PRIDE 2023: KIM PETRAS FEEDS THE BEAST

It’s a long way from Cologne, Germany, to Los Angeles, and pop sensation Kim Petras has been sharpening her skills every step of the way. Kim is remarkable in many ways; remarkably humble and down to earth, remarkably well-studied in the art of crafting American and Euro pop hits and remarkably brave in the face of significant adversity. Kim has been a trailblazer for the trans community and in the public eye since the age of 13, when she appeared on a German current-affairs television show to discuss her transgender identity. More recently, she has seen incredible success with #1 hit “Unholy,” the duet with Sam Smith that catapulted her into the mainstream.

The first openly transgender artist to score a #1 single and only the second trans woman to win a Grammy (following composer Wendy Carlos), Kim also recently became the second trans woman to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s storied swimsuit issue. We sat down with the Republic artist to discuss songwriting, "slutty escapism" and her new album.

Some readers may think of you as a newcomer, given your recent astronomical success with “Unholy.” But you’ve been working hard on your music since 2008, when you were barely a teenager. Do things feel different at this point in your career?

Thank you. Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. I’m so grateful. I think the way people treat me is a little different. I think people stopped thinking of me as just a gay club icon—which I love being—and started thinking of me as a mainstream contender in pop music, which is amazing. But at the end of the day, I love interacting with my real fans, who have been here forever and who treat me the same.

But it’s incredible, and I’m so grateful to anyone who’s been there over these years and come to my shows. It’s really a huge blessing and I feel really accepted. That’s the reason I started making music: I had this feeling that it didn’t matter where you’re from or what you identify as or what your skin color is or whatever. As long as you’re good at making music and writing music, you’re welcome. And that’s remained a true thing to me in music, which is so freeing and so amazing. I think it’s thanks to a bunch of amazing artists and producers and the whole music industry for being more accepting now and seeing that there’s a future where anyone can succeed in music and creativity. I hope that translates to the entire world, because the main issue with being transgender is that people couldn’t get jobs or live real lives. That’s the most concerning part. I hope I can contribute to normalizing being transgender. That’s always been my goal, to reach equality.

Talent really is the most important factor.

Yeah, talent and hard work. I mean, talent doesn’t go anywhere without hard work and putting yourself out there. I know a lot of really talented people who don’t put themselves out there and let their heads get in the way. I think I’ve worked extra-hard, maybe out of necessity. I felt like I needed to prove myself and to prove that people like me can be pop stars too. There wasn’t anyone doing that. So yeah, it’s great to break barriers and it’s so exciting to see new trans artists out there finally getting a light too. When I transitioned, more than 10 years ago, it was kind of the end of [my] social life. Nobody talked to me, and I really felt like I had no choice but to bury myself in my room and make demos, prove them wrong and become really, really good at what I do. It’s such a dream that I get to perform and make music all the time.

“Unholy” was the beginning of an extraordinary new chapter for you. What do you remember most about its creation, and about collaborating with Sam Smith?

I remember laughing a lot with Sam and thinking we had something very fun and special. I never imagined what would come next. I just was a big fan of Sam, and being in the studio with them and writing with them was an honor. That was it. I’m still blown away by everything.

With the benefit of hindsight, what are biggest takeaways about the impact of that song, both for you and for your audience?

The song really started with Sam. It was theirs, and I was thankful to be a part of it. When it was released, the world embraced it for so many different reasons. It was controversial and all, but it was also catchy as fuck and kind of funny. It was different from everything else going on. It was a chance for my longtime fans to hear another side of me, and I got introduced to a lot of fans because of it. It’s crazy. It’s one of the best moments of my life.

You’re clearly a keen student of the craft of pop music, as evidenced by your ability to write escapist pop songs with catchy melodies and cheeky lyrics. I wonder if you could speak a bit about your inspiration for crafting these songs, either the artists who’ve inspired you most or what your process looks like in the early stages.

Well, people who’ve inspired me, definitely Madonna, Nicki Minaj, Boy George, Prince, Kylie Minogue, Grace Jones, Cher. I’ve always admired artists who get to be free, be who they are and live that out completely. When I was a kid and had to go to school in boys’ clothes, I didn’t get to really share my inner self with people. I had to hide it. I think pop music spoke to me so much because it’s such a free expression. I feel like it saved my life in a lot of ways. I could always put on headphones and listen to a song, and it took me somewhere I actually wanted to be, where I felt happy.

I’ve always loved fun music the most because my life, in the beginning, just wasn’t very fun. It was a lot of darkness and a lot of really sad moments of [asking], “Will I ever get to be myself?” Since the beginning of my life was rough, I’ve always gravitated towards fun music because that’s how I wanted to feel so badly, and I just couldn’t. I grew up in a pretty tiny town with basically farm vibes—no neighbors and a 20-minute walk to the next person. Grass and fields and all of that. So very Heidi.

Growing up in a small town, I was like, “No one’s ever gonna write me songs. Why would they?” Since I love songs, I started writing little ideas at 10 and then eventually started writing my own lyrics. Of course, I sucked in the beginning, like everyone does, but I did it more and more and became better and better. I’m really proud that I had this blind belief in myself. I made that my school and my job, and decided this is what I wanna do. The way a song comes together is always different. It’s this magical thing where it either comes to me or it doesn’t, and you can’t force it. I feel blessed because it’s like this little bit of real magic to me. I’ve studied the greats so hard. In the beginning, I used to research The Bee Gees and try to make a Bee Gees song. Then I got really into researching Max Martin and finding every single song and every single interview he’s ever done. I was trying to learn everybody’s process.

On your 2022 EP, Slut Pop

It’s my best work.

You have lyrics like, “Treat me like a slut / Little dirty bitch, yeah I love to fuck.” And “I just sucked my ex, no gag reflex, just had to flex / I’m the throat goat.” Actually to me, “Throat Goat” in particular is so beautifully indicative of the project. The song starts with the braying of actual goats and guttural gurgling before dropping into an electronic, bass-driven track about fellatio that’s impossible not to dance to.

When I was singing, people would say that I sounded like a goat and started calling me a goat. I’ve always wanted to reference that. It was kind of the perfect way to clap back at that and make fun of it too. It’s a funny coincidence because that totally wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t from Germany. I wouldn’t have made that song, probably. It’s funny how sometimes things just work out.

I’m wondering if you could tell me a little bit about what inspired the tone of the whole EP.

The tone was inspired by the underground European clubs that I grew up sneaking into, and these hardcore lyrics over house beats. There was a lot of Peaches. A bunch of techno songs have the dirtiest lyrics ever. My religion as a kid was sneaking into gay clubs and hearing the music, then wanting to emulate those songs. That was my goal when I was a teenager, to make gay club songs.

This record in particular was made around the time that OnlyFans was trying to ban people from posting sexual content. I have a lot of trans friends who rely on sex work in order to transition. It really struck a chord with me. I was like, “I wanna make something that makes people feel empowered,” because sex work exists and is valid work that shouldn’t be shamed. It’s something a lot of trans people rely on because they get kicked out of their house by their family when they come out and end up being homeless. Sometimes the only choice they have is doing sex work. I respect that so much. That’s such a hard path, to deal with all of that just for wanting to be yourself. I’m so lucky that my parents supported me, didn’t kick me out and treated me like a normal person. I know a lot of stories where it wasn’t that way. I respect those girls so much and love them so much. I wanted to bring that into it, even though that’s kind of a heavy topic. It was important to me that it remained fun.

The point of it was poking fun at the way that sex is so taboo and such a dirty thing and blah, blah, blah. I feel like it’s powerful for me to sing about sex live, because a lot of people think that I shouldn’t be saying that stuff or that I should be embarrassed about it. I find nothing embarrassing about sex at all, It should be fun for everyone and not just a particular kind of person. A lot of things went into Slut Pop. I feel like a lot of people think it’s just fun and stupid, that I was in the studio spitting out random ideas. And I was, but there was a point behind it too.

In Beast mode: Republic co-founder/COO Avery Lipman, manager Larry Rudolph, UMG topper Sir Lucian Grainge,
Republic co-President Wendy Goldstein, Petras and Republic Chairman/CEO Monte Lipman.

You’ve got a new album coming out very soon. What’s the title?

This is the first interview where I get to say this: It’s called Feed the Beast. It’s such an exciting project to me. I am so over the moon that I get to release it and I got to make it. This is the first time that I did an album the major-label way, and it’s about wanting a lot from life and wanting a lot for yourself. It was something that I used to feel ashamed of. I always felt like I was taking up too much space and I was too loud, passionate, intense and energetic.

The whole point of this album is to feed that beast, that thing that you think is bad. It’s about feeding it, embracing it and celebrating it. The way it came together has been insane, because it has a few songs from an album that hasn’t seen the light of day yet, which was Problematique. Some of those songs fit really, really well on this new record. My label was like, “Go out there, write with a bunch of new people, go to Sweden, go to London, go anywhere and find inspiration.” My A&R, Wendy Goldstein, said, “Go out there and feed the beast.” And I was like, “That’s my title.”

It’s pop, but I think it has all the sides of me that I want to express. And I think it has a lot of stuff on it that people are not prepared for, a lot of sounds on it that people are not expecting from me. Also, having Nicki Minaj on my debut album is crazy. She is so inspiring and powerful and just does whatever she wants and believes in herself so hard. So that’s a huge major deal for me. But yeah, it’s a very special album to me that, I feel, really saved my life. I needed to take this kind of scary step—it was all or nothing. This is the statement to embody that for me.

Your single with Nicki, “Alone,” is built around a sample of the 90s electronic hit “Better Off Alone” by Alice Deejay. You flex your versatility on this track, tapping into a “Super Bass”-era Nicki sound. The collaboration sounds effortless, natural and full of energy. I wonder if you could share a few details about who you’ve collaborated with and what sounds or styles you’re exploring.

Nicki, to me, was kind of the cherry on top, and the reason that I wrote the song. I was trying to pitch Nicki any kind of ideas for her album that she might like. I’ve pitched so many songs to Nicki. It was such an honor. When I heard that verse, I cried and freaked out. The song wouldn’t be what it is without Nicki, and I am so grateful to her. I also have an amazing collaboration with one of my favorite artists ever, Banks, who I have been listening to for what feels like forever and have been inspired by. That came about because of Sam [Smith]. We went to a Banks show together after shooting some stuff for “Unholy.” She was really cool! We talked and were like, “let’s get in the studio.” I was so happy to write with someone who is such a good writer too. It’s a very different song, very dark. It’s always given me evil-siren vibes. It’s called “Bait” and I can’t talk highly enough about that song. I love it so much.

Then there’s more Euro inspiration for sure, more techno inspiration. I’m a huge Scooter fan, he’s like German techno royalty. I have some very up-tempo stuff on there, but also some ballads. There’s a song called “Thousand Pieces.” The lyric is, “everything can break in two, but a heart can break into a thousand pieces.” When we found that lyric, I was over the moon. That was with Max Martin’s gang, who were so cool to work with. We flipped this Danish song’s melody and added that lyric to it. It’s the most European thing I’ve ever done.

There’s an amazing song with Ian Kirkpatrick called “Uh-Oh,” which is this super-fast, unrelenting club song. Then there are some more classic kind of Scandinavian vibes, songs that feel very ABBA. I remember my parents blasting ABBA and that being a big inspiration for me. So yeah, it’s all over the place, but somehow feels cohesive.

Before “Unholy,” I was in a really dark place, and I didn’t know if I would get to release my music. I’m just so grateful I get to do it this way. It’s a really exciting time.

You’re scheduled for the Today show's Summer Concert Series on your release date. Are there any other details regarding the rollout that you’d like to share with us?

Yes, I am very excited about the visuals for this album. I feel like the album art is the best I’ve ever done. I’m now looking into what I wanna shoot a music video for next. I have ideas for pretty much every single song, so I wanna make as much content as possible to really nail the vibe down of what it stands for.

But yeah, I’ll go on tour, which is probably the most exciting thing, because it’s been a while since I’ve toured. I am so stoked to go back and see all the fans and bring songs that you guys know and love. I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a performer, and I’ve learned a lot in that time. I’ve done things like performing at the Grammys and the VMAs. All of that has taught me so much, which I can’t wait to showcase. It’s definitely gonna be kind of a nonstop thing once this album is out there.

HITS LIST:
HOME RUN DERBY
Going yard (7/11a)
NEAR TRUTHS: A TOUR OF THE LANDSCAPE
I.B. will be your guide. (7/15a)
GRAMMY PRE-CHEW:
THREE QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIG 4
On your Marks, get set, go. (7/8a)
ON THE COVER:
CHAPPELL ROAN
Half of Island's one-two punch (7/15a)
AUSTIN NEAL STICKS THE LANDING
These two are tight. (7/15a)
THE GRAMMY SHORT LIST
Who's already a lock?
COUNTRY'S NEWEST DISRUPTOR
Three chords and some truth you may not be ready for.
AI IS ALREADY EATING YOUR LUNCH
The kids can tell the difference... for now.
INDIE DISTRIBUTION'S RISE TO GLORY
The discovery engine is revving higher.
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