King Princess looked so comfortable onstage at Coachella Music Festival in April -- where she danced across the stage in Nikes, black pants and a silky cream corset, delivered blistering guitar solos and admitted that she was “really stoned” and had forgotten some lyrics -- that she might as well have been performing in her living room.
And she kind of was. The indie-pop singer-songwriter’s stage setup included an enormous, orange, The Big Comfy Couch-inspired loveseat, which she had to climb a staircase to plop down on. “I literally moved in,” she joked to the audience, where Mark Ronson and model Kaia Gerber bobbed their heads among hordes of tattooed teenagers. Before departing, she gave a message to the crowd: “The real shit is yet to come.”
The real shit is almost here. On Oct. 25, the 20-year-old born Mikaela Straus will release her debut album, Cheap Queen, as the first signee to Ronson’s Zelig Records, an imprint of Columbia. It’s been a long time coming for Straus, a self-proclaimed “ballsy kid” who grew up shaking hands with Alicia Keys and Missy Elliott in her father’s Brooklyn recording studio, Mission Sound, and was being courted by labels before she reached her teens. But up until roughly a year ago, she had never performed her own music before -- let alone at one of the biggest music festivals in the world.
That quickly changed after her February 2018 debut single “1950,” a tender tribute to Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 lesbian romance novel The Price of Salt, blew up -- thanks, in part to a tweet co-sign from Harry Styles. As the song eclipsed 40 million on-demand streams in its first five months (it now has 280 million on Spotify alone), she was quickly thrust into photoshoots and on festival lineups. Styles himself asked her to open for him at Madison Square Garden in June 2018, but she declined, telling the boy band star-turned-rocker that she wasn’t ready.
“Shit, I didn’t know how to do -- everyone assumed I knew how to do it,” Straus says over the phone from Los Angeles, where she's taking a bath. “The first show that I had, my whole team was kind of like, ‘What’s going to happen?’ I think they were shocked that it went well.”
To deal with the onslaught of attention, Straus turned back to songwriting. She wrote the 13 lush, introspective songs on Cheap Queen chronologically over the past year, constructing a real-time memoir of the highs and lows of growing up under the spotlight. Meanwhile, she was falling in love.
“I was dealing with the most vulnerable year of my life, just because I was thrusted into this whole...zhuzh,” she says. “Something with the mixture of the year just being complete stress and anxiety, and not knowing what to do with myself or with my body, and then also being in love -- that’s really what made the album happen.”
It was within that same time frame that she developed what she refers to as the cheap queen philosophy, a way of living which is “about being resourceful, crafty, artistic,” and “not necessarily the most polished queen in the bunch.” The tongue-in-cheek title doubles as a nod to the comedic, expressive world of drag, which Straus says has helped her navigate her complicated relationship with femininity as a gay woman.
“You get to see this version of femininity that is funny instead of being serious, instead of being competitive, instead of being sexual,” says Straus, an obsessive RuPaul’s Drag Race follower who appears in campy, drag-inspired makeup on the Cheap Queen cover. “That, to me, was really important: Knowing that there’s femininity through humor, through comedy, through art.”
The project is infused with that same sharp, self-deprecating wit: In the trippy music video for “Cheap Queen” (which makes use of the same Big Comfy Couch-inspired set piece), Straus serenades a flying sandwich (then eats it), puzzles over an ad for "Kidz Boop" and sings melodramatically into a nonexistent earpiece. But lyrically, Cheap Queen is also deeply emotional, written for a generation that “loves to feel.” “I’m not chill at all,” she sings about the urge to define a relationship on the folky “Ain’t Together” featuring Father John Misty on drums; another track is titled simply, “You Destroyed My Heart.”
Straus says the idea was to detail a distinctly 2019, teenage love story, but with melodies that are completely timeless. "It doesn’t need to sound modern for it to be emotionally relevant to a young generation," she explains. Over another violin-backed ballad, she describes “watching my phone, thinking about you,” and references to the particular woes of communication in the digital age are speckled throughout.
All this is punctuated by several glistening, emotion-flooded interludes (notes Straus, “The tea is in the interludes”). “You say you want me back,” she scoffs on the hand-clapping “Useless Phrases,” while “Isabel’s Moment,” featuring Tobias Jesso Jr., name-drops one of her close friends.
Asked if she feels that she’s adjusted to the spotlight, Straus sighs. “I don’t really want to be super good at being in the spotlight,” she explains. “I think it gets scary when you are really good at that. But I’m really happy with how much I’ve grown as a person. I feel like I’ve adjusted to the point where I have all these new skills, and I love that.”
She says she already has an idea for another, short record (or in Mikaela speak, “a bite”), which she’s working on with several friends. Meanwhile, she’s getting ready to kick off the next leg of her national Cheap Queen Tour at Life Is Beautiful festival in Las Vegas on Sept. 20. This time, there will be no stage fright.
“There are people who have to be pushed out onstage,” she says. “I’m going to run the fuck out there.”