To hear the colorfully haired and perennially smirking Los Angeles musician Lil Aaron tell it, arranged songwriting sessions can occasionally be an awkward proposition. You’re sitting in a small room, forced to exchange both pleasantries and intimate details of your inner life with total strangers, in the hope of making Great Art—or at least a song that’ll be relatable tenough to stick in the heads of even more strangers. “It’s like going on a blind date and then having to get married like 30 minutes in,” he says with a laugh on a recent afternoon phone call from LA.
But sometimes it works out, like it did when he met the rapidly rising pop singer Kim Petras last year. Petras recalls being immediately taken by Aaron’s personality, compared to some of the self-serious attitude that some studio rats adopt. “We’re both obnoxious brats,” she says on a separate phone call.
Within moments of meeting, they both recall, they’d turned a simple meditation on all the shopping bags she’d brought into a studio into the hook that’d form the basis of her glitzy paean to consumerist excess “I Don’t Want It At All.” It was simple, because Aaron has a knack for expressing complicated ideas directly, and absurdly quickly. When Kim sings the first half of a couplet at him, Aaron immediately fire the second back at her. “He can write ten songs in a day and they’re all good,” she says. To her point, “I Don’t Want It At All,” was one of seven songs they worked on the first time they met, and its video now has over 2 million views on Youtube alone. And it rules too, drawing on their shared affection for what Aaron calls the “manufactured” pop they grew up on—the mid-00s heyday of boybands—they set their sights on making a glittery anthem. They wrote it in a day.
This is an unfamiliar kind of magic, so in the time since they wrote that song, Petras and Aaron have become fast friends and frequent collaborators. At similar places in their careers—beloved by tastemakers and hip kids, and at the verge of blowing into stratospheric chart-topping excess—they feel bonded to each other by both circumstance and mutual respect. Aaron says it’s easy because they’re both “workaholics,” and constantly run into each other in studios across LA, which means they’re always more or less working together on something or another. Aaron showed up as a proper feature on a Petras song earlier this year in the Neptunes-gone-80s party hymn “Faded,” lending his downcast neon sing-rapping to temper optimism of the proceedings. It’s perhaps the default mode of Aaron’s key influences—his history in emo and pop-punk, as well as a whole tradition of downer rap—to highlight the darker side of partying. But it still feels novel to hear a line like “Everybody fake as fuck, so I been self medicatin’“ on an otherwise cheery pop song. That isn’t to say that Petras is incapable of channeling complicated emotions on her own, but there’s something about their team-ups that feel especially complex.
Back in May, they teamed up for a track on Aaron’s most recent project, Rock$tar Famou$—which you may know as the one on which Aaron wears a length of barbed wire as a crown of thorns. That track was called “Anymore,” and it demonstrated what magic can happen when Aaron pulls his pop-minded friends further into his world. Much of Aaron’s music draws directly on the pop-punk and emo he grew up on in Goshen, Indiana—first through the Tooth & Nail and Solid State bands that his Christian family permitted him to listen to, and then through their sinful equivalents that he found once he got on Myspace and out from under their watchful eye. And “Anymore,” his Rock$tar Famou$ collaboration with Petras, is no exception. Brittle, preening guitar riffing forms most of the tracks melodic base, though Aaron, ever the genre synthesist, also leans heavily on glowing 808s and quasi-rapping. He says it was consciously inspired by Avril Lavigne, a childhood favorite of his. “I’ve always loved alternative music and pop-punk music, but I’ve also always been in love with pop,” he says. “Avril was probably one of my first artists that showed me that [you could marry those genres].”
Today, Aaron and Petras are sharing a video for the track that mostly seems to celebrate their easy interplay. Directed by Lewis Grant—who, it should be noted, also makes his own wonderfully colorful music—it features the pair lip-syncing in colorful outfits in colorful locales, demonstrating, most of all their chemistry and genuine affection for one another. It’s an effortless visual, but it goes along nicely with the “fuck off” quality of the song’s chorus, a reminder that even when you cut off dead weight from your life you’re still going to have friends at your side to celebrate in the aftermath.
Petras said something toward the end of our phone call that seems more true the more I watch this clip, and listen to the other songs they’ve made together. She surmises that part of what makes Aaron great—like many in the grand tradition of punkish songwriters— is his ability to get to the center of complicated emotions. “I overcomplicate a lot—I can get really into my head,” she says. “In sessions with Aaron he simplifies to the core of the meaning, and that’s what I love.” But even more important than that, she said, is that he’s easy to be around.
“He’s one of the funnest people to be in a room with,” she says. “I want to keep it fun and keep the energy up, because that’s when creativity happens. I think he’s going to be the biggest writer in the world one day.”