Pop singer/songwriter Taylor Lenz on her journey from KC to LA
Pop singer Taylor Lenz’s debut single, “Tease,” came out of left field when it release last July, garnering an impressive amount of airplay across the country, including spins on Mix 93.3. Given that Lenz grew up in the Kansas City area, attending Park Hill South High School, it was a dream come true for the young singer, who moved to Los Angeles just after graduating in 2015 to make a go of being a pop singer. Her new single, “Perfect,” releases today, and I spoke with Lenz by phone from her Los Angeles phone about her local start, the sudden success of “Tease,” and her plans for the future.
The Pitch: What was your musical background in Kansas City before you upped sticks and moved to L.A.?
Taylor Lenz: I don’t know and no one in my family knows where it kind of came from. No one in my family’s musical. No one plays an instrument or nothing like that. As a little kid, I was like, “I wanna be a singer! I wanna write songs! I wanna perform! I wanna entertain!” and my mom—I’m really lucky, because most parents would be like, “No, you’re going to be a doctor or whatever,” and she was like, “We’re going to harness that and we’ll figure it out.”
So she, at a really young age, put me in voice lessons. She put me in Gladstone Theater in the Park and put me in competitive dance, so I was really just performing. Whether my family wanted to watch me perform or they didn’t, I was performing for them from a really young age. Moving into middle school and high school is a lot of theater stuff. I would do any national anthem performance that anyone in the greater Kansas City area would let me do. I think I literally performed at a bar and grill in Topeka at the halftime of a Chiefs game once like I was some sort of halftime performer.
Moving into high school, I did School of Rock at the same time I was doing the competitive dance. I was in theater and school and then vocal lessons. I was in the debate team and student council, so I was just really involved but I was in School of Rock and, because every show with School of Rock is a theme where they pick an artist or a band, I was singing Rush shows, I was singing Queen shows, I was doing one-hit wonders–just really random stuff.
Then, occasionally, at Christmas time they let me do “All I Want for Christmas is You” by Mariah Carey and I get my one pop moment where I’d sing one song I actually wanted to sing, but I’m thankful for that because I think it made me really well-rounded. I think if you can get up on stage as a 14 year-old blonde girl and sing “Finding My Way” by Rush, you can really do anything. When I moved to L.A., then I really dove into the specialized pop genre and what I wanted to do. It was a very tumultuous, twist and turn music journey in Missouri but it definitely brought me to where I am, so I’m thankful for that.
You moved to Los Angeles how soon after you graduated from high school?
I’m really young for my grade so I graduated high school in May of 2015. I was 17 years old and then I drove out the following September, so it was like a few months after and I turned 18 in June. I was freshly 18 and I just graduated.
So, you drove cross country to Los Angeles to pursue your dream of becoming a musical artist and a songwriter. I know you recently graduated from the Los Angeles College Of Music but what was your arc between arriving in Los Angeles and graduating last October?
I think that it was a lot of the 10,000 hours kind of work. I definitely put in a lot of work when I was in Kansas City but it’s just so different–you know, being a big fish in a small pond versus being a very small fish in a very, very big pond–it’s a music scene for the genre that I want to do, which is pop music. When I got here it was like, “Okay, now it’s time to do it.”
I always compare it to the scene in every fight movie ever but specifically, Creed: where he goes out to the desert and it’s like, “He doesn’t want to do it, but he has to,” before the big fight and then he just gets like jacked. That’s what school was for me.
For my schooling, I got a degree in music composition with a specialization in songwriting. It’s hard for me even to say “school,” because I picture the music conservatories of the world and in America like Belmont and Berkelee–and those are amazing schools–but the school that I went to was really like, music industry people were coming and speaking on the daily.
All of my faculty members are still active members of the music industry. One of the teachers that I had is now managing the entire publishing catalog of all the big pop writers right now, like Victoria Monét and a bunch of other amazing people, so I wasn’t learning from these old professors that had their day back in the ’80s and ’90s and now they’re doing the teaching thing. It was definitely people who are still in it and I think that that really taught me a lot about what the landscape of the music industry looks like right now.
There were so many times that I was writing five songs a week for school. It was heavy lifting: I was taking 22 hours of classes. My hair was falling out. I was so, so stressed but I wouldn’t change it for anything, because it did really prep me. I was writing five songs a week for school and there were so many times where I was like, “You know, I really love this song. I want to release it,” and something in my gut just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like it would be the best expression of me.
Then, when you fast forward that arc to “Tease,” it was like, “I finally have this piece of work that I’ve done that feels like what I want to be the first thing that I’m saying as an artist out into the world,” and that’s how I chose “Tease” to be that debut single. It wasn’t, by any means, the first song that I wrote or the first song I had gotten produced, but it was truly just the first one that I felt like, “This is me, this is my narrative, this is my life and my story, and I know that I want to share this with everybody.”
Considering it came out in July and you graduated in October, it’s almost like a senior thesis sort of thing: “This is the culmination of everything I’ve learned in school and I’m gonna put it out in the world.”
Yeah, I think it was a good bookend to a really important chapter in my life. I mean, school led me to so many paths that weren’t necessarily even school-related. The people that I worked on the song with weren’t even school-related but I wouldn’t have met those people if it wasn’t for school. It was just a perfect bookend of, “Okay, I’ve learned all this stuff–now let’s go in the world and release this.” and Never ever did I expect that I would be releasing it in a global pandemic. Obviously, I don’t think anyone expected that but I think that the timing was perfect and I’m just thankful to be able to even be doing what I’m doing right now.
“Tease” did really well on radio. It premiered on Kiss 103.3 down in Texas and eventually made it to Mix 93 here in KC. Was it part of your promotional plans to look at hometown radio?
It’s so funny, because people have asked me this before–faculty members or friends or whatever: “What was the promo plan?”, because that’s totally what I learned in school. You gotta get this plan and write it all out and, honestly, we didn’t have that. We didn’t have a promotion plan.
I expected the song would get maybe 5000 streams, if I was lucky–not that I was doubting myself or anything like that, but the climate of the world and everything that was going on? I had no expectations, truly, so we were just kind of like, “Do a couple photoshoots and put it out and we’ll see.” We ran one Instagram ad for the first day.
The day that it came out, I was sitting on my bed in my apartment in L.A. and I was in my pajamas. I had just been Facetiming with friends and family and just trying to soak in the moment because it’s been my dream since I was tiny, you know? Then I get this phone call from a number I don’t know. I was like, “That’s weird,” and I never answer phone calls from members I don’t know but I was in a good mood, so it was like, “I’ll answer it.”
“Hi, Taylor! This is Kiss 103.3. Are you available right now? Can we do an interview with you?” and I literally just ran into the living room where my roommate and my boyfriend were sitting on the couch. I remember mouthing, “It’s somebody from the radio!” I just had no idea that would even happen. We did that radio interview and then the next day, it was a different radio station and then the next day, it was a talk radio station and then the next day, it was –I don’t know. That kind of stuff kept happening and then a week or two weeks after “Tease” had come out, I got a call from Rocket at Mix 93.3. I grew up–I mean, literally, every day driving to Park Hill South listening to that station.
If you like pop music and you grow up in Kansas City, Mix 93 is and has been the station for such a long time. I have to imagine that it’s just a dream come true to get played on the station you used to listen to?
For sure. And that’s the thing–to go back to the original question: no, that was not a part of the promotion plan at all. It was completely just serendipitous and such a surprise. Rocket and Theresa’s show, I remember distinctly driving to high school every day like, “I’m gonna be on this radio station one day,” just not even in an “I’m gonna do this,” but speaking it into existence and so, for that to actually happen and be manifested, it was very, very special.
You had all of this success with “Tease” and now you’re dropping your second single, “Perfect.” Was this a song that had been written when you released “Tease” or is this something that’s been written since?
I wrote “Tease” and “Perfect” about a week apart from each other and that was a little over a year ago, so both of them have been alive for a while now. When I wrote them, I had that same feeling, “I feel like this is the narrative that I want–this is what I want,” because I write all my own songs, so it’s like I’m really writing about my own life.
I think that’s true in a lot of artists, especially right now: it’s just really coming from a very vulnerable place. I had written “Tease” about a time in my life that I was just exiting, which was just about being out in the world and being flirty and fun and not really wanting anything super-serious and then, “Perfect” was about finding somebody that you really think is is flawless–that you think is, for lack of a better word, they’re perfect–and it was encompassing where I was at in my life at that moment. They were written very, very close together but I think I knew that “Tease” was going to be the debut single and “Perfect” was going to be the follow-up.
“Perfect” does seem to be a little darker than “Tease,” but I think that makes it a really good sophomore single and follow-up because it’s not covering the same ground and it’s exploring things and definitely from a different perspective.
100%. For “Tease,” I really wanted the music to inform the lyric and vice versa. You’re out in the world, you’re flirty, you’re fun, you’re not looking for anything–it’s very light–and then, with “Perfect,” it’s like you found this person and you know you are kind of falling for this person. You love this person, you truly think that this person is flawless. That’s the whole chorus: “I think you might be perfect/ I think you might be flawless/ No scratches on your surface/ Got me a little cautious.”
I think the reason that I wanted to go so dark with it is because that isn’t real, that feeling of someone being perfect. No one’s perfect. I’m not perfect. No one in any relationship is and there’s a point in every relationship I’ve ever been in–that I’m sure other people can relate to–of thinking that and then you’re always disappointed.
It’s like, “You know they’re not perfect. That’s a flaw. They’re human beings,” and that’s why I wanted it to be darker because there is a danger with that sentiment. It’s a beautiful sentiment, feeling that way, but it’s dangerous because it’s not real. It’s not true. It’s not. It’s fake, almost a facade that you’re in for a period of time, and I really wanted the music to convey that, even though the lyrics weren’t.
Given that this is a slightly different song, is that why you’re doing a music video for “Perfect,” or is it just that you wanted to see how that first single went before you committed to the time and effort and obviously the money that comes with making a video?
With “Tease,” we like call it our little test run. Not that it isn’t equally as important to “Perfect”–it totally is–but I’ve never done it before and I’m completely independent. I have a few people close to me in my circle that hustle and do this all together and none of us have really ever done it before, so it’s really just that we’re kind of trying things and some stuff works and some stuff doesn’t.
The music video didn’t even enter our atmosphere with “Tease.” There are so many things and so many checklists you have to get done with releasing a song and a video or visualizer didn’t even enter our minds with “Tease,” but then once that came out and obviously did okay and decently well and seemed to really like it, I was really proud of how it did, so: “Okay, we’ve kind of got a handle on this. We’ve got the brass tacks down, now let’s crank it up a notch. Let’s do a visualizer and put that out into the world.”
I’m really excited for people to see that and to see a different side of me. The video is very lyric-driven. You’ll be seeing the lyrics the entire time the video is going on, which I’m really excited about. I think it’s a fresh take on what a music video is in 2021. I dream all this stuff up with my boyfriend [Jason Puma]. He and I are little partners in crime: he does all the photography and videography and we just sit down and plan it all out together. He knows the songs really well, he knows me really well, so it’s a good little dream team.
Take a listen to Taylor Lenz’s “Perfect” below, and keep an eye on her socials for the video when it drops in our next Cine Local roundup.