Meet Kiley Lotz, the musician turning anxiety into art

The popular image of the anxiety-riddled individual is someone who shies away from all social contact. However, the reality of actually living with anxiety is oftentimes much more complicated — it’s not that you don’t like people, but that you have to prepare yourself against all possible conflicts and dicey social situations, and sometimes the con of confronting those thoughts is outweighed by the “pro” of just not putting yourself in the position to be thinking or acting on them.

It’s a complicated, tiring, and frustrating thought process, so to find a piece of art that accurately reflects it is rare. Yet, that’s what indie rock band Petal’s album Shame, out October 23, does in a variety of ways, and with the kind of care that comes from constantly negotiating your own fears and, well, shame.

Petal is the project of Scranton, Pennsylvania native Kiley Lotz, who fills out her rock band setup with a little help from her friends. With a clear, guiding voice, Lotz pulls from the growing tradition of female voice-powered non-mainstream rock, belting out anthemic choruses and crooning over acoustic guitar with equally seeming ease. Yet listen a little closer, and Lotz’s lyrics reveal the kind of intimate back-and-forth that anyone familiar with anxiety knows. This is music best listened to with the headphones on, blinds drawn, lights off, and eyes closed.

Which doesn’t mean that you can’t rock out to it, or that Lotz doesn’t have a sense of humor or frankness about both living with anxiety and creating art out of it. Indeed, when HelloGiggles spoke to her, she mused on everything from safe spaces in shows to childhood recital memories, and finding strength in womanhood and music.

Something that I just thought was really cool is that your name is Kiley, and one of the most iconic female-fronted indie rock bands of the recent past is Rilo Kiley.

I wish my parents were around long enough to name me after Rilo Kiley, because that’d be pretty sick. I think my mom got my name from a soap opera in the ‘70s. But I love Rilo Kiley and Jenny Lewis; it’s cool when people give a likeness to any of those women in the rock genre, because they do it so well. I’m pumped at the comparison!

Part of it too is that now, there are a lot more visible female-fronted indie projects. But there’s still the struggle about whether to be very upfront about that acknowledgement, like, “Yes, I am a woman, I’m doing this thing, and my woman-ness is part of that.” But also, “I create stuff on my own merit and it’s not something that has to be tacked on as this capital-T Thing.”

It’s almost like female-fronted becomes its own genre of music, which is kind of a blessing and a curse. Does it mean that the female voice is so exceptional that it gets its own category? It also can be a bit of a binary situation, where you’re still a musician and you’re still a person making music, but you don’t want to be void of identifying as a woman in indie or a woman in punk. That’s what Patti Smith and Kim Gordon and all those women were doing before us and for us, and they certainly didn’t say, “No, I’m just a musician.”

You wanna be given credit for your musicianship, but as a minority in something, you wanna be proud of that, and show solidarity with other women. Sometimes it turns into a competitive thing too, but it’s more about having each others’ backs. If anyone ever forces you between being a woman and being a musician, that’s just the world. People are used to one idea and to allow yourself to be both, they make it seem like it’s virtually impossible sometimes.

And when you’re coming at it from a “minority” perspective, there’s still the idea that “there can only be one.”

Or you have to be the best. If you’re from any marginalized community, and you’re in a “man’s,” heteronormative field, you better be exceptional at it. There’s almost no room to be a woman who’s learning and playing an instrument. Like, I’m not an amazing, amazing guitarist; I’m not Annie Clark on the guitar! But I try, I practice all the time, and I like writing songs that way. It’s good that there are examples of women out there who maybe aren’t exceptional at their instrument, but they’re trying and having fun and writing music.

What kind of example then is there for other young people who might be trying to learn an instrument, and thinking, “Maybe I’m not good enough to play in a band,” or “I’m not good enough to play a show or write songs”? Even then, there’s a higher expectation for women. Be the best, if you’re gonna do it at all!

Especially in a case like yours, wherein you’re the only point person in Petal. You are the anchor for the moniker, but ultimately you need to work with more people to put your songs together.

How do you find yourself explaining and expanding your creative vision when your lineup is ever-evolving?

It’s a challenge, but I’m so fortunate that I have really talented and giving friends. They give me their time to play in the band, and those people are Ben Walsh and Brianna Collins and they also have a band called Tigers Jaw. They’ve been so tremendous with helping realize the songs, but I have it all in my head. I only play my one instrument, so I have to try and communicate as best as I can, “This is what I’m hearing.” We’ve been friends for almost ten years now, and we’ve developed a way of communicating what I’m hearing, and it’s totally happenstance that I have so many talented musician friends who are willing to come on tour, or play a one-off gig.

It’s so interesting when you scale up from a solo to a group performance. I grew up playing in classical bands, but then the difference between performing solo vs. a group of people — even when you had solo moments, it was never as nerve-wracking as being up there alone.

Doing anything by yourself is not as fun as being with other people! I grew up playing classical piano and I went to college for it during my first year of school. I was so tired of being in a practice room by myself and writing songs by myself on the piano. Once you get okay at an instrument enough, you naturally wanna learn something else or try another thing. I’d started listening to different types of music and seeing more examples of women doing stuff that wasn’t just like, Regina Spektor, who I love! But I was limiting myself within that woman and piano songwriter thing, and that’s great, but I didn’t think I just had to do that. It’s always good to make more sound; it’s so fun to be loud, and take up space!

Playing a piano and being a young girl, I was very prim and proper and reserved. I did my thing and played my Bach, and wore my dresses.

Ohhh, concert dresses.

They’re hideous! No jewelry, you can’t paint your nails, nothing. But this feels very different and freeing; to play upright and not have to sit down.

Also, going through body anxiety stuff as a teen girl.

And everyone’s wearing the same dress! So you’re comparing yourself to everyone else. But you made it!

Being an adult now and having had the experience of growing up in an arts and performing environment is something that’s clearly changed the direction of your life, but even if you don’t go into music performance directly, it’s something that builds up your confidence. You tell yourself, “I have to do this thing, and if I don’t nail it, literally everybody I know and love is gonna be able to see my failure happening in real time!”

Definitely! My mother’s a music teacher and a choir director, so I grew up around it. My parents encouraged me to take lessons in something if I was into it, and it really did make me feel confident because in so many other ways, I wasn’t, and am not, a very confident person. Knowing I have that skill, that it’s always going to be there and I can always sit down and play the piano . . . That’s such a gift. As a kid, I whined and cried and moaned when my mom was like, “You need to practice,” but now I’m so thankful that it’s a lifelong hobby.

Even just as a creative outlet for pain or hard times, having something, anything, that you can do that’s a constructive outlet is so valuable and important. When you’re an adult, you sometimes forget that you should have that stuff to fall back on. Just because you’re a grown-up doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have hobbies; who cares if you’re good at it! Paint or play tennis or get really into comics! It’s so important to have a release for that kind of stuff, and music is an obviously great one. A lot of great art has come from people just venting happiness and pain, and we’ve all benefitted from that so it’s cool to feel like you’re contributing to that pool. It’s pretty magical!

Most people, even people who may not read or paint, have a connection to music. I was reading this discussion on “the song of the summer,” and it’s clear that people really hold onto memories through music and they have specific times and places associated with them. From the consumer side, you’re listening to a whole variety of stuff, but what’s it like on the other side?

I think about that a lot; at any age, I can tell you what I was listening to. The song that was playing in the background when me and my first “real” middle school boyfriend had our first slow dance — it was blink-182!

My dad doesn’t play any instruments, but he loves music and has such a strong association with  it, to people like his mother, and how they used to listen to the South Pacific record in their house. It’s kind of fascinating, but I’m so grateful that it exists.

Speaking of your own contributions to music, when I first heard your song “Heaven,” it was such a specific kind of mood and action that I could totally relate to. My freshman year of college, I had a tough time making friends on my dorm room floor, so I’d always have that feeling of getting ready for whatever, and being like, “Oh man, I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna go out and make these friends, and we’re gonna be best friends!” But it was never like that, and when I did find my people, it was something much more organic.

It’s almost people you least expect too, which is really awesome.

I’m so glad you get the video! Alex Henery did it, and our goal was to show that feeling — I struggle a lot with anxiety and stuff, and now I have a great doctor, but the time leading up to that, it was hard to leave the house and think about prepping to go have dinner with a friend or even go have coffee. The coaching of yourself, when you have anxiety, to get even just out of the house or just get dressed takes so long. We wanted to show what that feels like, but then, on top of that, to go out to New York and show people. Normal people having fun, working at their jobs really hard, and show that they are heavenly, or maybe you should be nicer to people because they’re someone’s heaven, or someone’s idea of heaven.

That part where you’re still in your house and you’re bustling around, lining things up — I used to pace around my room and talk to myself, and act out what I wanted to say with people.

It’s so common, and that’s what the record is about, is that I carried a lot of shame about having an anxiety disorder and how it affected me and the people around me who cared about me. I felt so out of place and silly and useless, but then I realized how common this actually was. I started to get help, and more and more of my friends and family were saying, “I’d struggled with this,” or “A family member struggles with this.” It was such a relief, because all this time, I thought I was such an alien who couldn’t seem to catch on, or who was missing the point.

It was good to know that it’s not your fault — you can’t help if you have any sort of condition or disorder or whatever, anything about who you are. You can’t help that, so why be ashamed of it? Odds are, there are plenty of other people who are just like you, and maybe they don’t feel comfortable enough to say it too. I’m hoping that with the record, putting all that out there, maybe some other people can get a catharsis.

Even if their daily struggle isn’t anxiety or depression, maybe it’s feeling ostracized from their family or having a job that they hate. I hope people don’t feel so alone in it, that they can hear that someone else has gone through that, and it’s okay. Music did that for me very often and still does.

It’s a little lofty of a goal, but if I’m not doing it for any other reason, then I’d be a little suspect and self-indulgent. Maybe it is! But hopefully it helps some people.

With a lot of very personal art, you feel bad about making it about you. But you’re speaking from your experiences, you know that it’s not just yours.

When I was listening to the outro to your song “The Fire,” all of that self-doubt and like, “Why can’t I be better? Why can’t I just be this other thing, or do this other thing?” — it hit hard. Part of it’s a statement about yourself, but another part of it is how you present yourself outside of what you know about yourself.

There’s this quote, and I’m paraphrasing the crap out of this, but it goes, “Everyone is fighting their own battles. Be kind.” It sounds so simple and cheesy, but it’s so true! You don’t know what that person had to do to get up this morning, so it’s so much better to be compassionate and try and be aware and accepting.

That self-loathing that goes, “If I could just be like that person” — whoever you’re comparing yourself to— you’re only comparing based on all the things that you think you lack. But you don’t know what they might be struggling with too, so comparison is really dangerous like that.

I had a wonderful acting teacher coin the phrase “Compare despair.” The fact of the matter is, you’re you at the end of the day, and that’s it. If you can’t live with yourself, there’s a bunch of people who like living with you, so you should reach out to them and they’ll tell you how great you are, and hopefully you’ll start believing it too!

As a young woman too, I was told, “You don’t want to come off cocky,” or “You don’t wanna be too proud.” “Don’t walk like that, because you’re being pompous.” It was almost as if being confident was a bad thing, and the more reserved and grateful and humble you are, that’s good, those are good things. Which is true, but it took me a long time to realize that it was okay to have a sense of confidence as a woman, as a woman who is sensitive. Sometimes it was like, “You’re overly sensitive,” and it’d be like, what am I supposed to be now? I’m supposed to be smart and tough and also sensitive but not too sensitive, hard-working but not proud of the work I’m doing?

With this record, I spend a lot of time sorting out what kind of person I am, and trying to be okay about it. Why shouldn’t people be proud of the good things they’re trying to do? As long as you’re not deliberately hurting other people, what’s the harm in feeling a little confident in your work, or even just who you are. If you dig your body, or you have nice clothes, or your hair’s real cool — I wish it was more commonplace for people to be more openly proud of who they are.

We’re in a really interesting time, where there’s so many dialogues happening about caring about people for who they are. Like, within the trans community and the Black Lives Matter movement, and I just hope that the world keeps going in that direction, and the people who don’t need to say anything just need to be supportive, and the people who need to be doing the talking are doing the talking.

It’s a really wild thing to feel like you’re putting out a piece of art that’s in that period of pop culture and what’s happening in the world. I’m not that relevant of a musician, and I’m okay with that! But it’s amazing to see so many people standing up for who they are and what they believe in.

Right now in entertainment media, so many of the conversations we have about female pop culture role models are like, “She’s strong! She’s smart! She does X Y Z!” And that’s great, but it also doesn’t allow for women to make mistakes, to be human. 

It’s important to see women who are flawed. I mean, I love HelloGiggles and have been reading the site for years, and you all are always so good at striking those balances and playing devil’s advocate with yourself even. It’s good to acknowledge your failures because then it’s okay for everyone else too!

Sometimes I wonder, with even the little bit of platform that I have to do and say things, it’s difficult because you don’t know what actions you’re supposed to take or how to do it. Well, I have this thing where maybe people will listen to me, but what’s my place to use it? If something is not my experience, do I speak? Part of it is to learn how to be a good ally as others, and then as a woman, realizing that your struggles as a woman might not be the same as others, and that you have room to learn and grow from other women’s experiences.

Oftentimes, it feels like people are waiting for you to speak out against another woman so they can go, “You’re a bad feminist! See, caught you!” But that’s not fair! That happens a lot too, and it’s so hairy, but it’s good that HelloGiggles and Rookie and Black Lives Matter and trans activist Morgan M. Page exist. I’m always thinking about what it means to be a good person, a good woman, in the world, and trying to help other people. But it’s also good to know that this doesn’t rest on one person’s shoulders, and we’re all figuring it out together in some capacity.

Even though you know these things and try to practice it as much as possible, it’s sometimes hard to speak out against inequality as it happens in front of you. I have a friend who’s a socially conscious, touring rock musician, and she doesn’t always have the ability to speak about about gender issues in that male-dominated space.

Luckily, there are a few people who are really amazing in the scene. Speedy Ortiz is doing that amazing thing where you can call a number at their show and if you feel uncomfortable, you can call them directly and they’ll deal with it. That’s huge and incredible. Ellen Kempner [of Palehound], Mitski, Gabby Smith [of Frankie Cosmos and Eskimeaux], they’re all such great role models and examples. I look to them a lot when I wonder if I should talk about or say something, and I sometimes do feel like I should do or say more.

The phone thing with Speedy Ortiz, that’s brilliant. I think that should be a thing at every venue, to actively and efficiently communicate harassment or distress.

There was an incident at this festival I went to recently where Kathleen Hanna literally stopped her show to deal with a disturbance in the crowd because security wasn’t handling the situation.

I played Wrecking Ball in Atlanta this year, which was amazing, and during my small stage, acoustic set, this man was pretty drunk and standing right off to the side, screaming and whistling at me, for the first four songs of my set. People were getting irritated, I was getting irritated, and I was like, “Okay, how do I do this right?” So I took a second after a song to say how grateful I was to be there, that there were so many amazing women playing the festival, and this song is for them! And then he went, “And for me, too!” Like, please sir, take as MUCH space as you want.

I couldn’t not say anything, so I went, “Yeah, man. You are having a great time, and I’m so glad you are here.” [Ed. note: This was delivered with heavy sarcasm.] I looked right at him and then started playing, and everyone was laughing and he got the hint and walked away on his own accord. But even the fact that I had to think, “How can I comedically and pleasantly tell this guy to get the hell away from us?” It’s tough as a woman to navigate that line of hard, but nice! Doesn’t take crap from people, but is really chill!

A while ago, Pitchfork editor Jessica Hopper started a conversation about the first time you were ever discriminated against as a member of a marginalized group in the music scene. She also asked, when was a time that you’d really accomplished something in the industry, despite the hardships. I was wondering if you’d be willing to share your thoughts on that.

I’ve been so lucky to have grown up in the music scene, in northeastern Pennsylvania — girls played shows, girls were in bands. I didn’t encounter anything until I was playing shows outside of my area. Honestly, the first major thing that happened was guys on the Internet feeling like there’s nothing holding them back from saying the things they want to say. And they’re lewd and invasive and not okay. One person in particular took it really far, and that was really unfortunate for many reasons. That was probably the first time I thought, “Maybe I don’t want to do this, if this what I’m ‘asking for,’ then I can’t . . .” It’s scary. It’s scary to feel like people don’t see you as a human being, but as an object of desire.

The biggest triumph over that, even at shows when you talk to promoters who are like, “Are you in the band?”, is just recording this record and putting it out. It feels so satisfactory as a woman and a musician and a person, because it was a lot of really difficult experiences channeled into this. People are gonna hear it and hopefully they enjoy it, and if not, that’s okay too. It feels good to put something out there that’s uniquely my perspective. Brianna and I co-wrote a song together, and that’s from our shared perspective. The fact that there’s two women harmonizing, and the vocals are mixed up pretty high — it’s not trying to hide the sound of my voice, but I often felt, “Oh, I wish my voice was scruffier or deeper,” and then I’m like, “Do I just want to sing like a guy?”

Are people going to peg as one thing because we sing like a female-fronted band? But then no, I’m not gonna worry about that anymore. That doesn’t make any sense; if I wanna sing, I wanna sing. If Brianna and I love harmonizing together, then we’re gonna do it. More often than not, people receive it very well. It feels good that I’m gonna put something out there that can offer some insight into getting through something hard, and then coming out of it openly flawed and stronger and better and proud. As a woman, that’s one of my biggest accomplishments: Standing up for what I believe in artistically. Sometimes people want you to be more passive and kind and sweet and obliging, and I think those are uniquely things that get assumed of women.

The negative aspect is people turning you into a commodity and saying things that are totally unwarranted and not okay, and then coming out of the other side of it and saying, “I’m gonna keep going anyway. You might’ve had control over my life a little bit with the things that you said and did, but not now.” I’m gonna keep making music anyway, and you’re just gonna have to get yourself together and figure it out.

Related reading:

These posters perfectly illustrate the gender problem at music festivals

How ‘boy’s club’ mentality is still hurting all of us

Image courtesy of Danielle Parsons/Kiley Lotz/YouTube.