Kiiara is one of the realist artists you’ll ever meet, wearing her heart on her sleeve and baring her soul with each release. The Chicago singer-songwriter arrives with a voice that can move mountains, telling her story and her struggles while reminding the masses that they too can overcome whatever life throws at them.
As someone who has suffered from anxiety, an eating disorder, substance abuse, Kiiara sees music as both her outlet and coping mechanism. In 2015, her hit single “Gold” went completely viral, catapulting her name from the underground to the mainstream light. With that came great success as she continues to meld the genres of pop, R&B, dance, and hip-hop into her own melting pot. She even landed a rare feature on legendary rock band Linkin Park’s Gold-certified “Heavy,” which showcased her talents to the entire world.
From uploading music as a teenager in her bedroom in Illinois to now amassing over 2 billion streams, Kiiara is on the ultimate road to self-discovery — creating vulnerable, relatable, uplifting ballads along the way. Now, she returns with her highly-anticipated debut album titled lil kiiwi, a nickname she was given in the studio early in her career.
Flaunt caught up with Kiiara via Zoom to discuss growing up in Chicago, “Gold” moving her to LA, overcoming addiction, the inspiration behind lil kiiwi, how Chester Bennington’s death affected her, goals, and more!
Being from Chicago, what was the household like growing up?
I grew up with my mom and my brothers. My parents are divorced, I still spend time with my dad. We moved to a small town when I was in 4th grade. I grew up on the West suburbs of Chicago, then moved South. I went to college in the South Side of Chicago for a little bit, then moved out here. A lot of everywhere.
Biggest influences coming up?
Definitely Eminem. He’s great, it’s the first CD I ever picked up and played when I was really little. I don’t know why I loved it: the storytelling, his voice, his tone, the accent, everything. On my last tour in 2018, we performed at The Shelter. I was a complete fan girl, my best friend and I took a photo in the 8 Mile bathroom. We’re like “oh my god!” It was so sick.
Where were you when your song “Gold” went viral overnight?
I was still in Illinois at the time, I was still working. During the summers, I’d work in a hardware store. I was walking out to my car thinking “wow, it’s getting a lot of attention.” We’re getting emails from labels, managers, producers. My friend moved me out to LA but we kept to ourselves. Myself, the producer, and the writer I was working with stayed in the studio and kept creating. We started taking meetings and I remember someone telling me “it was so hard to get in contact with you, we tried for months.” I was like, “I’m sorry, I had no idea. I wasn’t even looking at anything!”
Bring us back to when you created “Gold.”
I wrote the original on a classical guitar and thought nothing of it. I left it on my computer for a couple years and my friend kept bothering me about it. He said “can I please mess with it?” I said “sure, just quit asking me about it.” I was getting annoyed so I gave him the song and said “do your thing.” We were working on these other songs and recording “Feels,” “Tennessee,” and “Hang up tha phone.” One day, he sent it back like “yo, this is the idea.” He started singing it to me and he had hollowed it out and made it more minimal. We immediately went to the studio to work. It was a late session, around 3am or 4am, and we were about to leave and he says “wait, let’s record this song really quick.” Oh my god, I just wanted to go home! He says “c’mon, do it!” Fine whatever, so I did 2 takes then left. The next day, the producer opened up the session again, messed with it for 10 minutes, then walked outside to the balcony, came back in, messed with it a little more, shut his laptop and it was done. It was the craziest thing.
And it picked up organically?
Yeah. We had one blog post, we had Fader do the premiere. They said “we need a press shot,” so I took a selfie like “okay, here.” I made a crazy face, that’s what I remember. It was super organic. I remember the photo they used for the cover, I hated. They’re like “we’re not gonna use it” and they used it, I’m like “thanks guys.” The one with the bun, the original.
That was back in 2015, what was Kiiara like then?
Back then, I was naive, reckless, indecisive. I had more confidence back then than I do now, but it was a bad confidence. “I’m gonna do my thing, I don’t care how it affects people around me.” Now, I’m more aware of my actions and how people around me feel. I’m much different now and that’s where the name and the whole concept of the album comes from.
Were you ready for that success in that viral moment?
I wasn’t ready at all, it happened out of nowhere. I was on the fence about moving to LA but I thought, I guess I’ll try it out. My family was so supportive and told me “you may as well take the opportunity and see. You can always go back to school, that’s always there. Try it out, let’s see what happens.” They’ve always been really supportive of anything I decide to do. I’m super grateful for that, some parents wouldn’t let their kids take that leap.
You linked with DeathbyRomy and PVRIS on “Numb.” Who or what inspired this record?
I freestyled the original record back in 2016, it’s a really old one. I was super overwhelmed by all the pressure, I just felt numb. From work relationships to personal relationships, I felt I was being manipulated and I couldn’t make sense of anything so I shut down. I was so numb to it all. People showed up when I was in a vulnerable state and they’d try to persuade me to do certain things or make certain decisions. It was really hard.
Recently, my team sent me the DeathbyRomy and PVRIS verses and I was like “are you serious?” I’m such a big fan of both of them. My best friend showed me PVRIS’ music years ago when we’re on tour. When my team sent me over their verses, wow. They both killed it. Who knew all 3 of us to be on a track together and it’d make sense? It’s the perfect girl anthem, girl power.
How was linking with Linkin Park on “Heavy”? I actually got to meet them virtually, legendary!
They’re the sweetest, so humble. Working with them was incredible. Something I still don’t understand is why of all people were they like “hey you!” They haven’t featured any other female artist, ever, so I’m really grateful they let me hop on that song.
How did that happen?
Zane Lowe asked me in an interview, something along the lines of “who’d you listen to growing up? Who’s your favorite artist?” I said Linkin Park, I’ve been a fan since I was 5. He introduced me to Mike Shinoda. Mike reached out on Twitter and said “come to the studio,” so I went. I had just had my tonsils removed and Mike tells me to hop in the booth and said “do you have any ideas?” I started to sing something butI couldn’t hit any notes. I was like “Oh my god Mike, I don’t know what’s happening. I normally don’t sound like this, I just had surgery.” He’s like “oh well that’s why, it’s chill.” He was super understanding and nice about it.
We had another session and he played me potential songs for the album. He asked “which one, if you could sing on one, would you choose?” We listened to a bunch of songs, I said “Heavy.” I was choosing between “Heavy” or “Battle Symphony” but “Heavy” felt really special to me. Mike said “want to try it?” Yes. This time, I was prepared. I had a vocal lesson before. I was ready to go.
How did Chester’s death affect you? I know you guys had a relationship.
It was tough. I’d sit in my room for hours and cry. My brother actually came out and stayed in LA for a year and a half, because I needed someone. I’d go in my room in the closet with all the lights off, and cry for hours. My brother understood and was there for me, but it was hard. I remember I was in Amsterdam, I woke up and it was 5pm there, so really early in LA. Something was weird. I was sitting at a table eating and everyone knew except for me. People were calling me trying to interview me about it and I didn’t even know yet.
I was really hurt. I was really rubbed the wrong way and it made me view everything differently. Is anyone human? How could you ask me to do an interview when I don’t even know what’s happening yet? My team kept saying “she needs to get off the phone, someone take her phone.” Because they didn’t want me to find out on the internet. Someone had texted me and I couldn’t even accept it. It must be a different person or the wrong number, I put my phone away. My team told me and I like “wait, what?” It felt like my world was slipping in a spiral, everything was crumbling. I couldn’t sleep for days, it was bad.
Damn, I’m sorry.
It was a wakeup call for me. At that time, I was a mess. I was making horrible decisions, I wasn’t fully present, I was self-medicating, I had an eating disorder, I was just dealing with all this stuff. When he passed away, I knew I needed to get my shit together. I regretted so much not being completely present and the way I was acting. Throughout the grieving process, I started working with the trainer and worked with a nutritionist to get healthy again. It really helped me and I dove into that. Working out and eating healthy was the coping mechanism I chose to help me get through it all. I can’t be sitting in my room every single day crying for hours, I needed to try to find something healthy. At the end of the day, Chester wouldn’t want that for anyone. He wouldn’t want anyone to feel like that, he just wants everyone to be happy, so that’s what I’m trying to do.
I know this plays into your new album, talk about your journey with substance abuse. I’m actually an addict myself, so I feel you.
In my circumstance, it was just always there. The amount of pressure, I needed to mask it. If I was bored, I’d pick it up. If I had leftover painkillers from surgeries, I’d take them. A couple times, I took too much. I took a handful and almost overdosed a couple times. My team walked into the studio and I was laying on the floor all clammy. They were like “what’s going on?” It was an intervention in a sense. The next day, I went back and did a complete 180. I wrote 4 songs. I’ve had a lot of wake up calls throughout my journey.
How personal is your debut album, lil kiiwi?
In songs like “Empty,” the lyrics are “I find my troubles, wait till I’m home. Nothing to distract me, the daylight is gone.” When I’m alone, I don’t do well. I do better when I’m around people, then I can go be by myself if I want. I always like the option to have people around. Like when I go home for Thanksgiving, I can go upstairs in one of the bedrooms and sleep yet I know there’s a ton of people.
Overall with the album, I wanted to bring people into lil kiiwi‘s world. Let them really get to know me. I never let people in or gave them that opportunity in the beginning; I was very guarded and shy and didn’t know who I was. That’s why it’s taken so long to do this album, I was still learning myself. I thought I had it figured out, then something would happen and I would be lost again. Now I’m at a point where I can properly explain the lil kiiwi era of my life and this album is that story.
This is a big moment for you, what are you most excited for?
I can’t wait for the fans to hear it. I hope it can help people the way Linkin Park’s music has helped me, and Eminem, Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, all the artists I look up to. I go to their music when I’m dealing with heartbreak or I’m upset, or something triggered me. Music’s the one thing that can bring everyone together and make you feel less alone. Sometimes you can forget that but in the big picture you’re not. If you feel one way, odds are someone else feels that way too.
Goals for yourself as an artist at this point in your career?
Learning how to be a better storyteller, how to really create an escape. I’m already thinking about the next album. With each one, I want it to bring people into a world, an complete escape. I want it to feel magical. I want to improve my voice and tour again when that’s allowed. I finally felt I got my footing and was ready to go. In 2019, I took a little break but then this all happened! So if my next tour happens in 2021, it will be 3 years since I last toured! I also want to be more comfortable with who I am and be more open, I definitely struggle with that. I get self-conscious, so I am working really hard to be comfortable in my own skin and not being afraid to say how I feel.
Anything else you want to let us know?
The album has blackbear on it, he’s the best. He’s so sweet. We just shot a video that should come out soon. I’ve been working on a lot of features as well during quarantine so be on the lookout for those!