Petal’s Kiley Lotz On Queerness, Compare Despair, and Selling Out the Bowery Ballroom

photo by Katie Krulock

photo by Katie Krulock

It’s been three years since the release of Shame, Kiley Lotz’s last record as Petal. So much can change during a three-year span in anyone’s life, but in Lotz’s case, it was a particularly turbulent time: she came out as queer two years ago, ushering in a chaotic and sometimes painful transformation.

Lotz’s newest record, Magic Gone, is a remarkable document of this time in her life, and a handful of tracks reflect the view from the other side. After moving from her hometown of Scranton to New York and eventually Philadelphia, she returned to Scranton at the beginning of 2016. She grappled with her sexuality and her faith, received treatment for major depression and panic disorders, and wrote songs and practiced playing the guitar during the whole expansive and confusing process. With the exception of the drums, she plays every instrument on her new record.

On a day that I call Lotz at her home in Scranton, she’s trying to save a prized posession from the jaws of a ferocious beast. “My cat is trying to eat my headphones, so I might have to quarantine her while we do this,” she says, laughing. “You know when you’re not giving them enough attention, and they’re just fucking up your shit out of spite?”

This summer, Lotz is setting off on a journey of a different sort: a co-headlining tour with Australian trio Camp Cope. Magic Gone is out on June 15 on Run For Cover Records.

A lot changed in between your last album and this upcoming one. You were treated for mental illness, and put a lot of energy into improving your mental health. How did that journey impact the way you wrote and recorded this album?

I guess I had to try really hard not to question myself, because I was writing the songs as I was experiencing everything. Not a lot of these songs were written in hindsight. So I’d write them down, and that was that — maybe record a little demo. Once we got into the studio, I had maybe 12 songs ready, so there wasn’t a ton of wiggle room. These were the songs. I’m not much of a session songwriter, where I can just be like, “Alright, for this hour I’m just going to sit and write a ton.” I’m not really good at that, unfortunately. So when we got into the studio it was just me and Will [Yip], and I wanted to play as many of the instruments myself as I could. My friend Derrick [Brandon] played the drums, and he just knocked it out of the park. But otherwise, it was just me and Will, and it felt like a very honest and focused recording process. It was also really important to me, too, that it sounded like a live record. So we did all the vocals and cold takes down in the live room, we recorded the guitars down in the live room, and set up some room mics to get that roomy sound where we wanted it. But otherwise, we kept everything really sparse.

Also, you know, I’m not a virtuoso guitarist, I’m a piano player. So it was important to me — if I wanted this record to be the most honest it could be, that meant practicing really hard at my guitar playing so I could get better. I still have room to grow as a guitarist and I’m excited to keep learning and pushing myself, but there’s not a lot of crazy, gnarly guitar solos on this record, you know what I mean? [laughs] But, it sounds truthful and it sounds emotional and I play the piano again on the record, which felt really good, after not playing the piano for a long time. But in general, I feel like all of those intense growing experiences allowed me to have more confidence going into the studio, because I was determined to create something as raw as possible.

You wrote “Shine” — which is an absolutely beautiful song — about your experience of coming out. I got the sense that it was maybe about one specific person or relationship, but I was hoping you could tell me more about what inspired it.

I haven’t gotten to talk about this song! I was trying to learn how to play some jazz chord shapes, and so I was just trying to push myself to be a little bit more malleable, so that’s kind of where that little riff started. I started to build off that because it was just kind of always stuck in my head, and lyrically it was mostly coming from this place where — queerness was something I tried to run away from, but you just can’t. And so, the idea of it being sort of like a tick — you think it’s something else, like a sun spot or a mole, and you feel it, and you’re like, “Oh shit, it’s a fucking tick,” and it’s already kind of doing its work on infecting your body in such a permanent way. It’s like, “Oh, okay, it’s too late.” You can’t just leave the tick there, you’ve got to take it out.

So those lines kind of came to me, and then a couple months later I sat down and tried to do the chorus, and I felt nervous about writing the chorus for that song because I felt like it was too — cheesy or something? I was being very judgmental about the lyrics that were coming out in writing it. But then I was like, “You know what? I’m just going to try and write down whatever’s coming to me and then deal with it later.” Try not to just judge it as it’s happening, you know what I mean? I’m glad I did that, because I don’t know if I would have finished the song. For me, the bridge of the song is some of the stronger lyric-writing on the record, and the idea of doing these really dangerous knife party tricks for your friends. At that point, it felt like my whole life was a really dangerous party trick. Just pretending I was okay and knowing I wasn’t okay, and I was just kind of hoping anyone would sit me down and be like, “What the fuck is going on,” you know what I mean? “You can just say it.” And sort of feeling like once I did get the chance to say it and I did get the chance to come out to my friends, and come out to my partner at the time and my family, it felt like, you know, no matter what, “I’m going to be okay.”

“At that point, it felt like my whole life was a really dangerous party trick.”

The first two chords is a little bit like, I wish I could just pretend that I was fine, but maybe I’ll shine through it, even though I feel like shit. And then the last chorus was a little bit like, “You know what, I know I’m the kind of person who can get through something now, and that is going to be where I shine” — the fact that I’ve earned my own respect, and I know that I have resilience and comfort in myself and trust in myself. And so, the song definitely takes a little bit of a journey.

It was probably one of the more intentional pieces of writing in that each chorus kind of takes a little trip in the storyline of the song of coming out, where it’s like “I’m just pretending and I feel like I’m dying.” And then getting to the end, where I’m not pretending anymore.

That song is very important to me, and definitely sonically different than a lot of the stuff that I’ve released, too. So I hope people give it a shot, and I know that the record kind of ebbs and flows in terms of its sonic style, but that’s one song that I hope people will sit and listen to. I’m glad you enjoy it, that means a lot.

What was the process of working with your band for this album? You have new band members that you didn't collaborate with on the last album, correct?

Yeah, I went into the studio and I played the bass and the guitar and all the keys, and my friend Derrick played the drums. So it was just the two of us, and Will produced and helped write the drum part. It felt good to finally have the ownership and responsibility, in a way, of making sure that I had all the arrangements figured out in my head ahead of time.

In a very utilitarian aspect, it’s important to me to get to a place with my guitar playing that I can play it well enough that, when we’re having rehearsal for tour, I can show these parts to the people playing in my band. At one point I didn’t have the technical skill yet to do that, and it would feel really frustrating. I had to rely on my friends Ben and Briana in Tiger’s Jaw, who were playing in my band for a while. I had help from all kinds of wonderful friends who are fabulous musicians who would take my weird mouth sounds that I’d make at them, and they’d be like, “Oh, you mean this.”

When I was in treatment, it was nice to have the time to sit, and be like, “I want to get better at my instrument,” and be able to go into the studio and do it myself. So this record cycle — we have a great band together, and I’m so excited to start rehearsing and touring with them. My friend Zach, who used to play in Superheaven, he plays drums on the tour. It’s just going to be really wonderful, I’m really excited about it. It feels like a lot of responsibility, but it felt like something I was ready to do. I think I wanted to prove to myself that I could do that recording process like that on my own, physically playing the parts.

A lot of the time I’ll see other women come up to me at shows and say, “I want to start a band, but I’m not that good at guitar.” And I’m like, “Did you just see what I just did? Do it! Go for it!” You know what I mean? I’m getting better all the time, but that shouldn’t be something that’s discouraging you from playing. Always, just go for it. I want to show people that no matter what your capabilities are, it should never be a deterring factor in whether you create something. That’s how you get better. How can you know until you try?

I think there’s also this idea that, you know, you think of rock stars and the quintessential guitarists or whatever, and you picture dudes. At least, for a long time, that’s what I pictured. There’s this idea of, “If you’re going to play with the boys, you’d better be fucking good.” We had a basketball court in my backyard growing up, and I never felt like I could get in on the basketball games with my brothers and their friends because I wasn’t good enough to play. But in actuality, maybe if I had just asked them to let me play, I would have gotten kind of good at basketball, you know? Who’s to say that just because you’re not, like, a thin white dude, you can’t get up and play guitar in front of people unless you’re fucking amazing? There’s this weird sort of trepidation I’ve felt, where it’s like — “Oh, unless I’m really good, I don’t want to get up there. That’s stupid.” I’m not stupid for thinking that, it’s stupid that that’s like a mentality that’s sort of cultivated in this very exclusive, patriarchal structure within music.

Of course. And I think that’s true of being a music fan, too. If you’re a female music fan and you’re going to be around male music fans, at least in my experience and from other people I’ve talked to, it’s like, “Oh, well, you better really know your shit.” They’re always going to challenge you on when that album came out or who was the guitarist in that band —

Who recorded it, when — [laughs]. That’s just so arbitrary! Who gives a fuck? I would rather have a really wonderful, engaging conversation with someone who just really loves a record they heard, even if they don’t know anything about it. I think that’s like a tactic that’s used to keep people away, to scare people away from playing music or being a fan of music. It’s always this idea that you have to prove your capability. That’s exhausting. It’s already like — I feel like I’m already trying to prove to myself that I’m worth other people’s time, or that my identity as a queer person or a genderfluid person is valid to myself. Those are just the battles that we all fight at home, on our own, but then — we all confront them in our professional lives as well, or in our creative lives, and it can be really exhausting, you know?

It’s like — what if you able to take all that energy and put it toward something else, you know?

Yes. And when someone comes up to me and says, “I don’t know if I’m good enough to start a band,” I say, “Oh, please start a band! Please do it! Take all of that and start a band! There’s going to be someone who’s so grateful that you started that band. You’re going to feel good for starting that band.” The idea that the prerequisite to doing something is being good at it is crazy. There’s nothing you do going into it — I’m not a wonderful baker, but I love baking and I’m going to do it anyway. Hopefully someday I’ll be really good at it, but in the meantime, I’ll eat all the shitty cookies I make. That’s fine.

“When someone comes up to me and says, ‘I don't know if i’m good enough to start a band’, I say, ‘Oh, please start a band! Please do it!’”

I feel like we don’t talk enough about the process of going from being interested in something or loving something to being really good at it, or being an expert or whatever. Because there’s a lot of in-between time there, but it doesn’t get talked about.

I feel like that’s like with gear, too. If you’re on tour and there’s a sound guy or just anyone asking about my setup or my gear, I’m not going to lie to them and say that I have this very extensive knowledge of what I’m using and why. I don’t. I’m learning, I’m starting to learn to care about gear more, I’m starting to learn about what guitars feel good for me and what don’t feel good for me, but it’s the same thing — that feeling that you’re about to get quizzed any second. It’s really intimidating, and it’s refreshing to walk into Guitar Center to get strings, or to pick out a new pedal or something that you want to just try out, and say, “Yeah, I actually have no idea what I’m looking for.” That feels good. I don’t want to be ashamed to not know stuff, and it’s okay to not care sometimes too. These are all things that I think are on my mind a lot, but don’t always have the room to sort them out. There’s probably a lot of other musicians who probably feel that way, and specifically other women — we’re already grappling with a million other things in our brain every other day, and to feel like you’re going to get quizzed on your fucking set-up is a stress that feels like a little bit of a nuisance.

I know. And rock music and guitar music have been such boys’ clubs for such a long time, and I think that’s shifting, now more than ever, but it might take a long time to change the culture around some of that.

Yeah, I think you’re right. And I think it’s cool too, because I think for a little while, at least in my experience of being involved in the music industry, it felt like there was just a little bit of space for people who weren’t your typical indie rock dude to be successful, but now it’s like, how come it’s just this little space? What if we just demo the whole house? Let’s demolish all of it, there’s room for everyone, this is stupid, I’m not going to compete with my peers. It’s just an energy suck, it’s not worth it to feel like I need to compete against other queers and other women for space. That’s just such a — again, I think a tactic to keep people out, to make it feel like there’s this liminal space for everyone, and that’s just not true. Especially now, there’s so many wonderful DIY groups all over the place, between Soundcloud and Bandcamp. Just hearing everyone’s music it and supporting it and sharing it — there’s plenty of room all around for people to be successful. And seeing that change — I put my first EP out in 2013, and from then until now, it feels very different.

I’m always interested in the way that place shapes an artist’s work. You’re from Scranton originally, but you were in New York for a while. Are you back in Scranton now?

I moved back home in January of last year — January of 2016. So, I was in New York for a couple years, and I was living there when we put out Shame, and I wrote a lot of that record in New York. I started writing Magic Gone in New York, and then over the last three years I went from New York to Philly back to home.

Those songs I wrote when I was living in Philadelphia and New York, I was pretty unhealthy at the time. I can hear the anger and the paranoia and the anxiety in the lyric writing. The songs that I wrote in recovery, and sort of in those moments of coming out, have a way different tone than the others. So it’s been interesting to kind of look back and think, “I remember where I was when that line came to me.” I always remember exactly where I was. “Tightrope” — I was driving home from work from a shift at the pizza place I worked at, it was like 11 o’clock at night, I saw what looked like a giant fireball in the sky. I was like — “Am I hallucinating? Should I be scared? I just don’t even care.” I was sort of mystified by this beautiful sight.

I started writing “Magic Gone”, the title track, when I still lived in my own apartment in New York, and I remember it was summer and we didn’t have air conditioning, and my roommate got heatstroke the night before, I was doing long-distance with my partner at the time. My whole apartment was linoleum tiles, and I remember sitting on the linoleum because it was the only cold surface in our house, and writing the riff for that song. So it’s always fun to look back and think, “I can remember these things so clearly.” It does really shape the songwriting. And a lot of those songs, I just couldn’t finish right away because I was moving or I was going on tour or I was really, really sick and not really capable of doing anything — like, I was mentally ill, so it was hard to finish a song. So, it’s been a really interesting writing process, because it took a long time.

I start to get worried, because it took three years to write [Shame], and I’m like “Oh god, am I only going to be able to write records over the course of very long stretches?” I’m never going to force writing, that’s just not how I work. But I’m a lot healthier now, and my life feels very different, and I was like, “Shit, I wonder what my songs are going to sound like now.” And not that I think you have to be in pain to write music, that’s not true at all, but it’s just an exciting thing to feel like, “Wow, I have a different perspective on life now.” I’m just curious to see, sonically, what that’s going to translate to. But I think for every artist, that’s the case. That’s why I love —  oh my god, Janelle Monae’s records. They’re all so different and cool and weird, and you can feel the growth in them. I love Death Cab for Cutie, too.

Me too!

Yeah! They’re one of my favorite bands of all time, forever. I love how the production varies from record to record, and, you know, you can tell the records that feel really happy and good — and then the latest release that they did was beautiful, and had all these crazy syncopated rhythms that were hard to kind of track, and I feel like that is so reflective of what they were going through as people and as a band. Just in those insane drumming patterns — I’m like “Oh my god!”

How are you feeling about your tour?

I haven’t toured with a full band in like a year and a half now, so it feels exciting. I’m nervous. We haven’t done a headliner tour before, so it’s very nerve-wracking. In a weird way, I feel like this is just me putting the pressure on myself, but I feel like I have something to prove. I’m not sure yet what that is, and I’m not sure if it’s me self-inflicting that pressure. I’m 27, I’ve been playing shows since I was 17. I don’t think I’ve ever talked about this out loud in an interview, so it’s kind of challenging. I do feel so excited for this tour, but I still feel like I have to prove myself to people, which is strange and frustrating. I’m not sure if that comes from just how the industry is, or if it’s me. I don’t know. I love the record I made. I’m proud of it. And so it feels weird to feel like I still have something to prove, you know? You remember the stuff people say to you at the merch table, or wherever. “I’ve seen you open the Bowery Ballroom so many times, when are you going to headline here already?” It’s a compliment, but it also feels like a burn. I’m like, "I don’t know! I’m trying! But also, like, you’re keeping track of it? I wasn’t even keeping track of it, but now I am." I’m not sure whose standards I’m trying to meet sometimes.

"I'm not sure whose standards I'm trying to meet sometimes."

And, you know, lo and behold, we sold out the Bowery Ballroom, and it feels really cool and exciting, but it would be nice to relish in those things instead of feeling like, “Alright, we’ve still got to keep showing them,” in that happy moment. I always still feel like I have to prove something to the industry, which feels frustrating. I make music for myself, and hopefully for other people to feel some comfort, so it feels like a little bit of a betrayal of my morals when I start to care about that stuff, you know? But you kind of can’t help it. But it’s this weird dance where I’m like, “Am I a success-hungry asshole?” I don’t think I am, I think I feel the same sort of anxiety and pressures of anyone who wants to do well at something they put so much time into, but it feels like a compromise because it’s your art. So it’s always this weird little dance. You can’t help but compare yourself.

I had an acting teacher who called it “Compare Despair.” He’d be like, “You have a serious case of Compare Despair. Just stop. Stop doing it.” I know for a fact there’s a lot of other musicians and friends of mine who are musicians who struggle with that dichotomy of loving what you do but always feeling like you’re competing for some prize or something, and that makes you feel like shit. There’s always that thing that’s hanging out in the back of your brain. I just want to start some support group chat that’s like that offers existential crisis help.

I think touring is so stressful for so many artists, and it brings up a lot of stuff, it seems like.

Yeah, it’s really easy to think you’re the only person who’s thinking about that stuff. I mean, innately, we’re sharing our personal stuff with people all the time. You can’t help but think, “Does this make my shit bad if I’m not being accessible or doing this thing or that thing.” The answer to that is, no, that’s not true. It’s easy to think that your success relies on the approval of others, of people in the industry. The fact of the matter is, it’s all about you and the way you want to connect with people, and trusting your own expectations of yourself and what you want to accomplish. Everything else is either just icing on the cake, or footnotes in your story of making music.

But when you get to talk to people like you, someone else who’s trying to create this space for women and LGBTQ+ folks, I’m like, “This is why I do this.” Sometimes it’s easy to forget that there’s a lot of people working for a common good, and it’s really nice that we can remember that it is the case, that there are a lot of people who want to keep making the music industry a better place. It’s a thing that feels good to be a part of.

I know, and obviously there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, but right now, to me, it does feel like we’re making progress. So that’s really heartening.

It feels like it’s this big mountain that we’re trying to climb, but if we’re all traversing the terrain and taking our field notes and stuff, we cover a lot more ground. All of us are taking a leg of a relay team or something, and hopefully we just keep passing the baton on and learning and growing and stuff like that, and then it feels a little less daunting to try and tackle something so big.

Katherine Flynn