There’s a pot of Earl Grey tea waiting for Natalia Kills when she walks into the Norwood Club on a sunny, pre-Sandy afternoon this fall. But before the 26-year-old British-born pop singer can sit down, she excuses herself. She needs to barf really fast. Kills gets car sick easily, one of her handlers explains, and had to take a cab all the way downtown.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” Kills says five minutes later, looking not at all like someone who has just thrown up. Wearing Cleopatra eyeliner, a braided headband, a pile of gold chains, and black leather leggings, she looks like she walked off the set of “Controversy,” the video she released last month.
Viral isn’t the right word for “Controversy,” although some bloggers have been quick to use it. Viral suggests a sort of unearned, overnight fame when, in fact, Kills has been hustling in the music industry since she ran away from home at age 14, starting with the 2005 single “Don’t Play Nice,” recorded as Verbalicious, followed by a MySpace demo, Womannequin, as Natalia Cappuccini, and most recently with 2011’s Perfectionist, an album of Lady Gaga–lite pop songs that did all right in Europe but failed stand out in the chorus of pantsless pop stars here and in the U.K. And even though “Controversy” is transfixing and funny, like some of YouTube’s greatest hits (it also racked up 50,000 views in one night), it’s a so-called “official viral,” a label-released “video teaser” for her second album, Trouble, due out early next year from Interscope/Cherrytree.
Teaser, on the other hand, is an apt description. In the minimal video, Kills dances in slow motion, her eyes fixed on the camera, spliced with nearly subliminal clips from movies and television. (Blink and you’ll miss a gum-pulling Cher Horowitz.) “A me-watching-you-watch-me-watch-you kind of thing,” as Kills puts it. And “Controversy” is “not even a song,” she says. “It’s a list.” The five-minute, Peaches-esque track serves as the introduction to Trouble, due out next year and produced by Jeff Bhasker, who has worked with Kanye West and Lana Del Rey. Still, in the tradition of “Vogue” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” it’s a catchy list of porny visuals (cheerleaders/wet panties), with a chorus imploring the listener to drink/not drink “the Kool-Aid.”
“It was my observation of a twisted generation who doesn’t find anything twisted anymore,” Kills says. “Growing up in the nineties, the TV’s your babysitter and the Internet is your school dance where you’ll meet all the boys or the fucking pedophiles or whatever. You know, instead of reading magazines and getting advice from your peers, it’s all full-exposure. I wanted to just list everything non-shocking that should be.”
The song’s blasé lyrics of and Kills’s nineties Naomi Campbell style (cheekbones included) predictably attracted the attention of fashion figures like Jeremy Scott, Nicola Formichetti, and fashion’s go-to D.J.s. She was invited to perform at Paris fashion week, met Gaspar Noé, and was photographed everywhere she went. But she says the biggest change since “Controversy” was released has been to her own thinking. “I realized that all along my theory was right: Make music that you want to hear and, instead of having fans that one day might criticize or abandon you, your fans aren’t even fans. They’re people with tastes similar to yours. They’re friends you haven’t met yet.”
In the hour I spend with Kills, she rarely deviates from this register, speaking in complete, self-possessed paragraphs, like a goth Hermione Granger. Although she does visibly bristle when I ask her to walk me through the various iterations of her career, how she landed on this name and this sound.
“Artists are definitely, like, under a sort of microscope of scrutiny more than others,” she says, taking an imperious sip of tea. “It’s more drastic than others, more traumatic.”
“If you look at you two years ago, you’re never exactly the same. You know, when you untag yourself from Facebook and you’re like, That spray tan was devastating! But if you’re an artist, people think Oh, they’re reinventing! Or This is an entirely new them! But maybe it’s not. I don’t sit there drafting my new hairstyle. It’s sort of more of a mood. A boyfriend could bring it out of you, or a vacation could bring it out of you, where you go to Barbados and you get disgusting braids all the way down here and you take loads of pictures but then you untag yourself. But when you’re an artist you can’t really untag, because it’s there!”
I’m not trying to impugn her authenticity, like the ongoing assault of poor Lana Del Rey, but Kills is defensively jaded about discussion of her showbiz adolescence. “I did that thing you do. You see an opportunity and you’re a kid, so you’re like Oh, wow, someone thinks I’m talented. You sign a bunch of deals; it doesn’t work out, you move on.” She says her changing stage name is a legal side effect of rocky management.
As a child, Kills, born Natalia Keery-Fisher, acted in television shows, including the BBC’s All About Me. “I didn’t really like being on television at all,” she recalls. Nor did life at home in West Yorkshire offer an appealing alternative. “My dad went to jail for a long time,” she says. “We lost everything, and the situation never resolved itself. My parents had this sort of passionate, disastrous desire for each other — not ideal to grow up in.” Having written off school by age 14, Kills waited until she landed her first job in television and left home. “I was like, Right. Fuck this, I’m moving to London,” she says. “I lived in a hotel for the whole of the job and then I decided to stay.”
After the job ended, Kills became “the renegade teenage tragedy writing songs and having bad boyfriends and crashing on people’s couches and not paying rent and making rash and disastrous decisions. Moving to L.A. with no money. Living in these gross dirty motels trying to network and meet people and running out of money and moving back to England and crashing on people’s floors again.” She says her rough childhood informs her lyrics, which are darker than your average Top 40 song. “It’s about wanting to kill myself when I’m a teenager, trying to set my house on fire with my boyfriend in it, running away from home, and being in Paris and meeting strangers and doing strange things.”
I make the mistake of asking Kills if there are any books or movies she’s into right now and quickly learn that she’s the obsessive type. Here is an abridged list of the things Natalia Kills is obsessed with right now: Earl Grey tea; Mad Men; Girl, Interrupted; Salvadore Dali; Courtney Stodden (“Do you know who she is? I adore her and the world’s response to her. They just don’t get how brilliant she is.”); nineties square-toe patent crocodile shoes; words that rhyme; words that don’t rhyme; trying to find an outfit that isn’t all black; and making prolonged eye contact with strangers. That last one she demonstrates theatrically, batting her eyelashes and taking dramatic glances down into her teacup.
“I like hotel rooms where you can kind of see all the way out,” she goes on. “Where instead of having a big window, the whole wall is just glass. Doing horrible things during the daytime when everyone can see, you know, that kind of thing.”
On that note, Kills offers her unusual theory of dating, which begins with the premise that we women have “really fucked it for ourselves” by “taking the sledgehammer, and witch-hunted chivalry and killed it.” “We’re now in this situation where we’re supposed to split the bill — well, I don’t — and go half on rent. I mean, come on. I’ll leave a date halfway through if he forgets to open a door.” In the absence of one perfect gentleman, she says, she’s resolved to keep enough men on hand to handle life’s unpleasantries. “For every piece of luggage I have, there should be a man around to carry it,” she says. “It’s a fair deal, otherwise why do they keep calling?”
Kills moved to New York from Los Angeles about six months ago but tells me she can’t report much about her social life here because she has made a habit of starting her nights with, as she puts it, “things that make sure you’ll forget the night and then remember it in bits.”
“And then I also like to go downtown and crawl into bed with people and talk about stuff that I probably won’t remember the next day,” she adds. “But it’s in my music, actually.” Mistaking the “just listen to the music” answer for question fatigue, I hint at wrapping up our interview.
“We haven’t talked about Halloween,” Kills says. “I think I’m going to be who I think I used to be in a past life. I’m quite certain I was Cleopatra. So I think I’m going to be Cleopatra, in kind of, like, slutty debaucherous remix. You know who I thought I wanted to be? Brandy Alexander, do you know who that is? Have you read Invisible Monsters? I’m obsessed with Chuck — Chuck Palahniuk? Is that how you say it, Puh-LAH-nik? Then I thought I was going to be the sister who shot her face off. So I thought I’d be her and look all gorgeous with my all hair blown out and stuff and then just have half my jaw all bloodied and gross. I don’t know how I would do it, though. I’ve never done Halloween, because I’m English. We don’t really — no one really does Halloween the way — I don’t know. You guys make it into a real thing.”