Hayley Kiyoko On ‘Citrine’, the LGBTQ Community and Realizing the Power of Music
Hayley Kiyoko’s been en route to becoming a household name for decades.
Despite being labeled an emerging artist, she’s been singing, songwriting, dancing and acting since her adolescence. Professionally speaking, the 25-year-old took on roles from an early age, later exploring her musical side in high school by forming her garage band Hede, which separated before she joined The Stunners, a girl group that also included fellow pop sensation Tinashe. Shortly thereafter, she went solo, honing her craft and releasing a debut EP, A Belle to Remember, in 2013.
In the years since, Kiyoko has carefully envisioned and executed an artistic vision that’s sophisticated enough to help her music transcend the arena of sugarcoated pop. Rather than harping on sex or wealth, her music explores human connections — notably so for the LGBTQ community, which gravitated heavily toward tracks like “Girls Like Girls” and “Gravel to Tempo." Thus, it’s no huge surprise that her latest music video, “One Bad Night," features trans activist and content creator, Erin Armstrong.
We spoke to Kiyoko about her latest EP CITRINE, being hands-on with visuals and connecting to fans on an emotional level.
You were very hands-on when it came to writing and directing your latest music video, “One Bad Night”. Are you always this involved?
I’ve always been involved. I directed “Gravel to Tempo," which came out a couple months ago, and directed “Cliffs Edge” and “Girls Like Girls” with my friend Austin, so this was the fourth video that I’ve been extremely hands-on with in creating and seeing the vision through. I’ve really enjoyed it because it becomes a more gratifying experience when you write a song and you hear it one way and then you tell a completely different story in executing it, and seeing it come to life. It’s really cool to watch and it’s great to see people’s reactions and how they connect with it.
Were you compelled to direct because of your background in acting and being on camera?
Well to be honest, I’m naturally very hands-on with everything that I do. But also, it’s more cost effective to direct my own videos. I was unsigned for a long time and had to fund everything myself, and so it becomes more cost effective when you don’t have to pay yourself and you can just put the money into other things. So that’s why I’ve been directing most of my videos and that’s why I’ve been able to achieve the quality, because I’m directing them. With that said, I’ve fallen in love with directing and creating. So at first it was kind of forced. And then I was like, wow, I really enjoy telling stories and being a part of this process from start to finish; sitting in the editing room, being there during coloring…really seeing the whole vision through has been really gratifying for me. Now I love doing it.
How do you approach whom you work or collaborate with?
I really approach whom I work with just depending on passion. I feel like everyone I hire, they do it because they love the message and they love the story that I’m trying to achieve. My set and my crew are filled with really kind, passionate people. They work really hard and are really talented and good at what they do, but we also are having a really good time because we’re creating something that we all feel is important. And I feel like that kind of comes across and shines through with each video that I do, because I work with the creative process on everything from set design to editing.
We all have become a family and we all love creating together, but it all starts with a story and what we’re creating. That’s how I started to find this amazing, talented crew that is able to pull off really challenging shoots. This “One Bad Night” video, we were illegally driving downtown with a camera out the sunroof shooting. When you don’t have a lot of budget, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to really capture it. We were shooting all throughout the night in a sort of sketchy area downtown, and so you know, there are always a lot of stories that go within each video that we make along with a list of challenges. In the end, it always pulls through and turns out great.
Your music has an ongoing theme of being very supportive of the LGBTQ community. Why do you feel so connected to this?
For me, I really just like to focus on themes that are really important, like human compassion and looking out for one another. I felt like it was important to do a video about that because I don’t feel like that’s really ever talked about and acknowledged, just the idea of seeing someone in trouble and helping them, and not turning your back on other people. And also finding hope in the little things in life, like the smile from a stranger or a pat on the back. One of my favorite moments in the video is when Erin [Armstrong] is in the car just feeling the wind on her face. There are so many times when I’m driving around and I’m stressed, and I just put my windows down and turn up the music. It’s that moment of hope and that moment of freedom, and those little pauses and moments throughout life. I feel like it’s what gets us through all of the challenges that we face. Obviously, there are a lot of issues within our society, and I just felt like it was important to tell a story about an unlikely hero and also just two characters going through a terrible night and finding hope within one another, or friendship. I feel like music a lot of the time can focus on sex or this or that, but sometimes you just find so much happiness within a stranger or a friendship or a cup of coffee. Or a donut.
What type of person do you think is connecting with your music?
I would hope that there’s a wide demographic. I think my most popular age range is like 18-24, and I have a lot of female fans. I feel like the common denominator with my music and the videos that I make is just being real and relatable and focusing on sometimes not complicated themes, like just really simple, basic emotions. We all—whether you’re a male or female, or however old you are—we all have gone through some of the same things. I think that’s what brings my fans together and creates a community of love and positivity, and I think that’s the common denominator. I just try to focus on simple feelings that we all go through. It doesn’t have to be heartbreak. It can be heartbreak with yourself, or falling in love with yourself. A lot of it just has to do with self-discovery, and like I said, moments in life that get you through the hard times.
Do you engage a lot with your fans?
I stay after all my shows and meet everyone. I did this show in Florida and I had a line of 300 people. I stayed for a couple of hours because it’s really important for me to meet the people that I’m connecting with. It’s so wonderful to hear people’s stories. Sometimes people will have come out to their parents by showing my video, or they ended up loving themselves by listening to my music. The thing with me, with what I’m doing, is it’s all bigger than me. The music and my stories and my perspective…it’s bigger than me. So to be able to meet the fans, because it’s not just my story; it’s their story and what they’re going through, and it’s cool to get to share that with them and make them feel like they’re not alone and that there’s someone out there who understands them. And I think that that’s something that a lot of people are not fortunate enough to have. So I have to make sure that they know I get it.
Even if you’re not able to connect directly, I think just having this music out there can be tremendously helpful to young people.
That’s something that I’ve learned. I’ve always known that I wanted to write music and be a performer, but I didn’t really know that my music was going to help people in such a deep way. That wasn’t like a conscious effort, so for that to just naturally happen has been such gift. It’s been an amazing surprise and an amazing feeling. I’ve never been able to feel that before, and that was really exciting and inspiring to write my EP CITRINE (out now), and to finish my album and continue on with what I’m doing, because with every song I’m able to connect and help people. I get it now. I get why music is so important, and I’m starting to be a part of that. It’s a really good feeling.
How would you define success for yourself?
It’s definitely difficult in the sense that my career is just starting and people are just starting to listen to my music, so of course the more people that watch my videos, the better. But you can’t force it and you kind of just, when you write music and you create art and content, you have to put it out and let it live on its own. And if it lives and it grows and people share it, then that’s great. I think there are a lot of amazing artists out there in the world that don’t get as many views and so, you know, I’m not where I want to be yet but I feel fortunate enough that they are listening and are watching, because it is difficult to get your music out there, to get people to sit and listen. It’s a really great gift.
Can you elaborate on the difficulties of breaking through a bit?
There’s only so many Instagram photos you can post. At a certain point, people are either going to listen or not. So I’m always so thankful because for me, as long as they hear it or I have an opportunity to show it to them, it’s great. But it is difficult to have that platform and get it out there. I feel confident enough in my art that if people see it they will like it, but it’s just the struggle of getting people to listen. It’s what everyone struggles for. Every once in a while, people will listen. All I can do as an artist is focus on my art and putting out the best content that I can. Hopefully, that’s enough.
The 'Citrine' EP was released on September 30.