Hayley Kiyoko has known her calling for as long as she can remember. When she was 13, the Los Angeles native sat in the back seat of her parents’ car on her way home from Coachella and insisted that she’d need a ticket for the festival every year. “I told them I was going to learn to perform on that stage and then play there myself one day,” she says.
Thirteen years later, Kiyoko has made that dream a reality. Since breaking out — and coming out — with her 2015 track “Girls Like Girls,” the singer-actress has released a slew of unapologetically queer pop bangers and established herself as a budding visionary with her self-directed, meticulously crafted music videos. It’s no wonder some fans have taken to calling her their “Lesbian Jesus.”
The road to Coachella, where she’ll play this April, wasn’t always smooth. “When the ‘Girls Like Girls’ video hit 500,000 views, I was playing a show for 15 people,” says Kiyoko, who also starred in the movie reboot of Jem and the Holograms and the web series The Fosters: Girls United. But now she’s set to headline her first tour and unveil her debut album, Expectations, complete with cover art that features her gazing upon a naked woman. Her mission: to diversify the pop landscape one same-sex anthem at a time. “I want to sing about girls on the radio and have that be OK,” she says. “I know who I am, and I believe in my art. That’s the strongest thing you can do.”
While the singer put the finishing touches on her debut album Expectations, out Friday, March 30th, we caught up with her to talk about mainstreaming same-sex love songs, dating on Tinder, and hydrating.
OUT: Do you feel that there aren’t a lot of LGBTQ musicians that people can look up to right now?
Hayley Kiyoko: No, there’s not. It’s hard to be super out and carefree about it and free with words and pronouns. It’s hard to do that and be mainstream in pop music. I was in a writing session and someone told me that I couldn’t use “girl” or “she” in a song because it would never play on the radio. I’ve been singing straight songs my whole life and I’m fine. People can sing my songs and they’ll be fine. I don’t understand why that’s an issue?
I am a pop artist and I’m trying to be mainstream because I want to sing about girls on the radio and have that be okay. Have everyone just be like, ‘Oh yeah I love that song.’ I want to normalize it and have it just be about feelings. I like girls. The end.
Are you more at ease with your identity now?
Yeah, I mean when I released “Girls Like Girls” I was really nervous. When I release content now, I’m not nervous. I’m so excited and can’t wait to share it because I’m proud of it. I was proud of what I was doing [before], but I was scared. I do get scared still because people judge you all the time and don’t know who I am, but I know who I am and I believe in my art. That’s the strongest thing you can do.
Do you think it’s easier to be out as a musician now than it was a few years ago?
No. (Laughs) I don’t think anything has really changed. I think things have changed since I was a kid but, in the past couple of years, no.
“Girls Like Girls” was your big, breakout hit. How has your career shifted since that moment?
I was unsigned at that point. [My career] is the same in the sense that I’m still just creating content and throwing it into the atmosphere and hoping that something sticks and I’m still writing about things that are true to myself.
When you release music and sing love songs about girls, do you hope it will inspire a new generation of kids?
Yeah totally. The whole point is to help normalize those feelings — for it to just be a song and be about human connection. I want everyone to be able to relate to my music. Releasing these music videos, a lot of people complained about me doing another video about a girl, but that’s my life. I like girls. That’s not going to change.
There’s so much straight music out there anyway. Nobody gives them shit.
Yeah! Nobody is complaining about that. It’s about normalizing and accepting that, but I want people to see past that and be able to watch these stories and think, wow that was a beautiful love story.
When you have a crush, how do you keep from going crazy?
I’m very sensitive so it’s hard to ignore my feelings. The thing I do to not go crazy is just communicate. I have to communicate because if I don’t, I literally go crazy.
Do you feel that you communicate too much? Because that’s my problem.
Yeah. I totally communicate too much and that’s what scares people the most. I’m very direct and people are like, ‘I can’t handle this,’ and they run off.
It makes me nervous when people won’t say how they’re feeling because then I just assume the worst.
Me too! I just go into this spiral.
You direct your own music videos. Do you ever want to move into directing movies?
I would love to! That’s the goal. I’m telling these stories within my music videos and one day, I’d love to have the opportunity to do that.
You write the stories for the music videos, too. Do you think you’d want to become a writer and director?
(Laughs) No, absolutely not. I don’t do dialogue. It’s important to know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at and stick to your strengths. Directing is a strength. Writing is… not mine. As a songwriter? One hundred percent.
We need more women directors, too.
Listen, my goal is to direct a movie in the next couple of years so let’s see if I can make it happen.
What inspired the song “Sleepover?” It reminded me of a time when I was younger and struggling with coming out. My best friend and I weren’t out yet, so we used sleepovers as an outlet to explore our sexuality.
That song was definitely dedicated to high school or, generally, just being in love with your best friend or in love with someone. Anyone. It’s having that yearning feeling. It’s the concept of wanting to have a sleepover with that person.
You’re a California girl. When you go back to LA, what’s the first thing you do?
I love the water and the ocean. I don’t swim in it, though. I like to look at it. (Laughs) I’m a horrible swimmer — I’d sink and drown. I’m an Aries so I’m a fire sign, which means water is the only thing that calms me. Throughout the whole album, there are references to water. In this busy world I live in, the ocean is the only thing that lets me breathe.
I’m sure you’re very well hydrated then with how much you love water.
Anytime I get grumpy I’m like, ‘Hayley you’re dehydrated.’ That’s my solution to everything. What’s wrong? You’re dehydrated!
What’s the biggest misconception you get as a lesbian pop artist?
For me personally, people think I’m a player because I’m always making out with girls in music videos, but they don’t say that about other people. That’s a misconception about myself.
I haven’t really had any misconceptions overall, though — that I know of. I’ve had a pretty positive experience but I’m new so who knows what they’re going to say about me. I hope they say positive things because I have positive things to say about other people. I hope people know that I’m genuine and not a player. I’m not trying to play people. I just want a nice wife who treats me right. (Laughs)
It must be so difficult to date for you right now. Do you use Tinder or anything?
No, I can’t! I was just talking about wanting a Tinder but I can’t have one because there are so many hot girls in New York. The [dating] pool is great over here! Oh my god. They’re so intelligent and beautiful. They’ve got it all over here.
The thing with New York girls is they’re hustlers because life here is hard. I could not live in New York. I’m a pretty intense girl and I’ll give myself credit because I work really hard, but I could not live in New York. It’s a hustle!
Could you try long distance maybe?
No, I need attention! I need 24/7 attention.
Okay, true. We’re basically the same person and I know I could never do long distance either. Maybe you’ll have a Coachella romance, though that doesn’t sound sexy. Are you excited to perform there?
Oh yeah, I went for the first time when I was 13-years-old back when it was one day. It’s been my dream. I’ll never forget getting a ride home from Coachella telling my parents that I need a ticket to Coachella every year as a birthday gift. I told them I was going to learn to perform on the stage and perform Coachella one day. This was my dream. I would literally go every year and take notes on what to do.
It’s only taken me 13 years but what I’ve learned is that things take time. If you want longevity in this business, you have to have patience. It’s okay for things to take time because it’s worth it. I’ve had to build my fan base one by one. It’s been frustrating and I’ve cried multiple times — or hundreds of times — but looking back, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. It’s worth it.
Were your parents nervous for you when you started singing about girls?
We didn’t really have a conversation about it. I did the “Girls Like Girls” music video and I didn’t really talk to them about it, but they knew I liked girls at that time. We just talked about the art.
I had a really full circle moment with my mom. I was brainstorming for a new music video I’m working on and she helped me think of the idea for the end. I was like, ‘Mom you thought of a really cute lesbian love story,’ and she was like, ‘No Hayley, I just thought of a love story between two people.’ She gets it. This is the whole reason I do what I do.
Photography: Andrew Boyle