Kiley Lotz embraces her voice and her mess on 'Magic Gone'

Petal's Kiley Lotz is particularly fond of a meme depicting an opossum sitting atop a pile of refuse in a garbage can, baring its teeth and fiercely defending the trash. “Don't touch my garbage!” the caption reads.

It's a meme that some in Philadelphia have claimed as their own, as if the opossum is one of Lotz's fellow Philly residents defending its flawed-yet-beloved city. Lotz feels similarly to the opossum when she thinks about the songs on her recent soul-baring album, Magic Gone.

“This is my mess. I endured it, and it's mine. It's my dumpster fire,” Lotz said recently by phone from her home in Philadelphia. “It's OK to own your feelings and own the space that you're occupying. There's nothing wrong with that. … I wrote these songs. I want to share them. I don't have to be embarrassed about that.”

Leading up to and since the release of Magic Gone last June, Lotz has been open about her mental health issues, particularly the depressive and panic disorders that led to intensive treatment in early 2017, a little more than a year after the release of her Run for Cover debut, Shame. When Lotz began to look at the songs for the next Petal album, she saw a stark difference between the confessional songs written before and after treatment, which led her to divide the record in half. Side A, “Tightrope Walker,” features pre-treatment songs, and side B, “Miracle Clinger,” consists of songs written in recovery.

“One of the first things that I knew about the record is what I wanted it to be called and how I wanted to structure it,” she said. “There was a pretty striking difference in the tone of what I was saying, but it was still sort of cohesive. I think about the records that I loved, and [Death Cab for Cutie's] Transatlanticism is one where if you don't listen to it straight through, you miss those really lovely nuances of how the songs flow into each other very intentionally. Those are the kind of records I want to make.”

Lotz, who sings and plays all the instruments but drums on Magic Gone, also wanted the pretty, melodic indie-rock songs to have a certain directness and clarity. On several tracks, Lotz's powerful, crystalline voice is accompanied by nothing but a guitar or piano.

“I thought, ‘What are the songs I always come back to?' And the one that I could think of was ‘Maybe' by Janis Joplin. The production and the performances on that song are unreal, and her voice is right up front,” she said. “I like that '70s production and the vocals being very present, like when you listen to Carole King or James Taylor or Bill Withers or Dionne Warwick. And then there's people who are doing that in a more contemporary way now, like Solange or Mitski or Hop Along. All of those really unique voices are so high up in the mix. So I was like, ‘I don't want to hide what my voice is anymore.' I used to feel a little bit self-conscious about how my voice sounded, because it's trained in a way that I can't undo.”

That training came at an early age, growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, with a choir director mother. Lotz sang constantly around the house and began playing piano at age 5, and then the organ at 15 — a skill that helped pay her way through college, where initially she studied classical piano and later switched to theater. Along the way, Lotz began performing her own songs at DIY venues in Scranton and eventually moved to New York, where she pursued acting and made Shame. At a certain point, she had to choose between acting and music.

“It was a tough decision,” she said, “but I felt really excited about playing my music for people.”

New York, though, didn't quite live up to the hype. “You can feel the anxiety that people carry around with them every day,” she said. “Ultimately that's why I had to leave New York. I couldn't take it. I couldn't get on the subway without feeling totally gutted.”

After Shame, relocating to Philly, treatment, recovery and documenting all those ups and downs on Magic Gone, Lotz said she's never been surer that writing and performing music is the thing she wants to do.

“Sometimes I play songs from side A and I feel so much joy. It feels so cathartic, like it's coming from a different place. And other days it's really painful. Either way, I try to just let it exist and know that I can trust myself to emotionally handle it,” said Lotz, whose vulnerability often encourages fans to be similarly open with her. “It's been really eye opening to tour on this record and talk with people at the merch table. … I feel invested in the idea that normalizing stuff like mental illness or queerness is the way we help one another, and also normalizing vulnerability and weakness and mistakes. Just being human, you know? People aren't infallible. And that's OK.”

It's our mess.