Photo by Amanda Hatfield
“Your voice is beautiful, but that third song, I wouldn’t play that again!” Kiley Lotz laughs as she recalls the blunt feedback she received from European showgoers while supporting Beach Slang on their UK/EU tour earlier this year. She adds that she loved their honesty, finding it more refreshing than shocking. It seems fitting that Kiley would appreciate honesty and sincerity, because that’s exactly what one gets out of the melodic indie rock that she writes as Petal. On her debut record Shame, released this past October on Run For Cover Records, she pairs radiant, angelic vocal harmonies and dynamic guitar chords with heartfelt offerings of candid lyrics like “I’m sorry if I seem unable to move, unable to speak, unable to breathe.”
Kiley’s first release as Petal came in the form of an EP called Scout back in fall 2013. During the two year span between Scout and Shame, she was forced to adjust to some major life changes, specifically moving from Scranton, PA to New York City to pursue a career in theater. “I was really poor, I was auditioning a lot for theater jobs, and so I was in a very fast-paced, isolating, competitive situation.” Kiley felt like she was starting her life over from scratch, and eventually, the stress that comes with a new environment began to pile up. During this time, she was also diagnosed with a paranoia disorder, which she says was difficult to learn to live with but “pretty revealing and helpful” in the way that it allowed her to decipher her anxiety. To help herself sort out all of the change and confusion in her life, Kiley turned to songwriting not just as an artistic outlet, but as a survival strategy. “I didn’t really realize I was writing a record at the time… I just needed to do it to stay…okay, basically.”
Like many artistic projects so often do, Shame took on a life of its own when Kiley began to notice a pattern emerging in her work. “I was looking at all of those songs I had written and realized that the theme was definitely processing the things I felt shame over in my life and accepting them and then realizing that they don’t necessarily have to be total burdens.” After a second, Kiley adds, “Sometimes they certainly are. Like, they definitely are. But they don’t have to be so crippling.”
Once Kiley started becoming more open and honest with people in her life about her inner battles, she quickly found that she was far from alone. Rather than pushing people away as she had once feared, these issues became something that they connected over. “As soon as I said ‘I’m struggling with this,’ my friends were all like ‘Oh, well I deal with this,’ or ‘My family member has struggled with this.’ All of a sudden, it’s like this weird thread that everyone is holding onto a little bit… Now it feels a little less like I’m constantly trying to hide things or mask it with humor or charisma.”
Shame may not have been started a way of helping Kiley endure emotional crises, but that’s what it ended up being for her. “It was hard to go through those things, but it was great to put a seal on it by finishing a creative project, like symbolizing the end of that period of my life.” She says that she is unsure of what she’ll be writing about in the future, but the process of sharing her struggles through Shame has taught her a lot about how to manage her mental health. “Living with mental illness is challenging all the time, but I’m learning how to take care of myself… and, you know, trusting that I have good people around me. If you have the right people in your life, they’re not keeping a tally of all the times they helped you get out of bed.”
Even though writing about heavy topics can be cathartic, Kiley admits that it can sometimes get exhausting and a little too self-involved for her liking. To combat this, she frequently draws influences from outside sources. “Chandelier Thief,” a song off of Shame, took its lyrics from a poem that Kiley’s friend Nikki Ashton had written as part of a zine called Spiderwoven. “I read it and I was like ‘I would love to make this a song, if that’s okay,’ and she said yes. It’s been awesome because people have really been responding to that song and it makes me excited to have her words out there, and I know she’s excited too, so it was cool to do that together.”
Another song on the record, “Tommy,” was based on “Language of Angels” by Naomi Iizuka, a “really tragic” horror play that Kiley acted in while studying theater in college. After spending lots of time with the play’s story, she found herself “feeling kinship” with the character that she was playing, which inspired her to pen a song from her point of view. “It’s a good way to challenge yourself as a writer, to bring in other influences and see if you can make something different or tell a story that’s not your own perspective necessarily.”
Growing up, Kiley’s musical influences were a bit more mainstream: “I was obsessed with Behind The Music and watching VH1 when my parents weren’t home.” She loved Fiona Apple, Sarah McLachlan, “and basically anyone who was on VH1,” as well as artists her parents would listen to in the house, like Janis Joplin and Talking Heads. Kiley grew up learning piano, and at age 7, she started writing songs in her journals. “I realized at some point ‘Oh, they’re singing stuff that they wrote, I could do that too.’” She also cites Regina Spektor as a hugely significant influence during her teen years: “My Bible camp counselor gave me her CD, and my mind just exploded.” Kiley went on to meet some friends in high school who introduced her to the DIY scene around Scranton and helped her record demos, and at age 16, she start playing local shows doing piano and vocals. She recalls feeling intimidated – “That wasn’t really a ‘cool’ thing to do at the time because everyone was really into like, The Microphones and Against Me! and stuff like that in the scene” – but played anyway at the encouragement of her friends.
By the time she got to college, Kiley found herself at odds with the isolation that comes with playing and practicing piano. “I was like ‘I fucking hate this, I’m literally by myself all the time, it sucks.’” Eager for a new musical outlet, she was motivated to learn guitar, then decided she wanted to have a band behind her as well. Once she started making music with her friends, Kiley immediately felt at home in the sonically heavier sound that she was able to achieve with different instruments and additional people. “I just wanted to make more sound. With a piano you can make a lot of sound, and you can manipulate it so much, but not really as much as if you have other instruments with you.”
Kiley says that people often get confused by the configuration of her band – Petal is solely her own artistic endeavor, but she plays and records with a band of oft-rotating members – but she doesn’t mind explaining it, and she also wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s fun to constantly be playing with my friends and bringing in new people to play on tours. Certainly challenging, definitely not the easiest way to do it, but I’ve met a lot of people by doing it this way and made so many friends by doing it this way.”
Petal is clearly a project founded in friendship, and when asked if she wanted to give anyone a shout out, Kiley had a lot to say about the people she loves: “I love my roommate Sammy Marx. I love our cats. She has two cats, so I’m their aunt, and I love my nieces. I miss them all the time. I also watched the Amy Winehouse documentary on the plane home and it fucked me up! So, shout out to Amy. So talented. It just breaks my heart.” (Kiley, if you’re reading this, I want you to know that I watched the documentary and it also fucked me up.)
The music of Petal is touching in the way that it sonically and lyrically documents the highs and lows of life. There will be times where we find ourselves wishing the ceiling would swallow us whole like in “Sooner” or feeling terrified that someone we love won’t want to stay like in “Shame,” but there will also be times where we feel like the soaring final verse of “Heaven” or the beautiful nervous energy in the swept-off-your-feet chorus of “Photobooth.” As we brought our interview to a close, Kiley’s parting words were just as hopeful as her songs: “Keep trying to do good. I’ll keep trying to do the same.”
Petal will be playing WRBB’s Spring Bliss this Monday, April 4th at 7:00pm in afterHOURS.
Written by Samantha Stoakes