Hayley Kiyoko doesn’t have it down to an exact science, but she’s close to cracking the key to contentment. In the four years since the arrival of her debut album Expectations, the pop singer and songwriter has been locked into an eye-opening cycle of learning and unlearning the inner workings of her mind and memories, something like a reset, courtesy of inner-healing advanced through therapy and introspective songwriting on her sophomore record Panorama.
“As a queer person, you're always coming out and catching up with yourself,” Kiyoko tells The FADER over the phone. “And so I felt like Expectations was me catching up with myself and I felt like Panorama really was a new debut in the sense of really writing about what was present at that moment, at that time, and getting to share my present self and authentic self with my fans.”
Where Expectations found Kiyoko in an intertwining tango with dominating pop production where the formulaic, algorithm-friendly sounds led the way, Panorama switched up the routine by putting the spotlight on the singer’s vocal performance and lyrical delivery instead. “I have always envisioned my sound to have my voice kind of soar through,” she explains, adding that her newfound confidence in the studio allowed for bigger risk-taking on the production end, as well. “I really feel like this album I was finally able to create that balance and that vision that I've always seen for myself sonically.”
Panorama is a careful balancing act of mining the past without getting stuck in it, while also taking time to celebrate Kiyoko in her current state of physical and mental revitalization at 31 – a joyous celebration of showing up for yourself. “I've been in this music industry for a very long time and have felt like an underdog for a long period of time,” she explains. “And I know that the stars will align when the timing is right.”
At an earlier point in Kiyoko’s career, she might have dismissed this same advice – that patience lies at the root of determination when working towards professional and personal goals alike. It’s not what anyone used to solely operating on high-speed wants to hear. But since retreating into her mind, she now knows it to be true.
“I've been feeling very proud of the hardships that I've overcome because writing this album, there was a moment … where I really fell apart and I felt very distant with myself,” Kiyoko remembers. “Like I knew who I was, but she was very far away. I couldn't get to her, and I didn't know how to get to her. I had lost all my confidence and sense of self. Trying to rebuild that was very challenging and interesting, and it took a lot of time. Took a lot of mantras, gratitude, it took a lot of love and kindness towards myself.”
Below, Kiyoko tells The FADER about the year she spent learning lessons from herself while listening back to Panorama, finding balance while carving out space for multi-dimensional emotional responses, and rediscovering a state of comfort within her own mind while reconciling complicated pasts.
The FADER: How do you evolve as a person and artist over the course of making a record like Panorama? How does your creative process evolve over that period of time?
I think the creative process always evolves, right? Because as a human, you're unlearning and learning so much about yourself and catching up with yourself and being honest with yourself. There's so many times where we're speaking to ourselves, and we're not even really being truthful to who we are. And so, allowing our freedom to really explore the authentic selves, year after year, I think that obviously heavily affects the creative process and the approach. With this, I've been able to listen to my album for a year before even getting to share it with the world and it's not something I did with Expectations. And I think that that kind of patience comes with the maturity and the growth over the past four years since my last album.
When you were sitting with Panorama for a year, what were some of the lessons that you learned from listening to yourself while the album still really only belonged to you?
I think the biggest lesson is the moment that I felt the darkest and felt most alone – and those moments happen often – realizing how often I overcame those moments, and the resilience in that and the repetitiveness of not giving up. I think that that was something that really was interesting to learn about myself and hopefully be able to hold on to that next time I go through something dark. And knowing that, hey, I've done this before, I've been able to get through it, I can do it again.
When you're looking back and beginning that process of sitting down to write about different experiences in the past, what does that look like for you? To take yourself from this present moment and go back to look at these past experiences through this new lens?
As a queer person, you're always coming out and catching up with yourself. I felt like Expectations was me catching up with myself and I felt like Panorama really was a new debut in the sense of really writing about what was present at that moment, at that time, and getting to share my present self and authentic self with my fans.
Looking back at the process, it's just been really interesting. I've been feeling very proud of the hardships that I've overcome because writing this album, there was a moment where in my personal life and my health I was dealing with mental health and physical health issues, where I really fell apart and I felt very distant with myself. Like I knew who I was, but she was very far away. I couldn't get to her, and I didn't know how to get to her. I had lost all my confidence and sense of self.
Trying to rebuild that was very challenging and interesting, and it took a lot of time, a lot of mantras, gratitude. It took a lot of love and kindness towards myself. There's a record called “Found My Friends” on the album and that was a part of that process of realizing that I could hold my own hand and be my best friend myself. And I'm never alone, even if I feel extremely, extremely alone.
Throughout the album you move back and forth between reflections on the present and reflections on the past, touching on themes of regret and what could have been. How does writing through these experiences help to reconcile that unknown?
It’s healing and also frustrating. You look back and you're like, “Wow, if I just believed in myself and loved myself, I would have had all these experiences that I complain about not having.” It's a really interesting lens to have and look back on. We all do our best with the tools that we have at that moment, so we can't blame ourselves or feel guilty for not doing XYZ. As we get older, we learn more about our true self and we're able to actually share that part of us. And so it's just all about growing and navigating this very challenging world.
I think that takes a lot of time and effort to be able to sit in your thoughts and to feel safe in your thoughts.
What do you make of the relationship between pop music and healing?
I just really love music that sonically drives you. “Flicker Start” is a great example. That song I wrote at a very, very low point in my life. And I just love the contrast of pairing that with a beat and production that really carries you through, even when you don't want to be carried. I love that juxtaposition. Because that's honestly how you feel a lot of times when you're navigating mental health, it's like you are kind of being propelled forward even if you don't want to be propelled forward. And so I've just always really liked that juxtaposition in music and in pop music in general.
One of the standout thematic threads throughout Panorama is this idea of being contained or restrained, mostly within your own mind. Tell me about how writing this record helped you work through what it means to live in your own head. How did you make that a space of comfort rather than anxiety?
I read this book called The Voice of Knowledge by Don Miguel Ruiz and it really helped me kind of isolate and navigate all the voices in my head and try to cultivate and create a safe space for my thoughts. And I think that takes a lot of time and effort to be able to sit in your thoughts and to feel safe in your thoughts. Because a lot of times when I would go through those challenges, like you hear on “Underground” and “Flicker Start,” I didn't feel safe and so there wasn't a safe space for me to feel scared, there was no comfort.
So it was all about rebuilding a place of comfort – of “Hey, I know you're feeling scared, but I'm right here.” And creating that dialogue within yourself, recognizing that we have the control to manage our demons, and honestly just comfort our demons. Being like, “Hey, I know you're scared. You're good. We've got this, let's do this together.” It takes a lot of time to be able to really locate that, to acknowledge that, and isolate that.
Throughout the album you’re showing these different dimensions of what it means to confront these different moments and your emotions without trying to polish them, in a way. Why was it important for you to make space for all of these variations of emotion across the record?
I really love that you understand the record so well. I think I also have learned in the past couple of years – and obviously, us navigating this pandemic – creating space is so important. When you're just go, go, going and you’re very career-oriented and goal-focused, you just don't want to create space, right? Because you're just like, I need to keep going, I need to keep growing. And the best thing we can do during those times is to create space for ourselves to breathe so that we can show up for ourselves. And that is a gift that I learned and I think that was also applied in the music and creating that space in the music, specifically.
Tell me about closing the album with the title track, “Panorama.” What does it mean to conclude such an introspective project with this grand orchestral moment?
I actually wrote this song last. I had finished the album and I was in a different place in my life. I listened to the album and it was about a year after and I had a lot of healing. The song, “Panorama,” feels like a love song to myself – a reminder that every time I'm feeling overwhelmed or every time I'm going through darkness or every time, maybe down the road, I might lose myself again or lose my confidence or lose my passion.
It’s a reminder – “Wait, have you seen the view?” is one of the main lyrics – just to center myself and to feel present, or try to enjoy the present. I had a vision of it being grand and feeling like a cinema. That was the vision and that was the noise. I just heard a huge, booming noise when I was imagining the song, but I also felt like it needed a lot of space for my voice to just, you know, sing the lyrics because the lyrics to me are one of my favorite parts. Before I wrote that song, actually, I decided I was going to name the album Panorama. I was explaining what Panorama meant to me. And then I was like, I'm gonna just make this all into one song and get to share that with people.