Published Feb 12, 2019King Princess is laughing her head off; it just occurred to the musician born Mikaela Straus — the artist behind the sad, sophisticated and ubiquitous ballad "1950" — that her forthcoming debut album, due later this year, is "best consumed stoned and sad."
"I want somebody to listen to my record while smoking a fat blunt, just sobbing," she tells Exclaim! in an interview. "That's how I would like it consumed: 'best consumed stoned and sad.'" Then, she bursts.
"Oh my god, write that!" she joyously demands, her glee deepening as she repeats the phrase: "'Best consumed stoned and sad!' I just wrote your article!"
The moment almost too nicely encapsulates everything that's quickly made King Princess into a buzzed-about cult favourite: Straus is as animated and charismatic in person — sitting cross-legged on a sofa and vaping backstage at Toronto's Danforth Music Hall — as she is on stage and social media, but she takes her songcraft as seriously as your life; and like most 20-year-olds, if more justifiably than most 20-year-olds, she's supremely self-assured.
You can hear it in her debut EP (one of 2018's best) Make My Bed, a classic-sounding mix of huge, reverb-soaked piano-and-guitar balladry and the kind of lovelorn lyricism that, in lines like "Tell me why my gods look like you, and tell me why it's wrong," evokes Leonard Cohen and Lorde in equal measure.
Listening to King Princess songs, like "1950" — the earworm from which that lyric is pulled, and which launched her to stardom when Harry Styles tweeted its lyrics to his 33 million followers in March of 2018 — it's easy to forget how young she is. But Straus has been making music since she was seven, having spent her formative years in and around her father's home-based professional recording studio, Mission Sound. At 11, she turned down a recording contract with Virgin Records.
"I really understood the concept of holding off as a kid, because I watched people get eviscerated by labels in my years observing musicians in the studio. It was like '…okay, fuck all of that.'"
Holding off gave a teenaged Straus time to figure out what it was that she wanted to explore in her music.
"I began to seek out and enjoy content that was queer, and I was curating the shit that I was watching and reading to be queer only. It became obvious to me that my life's work was to make that same content, but in my medium."
Just one EP and two one-off singles (including a remake of Fiona Apple's "I Know," featuring the original singer on vocals) into her career, Straus has established a young, hungry audience that see themselves in her explicitly queer songs and aesthetic.
Her show at the Danforth a few hours later boasts a 90:10 ratio of women to men, and it's a celebration of friendship, love, youth and queerness: at the front, Straus is inundated with bras and weed offerings; at the back, the venue's expansive floor provides a space for young couples to slow-dance.
Half of her setlist is composed of new songs that will appear on her full-length debut: "a body of work that provides an experience," she says; "you're crying, you're laughing."
Asked about it, Straus squeals with excitement, then turns solemn again.
"I produced the whole record with my engineer. It's really fun, as a producer, to be like, 'on this record I'm going to explore.' Not every song sounds the same, and I like that. I hope it makes people feel like music is evolving, but I'd be nothing without the classics. I hope people listen and feel nostalgic and like there's progression being made at the same time."
"Pop music," she explains of her medium, "has never been a genre — it's what's popular. And that's what I'm trying to get at: it can move the pendulum, it can create change, but it has to be good. It has to be good."