The actress and rising pop star first broke out with her anthem "Girls Like Girls," and has since followed that up with 2015's This Side of Paradise EP and her major label debut EP this year, Citrine. Here she tells us about her journey as a musician and as a young woman understanding her sexuality.
I have been working on finding my voice for years. As an artist, I always want everything I create to represent what my soul feels and sounds like -- whether it's a video concept or a lyric or melody.
Two years ago on a rare rainy day in Los Angeles, in a songwriting session with Owen Thomas and Lily May Young, I was venting my frustration about my music not connecting the way I wanted it to. Lily looked me in the eye and asked, “Tell me something nobody knows about you, something you are afraid to sing about?" I immediately thought, well I like girls and that's what I want to sing about, but even then I struggled to say it out loud. Finally, I told Lily that I always say “you" and “them" and never the pronoun “her" in all my songs because I was afraid it wouldn't connect. We talked more about concepts and my experiences, and how I loved the idea of stealing another guy's girl because that was always a fantasy of mine. Growing up, everything I did was always about girls. I took dance because of girls. I got involved in student council because of girls. Not that I ever expected any of them to like me back, but I just felt comforted being around them, even if I could never date them. So there we were. The song “Girls like Girls" was born.
I imagined a very emotional, heart-wrenching but real music video to go along with the song. When we shot the music video for “Girls like Girls," I felt like I was finally telling my story for the first time. The yearning feelings I had and also the feeling of being so alone. I think that's why people connected with the music video. Not only because they too have experienced deeply liking someone, but also the sadness and longing that comes with it. You could be around so many people, and still have the feeling of being so alone and misunderstood. It's that fear of rejection and uncertainty of whether the person will like you back that makes you question everything. I struggled with these feelings so much growing up. I'd fall in love with girls who would never give me the time of day, or if they would, they had no idea I had other intentions. I had my heart broken over and over again; I never felt good enough. My life was led by these crushes as far back as first grade, when I had a crush on my teacher. That was the first time I realized I liked girls. But the problem is you feel like you can't share these true feelings with anyone for fear of outing yourself and facing judgement. So you struggle. And feel alone. Growing up, there were some [out] celebrities who were much older than I was and I wondered if I had to wait until then to be happy. I didn't have role models who I could relate to at the time, where I could think, if they can do it, I can do it.
Most of the time, you become confident after years of struggling during your young adulthood. I want to encourage the youth to find that confidence now. Not later. For them to know their own self-worth at an earlier age. It's been really cool at my concerts to see all of these young fans showing up alone, and then leaving with friends. The music and stories I create have built this judgement-free safe zone. But most of all, they have inspired me to be comfortable with myself, and to let them in. They unintentionally gave me a gift that I am forever grateful for. Most of my music isn't necessarily about heartbreak or other people, but more so everyone's personal journey and falling in love with yourself.
I think that's why my fans and I relate to each other. My music reassures them that they aren't alone -- that their feelings are valid, that they are enough and they will find someone to love them back. I didn't have that hope growing up, so I get emotional and inspired (or encouraged) every time I meet a fan who looks at me that way.
It's hard sometimes, especially after this election, because I feel a responsibility to these girls. I know they are looking to me for guidance and comfort. It breaks my heart that fear is so present in our world right now. School is hard enough and it breaks my heart to see these kids under attack by hate crimes and bullying.
Hope. That's my cause. I strive to inspire hope through human compassion and through music. Hope leads me through my lyrics, stories, and melodies. You must continue on, and know in your heart you are not alone, and have confidence that love will find its way back to you.
Photography: Asher Moss
Art Direction: Hayley Kiyoko
Styled by Karen Levitt
Makeup: Marla Vasquez
Hair: Abraham Esparza
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