For Areli Castro, better known as KiNG MALA, not being a musician was never an option. To this day, she thinks that this belief is what allowed her to become the artist she is today. Staged Haze got to talk to her about her musical and personal journey, the impact of TikTok on her and so many other’s careers, and how she convinced herself to keep going until music became her full time job.
SH: You’ve said that you chose your stage name because you wanted to take a masculine word and make it your own. Is that something that you always wanted to do or did it just come along as you started to make music?
KM: I wanted the name of the project to feel like an alter ego. I wanted it to be more confident than I was as a person at the time. I wanted it to make me feel strong, and it makes me feel bad ass that I can connect with it and sort of create a character around it. I’ve always been interested in playing with gender roles and masculinity and using it in a feminine way.
My mom is Puerto Rican and my dad is Mexican, and I feel like I don’t really get to do anything with my culture very often, unless I’m home with my family. I never speak Spanish, I don’t get to be in that vibe very often so I was like a little nod to that as well. [About choosing MALA, which means “bad woman” in Spanish].
SH: Your new EP “SPILT MILK” is out soon. Can you tell us a little bit more about what creating the project was like? Where did the title come from?
KM: I am so excited about it! It’s the first time where the title is really intentional. Sometimes I’m just like “I’m just gonna pick a cool lyric” but this time, at the end of the EP, the very last five seconds, there is a lyric that says “they tell me ‘don’t cry over spilt milk’ but it’s seeping out my pores,” and that just encapsulates the vibe of the whole project. Every song feels really personal, it feels–not in a bad way but–almost a little bit whiny. Like I’m taking the whole world very personally; my feelings are hurt, and I’m upset and I’m fucking talking about it, which is the first time I’ve really done that in my music. A lot of the time it’s like that alter ego, that other character and it feels like it’s me faking it till I make it, being ultra confident. But this project feels like it’s a real personal look at how I have met the world in the last two years. In all the songs I just reflect, crying over spilt milk.
SH: How has your songwriting and general artistry changed since you started writing music?
KM: I feel like I’ve definitely become way stronger as a writer in the last two or three years. I started writing with a lot of other people and working with a lot of really really talented musicians, and I think that really impacted a lot of the writing. I’ve learned so much from people. I used to write with a really thick veil of insecurity, and now I’m starting to realize that writing from a more vulnerable space makes the music more honest. I do still love writing from a place of confidence and creating that character, I think that is really helpful, but for a while that was the only thing I could do. I feel like now I can write about how I’m actually feeling and also write how I want to feel, and I think that’s more powerful.
SH: Did you always know that you wanted to be a musician? And how did you keep going when times got hard or when things weren’t going as planned?
KM: There was just no other option for me, and it has always been the way. I can’t remember when I chose music, when I decided this was gonna be the thing, it was just always like the decision had been made. Which sounds kind of spiritual and over the top, which I’m not necessarily (laughs). I just never wanted to do anything else. I wasn’t even doing music that hard-core, I was maybe in vocal lessons, like thinking about it. It was just like “that’s my job! I got to go do that!”
I’ve always also believed that having a Plan B is like accepting failure. For me, failure is such a part of the process, no matter what career you’re in. So working into your plan that if you fail you’re gonna do something else, is just ending your journey before it even starts, because I feel like failure is inevitable. In every career there’s going to be ups and downs, and it adds and flows. So deciding that “oh you know what, like the first time this music doesn’t work out I’m just gonna go be an English teacher”–which was totally what I would’ve done had I not become a musician–wasn’t really a possibility. My second super passion was English and my mom was like “why don’t you go study English just in case?” and I was like, if I decide that I’m gonna prepare a Plan B career, music will never work out. That was just like in my heart, what I believe about myself. I do think that works out for most people, but I just have always been like nope, failures are just part of the process, you’ll have to just keep going and if you fail try again.
SH: You had a 9-5 job at some point. How did you manage to balance both aspects of your life at the same time? And did that experience help you to grow as an artist in any way?
KM: I worked at a record label, which I think was an amazing way to pay rent and support myself while still being in music and still doing something that I was passionate about. I was able to learn so much about the industry and get really good at just the admin part of music, which is actually like a huge part of it as well. Answering emails, organizing finances, and putting together budgets. All that is music math. That job was actually so helpful for me to learn all that stuff.
But I do think that it was very hard to be an artist and also have a full-time, 40 hours a week job. To be an artist there needs to be a lot of freedom, to write and be in sessions every day. Now it feels like I’m working 60 hours a week, but it’s definitely more free. I think being flexible is really necessary to make good music, but it was honestly a really amazing opportunity and I’m really grateful that I was able to do something in music while I was getting the project off the ground. I highly recommend it! It was really fun and a really great learning experience.
SH: Do you think that’s why you’re so good at social media and, for example, keeping a very consistent aesthetic on Instagram and all the visual aspects of your career? How involved are you in that?
KM: Oh my God, super super involved. I spent a long time playing around with different aesthetics and trying different stuff, and I think taking time to really grow the idea of the project was super helpful. I feel like sometimes artists try right away to find an aesthetic, find their voice, but I think all that stuff actually takes a lot of time. I had a bunch of weird aesthetics that didn’t work out and don’t exist anymore, but I think working for the label actually really did help because I was working with a lot of other artists and helping them create their voice online, like that was my job. So that really helped me decide what I wanted to do, and I think what was most crucial for me was working with people that were really supportive and encouraging and inspiring. Every single photographer I have ever worked with has been so excited about the ideas that I had, so I feel like I just had the room till I could do whatever I wanted.
I also just started only going with things that made me feel really good about myself. At some point, I was trying to be one thing and it felt really bad, and then I decided that dressing a certain way, posing in a certain way, even being lit in a certain way, all of those things combined, made me feel really good about myself. Then it ended up just being this consistent aesthetic because that made me feel good and cool. So it wasn’t really on purpose, but I was like I am going to do what makes me feel good, because I have to look at these pictures and I’m gonna be sad if I feel weird about my body or something. It’s a combination of a ton of stuff, but I’m really glad it turned into a full circle aesthetic because it wasn’t, I was really all over the place for a second.
SH: You’re very active on social media and seem to be very comfortable interacting with people, but is there anything about it that you don’t like? And especially now that artists also have to be content creators and internet personalities – how do you feel about TikTok?
KM: That’s so funny because I feel like I ask everyone this question also. I’m so interested in how people feel about that, but honestly I love it. I love the Internet. I think it’s a beautiful place where a lot of artists have found audiences and entire careers that would not have existed without this platform. It’s where I found my audience, where I found my voice, where I was free enough to fuck around see what worked for me. And I’m promoting my music, yes, but I think the job of an artist has just evolved into a new thing. I know being an artist is and has always been an intense job, I just think it looks really different from 10 years ago. Now they are a content creator, a creative director, a merch manager, even a tour manager. I think being an artist is just a million jobs no matter what. No matter what era you’re in, it’s a million different things that you have to be doing.
I also think everyone in the world is so accessible now, and artists are expected to be really accessible to the public, which is like a double edge sword because I think it’s really awesome that your personality and who you are are part of your art, but at the same time, no part of you is sacred. You can’t really have your own life and your own thing going on if you want to be in the public eye or be a big artist. You have to be available to people in every aspect of your life. They want to see everything, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed. But I do think it’s beautiful and I think it’s super intense. I think it’s a lot of work and I really admire artists who put their all into their contact creation as well, because when It’s really good, it’s really good. There are some artists out there that are absolutely crushing it and I’m so impressed by that and the way they’re able to be incredible videographers and directors. It’s so impressive, because they’re also making music and writing albums, on top of being really good at making content. That’s a really incredible convo.
The jaded feeling is definitely there and sometimes I’m very annoyed that I have to film my face when I don’t wanna look at my face you know? But I feel like I can actually connect with people and I feel like I’ve made real genuine friends with the people that listen to my music. Also every song that has gone viral on TikTok is a banger. But I don’t think it’ll always be the only thing right now it feels like the only thing but I don’t think that will always be the case. I think there’s a lot of ways that artists can break, and right now it feels like TikTok is the only way, but I don’t think it will always be. So I’m enjoying it while it’s the thing and I will try to evolve when a new thing happens.
Currently going on a short tour run in the U.S. and Canada, 25-year-old KiNG MALA is only at the beginning of her career, and it’s palpable in her voice, energy and social media presence that she can’t wait to do even more. Her pretty much *manifested* success has proven to deliver creative, carefully crafted songs, lyrics, visuals, that naturally match her personality, and we couldn’t be more excited to see what her bubbly but confident spirit brings next.