Petal is the project of singer-songwriter Kiley Lotz, a Scranton native whose unflinchingly honest rock draws from some of her favorite singers growing up, including Freddie Mercury, Carole King, and Nina Simone. Her newest album, Magic Gone, takes Lotz’ struggles with mental health and questions about her sexual identity and crafts them into a series of beautiful and intimate punk songs with guitars and drums just as raw. Her live performances are nothing short of awe-inspiring, whether she’s bringing down the house with a full band shredding, or taking it solo and captivating crowds with her steady and transfixing voice. Ahead of her first headlining appearance at the First Unitarian Church, I spoke with Lotz just before the new year, and we talked about her new album, self-care while on tour, her college education in Theatre Arts, and the movie Bohemian Rhapsody.
The Key: Magic Gone is split up into an A-side and a B-side, Tightrope Walker/Miracle Clinger. Could you discuss how you decided to structure the album that way?
Kiley Lotz: Tightrope Walker and Miracle Clinger felt like the two sort-of actions I lived in for a long time, which was not dealing with my mental health issues or my sexuality and kind of feeling like I had developed this really strong skill of keeping it together and presenting myself in a certain way as just okay enough. It felt like I was doing something pretty dangerous that had an element of spectacle to it, when I pulled it off, but one missed step and I could really be in a world of pain.
And Miracle Clinger being, even though I felt pretty hopeless, I couldn’t help but cling onto this idea that maybe some sort of divine intervention would happen and everything would be okay. So, the songs kind of, as a whole, embody those two parts of myself. Side A is primarily songs from before I got help, and Side B is primarily songs I wrote after I was in pretty intensive therapy and stuff like that. And, I think you can hear the difference, just in terms of lyrics, the sentiments shifts, in terms of optimism, or at least the willingness to say, “I feel angry” or “I feel hurt” instead of just putting on some sort of façade. So, when I was deciding Side A and Side B, it was kind of an easy choice to split it up that way.
TK: You mentioned divine intervention; do you feel that ever happened?
KL: I mean, I think so. I feel like growing up in church, there’s this idea that you’re supposed to give it up to Jesus or offer it up to Jesus, and for so long I was like, “what the F- does that mean?” and I don’t know if it was necessarily motivated by that, but I did reach a point where I was pretty exhausted and I was willing to say, “I need help beyond what my capacities offer me right now.” I think when you say that, you invest hope and trust and faith in people, and hope for grace and understanding from your friends and family when you feel like you deserve it the least.
In a way, I do think that’s a sort of merciful intervention, because it’s kind of a willingness to just, I don’t want to say submit, because I think it’s a really strong and courageous thing to submit to, but just saying you need help. In a weird way, [it] has that delicate and powerful balance. That’s kind of what love is, it’s delicate and powerful and when your friends and family and people offer that to you when you need it, I think that’s pretty divine.
TK: Magic Gone has a bit of a duality about it. A lot of your songs come in two forms, torch-burning rock anthems, and others that are slower and balladic. I was wondering where those two sounds come from?
KL: Yeah, they both live in there, right? I feel very inspired by growing up and listening to Queen, and a lot of Regina Spektor, Death Cab, and Janis Joplin. For me, those sort-of upbeat rock songs can have the same level of power as a song where there’s a lot happening even in the silence. I think both of them carry a lot of potential in making a listener feel something. Sometimes you can be making the most noise and really not be saying anything. And sometimes you can be making the least amount of noise and it’s just you and the piano and it carries the most weight. So, I try not to limit myself to the lyrics dictating the sonic quality of a song, which is kind of fun, because a song like “Better Than You” is pretty sarcastic, and a little dark, and maybe even a little depressing. But it sounds like you should just be cruising with the windows down on a warm day! I think that’s kind of fun, to play with the juxtaposition of the sonic qualities of a song and the lyrics of a song, and maybe surprise people a little. It keeps me on my toes too, to challenge myself to think past what’s obvious in terms of attaching a certain sound to the words, and think a little bit outside of the convention of sad lyrics-sad sound or happy lyrics-happy sound.
We move through the world in a very layered and complex way, and not everything’s totally good or totally bad, and people aren’t totally good or totally bad, everything exists on a spectrum, so I kind of like to let my songs live in that too. That’s why I love Debussy, I grew up playing piano, and I feel like his compositions, they’re so interesting and beautiful and fun, and the images you can attach to the images in your head vary so greatly. I mean, Listen to “Bohemian Rhapsody!” That song is epic, but he’s just singing, “sometimes I wish I was never born, nothing really matters.” Everyone’s head-banging, then you realize you’re singing, “sometimes I wish I was never born at all.” It’s pretty amazing, I love that quality of music.
TK: What’d you think of the movie Bohemian Rhapsody?
KL: Okay, let’s talk about this. I think Rami Malek was amazing, I thought the casting was really good, and it’s entertaining, no doubt about it. You can tell they re-mastered all the songs, which was so cool to hear them like that, just beautiful. But, it was definitely a very Hollywood, PG-13 version of this story that had, some serious stuff going on, I was kind of disappointed. Like, he coughs into a tissue and there’s a little blood in there and you’re supposed to be like, “oh, AIDS.” Everything was sort-of suggested, in a sense.
I tried to go into it without any expectations, I think it’s amazing, it was one of the highest grossing queer-focused films, which is great, I think getting those stories out there is important, and obviously I love Queen, so even if it was terrible, I would have still gone to see it. I do wish that they would have had made it a little less campy, and I would have loved to learn a bit more about the story of Freddy and the band. I mean his whole relationship with Mary, what a tragic and beautiful and compelling and sad thing. I wished there was some more person stuff, however, I was very entertained, and I think Rami Malek was so good, so good.
TK: You were in Theatre Arts in college, do you feel that any of that goes into your music?
KL: I got my degree at the University of Scranton in Theatre, and the thing I loved about that program was I did have the intentions of being an actor, and I really got a lot of good performing experience there, but they also really pushed you to learn how to do everything. You were required to learn how to stage manage and how to do scenic design and lighting design, and I was a scenic carpenter for three years, so I built sets and learned how to read ground plans, and things like that.
But in terms of being a touring musician, I lived in New York for a little bit, and was auditioning while I recorded Shame, and started touring, and was acting and doing the band. My training in the theatre program there, they really equipped me for handling it, because you’re your own tour manager, you’re your own merch person, you’re your own tech, on tour. And I could handle it, because I had that training.
And in terms of my acting training, and performing, studying Meisner and method acting really helped me learn how to let the songs come out organically, and let the words land where they land, and not edit how it comes out of my body. So you read the words, it hits you somewhere and then it comes out. So, as people in the everyday world, we have our modes of coping, we have our own survival mechanisms. So acting is removing that filter of how you react to things in a socially acceptable way, and just let a line hit you and let it out.
So some nights when I’m singing “Magic Gone,” for example, depending on the day, depending on the crowd, it lands differently, and I can’t mentally put myself in the place that I was in when I wrote the song every night. That’s just mentally abusive to myself. So the best thing you can do is sing that song and let it come from a really sincere genuine place of where you are in that moment that day. And it’s going to present with the same amount of power, it’s just coming from a different place. I’m really grateful for that because it does give you a certain level of healthy detachment from the words, in terms of, you don’t take that work home with you, whatever feelings come up, but you can tap into it on stage, and it’s healthy and it’s real and it’s in the moment and it’s present and it’s true, and I’m really, really grateful for that.
TK: Would you say that no two performances from you could ever be the same, then?
KL: I would say so. In college, my professor Rich Larson had us read this book, The Dramatic Imagination, by Robert Edward Jones, who’s a scenic designer in the theatre, and something he talks about is how every night you do a play, or a ballet — or whatever, a performance — it’s not going to be the same, it’s all once in a lifetime, because it’s that group of people, in that space, having whatever day they had, there. Even if we did the same show again the next night, like we did two nights at PhilaMOCA, the Camp Cope tour, and it was sold-out. Both of those nights were completely different. And some of the people came to both shows. And, that’s just what it is. It sounds like a ton of pressure, but actually for me it feels like it takes the pressure off. Because it’s like, it would be crazy for me to expect it to be the same every night. So in that sense I just go into it like, “alright, let’s just see what happens.” The thing I do have control over is just making sure we’re rehearsed and we’re ready to play and that we’re tight, that’s my job, but other than that, it just frees you up a little bit.
TK: At your concerts that I’ve seen, I’ve noticed an issue of people talking during your set. I was wondering what goes through your head when that happens, and how you react to it?
KL: This is definitely a thing, and I think everyone has the right to handle the situation however you want. But for me, this is the place I’ve come to. I used to close my eyes and pretend that people weren’t talking over me, even though I felt horrible, especially when you’re up there alone and playing music that’s quiet and intimate. People have bought a ticket to come to a concert. To me, it’s not crazy to expect people to be quiet. I don’t care if you’re paying attention, like I don’t love when people are on their phones, but whatever, I can’t do anything about that. But, especially in venues like Union Transfer, where there’s a bar, in a whole other room! And you wanna have a chat in front of me, while I’m playing, alone, to a thousand people? You’re outta your mind, I’m gonna call you out. Because it’s less about me, and it’s more about the people who are coming, and wanna listen. You’re taking them out of that experience.
And I do feel justified in saying something for those fans, for those people who are just trying to listen. Because why should their experience be affected by you having a loud, drunk chat? That’s not fair, right? For me, too, I do feel a responsibility to set an example, and maybe that’s cavalier and ridiculous. But, I, as a femme person and a queer person on-stage, by myself, if there’s a bunch of drunk dudes talking over me, I want to make it clear that this is the exact context in which it’s totally appropriate for me to expect your attention and to take up this space. You get to take up space all the time everywhere else, so I think, for the next half hour, you can find another place to do this. And that’s my way of handling it, and maybe it’s a little extra, I don’t know, but more often than not, people have expressed their appreciation for that. I’ve even had guys come up to me after the show and say, “I was the person talking, and you’re right. I’m sorry, I didn’t even think of it that way.” I had one guy who was like, “I talk over women all the time, I really shouldn’t do that,” and I was like, “Sick, cool!”
And I’m not trying to drag people, but this is a pretty obvious social setting, in which, it would be like if you were in class and talking over your professor, or if you were in a meeting in work and talking over someone presenting. This is the one space where everyone seems to carve out this time for art, to go to the movies, to go to a concert. In a time in our lives where we’re all attached to our phones, totally ingratiated in technology and people are still buying tickets to go see things, so in my mind, it’s like, “Let’s go for it! Let’s do it! Let’s be here.” And it’s like, also don’t waste your money. Go to the bar and have some delicious whiskey drink for $15 and ball out on that and have a chat, don’t buy a ticket for a concert and talk through it. It’s a little counterintuitive to me. Maybe I’m a crotchety old lady, I don’t know, but I don’t think so.
TK: Your song “Better Than You” sounds like it’s kind of reflective of that experience.
KL: Yeah, a little bit, it’s industry stuff too. You live in an Econoline van for several months out of the year, and you do it because you love it, but then people are like, “Hey that was great!” and you’re like “Yeah…” And you’re just kind-of feeling like, “Why do I even do this?” You have people who say they want to work for you, and help you grow as an artist, and push you, and then they do the bare minimum, and that’s really hurtful, because you’re not forcing them to do this. “I’m giving this 100% and if you’re not, then what are we doing? This is a waste of time.” You start writing songs because you love writing songs and you start playing shows because you love playing shows. And then all of a sudden, these industry aspects start getting added to it and social media starts getting added to it, and you’re supposed to be a brand and an influencer. When I started playing music there was MySpace and then you made photocopies of your flyer and you posted it around town. That was it.
It’s kind-of this amalgam of, you become so insecure and you start comparing yourself to your peers, and you lose sight of why you even started doing this in the first place. That’s when it gets scary. I don’t ever want to be like that.
But these are the structures that exist everywhere. This capitalistic, competitive, “only one can succeed” mentality. The music industry, indie rock and DIY are not exempt at all. You just have to be aware and do your best, and realize that you’re human and it’s natural to be insecure or jealous and angry, and check yourself and surround yourself with people who are gonna remind you who you are. Prioritize yourself with what actually matters and what doesn’t really matter. I think goal-setting is great, and if you wanna write music and tour, then go for it. If you find people who believe what you’re doing, and wanna help you, and get what you’re about, awesome! Work with them! But it’s so much easier said than done. To not get caught up in the nonsense of “does anyone even care?” Like, sometimes it feels like you’re shouting into the void. You have to tune it out.
But “Better Than You” is all of that. The dudes talking over me while I’m playing, feeling like you’re the only band right now who isn’t touring. Just voicing all of those paranoias in one song, just to kind-of make fun of it. It’s so ridiculous.
I feel like on Shame, I wanted to present songs that maybe had answers, or felt like I had reached some sort of resolve, but I don’t think this record is that. I don’t have the answers, I really don’t, and sometimes I wish I did, but then if I did, then I probably wouldn’t be making music I guess. But “Better Than You” isn’t a song about, “Yeah this sucks, but I’m going to triumph,” because somedays I don’t feel like I’m going to triumph, and somedays I do. When you have anxiety, you wanna feel like you know what outcomes of situations are going to be, and I’ve been working really hard to accept that I don’t have control in that way, in life, and no one does. So, writing about that, writing songs that don’t have an answer is kind-of an exercise in accepting that.
TK: What kind of things do you do to take care of yourself while you’re on tour?
KL: First off, I like to make sure who’s coming on tour with me [are] folks who I trust and love and we make a good team. Also, I try to set a tone that you can talk about anything, on tour. You don’t get a ton of personal space, and that’s extremely challenging, so I try to be open about how I’m feeling, so it encourages others to share how they’re feeling on any given day, so then we have a very open and consistent support network built in the van.
It’s hard on tour, but I try to eat well. I try to take a half-hour to walk every day. It’s not easy to find that time, especially on a really long driving day, but just to give myself half an hour to just blend in wherever we are, whether it’s a Walmart or a Target or walking to a coffee shop. Just like, walking. It’s something not tour-related.
Staying in touch with people back home is something I really try to do. It’s so tough because you do have regularity of schedule where it’s like: get up, drive, load in, play, get in the car, go. I love routine, so I kind of thrive in that situation, but also the lack of consistency in sleep and things like that can really physically mess you up. Especially with my meds, too, and, like, staying consistent with that. It’s hard to find time to do phone sessions with your therapist, when you’re on tour. You have to be flexible, but the stuff you do have control over: eating, sleeping when you can, taking care of each other, making time for fun, or just relaxing, is super important. That’s the most realistic and tangible stuff I feel like I’m able to do to take care of myself.
TK: A lot of that doesn’t have to apply just to tour: eating well, taking walks, staying in touch.
KL: I try to do one thing a day that has nothing to do with tour, and that helps a lot. Another thing I like to do is to have clothes that I wear during the day, and clothes that are just for playing [shows]. Because it kind of feels like, when you’re at the theatre you go to the dressing room, get ready, put your costume on and you’re ready. It’s like a physical removal of whatever happens during the day that gets put aside for a while. And you put on something else, and you’re in your gig-brain for a while. You literally put on a different mentality, and it helps, it’s really, really helpful.
TK: Do you have plans for 2019?
KL: Yeah, it’s busy. We have shows in January, the Northeast, Northwest, Midwest. Going back to UK/Europe, my first headlining tours. Which is nerve-wracking, I’m nervous, but I’m really excited! I love the people we’re having along in January, Sir Babygirl and Cave People. Sir Babygirl, I think, is gonna take over the world.
TK: After you do!
KL: We can all do it! At the same time, it’ll be amazing! And then, Cave People, Dave is just a good friend of mine who I’ve known for a long time, and his music is so moving and beautiful and nuanced, and I just love it. So I’m so thrilled to have both of them. Then there’s some other stuff happening after that that’s not announced yet. But I’ll be traveling a lot, which is exciting. And then summer is kind of open, I think I’ll focus on writing. I’m already writing now, and I want to get a lot done, if I can.
Petal is performing at First Unitarian this Thursday 1/24 with Sir Babygirl and Cave People opening; tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
First Unitarian Church, Petal