Hayley Kiyoko wants a strike. The Los Angeles-born pop singer leans against a table near our lane at Brooklyn Bowl, in the borough’s Williamsburg neighborhood, as the pins reset. During my turn, prior, she'd half-heckled me and called it coaching. Her mom coached figure skating when she was young, she jokes, so it comes naturally.
Kiyoko, 26, shuffles over to select her bowling ball. Her hair, long and bleached blonde with visibly dark roots, is middle-parted and pulled back above the nape of her neck, revealing an undercut. Her clothing is oversized but drapes over her petite frame: her black sweatshirt depicts a hand reaching to grab a globe of the world, plus a variety of phrases: New World Brigade!, Something Like a Storm In the Night, The Hell with the Past, Don’t Mess with the Best, and We’ve Only Just Began. As Kiyoko winds up—not exactly efficiently but not gracelessly, either—straps on the sides of her black cargo pants flail around near her feet. It looks as though she might trip, but she doesn’t.
On her first go, she knocks down all but two gap-toothed pins on opposite sides of the lane. On her second, she hits one but can’t bend the ball for a spare. She turns around and smiles, rolling her eyes. Though she’s hardly humorless, it seems to irk her just a little that she’s not going ten-for-ten every time.
Hayley Kiyoko expects a lot of herself, and it is this idea that inspired the title of her debut album, Expectations (out today on Atlantic Records). “My therapist actually helped me figure [the album title] out actually,” Kiyoko says after our game, sitting kitty-corner to me on a couch near the bowling lanes. “We were just talking about all the things that control my life. And yeah, [having] expectations is my biggest strength and my biggest weakness. I set my expectations so high for myself. Like, I have to be here”—the singer sets her hand horizontally above just above her head—“And I always land here. I don’t accept anything but here.”
Kiyoko is also no stranger to navigating the expectations of others. From a very young age, she worked as a child model and actor in Los Angeles, including in massively popular Disney productions like the series Wizards of Waverly Place and the 2011 film Lemonade Mouth. (In both, she co-starred with Bridgit Mendler, who has also found her post-Disney voice as an artist.)
However, music has always been at the center of Kiyoko’s life. She began playing drums at five and had stints in various bands in her early teens, including the girl-group The Stunners alongside Tinashe. Kiyoko made her solo debut in 2013 with her EP A Belle to Remember, but her second EP, 2015’s This Side of Paradise, put her on the map. On “Girls Like Girls,” one of the EP’s five tracks, Kiyoko, who identifies as gay, sings openly about her sexuality for the first time. The song’s video, which the singer also directed, has racked up over 87 million views on YouTube to date. Her third EP, 2016’s Citrine, is even more vocal. (Kiyoko, who is half-Japanese, is also outspoken about issues of racial representation.)
But on Expectations, Kiyoko truly establishes herself as a mainstream pop star to be reckoned with. Though the album doesn’t focus solely on romantic relationships, its catchiest, punchiest songs—of which there are several—detail the singer’s own experiences navigating these difficult dynamics, often with girls who can’t quite commit.
The album’s strong second single, “Curious,” is an apt example. Over a bright, synth-pop beat, Kiyoko calls out her love interest for being hot-and-cold. The song’s colorful accompanying video, which Kiyoko also directed, shows the singer at a house party: Her girl has arrived with a boy, but is obviously still into Kiyoko. Toward the end of the clip, when the girl leads Kiyoko, by the hand, to the bathroom, the singer whispers the song’s hook into her ear: “I’m just curious,” she teases, “Is it serious?” Kiyoko then walks away. Though she ends up alone in the video, she’s not deflated—she’s defiant.
“It took me a long time to get to that point in that video [where I could walk away],” Kiyoko says. “But I got to that point! It’s important to showcase that, because it’s important to encourage learning self-respect. Games are fun, but at a certain point, it’s like, ‘Okay, when am I compromising myself?’”
Another of the album’s highlights is “What I Need,” a radio-friendly duet with 22-year-old R&B talent Kehlani, who has also dated women. The song’s message is simple: both artists want to feel respected in their relationships. Kehlani holds down the song’s hook with a breezy confidence (“What I need,” she repeats, “Is for you to be sure”) while Kiyoko chimes in on the verses: “I only want a girl who ain’t afraid to love me,” she declares, “Not a metaphor of what we really could be.”
Kiyoko says the collaboration was effortless: “We banged out the song in four hours. It just clicked; it was amazing. I love her. I’m a big fan of her work. She’s been one of the first artists to really come out and support me as an artist, you know? It’s hard sometimes—it feels like a popularity contest! I’m not friends with a lot of musicians. But she just was like, ‘I love you, I love your music.’ [She’s] so supportive.”
Expectations also has a quieter, more ambient side. Three songs clock in at over five minutes and could easily soundtrack a night drive down the 405. One of these, “Palm Dreams,” is Kiyoko’s take on her hometown. Rather than endorsing—or criticizing—L.A.’s culture, the singer writes an ode to the city’s famous palm trees: “These palm trees get to see all these different cycles,” Kiyoko says of the track. “And generations of people losing their minds trying to find themselves.”
In today’s times, it’s no secret that queer women rule pop—from Halsey to MUNA to Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui. Though Kiyoko’s directness about being gay, specifically, still feels very fresh, she isn’t a compelling pop artist because of her sexuality. On Expectations, Kiyoko delivers satisfying, smart pop with the with confidence of someone who knows what she wants—which is, among other things, to be loved—but refuses to sacrifice her sense of self to attain it.
In talking about how Kiyoko’s relationship with herself has improved over her solo career thus far, our conversation returns to therapy. “It took me a long time to see a therapist because I was against it,” she says. “Because I thought you had to have ‘problems’ to see a therapist. But it’s like, ‘No, it’s about having a dialogue with yourself.’ I journal now, and I’m able to understand my thoughts and my feelings a lot better. I encourage everyone [to go to therapy]—if you have insurance and you’re able to do it. I feel very fortunate to be able to do it. Mental health is so important. People bottle it up, and it’s like, ‘Why am I not happy inside?’ Well, maybe because you’re not talking to yourself.”
Ultimately, Kiyoko is well aware she’s still learning, both about herself and her artist project, but she’s decidedly optimistic about what’s to come: “I feel like I’m catching up,” she says, “Because my whole life has been accepting myself and loving myself and finding who I was—and [finding] my sound. Expectations is [me] singing about the present for the first time in my life. And since I finished the album [in October 2017], I’ve gone through so much shit. I feel like I have so much [more] to write about. I’m really excited that I’ve captured that time and that moment, but Expectations is my first chapter,” she smiles. “It’s just scratching the surface.”
Catch Hayley on tour on one of the dates listed here.
Follow Avery Stone on Twitter.