus, also known as King Princess, talking about her new album "Cheap Queen."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROPHET")

STRAUS: (Singing) Why they like to talk about you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.