When I tell Mikaela Straus that my 13-year-old daughter cried watching her perform at Osheaga last month, she’s surprised but in no way stoic about the prospect of having this effect on young fans.
“I remember the first time that I cried to a piece of art, and feeling like that was an important feeling, and understanding that you’re not going to always feel that way,” says Straus, better known as King Princess.
“When you do, you know it’s something good. And I remember being very young, and very gay, and very emotional about it,” she adds.
The 20-year-old multi-instrumental, singer, songwriter and producer, the first signee to Mark Ronson’s Zelig label (his new imprint under Columbia Records, which releases her debut LP Cheap Queen on Oct. 25), has been garnering acclaim since 2018 with a brand of pop rock so true to its emotional centre that the listener can’t help but feel an almost immediate sense of familiar belonging in her words and melodies.
“It makes me feel so proud to be a part of (Ronson’s) legacy. I’m not only coming up with his support as an artist but also as a young producer.
“He worked with Amy (Winehouse)! And Amy is everything. And with Adele, and Lily Allen. I get really shook sometimes thinking about it,” Straus says.
The child of a record engineer dad and corporate-leaning mom, King Princess’s roots inform her rock both poetically and politically.
“I’m of New York,” she accepts, “and I know that if I hadn’t been from New York, my life would have been really different, and I don’t think that my experience with the industry would have been the same if I was in L.A.
“Actually, no, because my experience would have been different if I’d had parents who weren’t my parents. They were fucked up,” she adds lovingly, “but they didn’t want to sell me.”
Sought by labels from the age of 11, Straus’s parents taught her the value of refusal from the jump.
“They were like, ‘It’s not gonna change your future (to say no). You can say no to whatever the fuck you want. You need to figure out who you are before you start saying ‘yes’ to shit.’”
Straus didn’t need to descend from royalty to understand the value of being herself on her own terms.
“The name (King Princess) is very connected to my gender, and my body and my art. I’m a girl in the middle,” she says offhandedly. “You don’t think about (identity) when it’s straight (artists) because their sexuality is embedded in their music. So is gay people’s. When you’re writing songs about love there’s no way not to make it a conversation because being gay is politicized.
“(The reason) good songs that are about love in a conventional sense resonate with us,” Straus continues, “is because the art is so fucking good that you could listen to that song and be gay as fucking hell and think about your person, and you don’t even know what the person who originally wrote it was writing about because it’s become your song.
“It’s also important to talk about your sexuality because it’s lit. It’s fine. I just know I’m very gay,” she says. “I’m a King Princess. I have both in me, that I’m sure about.”
Straus takes a moment to educate this middle-aged white cis hetero male on parenting a teen as we approach 2020. “The only reason that shit is topsy-turvy crazy right now is because all of a sudden there’s language for shit that’s been going down for so long,” Straus offers enthusiastically. “These kids are learning what it means to be gay, or bi, or genderqueer really young because it’s all the fuck over the place.
“As a parent, your only job is to kinda just be like, ‘Tight! There’s nothing wrong with that! Tell me! Tell me what you learned today about that! Do you feel like you’re that? That’s okay, who the fuck cares?’
“I’ve always been gay,” she asserts, “but even just growing up and being in high school just, like, six years ago, that shit was different. There still was less language for that than there is now.”
Sexuality and gender also play into her business acumen.
“I have to be crafty about it,” she says when asked why she chose label support. “In the past the people signed to labels were signed in a way that their queerness was not public and the label wasn’t monetizing on it, they were actually just trying to hide it. Now, being gay is a way to make money. If my identity is valued in the eyes of people in corporate settings as lucrative, I have to be smart about that and make sure I’m signing somewhere that I’m safe as a gay artist, which I did.
“And I think it’s cool to sign to a major-ass label for those who couldn’t. I don’t sit around thinking about my identity as money and assets, but the world could. That’s why social politics play into social values so much, and I’m very conscious of that in a work setting.
“But my identity is the music, and the songs.” ■
King Princess plays MTelus (59 Ste-Catherine E.) on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 8 p.m., $43.75