Bittersweet goodbyes, the beginning of the end, the voice of silence…while we may not always be aware, paradoxes are part of our every day reality. They're also the basis by which Cruel Youth has constructed a brand new, flourishing music career.
Formerly known as Natalia Kills, real name Teddy Sinclair, Cruel Youth turned deep-rooted family hardship into beautiful songs, a misguided record deal into the re-manifestation of her true artistry, and personal lapses of judgment into cautionary tales for all.
Shortly after she released her debut +30mg EP with her husband, Willy Moon, we sat down with Cruel Youth for one of our most inspiring and insightful interviews to date. Read more below, and catch Cruel Youth live on her upcoming tour with kiiara.
OTW: We read in your Vogue interview that your songwriting all started when you would write for your father. Tell us more about that?
Oh wow! It's so weird you ask that - I feel like that's one of those things where people just blink and go, "Okay, next question." But it's information that I offer. I consider myself a collector of words, more than an excellent melody writer or even just a straight up songwriter. A big part of my life is literature, and I spent a lot of time writing poetry before I even know that it could be in a song.
It's weird because I think the truth of how I learned to write a song was through over and over again writing to my dad when he was in prison when I was a kid. Then we'd go and visit him on the weekends, and even now I go and visit him. The realization that it doesn't matter if it's an essay, a short story, a poem, a confession, a simple thing that just says "I miss you," but that you can change the entire emotional state of mind for someone else, and yourself, by expressing that with a pen and a piece of paper. Then you'll both be sitting there in completely different parts of the country with a smile on your face, just knowing what each other is thinking.
The emotional connection to words came really early for me, but definitely not in the sense that I thought I'd ever be a songwriter. I thought that I'd go into some kind of, I don't know, movie writing, a poet…I didn't grow up thinking, "I'm going to be a famous singer; I'm going to write big pop songs for incredible artists."
My family was torn apart, but like I said, writing down feelings and things of meaning and beauty in a time of true ugliness, made me really happy…and I realized quickly that it made other people happy. I write songs like that today. A lot of of the songs I write come from a place of extreme pain, or awkwardness, or rejection, but they have a feeling of defiance or joy.
OTW: So would you consider writing a coping mechanism?
I wouldn't really call it "coping," because otherwise, I'd be writing about quite nice stuff, wouldn't I? I think it's all about embracing pain and sadness and heartbreak and disappointment, and liking it, and wanting it, as a part of life. That landmarks a feeling, a true feeling that sucks you out of boredom and shallowness. I make a bit of a sport out of it, because I just collect all those bad feelings and you know, make something nice out of it.
I don't think I do - I think the music does.
The first time I got into a situation of writing a song only for someone else, that was definitely only for their record, was working with Madonna. She'd heard a song of mine from my solo project, and she really liked it and had asked to work with me. We were supposed to work together for just a day or two, and then we made like eight songs and became friends. She wanted a song that sounded like my songs - with the lyrics and intensity - so it was just like I was writing for myself but it'd incorporate a lot of her perspective and her emotions, in addition to that.
I never sit down and say, "Today, I'm going to write a song for someone else." Something happens with the music where I either fall so deeply in love with it, a very possessive love where no one else can have this song…they can't, or I'll die. OR I'll go "Wow, do you know who would sing this better than I could deliver it? Rihanna." And I don't think I'm really making that decision. I think the sounds, the tempo, the interpretation of the actual composition of the music, is making the decision…because I'm just writing a song for me.
The Madonna song, the Rihanna song, Alicia Keyes…I'm just writing about my life and what I think about all these dumb things I've done and all these weird situations I've been. But it's interesting to find out how much you've got in common with people because that whole "me too" factor is the reason why people are happy to sing other people's songs. What I thought was a song for me could be sung by other people and they think, "This feels like that breakup I went through," or "These are the things that I think, but I can't say them." I think that's quite a beautiful thing.
OTW: Is there anything you picked up on from working with Madonna? Any standout moments?
Madonna's one of the most intelligent people I've ever met in my life. For most people I think when they spark up with an idea it's like hitting a light switch, but working with Madonna is like walking into a lighting shop, and all of the lightbulbs are on. She's a really bright, radiant, and diverse individual. She's got this wealth of knowledge about religion, and the universe, anything sociopolitical…and at the same time, she'll give me sex tips and we'll share cookies and popcorn.
The funniest thing I found about Madonna is that she likes to do accents and voices and play games, and I really enjoy that - I never even realized how much. Then suddenly, it's 2 am, and we've been in the studio for like 10 hours, sitting on the couch writing this song but making up strange accents and dances to it.
OTW: What are the essential differences between Natalia Kills and Cruel Youth? Why is Cruel Youth the purest form of your current self?
When I first started making music, it was pretty typical how it works: young girl, blows up on the internet, gets a big fuck off a record deal, everyone gets hyped, and then the team goes, "Okay, how do we exploit this? Let's put her in the studio with everyone we can think of that makes music that could be on the radio right now, and then hopefully there will be a click." There were just so many times where there was that "click" with different producers, but it wasn't what the record label thought it should have been. You start making a song that you really, really like, and then suddenly it's got to be faster, you've got to take out half the words, you've got to take out the chorus…you know, it relates to everyone except you. And the more that happened, the less my songs got taken seriously. Then I just decided, well you know what, I'm not going to play you my songs anymore. Then I got in a sort of stalemate situation.
Then lo and behold, Madonna likes my songs, then Rihanna sings one of my songs that I'd co-written. And then, a team that never fully understand what these lyrics were or what this girl was, suddenly totally gets it…but by then it was too late. I feel like, for me, being able to write songs for other people that wanted a song like mine has opened a gateway for people to listen to the way that I write a song.
When I started the Cruel Youth project, I made all the choices. There were no A&Rs, there were no record labels. There was nothing. It was me, and my husband Willy, who I'd met when we were both signed to Universal. We never sat down and said, "Let's design a sound, and let's make a concept project." It's more like, one day Willy said, "All the things they didn't want you to be - let's do a project that's only that. The best bits of you, the most overlooked bits of you." And that's what we did. We made the project Cruel Youth, I already had a band that I played live with, and me and Willy would write the songs and go out on the road and we'd do the shows.
OTW: What are those "most overlooked bits" that Cruel Youth now embodies?
There's a song on the +30mg EP called "Hatefuck," and if you listen to the lyrics, it's conversational and confessional. It's really just me describing one or two particular nights with one person that I wish to forget, and somehow, immortalize and continue to remember. It's glorifying the stupidest mistakes I ever made.
I think it's being able to do that –to tell the truth without editing it, without filtering it, without censoring it– over music that Willy and I mutually really enjoy. Very dreamy, big '60s pop and rock & roll, girl group kind of sounds - The Ronettes, The Shirelles, The Crystals. There's sort of also like a Brian Wilson, Beach Boys, kind of psychedelic sound that comes in and out of the music. It's a bit like listening to music on Xanax–your heart doesn't race and your heart doesn't drop, but it feels so good you just want to stay there. That's' the music that we really love. We listen to a lot of '90s rap music, early 2000s hip hop. I really love that whole Phil Spector sound - psychedelic and retro, romantic and aggressive all together.
OTW: Does it feel amazing, like your true self has been finally set free?
Yeah! It actually does, and for a second I start to think, "Why was there any other way?!" Hang on a sec, if I sing like a really bad bitch song, no one's going to say, "This is a smash, ready for radio!" It's so weird that people can become instantly deaf to it, but if that exact same song is sung by Madonna or Rihanna, it's considered groundbreaking, fresh, incredible, genius. I don't know, I think it's just wonderful getting to work with those artists showed me that I don't have to step outside myself. It isn't about pleasing - it's about sharing.
We made the Cruel Youth project in our studio, and we live above the studio, so I was just getting a bit spaced out, going downstairs in my nightgown and making songs all night long, and we weren't even leaving the house. Even for the artwork for "Hatefuck," we went out at 2 am, got a $10 bouquet from the deli, went down the street where the light was nice and just threw them on the pavement. Then Willy would take the shot. We did everything together.
It was a very private and intimate way to do it, because apart from leaving the house like three times a week to go to karaoke and sing "Be My Baby" over and over again, we just made the whole record for us to listen to. But then we couldn't stop listening, so I was like, "Ah, okay! This is something to share."
OTW: Speaking of working so closely with your husband as your producer, how do you balance the personal relationship with the professional one?
I don't think we ever were professional. We met backstage at the final show of his tour in New York, I'd been living in New York for a few years. I went to go say hello with the record label and I don't know, 45 minutes later we were horizontal somewhere, and then we got married.
It wasn't until after we got married, and we really go to know each other that we started talking about ideas - "You should try that," "No, you should try that." There was never a moment we were like, "Let's work together!" Suddenly, we just had music. If he came up with a piece of music, words flew out of the sky into my mind, and then we'd have a song. There's no real way to explain it; it's quite strange.
OTW: Tell us about the making of the new EP. What's the reason for the name +30mg?
I think if you listen to the EP top to bottom, once you really get into it, the meaning is in there. But who am I to tell someone exactly what it means?
A lot of the songs that we wrote are just snapshots are different memories. Like when I lived in L.A. and used to hate it because I had no money, I was so young, I was so stupid, and I used to go down Hollywood - the 24-hour Western Union on the corner right opposite this costume store. I practically lived on that Western Union corner. The story of that time is in "Florida Blues." I'm just explaining different snapshots of moments in time that I wish never happened, but if they never happened, then where would I be now?
Every song felt like a different drug. The high of it was you've made the song, and now we're going to go and make the artwork. Then the comedown is a very tingly and serene feeling of everyone else enjoying it, and you sort of just relaxing into it.
OTW: Is there a particular way you want those lyrics to be received by the listener?
I like lyrics that paint a picture.
I like poetry by Sylvia Plath. She's an American poet from the '60s who married another poet, Ted Hughes. She had this terrible, chronic, chemical depression. Back then, they'd give you electroshock therapy and drill holes in your skull, and she did it all voluntarily because she was so manic. And she wrote these works of these beautiful, hyper descriptive, super visual poetry, of her being in different hospitals and institutions–the smell of iodine, the sound of cold footsteps down a gray hallway. I've never experienced electroshock therapy, or anything like that, but when I read her poetry, I'm there. I'm there, and I'm nowhere else.
So when I write songs, like a Simon and Garfunkel song –and I don't think songs can get much better in how they're written than a Simon and Garfunkel song– I'm in it in that moment. I'm the one who is in that hospital, is in this deafening city that feels like a vacuum of silence and loneliness. It's painting pictures that are a snapshot of a reality based on emotion that I really felt, and I know that a lot of people unavoidably feel as well. No amount of Valium and pretending to be happy lets you avoid loneliness in life.
So the songs are almost like walking through a photo exhibition of some of the worst parts of my life, but the parts that I can't erase, and I don't want to erase because that's me.
OTW: What can we expect to see and hear on your tour with kiiara? What role do the other 2 girls play in the live show?
Hopefully you'll hear the songs, unless something horrible happens. My favorite part of making music is writing the songs. I like ruining my life just to write a good song about it. Willy made the music - I'm not a composer. And my guitar player and music director, Lauren, who has always been a part of my band, conspired with Willy to make the record even better live. More of an experience than just standing there getting elbowed by people taller than you. How do you forget that anyone else is in the room and get sucked into that painting?
Lauren and Willy figured the whole thing out. I definitely obey the voice in my head that says, "Do not be shit, do not be shit." The other girl in my band plays keyboard, all the synthesizers, dreamier sounds, and everyone sings back-up vocals. I leave the wizardry up to the wizards, and stand there with a microphone and try to enjoy myself.
OTW: Who are a few artists on your Ones To Watch list & why?
I definitely enjoyed working with kiiara on her album. We became friends, and I think that's also apart of why we're really excited to be on tour together.
I think we're really in quite a lucky time with music. We've got more up and comers - girls like Kali Uchis are dope man.