I’ve yet to read an article about Natalia Kills that doesn’t throw out the “Brit dark pop artist” thing. But after following her career and spending quite a bit of time/many a debauched evening-to-morning together, I recommend not pigeonholing Ms. Kills. Yeah, her new album, ‘Trouble,’ could very well be a Girl, Interrupted soundtrack if Natalia hadn’t been 13 when it came out. And yes, she sings about being “a fucking teenage tragedy” on the broken girl anthem, ‘Saturday Night,’ and a “goddamn problem” on the stripper-friendly banger, ‘Problem.’ But the aforementioned songs, the first two singles from the new LP, are pop universe game-changing kinds of amazing.
While the current sea of pop starlets clad in zany get-ups are causing Stan battles on Twitter (“Did Rihanna just throw shade in that subtweet?”), Kills is co-directing and co-writing treatments for her music videos, writing songs in her apartment for other singers, turning the heads of fashion freaks, most recently whilst kicking it front-row at New York Fashion Week, often rocking sunnies and a plum lipstick pout. She’s also a pop star who, gasp, doesn’t give a fuck. In other words, the pop princess throne is warm and ready for Kills. We chatted with the provocateur about how she’s managed to turn her Cinderella story gone wrong into a happy ending. Scratch that. Happy beginnings… Make room, here comes Kills, and, yeah, she bites.
To anyone with working ears, ‘Trouble’ comes across as a very honest record. I mean, it’s not everyday you hear ballads involving chardonnay and oxy from a pop singer. But have you ever been pressured to be something that you’re not in an effort to compete with the current leading ladies of pop?
With my new album ‘Trouble,’ it was really easy for me to avoid anything like that with anyone. Because instead of the album being a sexy pop album or me trying to be the best that I can be to compete against every other female pop star in the market, it’s the opposite. I decided to expose every worst moment, every fuck up I’ve made, every terrible thing that has ever happened to me. And because it’s my memories and my story, I’m not worried about somebody else whose song is coming out before mine sounding similar or being compared to anyone else because I don’t know any other female pop star who ran away from a cult or tried to burn the house down with her and her boyfriend in it, who was almost committed, who was arrested, medicated, got a restraining order. It’s more of a documentary or autobiography — it’s feel bad, feel good music. I guess I’m sort of the poster child that everyone shouldn’t aspire to be. I think the album has separated me enough that no one has ever asked me to be a little more like this artist or sing a little more like this. I think I got really lucky this time.
What do you mean by “this time”? Was your 2011 debut, ‘Perfectionist,’ a different story?
I think on my first album I was definitely over encouraged to work and try out many producers. It was fun and it was good and I love that album, but I was really glad to only work with Jeff Bhasker this time around. I don’t wanna dilute my thoughts with lots of people co-writing with me and I don’t want people to dilute my sound by having too many cooks in the musical pot.
Earlier in your career, you performed with backup dancers and lots of smoke and mirrors. But lately, your gigs are giving me more Robyn “Dancing On My Own” vibes mixed with a little Gwen Stefani. The no fucks given ‘tude.
I have an all girl band — I think it’s really important to have musicians especially for this album. There’s really big ringing guitars and booming drum beats on this album and it’s an emotional album — sometimes having it played by track and doing dance routines really distracts. I can’t be singing “Mama you’re beautiful tonight, movie star hair and that black eye” with six backup dancers behind me and a headset — the whole thing wouldn’t make sense. But I dance more now on stage than before. I used to kind of join in on choreography with certain words or beats, and now I’ll dance the whole show by myself but alone without backing dancers and routines. It’s more free.
So, who are some of your favorite fellow female pop singers?
I love Lana Del Rey and Adele, and my favorite is Marina & The Diamonds — I think Marina is incredible. But someone I’ve been excited to collaborate with recently and who is amazing is Angel Haze. I wrote a song on her album, which comes out next year. She did a feature on one of my songs that’s coming out soon. It’s funny because she’s almost like the rap version of me. Talking about these horrible and completely regrettable mistakes we’ve made in the past, but then really bitchy and braggy, completely unapologetic and completely confrontational. It’s like, “Yeah, I’m fucked up and yeah I fucked it up and yeah I’m a goddamn problem, but no I’m not sorry.” It’s been so easy for us to collaborate and we have such a bond together.
Speaking of rapping, you had a short-lived career as an in-your-face rapper known as Verbalicious way back when… “Don’t Play Nice” is still totally my jam, by the way. What happened?
When I was younger, I really wanted to be a songwriter. Actually, I just wanted to write — songs, books, poems. I wanted to make everything make sense and everything to be permanent. The thing that was tricky is that I wasn’t a perfect singer. I had kind of found a way to talk or rap what I normally would be doing if I was singing. I basically sung all of my choruses and rapped all of my verses. At the time, no one was really doing that — a few years later, Fergie was doing it. But at the time, I was facing so much criticism. Everyone was like, “What? That’s not real hip-hop, that’s not real pop, that’s not real anything, what are you doing!?” It’s weird now because sometimes people say to me, “Oh my God, I knew you when you were Verbalicious. And now Ke$ha and Nicki Minaj and everyone else is kind of doing what you started.” But I kind of quit before it even took off. Maybe I wouldn’t have quit, but when I got a record deal [as Natalia Kills] and I went in the studio on the first day to record with Jeff Bhasker, he was like, “You know what? You can sing. You just don’t have the voice that people think you should have. You don’t sound like Beyonce or Alicia Keys, even though you’re half black and Spanish and people think that’s how you’re meant to sound. You sound squeaky, you sound rock-y, you sound grunge-y. You sound Skeeter Davis, Pat Benatar, The Ronettes, Alanis Morissette, Shirley Manson. You need to bring out that squeaky, kind of raspy, off-key thing of your voice. And even if people say you’re not a good singer, at least it’s unique and listenable and it’s not completely generic and watered down.” I’m glad Jeff taught me how to make the worst part of my voice into the strongest and most memorable parts of my voice, because now I can do exactly what I wanna do. Every so often I go back to the rapping thing — songs like “Controversy” and “Rabbit Hole” — they all have these big chants in them where I’m talking and I’m rapping or whatever you wanna call it. But it all comes from the same place — my message has never changed. My first song, “Don’t Play Nice,” has almost the same message as “Problem.” I’m a little asshole and you’re gonna love me and wish we were best friends.
You were really young at the time, right? What did you learn from the industry early on?
I was 15! I had a fan base and I would get screamed at and stalked on the street. I wasn’t ready for it and I was completely overwhelmed, but it’s what got me started. Even though I quit everything and lost everything and had nowhere to live and had no job and no money and no life, it still gave me a basic expectation of how I am now and do what I wanna do now.
On a lighter note, you were all over New York Fashion Week. Favorite show?
Prabal Gurung. All of the girls reminded me sort of like Stepford wives. It was clinical but it was feminine, it was brutal but it was romantic. The models stood behind a plastic box and it reminded me of this dreamy unrealistic, sort of aspirational feeling you have as a kid, when you open a Barbie doll box for the first time that your mom got you for Christmas and it’s the most incredible feeling ever when you take her out. That’s how it was at the show — the models stepping out from behind the plastic and their hair was completely waxed and sprayed with perfection. I wore one of Prabal’s dresses on the cover of my album, ‘Trouble,’ and he’s been a great supporter of my career and I love him.
So, for those who aren’t familiar with Natalia Kills, what one song on ‘Trouble’ would you recommend them listening to ASAP?
Everyone should listen to “Daddy’s Girl.” I have a riches to rags story — my dad went to jail and we lost everything. Everyone has this horrible opinion of what a criminal is or what a bad person is, and they don’t realize that when it’s someone that you deeply love and who’s doing everything and the only thing they can to provide for you, they still deserve protecting and loyalty and love and patience. Sometimes good people do bad things but for really good reasons.