Kiki Rockwell: Her Creative Cup Doth Run Over

Kiki Rockwell: Her Creative Cup Doth Run Over

September 30, 2022 saw the release of Kiki Rockwell‘s captivating single Cup Runneth Over, along with a mesmerising music video made with support from NZ On Air. Rockwell’s eye-catching style is as unique as her intricate, boundary-pushing music, and this strong, feminist-driven track is no exception. Curled up in a chair she chatted with Kat Parsons about the single and the rest of her creative world.

When we talk Kiki Rockwell is not long back from a long mountain bike ride in the South Island, where she is currently residing to work on new music. It has clearly given her a lot of pleasure and a boost of inspiration.

“Just having access to the mountains really, and to huge fields full of no one! These big open places that I can explore, and do so safely, because I know that not every country in the world, as a woman, you can just wander and let your feet take you where you want to go. Travelling taught me that NZ is special, and I’m very grateful for that.”

Born in San Francisco and raised for a short time in Bonn, Germany, Rockwell arrived in NZ as a young child. One of her first musical memories occurred shortly after.

“We had just moved here and were living on Waiheke Island. It was dusk, and from a bar, the song Tambourine Man by Bob Dylan was wafting out into the street. I don’t know if music wafts, but it did! It was that line, ‘to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea’. I remember just being so overwhelmed with emotion I started crying. It was from the music, combined with what I was seeing at the time of day, and everything I felt. I don’t know if a seven-year-old has nostalgia for anything, but that was the first time I realised that music can truly move you.”

That sort of emotional maturity remains evident in her songwriting and visual vision of Gothic fairytales with historical elements. She’s producing roles according to how she envisions women want to see themselves; questioning the status quo and pushing boundaries. Noteworthy female representation in roles that we don’t often see in those genres. 

Childhood piano lessons led to her playing keys and lending her voice to Mt. Maunganui band The Leers. She has worked as a costume stylist and vintage clothing seller, which has contributed most effectively to her music content visually. After rising to fame on TikTok through her cosplay costuming and short song bites, she released her first solo single Left For Dead in 2021, an introductory track to her impressively polished debut EP ‘Bleeding Out In A Forest’. Propelled no doubt by the fabulously theatrical video directed by Oshara Ardelean, Same Old Energy from that same period is far and away her biggest song to date, enjoying million-plus streams. 

Rockwell’s recently released single Cup Runneth Over is another delicate and atmospheric soundscape, made up of intricate vocal loops, haunting melodies and heavy drums and bass. Giving both modern and medieval energy, the track transports you to another era with its eclectic, off-kilter musical production and dark, melancholy feel. 

“My favourite songs always just fall out of me,” reveals Rockwell. “It’s completely involuntary. I don’t think I’ve ever once sat down with the intention of writing a song, like none of my songs. I’ll be driving, or doing the dishes, or talking to someone, and there’ll be a song knocking. I don’t know where it comes from, but I have to just run and say it into my phone.”

The video for the song raises the theatricality to Game Of Thrones’ production levels.

Cup Runneth Over is definitely about the strange balance of wanting a god or gods to follow. It’s not necessarily a Christian god or anything, but it’s that yearning for a higher power, and balancing that with gender identity and how those two are kind of at odds with each other, but also very much linked. Yeah, I think that’s what it’s about. Again, the coolest thing about music is that the song will mean something different to every person that listens to it, but I think for me it’s really about that tension.

“So the first thing was a vocal loop. I took a really small section of it, repeated it in this weird loop, and I think I pitched it up like three or four, and then it started having this rhythm to it. I found this like sparkly world drums, I think they come in right before the pre-chorus, and that was what kind of catapulted it. A lot of the structural base is just my vocals that were just turned into the instruments.

Cup Runneth Over, in terms of lyrics, I’ve always liked that phrase! Obviously, it’s from the Bible and I think it’s talking about when you have more than you need, everything’s good, and you’re fulfilled. But I kind of turned into: I have everything I need and yet, I’ll keep going and keep pushing it. ‘My cup runneth over but I’ll have another please, I’ll only take a lover if she walks all over me, there’s seven deadly sins but somehow all I got was greed.’

“I remember that little moment where I pitched it up and looped it, and then I just went down the rabbit hole and went into a flow state! There is no wrong or right process, you just need to understand and trust yours.”

Rockwell has really taken the time to work out what works best for her when it comes to making music. Not only has she learnt production and engineering skills, giving her creative freedom, but she also uses hormone tracking as a means to create high-quality content efficiently.

“So I write, produce and engineer all my music. If it clicks it’s amazing, but for me it’s so private, and what I’ve found from working alone is that I can try weird shit. I wouldn’t say I’m shy but I don’t want to let people down. If I said, ‘What if we use my voice and pitch it down and do something weird with it?’, and then it sounds shit, I’d be like, “Oh God, do they think I suck?’ Whereas if you’re working alone, you can try the weirder stuff – and that’s usually where the gold comes from.

“Also,” she continues with a grin. “This is kind of funny, I’ve hacked my cycle. I don’t know if other musicians do this, but I find that I always write when I’m kind of PMS’ing, because I just feel things deeper. Then towards the end of my period, my voice is huskier and I just want to sing. So there is this two-day window where I have to record all my vocals for everything I’ve been writing. So I can’t exactly call a producer and say, ‘We should record.I know it’s 3am but I’m bleeding,'” she laughs.

“Then, when I’m fertile I want to make beats. I’m feeling sexy and I want to make music that makes me want to shake my ass. So, I’ve found that if I do it in this rhythm I can be the most efficient!”

Working with her long-time creative collaborator Oshara Ardelean, the stunning, motion picture-like music video that accompanies the single was filmed over several days in Auckland and Christchurch. It’s an electrifying piece of art that elevates the concept of ‘female lead’ to the position of ‘hero’. In a slightly unusual fashion the concept for the Cup Runneth Over visual came to fruition before the completion of the single – whilst the track was, in the artist’s own words, still only a seed.

“So actually, it kind of started in a bit of a backward way! Oshara, the director, and I sat down in a cafe and we just started spitballing ideas for our next big music video. It was this medieval, queer, tragedy, love story – Shakespearean. I had a few unreleased songs and we listened to them and tried to kind of picture the story with them, and nothing was clicking. So later she said she knew that I was cooking up a song because she didn’t hear from me for like three days straight!

“Oshara and I have been friends since we were like, seven years old. We grew up together and we used to always make little… I wouldn’t call them movies, but they were us playing Hunger Games, or just little skits that we’d film, but we took them very seriously. So it’s just so cool that we get to do it for real now. It’s surreal, and it’s really satisfying. We just have this sister connection of creativity. You know, there’s not a lot of people I trust with anything of my creativity because I’m very protective of it, but she just gets it.

“We wanted to make a whole movie that is a music video. We wanted to tell an entire story without words in three and a half minutes. The major inspiration was the grittier side of medieval fantasy. Like the Battle of the Bastards episode from Game Of Thrones; the grittiness, the mud, the rain. That first shot we wanted to start with me on my hands and knees crawling through the mud towards something. We got lucky because you know, you can buy mud but we didn’t have a mud budget! But when you have horses and a whole crew walking around, by the end of the day it was like slush. I’ve never been so muddy in my life!

“It’s inspired by Shakespearean tragedies and all those stories that you see in classic fantasy,” she continues. “But we wanted to have me as the head knight with a love interest in the Queen. The forbidden romance and the king’s rage – not necessarily that his wife has left him but more that she’s his property, I worked for him, and I’ve dared cross him.

“We shot it over four or five days, but it was months and months and months of planning and preparation,” Rockwell concludes. “I had to learn how to sword fight. I stunt-trained for weeks with two amazing stunt trainers. It felt like I was about to shoot a movie, which is, you know, what we intended. I love making music videos. It is one of my favourite parts of this whole thing. Seeing a song come to life in a physical form is the most satisfying thing for me as an artist.”

Live performances are much more of a new element of her chosen art.

“I did a Ones To Watch showcase with Vodafone and that was amazing,” she gushes. “It was on the top floor of a museum, so it was a cool location. I literally hadn’t done any shows yet so I knew this was gonna be the hardest one; breaking the ice. But I can really step into the character of Kiki Rockwell. Me as a person could never do that, but Kiki absolutely can, she’s a knight,” expresses Rockwell with passion.

“So it was really fun and I had such a good time. Performing Same Old Energy was the most fun because it’s such a powerful song. I’m doing R&V, that’ll be the next one. I’ve got an amazing live band. It’s like a whole new kind of thing I’ve discovered – apparently, musicians have to go up and make music, not just make movies,” she giggles. “Shocker! Who would have thought? But I love it. I’m so obsessed and I can’t wait to do more.”

“I have an EP worth of singles,” she smiles, “… but for me, because my music is so visually driven I just kind of want to just be releasing single after single, all with their own little universe pocket. I think also because I am quite present on TikTok I love just putting it out and being like, ‘Here’s this little world for this song.’

“I feel like some guys will never get it and it doesn’t matter,” she states firmly. “Like, it’s not always for you, Keith. And that’s okay. You have a lot of things made for you, and you have hundreds of years of media made for you,” she chuckles.