In the video for her song “Talia,” King Princess, aching over a breakup, imagines her lover still beside her. As television snow flickers and King Princess’ Virginia Slim cigarette smolders in their bedroom, she cajoles and cuddles, glares at and grinds on her partner. It would be a typical music video treatment if not for a simple yet ingenious casting twist: Her lover is played by a sex doll.
“Obviously, I try to be intentional about the way I show myself. We give a lot of fucks over here,” says the 19-year-old singer, songwriter and producer, grinning in a tiny coffee shop on a recent late morning in Los Angeles. Her look is low-key — her face is scrubbed clean and she wears a black polo, cropped pants and white Nike high tops — but she crackles with that tightly coiled native New Yorker energy. “I feel like there’s a Western fascination with sexualized, dead-looking white women, and then straight dudes are allowed to own inanimate objects and treat them as they will. I was like, ‘Let’s repurpose that, make it a queer sex doll love story.’ I felt like it did justice to this doll. She needed it.”
King Princess released her debut single, the loose and jangly torch song “1950,” barely six months ago. Yet her arrival was so definitive and satisfied such a hunger for queer pop that the song currently sits at more than 124 million plays on Spotify. Of course, it helps when the hype machine is given a nudge by people like Harry Styles, who tweeted a line from “1950,” and Mark Ronson, who made King Princess the first signee to Zelig Records, his new label under Columbia. Still, her formal introduction, the effortless five-song EP Make My Bed, confirms her talent and further brands her as a young woman supremely confident of both her sexual identity and singing ability — even though she had yet to play a show when we spoke.
The self-assuredness isn’t an act. Born Mikaela Straus, King Princess literally grew up in a recording studio: Her father, Oliver Straus, is an engineer and the owner of Brooklyn’s Mission Sound.
“I was one of those kids. Singing in the shower, that show child vibe. I was this ballsy little kid who could handle herself, and my dad would be like, ‘I’ve got 500 background vocals and they sound like shit. Mikaela, can you come sing something?'” she says. “And I’d waddle in in my pajamas and sing or just be part of the vocals. The studio was just a fucking wonderland.”
Another fact she took in stride was her sexuality. Did she just always know she was gay? “It was like … if you saw me? You knew,” she says. “I’d wear jerseys and cargo pants and ripped up sneakers.”
By the time she was 11, a record deal was on offer. Her parents were savvy enough to shoo any industry vultures away. “My dad was really a protector and mentor. People were fucking scared of him. I worked with people who were like, ‘Oh man, I love your dad’s drum sounds.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh yeah? Don’t fuck with me.'” But KP was already plotting her second chance: “I try to suppress it and say I had a chill childhood, but really I was brainstorming this whole thing.”
While her parents were supportive of her musical aspirations, they really wanted her to make the most of her “bougie private school” education by applying and attending college for at least a year. Getting accepted to the University of Southern California in L.A. was fortuitous. She knew plenty of people who would book her studio time on the weekends, so she could check college off the list while launching her career. She’d be in a session till 3 a.m., then dash to campus at 8 a.m. “completely unprepared.” Or not: She wrote “Talia” in her dorm’s practice room 20 minutes before class.
“I’m happy I was a planner about it, because if you’re a young lady, you have to kind of be,” she says. “There’s so much shit you have to deal with in finding yourself and learning how to present yourself in this world because everyone’s judging you. You need to kind of have a rubric, how you want to be, how you want to interact in this industry.”
With that in mind, she surrounded herself with women and “really consciously” chose the men she worked with. “I think younger women need older women to get where they need to be,” she continues. Besides, “I think women turn out the best work in the world.”
Her collaborators include songwriting partners Nick Long and Daniel Gidlund, who help her evoke a world whose less restrictive approach to gender and love resembles the one many 19-year-olds today already live in; and her girlfriend, actress Amandla Stenberg, who edited and imbued the “Talia” video with its tenderness.
“I want to get to a place where the story is less about me and my face and more about what the fuck’s going on this world. How I can be an active voice for gay people but also the music industry,” she says, blinking in the sun and sucking on a cig. “This is the art we need right now. This is what we need right now. We’re in a renaissance, and we need people to rebel, come forth and bring messages into art.”