Everything about Chappell Roan is DIY. A glint of becoming shines through her music and style. Not only is the 24-year old’s look intended to appear “tacky, handmade, and a little rundown,” but she went from working part time at a donut shop to opening for Olivia Rodrigo in a matter of months. Her lyrics seize the flicker of complex queer feelings as they develop. Chappell’s knock-out rhythms and mesmerizing harmonies give voice to the unpronounced fears and excitements of growing up – and they were written from her bedroom in Missouri.
This summer, Chappell has sold-out shows at the Troubadour in Los Angeles and the Bowery Ballroom in New York, but that doesn’t stop her from teaching songwriting as Director of Music at a summer camp that she has attended since she was sixteen. She loves music, and her “slumber party pop” reflects this appreciation for sharing a song with people close to you – whether it be fans in a club or campers putting on a show.
The artist subverts traditional notions of showmanship by rendering consciously garish music and lyrics reflective of authenticity. Pink Pony Club, featured on Hayley Kiyoko’s “Pride” playlist on Apple Music and reaching over 10 million streams on Spotify, encapsulates the discrepancy between performance and reality: a jazz keyboard intro heightens our awareness to sitting in on a show; lyrics make us acknowledge the ways in which we perform on and off stage. Chappell spotlights the rough edges of these contradictions and smooths them into music.
How does Kayleigh Rose become Chappell Roan?
I have never felt super connected to my real name Kayleigh. My grandfather’s name was Dennis K. Chappell, so I took Chappell in his honor. Before he passed away in 2016 due to brain cancer, I told him that I was going to be Chappell for him. Roan came from his favorite song, which was called the Strawberry Roan, an old Western song about a pinkish red horse. It’s a very sentimental name. I do still wish my name was not Kayleigh in real life, though.
In 2017 you released your first album, ten weeks ago you opened for Olivia Rodrigo in an arena. What has surprised and excited you most about your swift success?
I surprised myself that I could do that. I’m independent. I don’t have a label’s bank or the power of an entire building that could move me through the industry in such a fast way. I did this with no money. I think people are scared to talk about the money aspect, but it’s one of the biggest – if not the biggest – parts of it all. We can talk about the passion – of course, that’s awesome, that’s what you need to drive you – but if you don’t have money you’re so set back. That’s what surprised me – having so little money and still being able to push through. Olivia and I have the same co-writer, so I had met her, but we’d never hung out one on one. She had heard Naked in Manhattan and My Kink is Karma before it they were released. She knew about me and asked me to play which was awesome.
You mentioned the money aspect, I’m wondering what were the biggest barriers you had to overcome to get to the point where you could sell out shows?
Most of last year I was working at a donut shop. That was until I got a publishing deal, which is not the same as a label. I got enough money that I didn’t need to work a part time job anymore. Then, I was really able to push my music forward. But it took me months to get over the fear of looking stupid on TikTok. I think 99% of artists go through hell doing TikTok, but you still have to take advantage of it. You have to be okay with tanking. Which is so heartbreaking. Because you see someone do super well, and then you try to replicate it, and it tanks. Then you don’t try, and it does great. It makes no sense. I decided to purposefully be stupid and not make any sense and just post what I like and what I think is funny. If anyone tries to bash me, it’s impossible because I’m already okay with it. I had to go there – be a little delusional. So, the fear of looking stupid and the fear of losing money. And a lot of hoping that you can pull something off. I had no idea if I could headline. Then it sold out. I had to face my fears: I look dumb, I don’t have a lot of money; let’s ride.
When you write music, is it more you sharing what’s on your mind or is it crafting a message that will resonate with fans?
It depends on the song. I consider my sound “slumber party pop.” That’s a super special part of childhood, at least for me. I’m lucky that I didn’t find sleeping over at other people’s houses to be a traumatic experience – I know for a lot of people that’s not the case. I loved going over to my friends’ houses and staying up all night jamming to Gaga and Ke$ha, but also listening to Adele and crying together, talking about that heavy heartbreak or crush. I try to capture that feeling of youth, pure bliss, and exploring sexuality. Pink Pony Club came from me wanting to be a Gogo dancer in L.A. but, truthfully, I’m not confident enough to do that, so I wrote a song about it. But my music also comes from real-life experience – the heaviness of heartbreak and confusion within queerness. Traditionally, if people wanted to label it, I would be bi, but I don’t feel like that’s it. I would date someone who was non-binary if it was right. So, I just say queer.
10.7 million streams on Spotify and 28.7k followers on Instagram. The numbers don’t add up. Why do you think that is?
My socials aren’t massive by any means so it’s not like people are discovering me through my socials. I think they find me more by word of mouth or the shows. If I wanted to get the deal that I want – a lot of money and a lot of freedom because I think that’s what my project deserves – I couldn’t get that right now because of my socials’ numbers. Because they don’t match. Because it doesn’t look on the outside like I’m doing awesome, but I can sell out shows.
On social media, more and more artists craft personas with a “curated authenticity” so that they can give fans an inside-look at their lives while maintaining a semblance of privacy. What demands do you face in terms of social media content and presentation?
It’s everything. Social media is the most demanding part of my job. Daily. I can’t really hate on it because it’s pushed me forward and people know about me because of it, though it’s the most soul-sucking part of my job. But I guess, within a capitalist system, there’s always going to be a part of your job that’s a little soul-sucking, and TikTok is it for me. It’s not that bad to make a TikTok, obviously. It’s not hard. It’s a fifteen second video. But that’s not the point. To some people, it comes naturally, and those people really soar, so it makes you feel bad about yourself if you try hard and it doesn’t work. To be honest, any video that I put out about my music automatically doesn’t do as well as a video of me doing something stupid, saying something nonsensical.
What artists across industries – music, film, fashion – most influence your creative output?
I pretty much base my aesthetic off what a pop star would have worn when I was 8. When I was little, I loved Bratz, the classic Barbie movies, Britney Spears, I was really into fairies and Spy Kids. My style is very influenced by cabaret, burlesque, queer culture, and drag. For music, my inspiration changes all the time. Right now, I really love the Pop Queens: Spice Girls, early 2000s Britney, Gaga. And anthemic pop: Shania Twain, Kate Bush, Cyndi Lauper. I’m a big fan of 90s rock as well and smaller indie rock from the early 2000s. Really all over the board.
How much does place impact your music?
Place impacts me immensely. I think it has to do with my upbringing. There isn’t really a place for showmanship in Missouri in the way that I would like. I want to purposely look “trashy,” not modest, very loud and provocative. To me that is a reflection of and an homage to burlesque. It’s consciously camp. Because I was not allowed to express that kind of showmanship in Missouri where I’m from, the pendulum has swung so far the other way. I don’t think I would have been as outgoing and obnoxious if I had been from the coasts. Because when I was Kayleigh Rose, I was performing all over town in coffee shops in Springfield Missouri and I was very modest. I always wore knee-length dresses and very high necks. Nothing like what I would wear now. I think L.A. and New York give me this freedom to be whatever I want and wear whatever I want.
In My Kink is Karma you negotiate the sincere emotional upheaval of a break-up and having a sense of humor – is this a balance you try to maintain throughout your work?
Dan, my main co-writer and producer, and I always try not to take every song too seriously. I think humor in pop music is great. Lizzo is amazing at that. Gaga is interesting because her camp is serious – Born This Way puts out an important message but still has a laugh behind it. I haven’t gotten to that point, but I’d like to get there. I think right now I’m in the humor category because I don’t know how to explore camp in a serious way. My Kink is Karma is purposely outrageous and funny. I want it to be fun and ridiculous.
Your single Femininomenon comes out this Friday. What does the name mean to you and how is the album different or maybe a culmination of your creative output up to this point?
This is where the queerness part comes in. It’s about the confusion I have in relation to my sexual relationships with men. Something is not connecting. I feel like every man I’ve been with is never satisfying. With a woman, it’s easy and different and wonderful. It’s a phenomenon. It’s a queer song – hidden in there. The song has to do a lot with going for a guy that doesn’t give a fuck about you, and you end up together and you thought this was what you wanted and it’s still just as bad as it was in the beginning. It’s the case for most relationships when you think it’ll get better the longer you stay together, and it just gets worse. It’s a phenomenon that this magical, perfect scenario somewhere out there exists, and it’s probably a woman in my case.
You talked about the inspiration for your music video for My Kink is Karma being burlesque and drag. The representation of female artists in the music industry has shifted significantly in recent years. What role does your image play – if any – in that narrative?
For me, I know that it’s not a label telling me to go out there and wear a mini skirt. I grew up in a heavily religious conservative area. The Midwest loves award shows – American idol, we fuel America’s Got Talent. It creates an Us and Them mentality – a conversation of why do they have to be so slutty? Why can’t pop stars just be modest? They don’t have to show all that skin. As a woman, I am allowed to look sexy and sexualize myself and feel like a sexual being, taking power in my body. I have no control or power over how others perceive me. I know my grandparents tell me that my voice is good enough and I don’t have to wear what I do. It’s almost an act of defiance to be in something very burlesque with nipple tassels, purposely drawing attention to my body. I can be in this outfit and still write a fucking good song and be a good singer. That feels empowering. As long as women feel empowered, then why the fuck does anyone care what they’re wearing? No one’s out there asking Bieber how does your fashion move feminism forward?
What are you most looking forward to about going on tour with Fletcher?
I love touring. I like how hard it is. The shows are the most exciting part, but they are only 30% of the tour. I haven’t toured since 2018! Just performing, that is what I’m most excited about.
What are the next steps for you?
Of course, Femininomenon, comes out this Friday. Before the tour in November, I have another song coming out. We have an album, so we’ll probably just finish the album and put it out at the beginning of next year. A solid, sold-out headline tour with this project is my goal. I want to play the album all over the place. I would love to go on an international tour. I would love to take it to the UK. I want to release amazing, fun merch and videos around it. I want to build this little world that I’ve always imagined and share it with everyone.