Photo: Amanda Charchian
Exclusive: How Hayley Kiyoko's Groundbreaking 'Expectations' Is Just The Beginning
Singer/songwriter Hayley Kiyoko is breaking the pop music mold in a whole new way. She has managed to become a fearless DIY success story, a resourceful and innovative video director, and a proud member and leader of the LGBTQ+ youth community, all without sacrificing an ounce of the irresistible smash hit sweetness. Simply put, her story is her own, unflinchingly real and yet universally relatable.
After several EPs generated a well-earned buzz surrounding her work, Kiyoko's full-length debut LP, Expectations, arrived earlier this year. Drafting on the infectious candor of "Curious," the album has brought her brand of pop mastery to the masses with authenticity, integrity and charm. Her latest single, "What I Need," features GRAMMY nominee Kehlani and its video, which was directed by Kiyoko, traces an epic story of love and independence.
Kiyoko has traced her own epic journey of late, wrapping a sold-out headlining tour followed by a run opening for Panic! At The Disco this summer. We caught up with the 27-year-old rising star in the midst of her whirlwind ascension to talk about the songs – and videos – of Expectations, the thrills of the road, how she likes to unplug, and what's next.
As a very personal album and a concept album, how did your full-length debut Expectations meet your expectations?
I set my expectations very high for Expectations, my debut album. It's something that I'm really proud of, because I really enjoy albums that you can listen to from start to finish, and just push play, and not skip a song. And that was my goal, going into this album. And on top of that, keeping it visual, because I direct my own music videos. So I wanted people to feel that experience as they hear it. And have everything kind of run into one. So I'm really proud of it.
The video for "What I Need," which you directed, had me on the edge of my seat, totally invested. So how did you develop the narrative?
I've always wanted to have kind of this fun, road trip, friendship adventure video that really tests those boundaries of love and friendship. And I also had never really had a video that showcased that struggle of parents, or that adult role model not understanding their daughter or child and vice versa. And so the opening scene of the music video is both of them kind of bumping heads. Just being like, "I don't get you." And like, "Why is this so hard?" And I feel like so many people can relate to that. And so I just kind of built the story off that concept of trying to have, not only kids, but adults be able to relate and connect to the video.
How does directing feed your artistic spirit differently than music?
I love directing, and it's something that I realized is definitely a huge part of me. I think, as an artist who writes their own music and is so creatively involved in all of the decisions, you become a director of your career… for me, it was very natural to become a director. I became a director because I couldn't afford the directors I wanted… Being unsigned, and trying to become noticed, you end up just doing everything yourself. Because it's like, "well, if I don't have the opportunity, I'm going to create it." And that's kind of been my journey as an artist through and through, just doing everything on my own and not taking "no" for an answer.
And I love the challenges that come with music videos, and things going wrong, and having a vision for one thing, and losing a location, and having to adjust it. But what's so cool about directing is that, all of these things can change, but it's about keeping that core emotion and that core story.
"Curious" put the album on the map earlier this year. Do you remember writing that song? Can you tell us where it came from?
"Curious" is a song that covers a lot of my experiences with women, where… I want to make sure that I'm not a part of a game, and these feelings are true and real. And I feel like everyone can relate to that, that feeling of like, "is what you're saying to me true? And are you talking to someone else? And do you feel the same way towards me, towards someone else? And are you serious? I'm just curious, is it serious?" And that's kind of where that whole concept came up. And it's a really fun song to perform, and the music video for that is really based off of my life.
The word "curious" takes on a double meaning, which is part of why it's a great song. What does that word mean to you?
The word "curious" has always had a negative connotation to me, just because, when you're curious, you're unsure. And that kind of blends into my next song, "What I Need" is for you to be sure. Wow, I just put that together [laughs]. I think we all want to be with someone who knows what they want and knows who they are, and I think we're all searching for that. We're searching for purpose. We're searching for acceptance, relatability. And so I try to implement that as much as I can within my music and my storytelling.
Authenticity can be a rare trait in the pop music realm, and it seems like your fans, especially in the LGBTQ+ community, strongly identify with your voice because it is so authentic. What has that community meant to you, in terms of your art, and then also in terms of your career?
Thank you. It's very interesting because I grew up without a community. I grew up not knowing, really, anyone like myself, that liked girls as well, or really liked anyone different. So it's been this crazy thing where I've found my purpose through my fans. I've found my community of people through my fans and through my music. And they've stood up for me, and kind of been like, "Hey, we're here. You haven't known where we've been your whole life, but now, in your mid-20s, here we are, shining bright." I have a lot of people thanking me for validating their feelings. But for me, I get emotional because I'm thanking them for validating my feelings. I put music out, really concerned whether I could be in the mainstream pop and be respected and heard. And they validated that by showing up to these shows.
Indeed. You've sold out some very big cities on this tour. What's it like to be onstage and see and hear your fans singing your words back to you?
It's really amazing to hear all my fans sing every single word, because it reminds you that these words are more than just words, they mean something to them. And they're telling a story to them, and they're helping them through something, whether it's laughter or sadness. It's really awesome to get to share that and have something in common with one another.
You have a very busy life right now. What's your favorite escape when you get some time to yourself?
I love nature. This is my first year really living on the road. I'm normally in my house, hoping someone's going to listen to my song. But I love walks, I love trees, I love water. It just kind of takes me out of my element. And when you listen to my album, you'll hear water throughout the album, because I find nature very centering. And it kind of resets your emotions. That's what it does for me, and so I wanted to do that in my album.
What are you working on next?
I'm really excited for the rest of this year, because I'm getting to tour Europe for the first time. For me, as an artist who had been unsigned for so long, [and recently] became signed, [I] wasn't really brought on tours, had to headline my own shows. And so to be able to finally get across overseas to Europe, and get to reach those fans and get to know that I have fans over there is very exciting. So I'm doing my first European tour in the fall, and then I'm going to be, hopefully, doing as many music videos as possible with this album and continuing to push that and seeing where that takes me.
Have you started thinking about a follow up to Expectations yet?
It's interesting, because most of the time, people are like, "I don't know what's next for me, or what I'm going to say." And this debut album for me is really just the beginning. Because for me, it was catching up with my life, and accepting who I am, and understanding that. So I'm really excited for my sophomore album, and future albums. Because I have so much more to say, and I feel like this is just the beginning.