“It’s very surreal,” she said on Saturday evening, the day before her performance. “For me, just touring in a tour bus is a dream come true, so to show up to Coachella in a tour bus and perform tomorrow is weird. It’s just weird that I have an artist's pass. I’m normally GA [general admission]. I’m such a fangirl. I’m geeking out over the whole situation.”
Kiyoko's first trip to Coachella was when a friend of her older sister invited her, knowing she was a fan of Coldplay, who was headlining. Even then, Kiyoko knew she wanted to be a performer and was savvy enough to convince her parents that it would be a learning experience for her. They bought it.
“I was like, ‘Oh god, what is this awful smell?’” she said of one of her earliest memories of wandering the grounds—confusing the scent of marijuana smoke for that of a skunk. “Years later, I realized it was drugs,” she added with a laugh. “I also remember all the girls being so beautiful. I remember being insecure and overwhelmed, because I would want to talk to them or maybe find a girlfriend at Coachella, and all the girls were hot, but I just never had the courage to talk to anyone.”
Will that change this year?
“I just got here today,” she said. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll talk to somebody tomorrow. It’s very overwhelming.”
If you know anything about Kiyoko, you know she’s an open book when it comes to her sexual orientation. But it wasn’t always that way. Her hit “Girls Like Girls,” which is about falling in love with her best friend at 16 years old, is the first song she wrote that was as candid as it turned out to be. It came about after a songwriter that she was working with asked her what she wanted to but was too scared to write about. The video has over 88 million YouTube views and counting.
“I would have songs about girls like 'This Side of Paradise,' but it’s very vague,” Kiyoko explained. “You really gotta read into it. [I was] saying ‘you’ and not really using the pronouns that I wanted to.”
When the video hit 500,000 views, she said, she was sitting in the back of a minivan while on tour, getting ready to play in front of 50 people. It was 2015, and she had released the single as part of her second EP, This Side of Paradise.
Her rise has been slow and steady, she made sure to emphasize. Considering she essentially started on this path as a kid, that much is true. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she got her start as an actress, though she’s always sang and danced. She’s appeared in a variety of shows and films, was part of different musical projects, even opening for Justin Bieber at one point as part of a group, which ended up disbanding in 2011. But then came the EPs and the music videos—virtual hits showing love stories between girls and women in a way that hadn’t been done before—that Kiyoko directed herself. That's when she found her voice.
“I’ve always been telling people what to do since I was a kid,” she said of deciding to direct. “I had them come over every Tuesdays, and we had Spice Girls night and NSYNC, and I’d choreograph the whole thing ... I was always by default the Sporty Spice, but you know, I liked Baby. I’m pretty sure I had a crush on Baby Spice.”
“For the past seven years, I’ve literally just been focusing on my art and really having to believe that if the art is good, people will find it," she went on. "So focusing on writing the best songs I possibly could, directing the best music videos I could, with no money and no resources, shooting at my friend’s backyard, just being as creative as possible."
Kiyoko, whose debut album, Expectations, was released last month and who recently made her TV debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live before embarking on her nationwide tour (and next appears in the upcoming Facebook series Five Points), went from playing in front of small crowds in bars, she said, to “1,100 last night in Santa Cruz, which was nuts. Every step has been a milestone, but they’ve been baby steps. It’s been a grind.”
But it’s also been rewarding.
“I had a meet and greet the other day where I met this 10-year-old, and she came out to her mom a couple of months before, and at 10 knew she liked girls, and I was her, like, idol,” she said. “I was just sobbing, because, to have confidence at such a young age—I mean, I knew I liked girls since I was five. Was I gonna tell anyone? No. And to see this newer generation love themselves—moments like those impact me on a deeper level. It’s bigger than me.”
“When I went into the music industry, I didn’t want to be known as a gay artist,” she continued, when asked if she’s had any worries of being pigeonholed. “I just wanted to be known as ‘Hayley Kiyoko, and she’s got great music. The end. And oh, yeah, she likes girls.’ It takes time for people to get to that point, so I’ve had to view it in a way of, oh, OK, I’m just going to change the stereotype and the norm.”
Growing up, she listened to Fiona Apple, Emily Haines of Metric, Michelle Branch. “Now, I would say Kendrick Lamar is one of my inspirations as an artist, because he has a message. He impacts people. He’s an incredible performer, and his visuals and art are on point."
She’s also a fan of Borns, who was finishing up his own set at the festival. “Shall we?” she said, leading the way toward the outdoor theater.
“I think he’s really unique,” she said of the singer, as we left the VIP section and headed into the main area of the festival. “I remember when I was writing my second EP, I remember being in love with 'Electric Love.' Through and through, his music is great. I love that he has great melodies, and the production is interesting. For me, that was my approach for my album. Having great pop melodies, but also having the production being unique and genre-bending.”
It was a quarter after six o'clock as we made a pit stop at a coconut stand (“I f---ing love coconuts”), when I brought up the recent Taylor Swift headlines. If you missed it, Swift came to her defense after Kiyoko told Refinery29: “I’ve had several music industry execs say, ‘You’re doing another music video about girls?' I literally looked at them and was like, um, yeah. Taylor Swift sings about men in every single song and video, and no one complains that she’s unoriginal. I’m not over-sexualizing my music. I make out with women because I love women, not because I’m trying to be sexy. That’s not to turn heads. That’s my life.”
After seeing Kiyoko receive backlash on social media from Swifties—and they, as we know, don't hold back—Swift responded to a Tumblr comment from a fan sharing that “we should applaud artists who are brave enough to tell their honest romantic narrative through their art, and the fact is that I’ve never encountered homophobia and she has. It’s her right to call out anyone who has double standards about gay versus straight love interests.”
“That was crazy,” said Kiyoko. “I just woke up one morning, and everyone was like, ‘What happened with you and T. Swift,' and I was like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know her.’ I don’t know her personally, but she said such a wonderful thing, and it was so well put. I really appreciated it, because I think it was taken out of context. I didn’t even see what happened, but I just know that she responded and understood what I was trying to say, which was just basically I want to sing about girls 24/7 and not have that be unoriginal. She stood up for the situation and the message that I was trying to convey, which is, you know, everyone should be able to sing about what they want all the time over and over again. I really respected that and appreciated that——”
“Your new album is the shit!” a fan interrupted as they passed by.
“Aw, thank you,” responded Kiyoko. She turned and continued, “Anyway, if I ever meet her,” she said of Swift, “I’ll give her a big hug.”