Many independent artists today have to juggle a multitude of responsibilities, and 28-year-old Hayley Kiyoko is a perfect example. The multi-hyphenate counts acting, singing, and songwriting as part of her repertoire. And while she’s garnered appearances in numerous films and television shows, it’s her music career that’s taken off in record-speed trajectory.
From a very early age, Kiyoko has had musical ambitions; drum lessons at age six, writing drum charts, and selling them. She even wrote a song when she was eight called “Notice” that her father still urges her to release. Much of Kiyoko’s music is focused on her life story and the emotions she’s experienced while coming to terms with her identity as a lesbian. Her “This Side of Paradise” music video focused on her struggles with expressing her true self, and in her “Gravel to Tempo” music video she draws on her experiences with having crushes on girls while growing up. She also cites Canada’s Tegan and Sara, and Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” song and video as turning points and inspiration to focus more on pop music.
Kiyoko released her debut EP, A Belle to Remember, in 2013, followed by This Side of Paradise in 2015, which contained her highest-charting single to date, “Girls Like Girls.” Although she came out to her family at a young age, she didn’t come out publicly until her music career started taking off.
“I felt like ‘Girls Like Girls’ was a song that spoke my truth, and I didn’t think it would be considered a coming out song, but obviously the title alone is pretty self-explanatory. I tend to be private about my personal life in general, because some matters are meant to be kept private. After the song and video went viral and people started to see themselves represented in the story, I began to feel more accepted and less judgmental of myself. I always felt really isolated and misunderstood when I was younger, and so it felt incredible to let go of a lot of insecurity once the song became so widely embraced,” she says.
After co-directing the video for “Girls,” Kiyoko assumed full directorial responsibilities for her next music video, “Cliff’s Edge.” Her next EP, Citrine, was released a year later, along with her third self-directed music video for the song, “One Bad Night.” “I started directing my videos out of necessity because I didn’t have huge budgets to afford hiring big-name directors. I wouldn’t say the transition was smooth, but I realized how much I love being behind the camera pretty quickly, she explains. “Directing definitely has its challenges, especially when I have to do double duty on and off camera, but that’s what motivates and inspires me the most. I love being able to envision an idea that starts with the song, and then see it all the way through to the finished visual product.”
Kiyoko cites the outdoors as being one of the inspirations for her work. “Being in nature really gets my creative juices flowing, and most of these songs were written at a house in the middle of the desert in Joshua Tree.” She adds, “A lot of the time I am inspired by life experiences, my relationships, and heartbreaks. For instance, my song ‘She’ is my anthem song about embracing your true self, and not being afraid of becoming who you want to be.”
“She” is from Kiyoko’s most recent release, I’m Too Sensitive For This Shit, which is also her most personal project to date. It’s a follow up to her 2018 debut full-length studio album, Expectations, and has been described as darker than her previous musical releases, particularly the track “Demons.”
Please forgive me I’ve got demons in my head, trying to feed me lies until I’m dead
~ Lyrics from “Demons” ~
“I’m Too Sensitive For This Shit is probably one of the most raw and honest moments in my career thus far,” Kiyoko says. “I’ve experienced so much in the short time since Expectations was released, with all the ups and downs of being in a really tough industry, and tackling mental health issues while trying to stay sane through it all. ‘Demons’ is a song that I’m super proud of because the lyrics came from such a vulnerable, honest place, yet the song itself is catchy and dance-y. This collection of songs showcases all these different emotions that most everyone can relate to.”
She’s as appreciative of her fans, as they are of her. “Every day I am in awe of the bravery of my fans, all these beautiful people who are so open-minded and caring towards one another. I’m grateful to be a part of this (LGBTQ+) community and I hope to continue representing them in the best way possible, by encouraging hope through sharing my truth,” she gushes.
Kiyoko is an advocate for various LGBTQ+ organizations, recently being honoured with the Youth Innovator Award at The Trevor Project’s, TrevorLIVE Los Angeles Gala, for her work using her voice in the music industry to shine a light on marginalized communities. “I’m a big supporter of the life-saving work that organizations like The Trevor Project continue to do within the LGBTQ+ community. It was an amazing honour to be recognized by them this year, and I try to be as active as I can be in helping their cause. I’m also inspired by the work that both GLAAD and Free Mom Hugs are doing,” she says.
Kiyoko was featured on Billboard Magazine’s cover this past summer, along with several other queer artists, including Tegan Quin, Adam Lambert, Big Freedia, and IloveMakonnen. Last summer also saw her march in her first-ever WorldPride Parade in New York City, as the float ambassador for W Hotels Worldwide. So while she continues to make a name for herself, and continues self-directing all her own videos, are there any aspirations to focus on larger-scale projects? “It’s a big dream of mine to be able to direct a feature film someday, and possibly even develop and direct projects for television. So we shall see!”
I’m Too Sensitive For This Shit is available now via EMPIRE/Atlantic Recording