How Kacy Hill Signed With Kanye West and Became the Most Exciting Pop Singer of the Year By Michael Hafford

It’s Monday night at West Hollywood’s Peppermint Club, and Kacy Hill is shrugging her way onstage in a sparkling Gucci pantsuit. The crowd, for a debut singer, is beyond starry. Calvin Harris stands next to me—all 6’6” of him; Miguel sits at a table in the back; legendary party photographer Cobrasnake flits around, taking pictures of the guests; Hill’s best friend and fellow former American Apparel model Megan Fay stands in the front row. We’re all there to hear Hill perform some songs off her debut LP, Like a Woman, out now after a grueling three-year recording process. Though Hill’s entrance is bashful and her stature diminutive, she commands the room with an easy grace. Maybe that’s due to some liquid courage; Hill tells the crowd that she’s just downed a shot-and-a-half of tequila backstage.

The room, packed from entrance to exit, gets incredibly hot almost immediately. Hill sheds her jacket before singing “Cruel,” the third song on her album, revealing a lace top. Like the DJ Mustard-produced title track and second single, “Hard to Love,” the production is on the sparse side. You won’t find any big Phil Spector horn sections; Hill’s delicate but powerful voice does most of the heavy lifting. In a summer that’s already seen Lorde release an album and Miley a single, Like a Woman may be the best pop release of the year. That’s partially down to a come-to-Yeezus moment last year, when Hill played her single, “Lion,” for album executive producer Kanye West. “Wow, I hate it,” was how Hill described West’s reaction from stage. So back to the drawing board and, now, back with a spectacular debut.

Hill’s road to the Peppermint Club was windier than the western contortions of Sunset Boulevard. Born in Arizona, her early family life was marked by divorce, remarriage and re-divorce. Multiple times, Hill grew close with step-families, only to never speak to them again. As a result, she’s developed a fierce independent streak and, she tells me, has never been in a serious relationship herself. Hill moved to Los Angeles at 18, wanting to make some money before heading off to college. She told herself and her family it was a gap year, partially to give herself a backstop should things not work out.

Just two weeks after moving, her first friend in the city sexually assaulted her. Hill almost immediately began modelling for American Apparel, partially as a means of recovering control over her body and her sexuality. She tumbled into Kanye’s orbit and performed as a backup dancer on his Yeezus tour, spending hours “on stage in a mesh suit that flattered the female body like a sausage casing.” Hill left the tour before its completion to focus more fully on her music, which eventually landed her on Kanye’s G.O.O.D. label and, now, at the cusp of a serious moment as a pop singer.

Hill is personable and quick to laugh. She’s a self-described “lift bro” who can barely stay awake through the first 10 minutes of a movie. The day after her Peppermint Club show she came to Playboy HQ, where she discussed Kanye, how she grew stronger after her sexual assault, why she wants to collaborate with Harry Styles and much more.

Photography by Alexandra Gavillet
Styling by Lauren Matos
Hair and Makeup by Mishelle Parry

  • 1/14You mentioned on stage last night that Kanye listened to “Lion” and essentially said, “Wow, I hate it.”
    I mean, he didn’t say, “Wow, I hate it,” but it was along those lines. That was me being a little bit sarcastic, but the messaging was like, “I really don’t like this song.” But I didn’t really either.

    Can you bring me back into that moment? When Kanye’s like, “Come on, Kacy, you know this isn’t right.”
    I think it was less of that and more just like, “This doesn’t sound like what I think you would be making,” and I was like, “I don’t think it does either.” But I didn’t really have a lot of help, or I really didn’t have any help crafting the sound. There wasn’t a lot of A&R involvement or anything being like, “You should do this.” It was just very much me being like, “Is this good? Is this bad?” And then using a handful of people as sounding boards. I think what I got was I put something out that didn’t feel entirely honest. I like the song a lot, it’s just that the production wasn’t what I wanted to be.

    Right. So let’s start with your story. Obviously, you moved to L.A., you survived sexual assault and you’ve talked about starting to model for American Apparel as a way to take back your sort of sexuality. Can you walk me through that?
    I think a lot of it was kind of a subconscious desire to feel like I had my own choice—I could make my own decisions for my body and that other people weren’t in control of it. And part of that was doing something that felt almost forbidden or unexpected or not allowed. For me, that was American Apparel because I felt like it was me consciously going against what someone wanted me to do with my body and what someone expected me to do. So I think I used it as this moment of ownership for myself, and I never felt anything but happy doing it. I think it was the first moment in my adult life. I mean, I was young, but I was away from home and that felt like the first moment in my life where I was like, “I can make my own decisions, and this is my body and this is what I choose to do with it.”

  • It seems like even as you were coming on stage last night, you were shrugging. Part of you is clearly very confident in your abilities, but it seems like maybe 30 percent of you is still putting things in quotation marks.
    Yeah. A lot of it. I think I’ve always had this idea that I’m never good enough. In a lot of ways it’s a productive thing for me. It helps me learn and to be better. I don’t think I want to feel like I’m ever just like, “All right, I’m good. I’m content here.” And I know that I use being funny as a way to make myself feel more comfortable and to talk about the idea of feeling inadequate. I think I’ll always have that, but I think that in a lot of ways it just helps me get better and be a better person.

    If you had to choose between being a good person and a great artist?
    I think I would rather be a good person. Most of the joy in my life comes from talking to people and genuinely connecting to people. And there’s kind of an art to that, also, I think. I think there’s really an art to being able to speak with people and learn about them and just to fully sit with them. That’s a really special thing, and I think that it’s also something that transcends so many different lives.

  • You met Kanye through his go-to artist Vanessa Beecroft. How did that come about?
    This American Apparel photographer that I worked with for a long time was like, “Do you want to go to this Kanye audition?” And I was like, “Uh, okay.” And so I went to the audition. I thought it was mostly gonna be American Apparel girls, but it was so many dancers and then a few American Apparel girls just kind of very confused in the corner because the dancers were doing full-on choreography. They’re whipping their hair and crawling on the floor, and we’re literally cowering in the corner. But then they were like, “Well, just move like normal people.” So we were moving around like we were in the club or something and I was like, “Uh, uh,” just looking real uncomfortable and weird. It was honestly so weird. And then Kanye came through once they were starting to make cuts. I had never been at a dance audition like that, and I have a whole new respect for dancers and their career process and how intense it is to go through those auditions. It is so cutthroat. And they are very vicious just in the room, cutting people left and right. You don’t even find out later; you’re just in there.

  • What was that first meeting with Kanye like?
    The very first meeting was at that audition, and I was just like, “Wow.” He looked very shiny. He just had a lot of jewelry on and I was like freshly out of Arizona and I was like, “I’ve never seen someone with so much money.”

  • You don’t even stop at jewelry; you go right to money.
    Yeah. Like a total dweeb. I was just in awe. And then I think the more that you get exposed to the entertainment industry, you’re like, “Ah, people are just people.” But, for me, it was a shock to see someone that big. I was like, “Oh, I used to run on the treadmill to Graduation.”

  • How did it come about that you went from life in the sausage casing to becoming a solo artist?
    I was doing music right before that, right before I went on tour, and then was like, “This might be cool. This is okay.” I didn’t know I could sing a few years ago. But I think I just had started to do music right before I went on tour and it was kind of cool, and then everyone that I showed it to was like, “Oh, this is really good.” And then I started to get interest from a different label and then I realized as I was on tour—it was the most incredible experience, but I was like, I don’t think continuing on with this experience is going to contribute to my ultimate goal. So, then I decided to leave the tour and just sing.

    What was the turning point?
    I think shortly before the meeting with Kanye, I had all the songs written and I was like, “Cool, this is it. Here we are.” And then meeting with Kanye kind of helped steer everything. But I think the biggest thing was when I was like, “I’m okay being sexy. I’m okay doing all those things, and I’m okay with all the images that exist on the internet.” I feel like the moment that I started to accept everything and accept what I am as a person and also not hide—I felt like I had to hide my experiences with sexual assault and everything, and in a lot of ways I felt like I was still letting [the person who assaulted me] define my experience as opposed to speaking out: This is also a part of my narrative. Everything is part of it.

  • How do you feel about that now?
    I still feel angry, and I still feel a range of emotions. After I started talking about it, it was pretty wild because I had a lot of other people that were like, “This helped me. I’m glad that someone is talking about this, and listening to your story helped me talk about my experience.” And even as I started to talk about it, I learned a lot of things about myself and I realized also that I had this repressed memory, which was wild. I didn’t know repressed memories really exist like this, but they do. I realized that six or eight months after that first sexual assault, it happened to me again, with a different person, and my brain had basically not processed it as that. I realized it after I had talked about the first one in an interview with PAPER. I was going to therapy and all of that, and then once that second one came up, it was just like I processed all of it again.

    So I think that everything comes in these multiple waves: Even though it happened four years ago, I felt like I dealt with that one just last year because it finally came up to the point where it’s like, “Okay, I guess I have to process this and evaluate it.” And then there’s also a whole other litany of emotions that comes with being like, Wow, how does this happen more than once? What’s also been crazy to even begin to talk about is just the fact that there are a lot of rape victims who it happens to more than once, and that’s an awful, scary thing. But I think that there is something to feeling like your voice doesn’t carry power because other people don’t let it.

  • What was the biggest hurdle to overcome emotionally?
    I think the biggest thing is I feel like I still constantly have to remind myself that I didn’t do anything wrong. I think that’s, I don’t know, that one’s a difficult one to get over, and I think it depends on the day or where I am, what I’m dealing with or how confident I’m feeling. But I think it’s just like reminding myself that there was nothing that I could’ve done differently—I didn’t make them do that and I didn’t make them think that way and I didn’t do anything to encourage them or lead them on or anything. And even if I had done something to make them think some kind of way, it still wouldn’t be my fault.

  • The videos accompanying the new album are very bondage heavy and sexy. What’s the mental process there? What are you hoping to convey?
    I think the biggest thing is that you’re allowed to be sexy and also be respected, and you’re allowed to be sexy without having to feel empowered all the time. I think that there’s something to just doing something because it feels good, because you like it, and I think in a lot of cases women do something sexy or post a sexy picture on Instagram or something and they’re like, “I’m empowered by this.” It’s great and it’s awesome if you are empowered, but in a lot of ways I think that constantly feeling like you have to say that you’re empowered kind of implies this apology. Like there’s a reason that you’re doing that, and it’s not ‘cause you want to but because you’re empowered by it? I think that there is, obviously, something really empowering about doing things that you want to do and being like, “Fuck everyone else,” but I think the biggest thing for me has just been to do something because I want to do it, ’cause I think it looks beautiful or because it makes me feel good or maybe it does make me feel empowered. But I think it’s just about making it feel normal more than anything.

  • Can you unpack that difference between empowerment and feeling good?
    Obviously they intersect, hugely, but I think that empowerment is also in the pop culture feminist movement, which I think is obviously a very good thing and is incredible and I think part of the goodness in feminism is that you’re able to define your own feminism. But I think that empowerment is still—the word empowerment is so overused; not everything is empowering in the world. Like, it isn’t always empowering to take a topless picture. You’re doing it ‘cause you look good. You know what I mean? And it’s like in some cases maybe you do feel liberated and empowered but in a lot of ways it’s like, “It just feels good, I look sexy, I look hot, and I want to do something with it.” You don’t have to apologize for wanting to feel good, and you don’t have to explain to people why you want to feel good.

  • When did you come to that conclusion?
    I think it’s just been part of this album process. In creating the marketing campaign around this album, I talked a lot with the people that we worked with for visuals and everything, and I think the biggest message for me was making something that was sexy but also uncomfortable. For me, what I miss in pop-culture feminism is just someone doing things ‘cause they want to. And there definitely are people that are like on that kind of wavelength of being like, “Fuck it,” but a lot of the feminism we get just feels very like filtered.

    What do you mean by that?
    It still feels like there’s apologies in everything, and there’s empowerment stuck on everything, which kind of feels similar to the way that I think a lot of women, myself included, say, “I’m sorry,” for everything. I think it’s just about, I don’t know, letting yourself feel good and also defining your own experience separate from everyone else.

  • Changing gears, what are you listening to now or what are you watching now?
    I do fall asleep at movies. Well, recently what I’ve been watching is How It’s Made, just reruns on Hulu, so, yeah. Yeah. I mean, I watch that in various states of stoned, as you have to. It’s such a good one. I listen to like a bit of everything. Vince Staples’ new record was very fucking good to me, and SZA’s record was so good to me, and there’s so much good music out right now. I’m also a big fan of country music. Chris Stapleton is like songbird of our generation. And Maren Morris put out one of my favorite records of last year.

    So when does Kacy Hill go country?
    Yeah, honestly, I was saying I want to do a collaboration. I genuinely want to collaborate with Maren Morris so badly.

  • Who else is on your dream collaboration list?
    Harry Styles. [laughs] I know. It’s all about testing different things. I just want to do so many different things. I feel like Vince and I need to do something. And Jeremih is one of the most underrated artists; I need to do something with him.

    You’re always Instagramming and Tweeting about yourself or at least Instagramming about yourself as a lift bro.
    Yeah, I love lifting. I think it’s, number one, one of the best workouts you can do. It will tone you up real freaking fast. I think there’s also something for me in the focus of weightlifting. That to me is empowering because I feel like there’s something in being a small woman where a lot of the time I’m viewed as physically weak. There’s something actually empowering to me about lifting something that’s like one and a half times my weight and being like, “Oh, I can lift you.”