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Kim Petras On The ‘Superstar-Feeling Pop’ Of Her Sunny New Era

2019 was a hell of a year for Kim Petras. Releasing her first full-length project, Clarity, via the rather unconventional strategy of sharing a new track every week, Kim went from opening for rising pop stars like Troye Sivan at the Greek Theater at the end of 2018, to headlining a set at the Shrine Auditorium herself just a year later. And despite the sh*t show that 2020 has turned out to be, with fear and anxiety mounting due to concerns about the pandemic, the 27-year-old pop star is more determined than ever to keep putting out music that’s a distraction and a relief from the worst parts of the outside world.

Releasing her latest, sunshine-y single “Malibu” yesterday to kick off her next era, Petras is clearly entering a phase that will contain some of her most upbeat and brightest work yet. “I just hope it makes people forget about everything that’s going on right now and just takes them into this little pop bubble,” she said of the track, when we spoke over the phone earlier this week. “I hope everybody’s staying safe and sane, I just wish everybody all the best and I’m sending so much love.”

“Malibu” is definitely a love letter of a song, featuring big, bombastic synths and a golden era pop sound that evokes what Kim calls the “superstar-feeling pop” sound. It’s imperial in tone, and breathless in feeling, and a complete 180 from the dark, trap-inflected pop she was leaning toward on Clarity. As the lead track off what will be her formal debut album, “Malibu” sets the bar high, and is the perfect escapist fantasy to lose track of reality inside. While observing the to safer-at-home ordinances in LA as much as possible these past few weeks, I absolutely had to take my car for a quick spin around the block just to hear this in full cruise mode — it’s a perfect soundtrack for that, and a reminder that a more light-hearted future exists out there, somewhere.

Calling me from her own personal quarantine, Kim took the time to break down the timeline of the writing this song — it was actually one of the first tracks she wrote — and what to expect from her upcoming new era, along with how she’s built her career as an independent artist running her own label. Read a condensed and edited version of our conversation below.

What was your headspace when you were writing “Malibu”? Because tonally and sonically it feels a lot different from the Clarity era.

I wrote the initial demo three years ago actually, before I ever put anything out. And ever since then I’ve just been trying to get this song right. With my lyricist, my best friend Aaron who I’m also quarantined with, back in the days we would just write a million songs. So, it just never really came up again. But then friends of mine would be like “Where’s ‘Malibu?’ I love that song!” And people would start hearing about it and I’d get all kinds of questions about it.

So we were like, all right, we’re going to try and get this right and write a new version and write a new riff, and we did and it just started felt really perfect, and felt like exactly what I wanted to do next. Because I don’t feel heartbroken anymore, I feel like I got that out of my system with Clarity. I just wanted to make a song that makes me feel good and makes me want to dance. And make me feel like an ’80s superstar. This is the kind of song that reminds me of Prince and MJ and it reminds me of early Madonna stuff, and Cyndi Lauper and that’s my favorite kind of music.

We got the song down and it sounded like the perfect first single for my next, real first album. We always called Clarity a project and not an album, so now it’s time for a debut album. Especially putting it out now, because I really feel like it’s going to make people feel like they’ve just been to the beach, and make people forget about the bad things that are happening for like three and a half minutes. I couldn’t ask for better timing for this to come out.

I love how it’s such a feeling of escapism. That’s what I always turn to pop music for. What is your own relationship to Malibu itself?

I actually wrote it when I had never really been to anything else but the beach in Malibu. And my imagination of it was so great, but then I was like, ‘Wait, it’s just a bunch of rich people living by the ocean.’ I wanted to write a song about my imagination of it and how I wanted it to feel — I think I just haven’t been to Malibu with the right people. But this song is an ode to my imagination, like how Malibu looks on TV, to somebody who’s from Germany and how it seems in the movies and stuff like that. So it’s really romantic because I’m comparing love to my dream version of Malibu, that’s what the song is all about to me. But I would love for people to make it about anything they want to make it about.

I love that. What else can you tell us about your next era and what “Malibu” is previewing as far as your next body of work?

I feel like it’s a new sound for me. I’m definitely going into that direction of, like, superstar-feeling pop. I’m really excited to make my debut album a concept album. I’ve been working on songs and I’m really excited about this next chapter. I already have the title, and I know what I want it to be, and I definitely don’t want it to be sad. Like this one is not going to be sad. But I think I’m going to be showing a lot of sides that people don’t know about me and also I think vocally, I’ve never been stronger. I’ve never been more capable of high notes and different personas and different tones. I just feel really free now. I’m going to make the music that I started out making music for, now. I think “Malibu” is the first taste of that. And a very exciting first taste to me because it’s the first single. So all my focus right now is going on to “Malibu” and that song, and I think it’s my best song yet, so I’m really excited about it.

Let’s talk a little bit about the impact that releasing Clarity had on your career last year. It was such a high-profile project for you, and it really put you on the map for people who maybe hadn’t heard you yet. How did releasing that project shift things for you?

I’m an independent artist, so for me, really the best way to do this, that I figured out — and I think I was one of the first to figure out — was putting out a monthly song. It’s really amazing what that can do for an independent artist. And I would encourage everybody to do the same thing. I think as a new artist, you can’t make a classic album with a full cycle or anything like that because you don’t have a fan base and you can’t get people excited about you if you don’t have that loyal fan base.

I’ve been so blessed that I did kind of find that right away when I dropped “I Don’t Want It At All.” But my hit is my entire discography, you know? It’s not like there’s one song that made me break through. It’s all the songs combined, it’s constantly putting out stuff and putting up 48 songs over the last few years nonstop. I felt like it was really cool, dropping a song a week with Clarity and it just snowballed so hard. It just helped me to get to this point, and now I’m finally at the point where I can say, ‘Okay, I’m going to put out my debut album and my first legit rollout.’

Not that I’m not going to be releasing songs in an unconventional way, because I love doing that, and I think that that’s honestly the future of music. And for the audience — I think it’s really great for the fans. But I just, I just feel like it’s all been a perfect storm to this point. You know, now I have a fan base, I need to really do the damn thing. For me everything was just building until this point. I just think these days, there’s no guarantees for anything and all you can do as an artist is constantly put out good music and I feel really proud of what I’ve done. But this still feels kind of different. It just feels like a moment for me with this song.

You already started touching on this, but I would love to talk about the fact that you’re a pop star who is also running an independent label with BunHead — which has become a little bit more common, but it’s still pretty groundbreaking. Can you talk a little bit about that aspect of your career and why that’s important to you?

I have always been really inspired by Robyn. I love Robin and she was one of the first people that I remember running their own label — she had Konichiwa Records. I think if I would’ve gone to a major label and I wouldn’t have had a smash hit immediately, I would have gotten shelved or dropped or been in some kind of weird contract. And I just, I knew that I wanted to wait as long as I could, if I ever signed so I would be in the position to sign a deal that was actually good for me and that doesn’t prevent me from dropping as much music as I’m dropping and gives me full creative control. That’s something that my career was made by, dropping songs and not having to worry about oh that’s the weekend Taylor Swift’s album comes out, so I can’t drop it. Or this big artist, or The Weeknd — whatever it was. I just didn’t have a big enough fan base that I would be a priority anywhere. I’ve been burned so many times with signing bad contracts in my life.

I’ve had bad managers since I was 14-years-old that signed my whole life off and left me not making money ever. So now, I’m really lucky because I have great management, and my friends who support me. And even though I can’t pay people big numbers to produce my songs or anything, that’s okay with the people I work with. I really feel like it’s not as important for me to get there, as much as how I get there. I want to get there on my own terms, with my own timing and I have my own definition of success. And I feel very successful. I’m really grateful for the support I’ve been getting from radio stations and people like Radio One and Apple Music and Spotify, so great, without them I would not have been able to do this so I guess it’s only been a few years that I have actually been able to do this. I’m just lucky that the time is right, and social media exists, and you can build your own fan base and do it any way you want it.