King Princess Finds Her Zhuzh on Debut 'Cheap Queen'
Published Oct 29, 2019It takes 30 minutes, and several call apps to properly connect with Mikaela Straus. Sound is an issue, and she bristles at the choppy audio that halted our initial conversation.
"Oh, that quality is crisp, honey," she enthuses when we finally settle in. "Sometimes I can't hear what I said, what they said or if my answers match the question."
Though her debut album is called Cheap Queen, Straus, who records and performs as King Princess, isn't one to cut corners with any aspect of her career. "I would never let something leave the studio and enter into a public setting without it sounding fucking lit," she says.
The 20-year old singer, songwriter and producer's music lives in the nexus between the "cheap queen" aesthetic (a drag term for someone who's resourceful), and self-imposed high standards, "quality versus quantity."
Across Cheap Queen, trebly, indie rock guitars play over exquisite modern pop production. Classic torch song melodies stitch the two divergent sounds together. "I want it to sound individual and like nothing people have ever heard before," she says, a lofty, if boilerplate statement from a relatively new artist. Yet, coming from Straus, who arrived with such a defined musical aesthetic, somehow you believe her.
The world was given a taste of her unique point of view in February 2018 when she dropped "1950" on her SoundCloud. An unrequited queer love song, it paid homage to the novel The Price of Salt (which director Todd Haynes adapted into the 2015 film Carol) and the closeted love lives of queer folks in the 1950s. It became a viral sensation, and to date has over 290 million streams on Spotify alone. "It felt like a green light for me to be legitimate," she says of her viral fame. "I can put out shit, I can eat, I can do this." Her debut EP, Make My Bed, followed — the first release from producer Mark Ronson's label, Zelig Records.
Sudden fame and overconfidence have proven a disastrous mix for young artists, but Straus remains grounded, especially when it comes to understanding her musical lineage. Music is an oral history, she says, in which "I am derivative and I derive from the women who came before me."
One such source of inspiration was Fiona Apple, who "gifted" Straus her 1999 song "I Know," even contributing piano and vocals to the cover. Straus describes the experience as ceremonial, and their artistic connection as very real. "It felt like being a part of something bigger than myself, like a musical legacy of strong badass, rude-ass women."
Speaking with Straus, you can't help but be amazed by her chutzpah. She punctuates sentences with words like "honey," "mama" and regularly refers to her and her friends' "zhuzh," about offering something uniquely their own to a situation. She's incredibly precise when speaking about her music, with a boldness that borders on (but never falls into) immodesty. "I'm not confident in so many areas of my life," she says. "But the truth is, I'm good at this."
Despite her recent arrival on the pop stage, Straus's origin story has already become apocryphal. She grew up in her father's recording studio, Mission Sound in Brooklyn, where she was a regular presence as he engineered records for the likes of Cat Power and Arctic Monkeys. "You will probably get at least one visit from my daughter," Oliver warned potential clients in a 2016 profile of the space in Brooklyn Magazine.
Her talent obvious from a young age, Straus learned to play piano, guitar and drums, as well as many production techniques, while singing background vocals on records her father was engineering. She was offered a voice role as a singing animated character when she was just 11 years old, but had the presence of mind to turn it down. "It is not viable to sign an 11-year-old girl," she says emphatically. "How the fuck was I supposed to know what the fuck music I wanted to make, let alone be comfortable and confident enough in myself to be attached to a contract of a fucking major company?"
Between 2012 and 2015, while she was still in high school, Straus released a number of tracks under her own name. Though they lacked the sophistication she'd later bring to her work as King Princess, there's a wise-beyond-her-years weariness that continues to run throughout her work. "Had it not been for things like SoundCloud in high school, I would have been pretty nervous to put out music cold, without any practice," she says. "The one good thing about the internet is that it gives you a space to find your zhuzh."
After graduation, she moved to Los Angeles for school, but dropped out after a year. She found proper management and started taking writing sessions. Through songwriter Josh Moran, a family friend, she met Nick Long and the two immediately hit it off, penning "1950" in their second session together. "We were very quick and read each other's minds."
Armed with an EP's worth of material, she soon came to the attention of uber-producer Mark Ronson, who was launching a new vanity label through Columbia Records. Ronson remains best known for his work crafting throwback megahits for the likes of Amy Winehouse, and his own "Uptown Funk," so his interest in Straus was surprising, though certainly warranted.
"He understood that I was writing from a place of heartbreak," she says. For her part, Straus was won over by Ronson's reaction to her music and not his resume. "He got invested in the stories of the songs as much as he did the production or the marketability of it," she says. "I connected with him as a person. It was a really gratifying moment."
With the release of "1950" came a torrent of press notices eager to proclaim the singer, who came out back in middle school, a new queer idol. "I'm down to represent if I need to," she says, though she's quick to point out that the reason words like "queer," "gay" and "LGBT" are included in headlines about her is because, in this moment, it's marketable, exciting and different. "But that's what's fucked up. It's not exciting and different. Everyone who works in the arts has been gay, you know? Like, this is not news," she says. "You can talk about me being gay all day. I don't mind it, if that's exciting to straight people. But it's not super exciting to me, because I've been gay."
What irks her is when queerness or otherness becomes the descriptor for an artist or their music. "We get put into an article that not only clumps us together into this homogenous entity of queerness, but also compares completely different musicians to each other on the basis of us wanting to fuck people of the same gender."
Perhaps unsurprising for someone who grew up a studio rat, Straus thinks a lot about the music industry and her place in it. Part of that is her first-hand understanding of its economic impact and the jobs it creates. But it's also a way of keeping herself grounded. "I want to have an awareness of what's happening around me and where I fit into everything, even if I don't fit anywhere," she says. "I'd rather that and be authentic than like, you know, some bullshit."
Work on Cheap Queen began shortly after the release of Make My Bed last year. Its 13 tracks are sequenced more or less as written, charting Straus's initial rush of fame ("I put out a song and then people knew who the fuck I was!") as well as the course of an affair.
Her publicist asked me not to delve into her personal life, and Straus skirts details in describing that aspect of the record, but Cheap Queen's creation does overlap with the reported end of her relationship with Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg.
Cheap Queen opens with a healthy dose of self-loathing on "Tough on Myself," then slowly gives way to romantic longing on "Ain't Together." Booty calls and the nebulous state of the romance are addressed in mid-album highlight "Prophet," but by record's end, Straus is lamenting the nature of love itself: "If this is love, then I want my money back."
Throughout, Straus continues to show off her top-rate writing chops, never giving into solipsism; the music is personal, yet universally relatable. On "Useless Phrases," which rides a beat sampled from the videogame Minecraft and lasts barely a minute, she even shows off her keen sense of humour, making good on its refrain "I don't usually entertain such useless phrases," before the song is abruptly cut off and the next track begins. "Everything I've ever done, this record is the summation of it," she says. "This sounds like the music that I really wanted to make as a kid, but I didn't necessarily have the tools for."
Like her EP, Cheap Queen is a pop record you can dance to. What it's not is dance-pop, the catch-all genre that's overtaken playlists and pop radio. It's not that Straus doesn't appreciate more dance-oriented music — she cites Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Rihanna as key influences on her songwriting — but it wasn't where she found herself creatively. "Part of me is a sad lesbian, part of me is a very turned on gay man," she says, trying to explain the dichotomy that makes up her musical DNA. "This is the record for my heart. There will be more for the glow."
In addition to self-producing, Straus also played most of the instruments. She also reteamed with Nick Long and her recording engineer Mike Malchicoff for much of the writing because "you don't fuck with a good thing."
Straus works quickly in the studio, spending a few days at most on a song, and rarely singing the vocal more than once. "What you're hearing is just a zhuzhed-up version of the demo." She admits that she's even released vocals that were recorded into her iPhone. "I'm a resourceful queen that way." When I ask if she's more concerned with capturing the emotion of the song than ensuring it's "correct," she quickly fires back, "Well, it's all correct."
Outside of her core creative team, Straus was very selective about who she chose to collaborate with. Josh Tillman (aka Father John Misty) played drums on "Ain't Together," while Tobias Jesso Jr. is the only credited featured artist, adding his vocals to "Isabel's Moment" after Straus deemed a different vocal track unworthy. "Those harmonies, girl..." she enthuses about his contribution.
Jesso Jr., a Vancouver artist and songwriter, is a friend, and the two have written together in the past, though nothing has seen the light of day. So tapping him was a natural choice. "Everyone on this record who did something was there because they do something specifically that I love, and that I wanted them to put their zhuzh on it."
Her prodigious skills as both a writer and producer make Straus a prime candidate to rise to the top of the pop producer heap. But the forces that make her such a phenom — high standards, personal attachment to her work and supreme self-confidence — also hold her back from playing nice behind the scenes. "No, girl. That's not my zhuzh, and it's honestly a detriment to my bank account. But the tea is, mama, when someone sends me a track and I haven't written on it, it's real hard for me to get into it unless it's a situation where I'm allowed to express my opinions."
She recalls working with Ronson on the track "Pieces of Us," which Straus wrote and he produced for his recent record Late Night Feelings. "He's a really classic, incredible producer and I'm a cheap bitch," she says. They disagreed on everything, from plugins to bass sounds, but ultimately found common ground, with Ronson encouraging Straus to wholly own her musical aesthetic. "I like that he pushes me to explore the reasons why I like cheap shit," she says, "but also to learn the expensive shit too."