Mikaela Straus is seated on the edge of a ball pit, juggling the light and dark blue plastic balls three at a time. It’s a talent she acquired as a kid who attended theater camp. She can also spin plates. “I didn’t have a lot of homies in school when I was young because I was gay and weird and mean,” says the 19-year-old, better known as King Princess, “so I went to theater class because I was like, ‘Yo, I need a hobby.’”
There’s another word that could describe a kid who went to theater camp: nerdy. But Straus, whose five-song, self-produced debut EP, Make My Bed, dropped in June, is not nerdy. Straus is very cool, from her deadpan sense of humor to her X-Girl brand shirt that’s tiled with photos of the face of another cool girl of a different decade, Chloe Sevigny. Straus is the kind of person who you’d say yes to if she offered you a hit from her vape pen even if you didn’t smoke.
Straus grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and spent most of her childhood hanging out with her sound engineer father, Oliver Straus, at his studio, Mission Sound. “I was the studio rat. Bands would be asleep on the couch, and I’d be like, ‘Hey!’ And they were fucking lovely to me,” she says. “People would come through and teach me shit.” She met Arctic Monkeys, shook hands with Missy Elliott, and even watched Sia write songs, but one of her favorite memories of that time happened outside of the studio: “Me and Kim from Matt & Kim chased down an ice cream truck together,” she says, laughing. “These people were iconic.”
The studio time not only helped Straus develop as a musician and a producer, but it also gave her fodder for her earliest songs. “I wrote about ladies who had come through the studio,” she says. “I get asked, ‘Is it a choice to gender the music or put pronouns in?’ and for me it just wasn’t a choice. It was just like, ‘If straight people can do it, why the fuck can’t I? I’ve been listening to this straight-people music for so many fucking years. Why can’t it be gay?’ It’s the same thing. It’s just different pronouns. It’s the same feeling.”
Straus knew she was gay before some kids know how to tie their shoes. “I knew when I was like 5 or 6, and I verbalized it at one point, and everyone was like, ‘Huh?’ And I was like, ‘Never mind! I’m just gonna bring it back, just gonna turn this car around.'” Over the next few years, she toyed with styles of dressing, “moving from being completely boyish to trying out femininity with the idea that that was the way to get male attention, and then I was like, ‘Wait, I don’t want male attention,’” and came out for a second time when she entered her teenage years.
She left New York after high school to study music in L.A., where she started writing what would become her EP’s first single, “1950.” Inspired by Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 book, The Price of Salt, which depicts a lesbian love story, Straus was in her University of Southern California dorm room when she wrote the song’s opening line: “I hate it when dudes try to chase me.” “That was the first time when I was like, ‘Woo! I did the thing,’” she says. Much like her favorite book, the song is “an ode to queer love,” though unlike Highsmith’s story, it doesn’t have a happy ending. Fair to call it an unrequited love song? “I didn’t get the bitch in the end,” says Straus, “so, yeah — it’s unrequited!”
Straus dropped out of USC after a year (“I’m a worker, not an academic”), but she remains in L.A. because for her, it’s an easier place to create. “You’ve got all these fucking weirdos, and they’re all in one place, and they’re in the same industry,” she says, “and so the opportunity level is so much higher.” Yes, “phony town” can feel isolating, but she has a solid community and accomplishes more in the relative stillness of L.A. “I take my inspiration from New York and I bring it to L.A. and use it as a quiet place to do my work,” she says. She also goes home whenever she can. “I have to go home to New York or else it’s like, what the fuck am I writing about?”
New York is all over her EP, from the “bitch from the Upper West Side” on “Upper West Side” to the character for whom she drunkenly pines on “Talia.” “They were almost all written in L.A., but I was talking about New York,” Straus says. She wrote and recorded all of the songs over the last two years, and the finished product ended up in the hands of Mark Ronson. Record labels had courted King Princess before, but it wasn’t until Straus met Ronson for dinner in February 2017 that she agreed to become the first artist on his new label, Zelig Recordings. “I met him because he listened to my music, and he fucked with it, so we had dinner,” she says. “It was like an adorable first date. Now he’s my dad. I love him so much. I’m not a good listener, but I do try to listen to him because I like what he says. He cares.”
Zelig released Straus’s “1950” in February, and since then, the song has racked up nearly 41 million on-demand streams (audio and video), according to Nielsen Music. A month after its release, it got an unexpected endorsement when Harry Styles tweeted one of its lyrics: “I love it when we play 1950.” “I was like, ‘Holy shit, he likes that gay shit?’” jokes Straus. “I was excited. I had no idea it was going to happen. I had no idea that he listened to it. He is a kind, generous man who just did a fucking solid for a young artist.”
Straus suddenly checks a text on her phone. “My girlfriend’s here,” she says. Minutes later, Amandla Stenberg walks in and Straus greets her with an “Oh hey, bitch!” With Stenberg waiting in a back room until the interview wraps, Straus’ phone sits silent by her side.
As for what’s to come, Straus is touring through September, but her biggest goal for the remainder of 2018 is to “finish this damn record and put it out, hopefully within the year.”
“It’s written. I’m a prepared girl,” she says. “I don’t know how to do anything else. I can juggle and write songs. That’s basically it.”