Most would be hesitant or embarrassed to use words like “reckless,” “unpredictable” or “ignorant” to describe themselves, even in the past. For electropop singer Kiiara, those flaws of her past self helped shape her into who she is today, and inform her music on a deeply personal level. On her debut album lil kiiwi, Kiiara presents the titular character as an early version of herself, documenting her mistakes and hardships that ultimately lead to the catharsis of her songwriting process. “I made a lot of mistakes and through the process of making this album I learned from a lot of those mistakes,” Kiiara says. “I learned not to take love for granted, I learned to love, I learned not to push away the people who genuinely care about me.”
Since her debut single “Gold” released in 2016, and subsequently became a massive sleeper hit, Kiiara has gone on to collaborate with industry heavy hitters like Linkin Park, blackbear, Ty Dolla $ign, and Future. That initial single going three-times platinum in the US and Canada, as well as gold and double and single-platinum all over the world, Kiiara has worked non-stop, releasing a string of successful singles like the Felix Snow assisted “Whippin” and “Feels.” Through it all, Kiiara wants us to remember that it is not all glamorous. If anything defines us, it is how we bounce back from our defeats, not what they make of us.
We sat down with Kiiara to hear all about the new album and her long list of amazing collaborations. Check out the full exclusive interview below.
Tell us about the inspiration behind the title for your debut album lil kiiwi which came out on October 9th? You mention “lil kiiwi is who I was early in my career. Lil kiiwi is a savage who, no matter how hard I try to control and hide, will always be a part of me.” We would love to hear more about your inspiration for the character of Lil Kiiwi, which was introduced in your music video “I Still Do,” and what she means to you.
Early in my career, up until now, I was very mysterious and closed off. I never really opened up to anyone. The only people who really knew me were my family and my management at the time. They were the only people I’d talk to. I’d only really leave my house to go to the studio or the grocery store. I was self-medicating and was just in my own world for years. I was a mess, to sum it up. My life was pure chaos. Back then, I didn’t even know who I was, so how was I supposed to let anyone get to know me.
The collaboration with blackbear was so simple. There was no forcing it. The song just sort of happened out of nowhere. When the engineer hit playback after I stepped out of the booth I remember stepping into the hall and calling my team like “you know who would sound perfect on this …. bear!!” I could hear his voice on the song instantly and that’s when I was like “wow this needs to happen. I have to send him this song and see if he’d even be interested.” We hadn’t talked in years. Sure enough he loved it and he sent back his verse and I was like “You killed it, I have no notes it’s perfect.
And that’s how it all happened. He is so incredibly talented. He is such a great writer and so observant and clever. I’m grateful we finally had the chance to do a song together.
“Numb” is about a couple different scenarios that I fused together. The first one was that I was mentally exhausted and drained because it felt as though no matter how many times I tried to explain myself, people just wouldn’t see or listen. It’s as if they would wait for me to be at my weakest and most vulnerable to swoop in and manipulate my opinion. It made me numb and left me with no confidence in myself or my own thoughts/opinions. In other words, it was debilitating, and I felt like I was in a tunnel all alone. I shut down completely.
The song “Numb” is also about how in some relationships it’s the other person who can end up controlling you without you even realizing it, until you are literally on the ground crying in the corner of the room because no matter what u say or do they’re controlling every aspect of your emotions — to the point where your brain feels numb.
When my team sent me PVRIS and DeathbyRomy’s verses I was shocked. I was like “how did you guys make this happen?!” I was listening to their verses on repeat for weeks. I love them both and have been a fan of them for a while now. My best friend Marlee had shown me PVRIS’s music when we were on tour a few years ago I’ve been a fan ever since.
Let’s dive into some of the album’s lyrics. On the new track “Accidental” you sing about a previous partner, saying “we found love but we never explored it.” Tell us how love has influenced the music and songwriting on your new album?
Early in my career, I wasn’t the most pleasant person you’d encounter. I was ignorant, unpredictable and reckless. I didn’t have a care in the world. I had a one-track mind and was just out there living. I didn’t think before I’d say or do anything. And at the time I didn’t realize how my behavior and decisions affected the people around me — the people who genuinely cared about me and loved me. I wanted love, but I ignored the love that was right in front of me and instead got hurt by all of the fake love that was around me. At the time it was tough differentiating who was genuine and who wasn’t. I ended up giving all of my energy and focus to the fake love. And it just led to disappointment after disappointment. I never knew I could physically cry as much as I did throughout this entire album process.
What tracks resonate with you the most on the new album and why?
The tracks that resonate with me the most on on the album are “Accidental,” “So Sick,” “Don’t Get Confused,” “Bad One” and well, all of them! “Accidental” is an apology. It’s about me being the absolute fucking worst when this guy showed me nothing but love. I wish I would’ve handled my emotions differently. I met him in 2016. My life was chaotic and I was a wildcard to say the least. I was scared because I really fell for him, and those emotions were something I had never experienced before. I wasn’t ready for a relationship at the time. I wish I hadn’t pushed him away. He didn’t deserve to be treated that way. If I could go back in time and take it all back I would.
You’ve made no secret of your major hip-hop and rock influences like Eminem, Joyner Lucas and Linkin Park. How have those acts informed your music, which is very much in the world of electropop and R&B? Who would you consider your biggest musical influences right now?
Eminem, Linkin Park, Joyner Lucas and Chris Brown have been consistent influences in my creative process / music. I study their melodies and lyrics and flow. I would still consider these artists to be my biggest influences to this day.
One of your earliest successes was your feature on Linkin Park’s “Heavy.” What did it mean to you to work with your favorite band so early in your career? How did that collaboration come about?
It meant the world to me to have had the opportunity to work with Linkin Park early in my career. Even now, I still ask myself: “Why me? Out of the millions and millions of people in the world, why did they choose me? How did our paths align in the perfect moment?”
It’s something I’ll never be able to fully understand or grasp. I still have to pinch myself. They’re my favorite band of all time. I had been a fan since I was 5 years old. Not only are they incredible creatives, they’re some of the kindest people I’ve ever met. They’re so wise and give the best advice. I am so grateful.
Has your songwriting approach changed since releasing music from your bedroom in Illinois five years ago?
My songwriting process changed in the sense that now I have the opportunity to work with other producers and writers. When I was in the midwest I had to write with people via email. Now I can just pull up to the studio for sessions and I am super grateful to have such an incredible engineer. He makes my life way easier.
Are there any more music videos coming from lil kiiwi? Has your production on the album and music videos been affected by the pandemic, and if so how did you adjust?
We’re in the process of editing the music video for “So Sick” featuring blackbear. I am so excited to share this one with my fans. I know they’ve been waiting for this collab for years. I am so happy bear and I were able to create this song and video for them, it’s a fun one!
The music video process has definitely been affected by the pandemic. Everyone had to take a COVID test in order to be allowed on set. We were all tested on sight and everyone had to wear a mask at all times. There were more rules, but it’ll take me too long to list them all…
Were you able to stay creative during quarantine? Were you in your home town of Chicago during the pandemic, or are you based somewhere else these days?
Yes, I have been lucky enough to stay creative during quarantine. I set up a studio at home and learned how to record my own vocals. I spent a majority of the pandemic in Chicago with my family. I try to look at the bright side of every situation and I am so grateful to have had this time to spend with my family. I hadn’t been able to go home for the holidays for the past few years because I’ve been working nonstop. I took a bit of a hiatus in 2019. Right now I am based in Chicago / LA, and I fly back and forth.
Tell us about your special performance on Sound Mind Live’s “Come Together: Mental Health Music Festival” on Thursday, October 8 – is this a cause close to your heart?
It is a cause close to my heart. Being isolated and alone with your thoughts during COVID-19 can be detrimental to your mental health. It’s so important to stay connected with friends and family during this time. Music is a great way to come together even if it’s a virtual event.
What can we look forward to from you next? Any other exciting projects on the horizon?
Keep an eye out for new music sprinkled here and there. I’ve been working on quite a few features these past 7 months. I am so excited to share these songs with my fans — they’re very special. These are some of the first songs where I’ve recorded my vocals all by myself way out in the midwest.