The last year has seen the rise of Chappell Roan (real name Kayleigh Rose Amstutz): queer pop’s pageant queen. After a staggered rollout, the rising pop princess is about to release her debut album, The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess. Off the back of hit singles ‘Pink Pony Club’ and ‘Naked in Manhattan’, she sold out her first London headline show and is expecting to sell out her upcoming North American tour.
Roan’s journey to stardom has been a rough ride. Raised in Missouri, the singer found herself both boxed in by and ostracised from a conservative Christian culture that inhibited her ability to express herself as a woman in the way she wanted. Her first full-length project sees her boldly embrace her queerness and wholly overthrow the confines of Midwestern womanhood. It’s a fourteen-track powerhouse of thumping, club-ready anthems that seem at the same time entirely characteristic of and antithetical to her theatrical, extravagant image.
Moving to LA changed the 25-year-old’s life, enabling her to both express and embody unbridled queer joy, which simply wasn’t possible at home. Now, just before The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess is unleashed into the world, Kayleigh Rose Amstutz is more ready than ever before to bring the bedazzled spectacle of ‘Chappell Roan’ to a new height and greater audience.
For the newest instalment of our new music editorial series Queer & Now, we hung out with Roan over Zoom to chat about her debut album, being inspired by drag, and flipping the Christian culture of her upbringing on its head.
Hey Chappell! How’s it going? What’s keeping you busy?
I just got back from summer camp, where I’m a counsellor. I’ve been one for eight years. It’s getting to the point where I can’t go to all of the camp, but I teach songwriting there. That’s what I was doing the past couple of weeks. We’ve had a lot of really big career moments the past couple of weeks too!
How’s the rollout for your debut album going?
It’s crazy, it feels surreal. I’m trying to take in every moment – you only have your debut album one time. So far, the response is really good, better than we expected. It’s very affirming. It’s been a trek to get there, this album is four years in the making.
How did you get into music and what made you want to be an artist?
I got into music when I was 14 or 15. I started writing because it was the best way to channel my despair as a teenager. Then it just catapulted into being signed when I turned 17. It was a very, very quick process at the beginning and then it was slow for like, five years. Now it’s fast again!
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
I was really inspired by Ellie Goulding. I listened to her every day. ‘Stay’ by Rihanna was the catalyst of my writing. I just wanted to write a song like ‘Stay’. That was the first thing I can remember, but I grew up on Christian rock because I grew up in a Christian household.
The ‘popstar’ image is a big part of the ‘Chappell Roan’ persona now. Has it always been?
It is now but wasn’t for the first five or six years of my career. I was very anti- anything loud and garish and I wanted to be taken seriously. I took myself too seriously, it was really dramatic. Once I let that go and was like, ‘I’m going to be a DIY pop star’, I could be the girl that I always wanted to be when I was little, which is the sparkly kind of princess, dollar store vibe of a pop star. When I accepted myself, that that was who I was regardless if people took it seriously or not, everything started working very quickly.
‘Pink Pony Club’ is definitely your biggest song right now! What was the inspiration behind the song?
I wrote it a week or two after I went to my first gay club, I’d just turned 21. I went to West Hollywood, and could finally see what I’d always been so curious about. I’d never been to a gay club, we don’t have any in my hometown. We have some in the surrounding towns, but I’d never been to them. ‘Pink Pony’ was inspired by the feeling that that club gave me. It was so crazy: everything I was taught about gay culture was the opposite of what I was seeing in front of me. It seemed so full of love, everything felt really natural, there was nothing demonic about it. If anything, it was spiritual. I was awakened! I had to write about that. There were go-go dancers at that club and I really wanted to be one, but I was too scared to audition, so I wrote a song about me being a go-go dancer.
Like you say, you only get your debut album once. What was it like to work on a project so important to you during a time like the pandemic?
It was very hard to keep going because I had no money. I had to move back in with my parents for a bit because I ran out of money in LA. I was working part-time for years. This is the first year I’ve made money off my music. I can finally support my rent and my food and gas solely off my music, and it’s taken almost a decade to get there. I was just making minimum wage, trying to work a shift at the donut shop and then go to a writing session afterwards. It took a lot of tenacity to keep going. I’m proud of myself, but also of my friends. This was a group effort. A lot of people worked for free for over a year and volunteered to help. I had to learn how to do my own makeup. I had to style myself. I learned to do a lot of random skills myself, that I never would have had to if I had a tonne of money.
‘Hot to GO!’, the newest single from the album, is out now! How does it feel to have that finally out in the world?
It’s the biggest single we’ve had on the first day, so far. It’s streamed really good the first day. I was very surprised. This is a song that I felt self-conscious about even writing because I was like, ‘Oh my god, it doesn’t mean anything’. It’s literally just about being hot. It’s so counter-song writer, meaningful, I don’t know. Then I was just like, ‘It’s camp’. I just need to be silly and I really wanted a dance that I could sing and dance with the audience, like the YMCA! I was like, ‘I need to do that! I need to spell something with my hands that people in the audience can learn too!’ Simply, the whole point of the song is for me to do it live with the audience. It’s so fun to perform because I’ve been performing it before it’s been out, like on the spring tour. People love participating, it’s so fun.
The debut album feels like a collection of songs in which you really tap into every facet of who you are and want to be, defining yourself on your own terms. What inspired your thematic and visual approach?
I’m inspired by drag mostly. I almost look at myself as a drag queen. My real name is Kaylee, and I feel like my drag name is ‘Chappell Roan’. The way I dress is inspired by drag. With music, what I would want to hear in the club is what I write. I also like writing narratively and creating characters. A lot of the stories aren’t necessarily true – it was just based on my fantasy. Aesthetically, I turn to my inner child and ask that version of myself of what feels good. Most of the time, it’s things like Bratz dolls, princesses and tacky big jewellery, drag queens, burlesque. Anything over the top but not unaccessible. I’m not trying to be dripping in real solid gold and diamonds. I think fake jewellery, like costume jewellery, is much prettier and more appealing.