Watching Kill J slink around the stage as she cooed her anthems of empowerment, sociopolitical commentary, and plain old sexual intrigue was one of the best parts of our visit to SXSW this year. No matter what the venue, she brought ample amounts of energy and raised the temperature a good 10 degrees.
Not that we were at all surprised by this. We’ve been following this Danish pop singer’s work for a while now. She has us completely under the sway of her earworm melodies and wowed by the impressive visual element she brings to the EPs and singles out in the world and the videos she has released along with them. That’s why we knew we had to catch her for an interview while we were all in Austin.
Surprisingly, her SXSW visit was the first time she had been to the States to perform, even though her music has been getting snapped up and disseminated by blogs for the past three years or so. But with an American booking agent now, there’s a hope that Kill J will start her slow takeover of the world’s listening habits within the next year. Before that happens, check out our conversation with this genius of an artist and check out some of her music below.
When did you start writing and singing songs?
Writing came later than singing. I’ve been singing since I was a child. I was classically trained from the age of 11-12 and I was supposed to become a classical singer. And I didn’t. I had my little rebellion my quarter life crisis when I turned 19. I didn’t want to go to the conservatory in Denmark at all so I came to the States. I moved to California for a couple of years and I didn’t do music at all. Then I came back to Denmark and during that period in the States, I went to college and took a lot of courses to see what I was good at. I very quickly figured out that I wanted to be much more part of the creative process, writing music. I started doing that when I came back.
One of the elements of your music that I admire so much is your singing. You have such a dynamic range at your disposal. When did you realize you had such an amazing instrument at your disposal?
I don’t think there’s any one moment where I felt, “Oh I’m really good at this.” I remember, as a child, telling my mom that I really like this music thing, playing the piano and singing. She picked up on that right away and said, “If you’re going to do it, then do it right.” And she sent me off to a classical vocal coach and a piano teacher. I’m really happy she did that.
What do you think you took from your classical training that you’re applying to your music now?
I don’t know. I do but I don’t. There’s a lot of it that I’m not aware. Definitely a lot of the vocal technique. You can’t really unlearn that. I definitely use that. I’ve been confronted with meeting people and they listen to one of my songs and they’ll say, “Oh that’s a really classical thing there.” I won’t notice that I’ve done that. It’s electronic music and I don’t at all consider myself a classical musician. I’m light years away. I’m not good enough. I’m rusty.
With music like yours, there’s often the assumption that the women singing these songs are just the puppets of another person, usually a male producer or songwriter. Is this something you’ve run into?
Yes and no. I think a lot of people don’t have that expectation and a lot of people do. I have met that where people assume. They don’t ask you, “Do you write your songs? Do you produce this or that?” They ask, “Who writes your songs? Who produced this or that?” That pisses me off every once in a while. It’s good because being pissed off is a good thing for me. That’s when I write songs. I don’t know when that’s going to change, those expectations. But it will. In time it well. When more and more women claim what they do. I have to do that all the time. I do work with co-producers and all of them are men. Not that that really matters but they are. It puts me in a frustrating place because I have to say, “Well, I actually wrote that. I actually did that.” Then I feel like I’m taking center stage and pushing them and what they did away. It should be so unnecessary. That’s just the way it is. But it’s going to change.
How do you go about writing a song then?
It’s very different every time. Sometimes I’ll have a sentence stuck in my head for weeks and if it’s still there after a while, then I think I’ll have to use it. Usually, the best songs that I write are when I’m emotionally overwhelmed by something. It can be anger. It often is but it can be other emotions as well. That’s when the words and the melody are the purest. When you don’t think about it.
Does that make it easy to write a song when it’s based on something so immediate and emotional?
With a few of my songs, they’ve been written very quickly. In a day. But most of them haven’t. I’m not gonna lie! I do things over and over and I’m a perfectionist. That’s the truth. “You’re Good But I’m Better” that was written fairly quickly. The lyrics and the melody came almost at the same time. It’s a very simple song; the chords in the chorus and the verse are almost the same. I remember I had that melody stuck in my head late at night. At the time I was living with a roommate so I couldn’t record it. I was whispering it into the little crappy microphone into my computer. It was that recording that I ended up using. That’s why it’s so whispery because I didn’t want to wake her up!
There’s always such a striking visual element to all of your releases. Where does that stem from?
Usually I have a very strong idea about what story I want to tell. I used to not think that at all. I used to ignore it. But I don’t anymore. For example, the “Barbie Girl” cover that I did, I had this idea that I wanted to buy a Barbie doll and cut her hair like mine, and create my profile picture with that image. But somebody got scared of Mattel and lawsuit, so we ended up not doing that. It ended up being a good thing because I had to think, “What am I saying with this song? I’m taking this plastic, silly song and making it sinister and dark and scary.” I knew I wanted some kind of religious element in it. I had this idea that I wanted to make my version of an icon, like a portrait of a saint. So in the windows behind me, we put in all the little images of what women do to themselves to make themselves look like a Barbie doll. Diet pills and Botox and stuff like that.
Is it important for an artist from your country to reach a wider audience in the States and beyond or could you get away with just performing and working in Denmark?
It’s a strange question because, first of all, I write music in English. Of course, most Danes speak English, but I definitely write lyrics to people who can understand them. My experience has been that whenever we’ve been to the U.K., the feedback I get from English-speaking people, they have a more direct connection with the things that I’m saying. This is my baby and I want it to grow as big and strong as possible.
What comes next for you this year?
World domination. I want to keep making music and I’d love to make a full album, but I really, really like the EP format. There’s something romantic about the album format, but the EP format really appeals to me because you can tell shorter stories. I would love to tour everywhere. I’m really hoping that we can come back to the States. I think we are but I couldn’t tell you when. I just want to keep going.