FRONTPAGE is Highsnobiety’s weekly online cover story exploring the people, moments, and ideas shaping culture today. For the fourth edition of our series, Highsnobiety’s Bianca Giulione talks to Mikaela Straus, better known as King Princess, about her highly anticipated debut album Cheap Queen.
It’s Friday the 13th and we’re on set in a classic bungalow on Los Angeles’ west side. There’s no A/C, but a welcome breeze wafts through, along with fragrant incense. The house has a pleasantly spooky vibe – and it’s not just due to the prosthetic knife that’s being applied to King Princess’ back (a symbolic prop, coinciding with the Halloween spirit and reflective of her subversive theatrics).
The photo shoot takes place in a small carpeted bedroom with a single mattress in one corner. It’s a stripped-down version of a nondescript, suburban child’s room in Anywhere, USA that could easily be the site of a gruesome murder. Absolutely nothing else about the scene is scary. Mikaela Straus, better known as King Princess, introduces herself to everyone when she arrives, cracking jokes the entire time. It’s difficult to keep a straight face when she’s saying things like, “My body is a prop,” while trying on accents that include “Cockney with a lisp.” Charli XCX is playing in the background as a beam of Los Angeles sunlight drifts into the room.
For the duration of our time together, Straus multitasks rather successfully. At one moment, she’s answering a phone call from her mother while in the makeup chair. At another, she’s filming promo videos for her upcoming shows in between outfit changes. She professes her favorite look is a yellow Tweety Bird underwear set, which she dons as she encourages her Instagram followers to buy tickets to her tour, pegged to her highly-anticipated debut album Cheap Queen. Its title speaks to the musician’s past year: a whirlwind of joyous ambivalence about fame.
“The term ‘Cheap Queen’ was really embedded in my brain this whole year, because I am a pop star, and I think part of my whole appeal is that I love to be the ‘messy queen’ or ‘cheap queen,’” Straus tells me. “I like that feeling, that vibe of being a crafty bitch, you know? Just a little low-budget, but sexy. That was in my head this whole year, as I’ve stepped into photo shoots and fucking red carpets and shit like that. Remembering who I am and from where I came — I’ve always been that cheap queen.”
Although she seemingly popped out of nowhere with her debut single “1950” last year, she’s been surrounded by music all her life. The daughter of a recording engineer, Straus spent much of her childhood at her dad’s Mission Sound studio in Brooklyn, which she says was essential to her development as a multifaceted musician and entertainer.
“It was really helpful to just watch people be musicians and play instruments – the biggest part of me, as an artist, is that I just love to fiddle around and play instruments and produce,” the singer tells me. “If I hadn’t had so many examples of incredible musicianship as a kid, I probably wouldn’t have put an emphasis on that. I could have just been a singer, or a dancer.”
Even at a young age, Straus was captivating, and clearly had talents that needed to be shared with the world. At age 11, she was offered a record deal that she declined, wanting to develop her own sound before signing. Meeting her now, as a charmingly precocious 20-year-old, it’s clear she has a singular vision that has been crystalizing throughout her adolescence and young adulthood, which makes working with her a breezy pleasure.
“I think what makes it so easy is that she knows what she wants almost more than anybody else that I’ve ever worked with,” says Mike Malchicoff, a producer who has worked with Straus since “1950.” “I was amazed at just how talented she was right at the start, when she was 17 years old. She plays every instrument; most of the instruments on the record [are played by] her. I don’t think she had even played bass when we started working together, and now she’s one of my favorite bass players. The melodies she comes up with in her basslines are insane.”
But since the release of her debut single and its corresponding EP (Make My Bed), it’s been clear what King Princess is all about – an unmistakable sound with earnest, clever lyrics, expressing all the woes and wishes of a young 21st-century queer person. “Pussy Is God,” which emerged late last year, is a standout track. It’s a total earworm, but not the kind that relies on saccharine pop tropes. Instead, it’s got slap bass, catchy piano riffs, chopped up vocal samples, and almost gospel-like harmonies.
Citing my own obsession with “Pussy Is God,” I ask Straus if she’s deliberate about making catchy songs. “It’s a fine balance of dumbing things down to be so accessible, but also making them tricky and sneaky,” she explains. Speaking of her writing process in general, she says: “It changes every time. Sometimes a melody will pop into my head and I’ll record it and I’ll write music to it later, or I’ll just be in the studio playing keys or playing guitar, or sometimes I start with a track. Because I produce everything, a lot of the songs started with just a track on my laptop.”
She describes writing her debut album Cheap Queen as “chronological” and “very feeling-based with just what was going down in my life.” Its lyrics are deceptively simple, often so straightforward that they land as if you’ve heard them before. There’s a balance between bangers and ballads, with many songs integrating both vibes at the same time. Interestingly, from a production standpoint – even on the level of the software she uses – King Princess’ music-making process revolves around the dichotomy of being a cheap queen. “It’s a mixture of cheap and expensive, always,” she explains. “You want things to sound cheap, but very good, and that’s hard to do. But I think Ableton allows me to do that.”
Over 13 tracks, the album presents another kind of juxtaposition, buried beneath caked-on makeup: strong vulnerability. On a very basic level, King Princess herself radiates a confidence that’s almost impermeable – but there are soft spots, too. “Tough on Myself,” the album’s opener, posits a vulnerable strength from the beginning, as Straus laments how hard she is on herself while longing after someone. Or, in her own words: “I think after this record cycle, I’ve become a lot less tough on myself, because I was making this whole thing and wanting it to be perfect. It was a hard thing to do, starting with a song like ‘1950’ and then all of a sudden being tasked with making a body of work that lived up to that. In reality, the album needed to be a step up in my artistic growth, rather than an album full of fucking hits. It just needed to be me.”
From start to finish, Cheap Queen is Mikaela Straus as King Princess as herself, dealing with difficult feelings, complicated situations, the ebbs and flows of growing notoriety, and relationships. “Homegirl,” an almost-country music ballad about wanting to do better and yearning to feel protected while vulnerable, was written with The xx’s Romy Madley Croft. The two hit it off after a session and soon became friends, their identity as queer women in the music industry being one aspect of their bonding. The song came together on a sullen day.
“Sometimes this thing happens when, if I’m in a really dark depressive mood, a melody will play in my head, over and over,” King Princess explains. “[The ‘Homegirl’] melody was actually a chorus I wrote a really long time ago, and then it kind of popped back in my head during this really dark day. I ended up going to the studio in full tears, meltdown mode, and we just put it together. It was great.”
Straus’ favorite lyrics on the album display a good glimpse into the general atmosphere of Cheap Queen: “And I’m alone / Watching my phone / Thinking ’bout you, baby,” on “Watching My Phone,” and, “I could get you back / And we could probably reenact / But I’m a better fag, and you’re an amateur,” on “You Destroyed My Heart.” Both capture the notion of strength in vulnerability. They also happen to brilliantly communicate the zeitgeist of being a person in their early twenties at the end of the 2010s.
For an increasingly significant slice of the population, King Princess has come to represent a new type of stardom – a pop star that makes sense for today, rather than one desperately trying to keep up with the times. She just gets it, and she knows her demographic (“This one’s for the gays, you know?” she says of her debut album). She’s a natural social media king, posting mashups of her songs to early 2000s kids’ movies (see: Lindsay Lohan in Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen x “Hit the Back”). Musically, “timelessly good rock music” has always struck her; growing up, she admired Madonna, Prince, Zeppelin, and Lauryn Hill. Jack White is her ultimate idol.
“I just loved that whole album [The White Stripes’ Elephant], the guitar sounds and also the aesthetics of it,” she gushes. “My mom bought me a poster of Jack and Meg, both wearing suits entirely made of buttons. I just remember looking at that and being like, ‘I gotta do this. This is what I want. I want a poster of me.’”
It seems absolutely plausible that legions of her young queer fans would want to have King Princess posters on their bedroom walls. On set, she mentions that she enjoys being photographed. Her look is fierce yet versatile, a strong visual representation of a fluid approach to gender and sexuality. “I feel like I’m delivering really good music that happens to be gay, and that makes me really happy,” Straus notes. “In the past, it’s kind of been representation before quality, and I would like to think that there are a lot of artists coming out right now, myself included, who are really focused on delivering the best art possible.”
Cheap Queen is quite an achievement for someone who’s still not old enough to legally drink in her home country. Straus herself likens the project to being her own version of a late-teen pregnancy: “I feel like I conceived and carried this child for nine months. But now I’m like, ‘Get that bitch out. C-section.’ No, I’m sorry: vaginal. It’s a vaginal birth.”