Written by Ashley Friedman
“Just think of me as the shallow end of the pool,” K.Flay said before diving into our interview. Prior to that, I admitted that video interviews were new for me, and truthfully, I was a bit nervous.
She was kind and personable, the type of person that would put you before themselves, even if they were at the lowest of lows, the type of person to wear a smile on their face even if they had been crying ten minutes before because some asshole was on their tail in the parking lot.
The day I interviewed K.Flay was the day I was reminded that it’s okay to not know where to start, that emerging into this world as a fully functioning person with every lesson learned doesn’t exist, and how boring life would be if we didn’t change or grow as people.
It’s 1992, Kristine Meredith Flaherty, today known as K.Flay, is seven years old growing up in the suburbs of Chicago and is one of the most regimented & self-disciplined kids you’ll ever meet. She takes comfort in rules and boundaries as a way to “control [her] environment and feel safe,” and isn’t interested in music whatsoever.
Fast forward and K.Flay, being the diligent person that she is, is attending Stanford University to pursue a dual degree in psychology and sociology.
“I was a serious student. I can’t emphasize that enough. Like, I was in the library every weekend when it opened,” K.Flay comments and we both have a laugh.
Sooner than later, K.Flay finds her way into music after an abrupt argument with her resident advisor on how music on the radio, at the time, was trash. It’s here that K.Flay unknowingly challenges herself to write better music than what she was hearing on the radio.
I do need to make it clear here that K.Flay never produced or wrote music up until that day, which makes this story even more incredible.
“I was really flying by the seat of my pants. I didn’t know where to start and I actually think that that was very useful. For many years, I sort of lamented the fact that I didn’t have that background,” says K.Flay. “But, I’ve actually come to see it as a little bit of a superpower because it kind of gives me the freedom to do whatever. I don’t have those expectations or rules which can sometimes feel like limitations creatively.”
It wasn’t until K.Flay started playing live shows that she got the true dose of what life was like as a musician. “I think playing live early gave me a sense of what actually resonates with a crowd,” she says.
At the beginning, the crowds were often very small, filled with fifty or so highly intoxicated people, along with a few of K.Flay’s closest friends who happened to be sober.
“I just kind of said yes to like everything,” she says and laughs as she goes into the questions people would ask like ‘you want to play this rap party?’ or ‘you want to play a live show?’ All of which K.Flay was quick to say, ‘Sure!’
“I didn’t even understand at a show that there should be a flow to the songs. You know what I mean? I would just stop and start and then talk almost like a comedy show,” says K.Flay. “It was good to learn [how to make the leap from the internet to people] early on because I think that’s one of the hardest transitions, especially now when the internet’s bigger.”
K.Flay later tells a story that felt like a turning point in her career.
“I played a show to like 15 people in the pouring rain at South by Southwest one year. It just so happened that three people from Berlin were there who had just started an Indie label. They hit us up. They’re like, ‘Hey, we loved the show.’ And, it completely changed my career. I was able to really tour in Europe and establish a career in Germany, all because of a show where I personally thought was a failure when I left the stage. You kind of just never know who’s in the crowd.”
I have a lot of takeaways from this interview, but I think that my biggest is K.Flay’s question of:
‘Do you want to walk on a flat road or do you want to climb a mountain?’ She was referring to the idea of just getting her name out there and as mentioned earlier, taking on every opportunity where she could.
Deeming music as this “weird side hustle” she had while studying at Stanford, K.Flay could be seen vibing to Dizzie Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner, Saul Williams, or ZION I, an american hip-hop duo whom Flay later collaborated with.
“I think in many ways [my studies] played an indirect role in the sense that I love learning… and really value curiosity as sort of a North Star on my compass. I think if you approach people with curiosity, work with curiosity and [feel] your own pain with curiosity, I think you can reap a lot of benefits from that.”
Gaining confidence in one’s own curiosity is a skill in itself, and as K.Flay points out, it’s important to hone in on that. “My schooling and my education really solidified that [ideology] and being confident in my curiosity. With this new EP, I’m actually going back and digging into some of the actual things that I studied. A lot of the ideas behind this new music and this project are what are the two kinds of opposing sides of our psyche.”
When going into any release, K.Flay often creates a visual and written world where she tries to explain her overarching goal. “It’s like trying to create an aesthetic,” she comments.
As any musician knows, oftentimes releasing a piece of work centers the focus on a numbers game. But, I think to summarize some of what K.Flay was alluding to, the idea of reaching a goal, it exists, but there is always this want to want more.
“My goal [when creating and planning for a release] is always to avoid the trap and stay focused on the real shit because at the end of the day when you are going through a hard time, who are the people that you want to be with? Those should be the same people you celebrate your accomplishments and happiness with,” comments K.Flay.
Her latest EP, Inside Voices, takes listeners on an adventure through their psyche. “I’ve been sort of mapping each song to a different region in the brain and, and drawing some of these like neuroscience comparisons for people who want to take it that deep,” comments K.Flay.
The first song, “Four Letter Words,” is an anthem for those that find themselves teetering between egos.
“I think we’re all kind of contending with those voices and urges and those impulses,” comments K.Flay. “I recorded [the track] in LA with Tommy English and Noah Breakfast who are two of my close friends. I [believe] me accepting the song was the turning point for this EP and that’s why it comes first.”
The second song “Good Girl,” K.Flay was written with longtime friend and collaborator, Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons. If you haven’t already heard the story, Dan had reached out to K.Flay via email when she first started out. By the end of the email, he asked her if she wanted to Skype to talk about her demos. Soon enough, K.Flay was the first signee to Dan Reynolds’ Night Street Records imprint.
“It’s really about that feeling of the world and your culture and your community socialize you in a certain manner. And, as you grow up, you start to feel like those norms and expectations are constraining and they don’t let you be yourself. Everybody feels like they don’t fit in, everybody feels like a misfit.”
The third song, “Dating My Dad,” was born from a therapy session where K.Flay had the revelation that her upbringing highly influences her adult relationships.
“I was singing that… ‘Mom and Dad, we love them, either fuck ’em or become ’em.’ And, I thought that was so funny and we were all laughing. To me, it was really important with that son, that it feels funny because it’s supposed to be, it’s supposed to have a sense of humor.”
In this track, K.Flay teamed up with well-renowned drummer, Travis Barker, drummer for the band Blink-182 who helped bring the song to life.
The fourth track, “TGIF” features Tom Morello, famed guitarist of Rage Against The Machine.
“I was thinking about capitalism at this time. I know intellectually that capitalism is a system and an institution built on racism and misogyny, xenophobia, classism, et cetera, very detrimental, hateful ideologies. [I thought], how do I go about rebuilding the world in which I live? Which is, I guess the fundamental conundrum of a revolution, not that that’s what I’m trying to start with this song, but that was my headspace.” Describing this song as a ‘facet of the thesis statemen’t for the entire EP, K.Flay says that it features “some of the most polite and mild-mannered Midwestern people.”
The fifth and final song and certainly not least is “My Name Isn’t Katherine.” After a few instances of being called the wrong name, this track developed somewhat out of a joking matter.
“My goal with this song was to really have nothing repeat structurally besides the chorus, from our instrumentation and lyrical perspective. And what the song ended up becoming was this meditation on being fundamentally misidentified, misunderstood, mis-gendered, misnamed, you know, like whatever the thing is, that’s happening to you. When someone calls you the wrong name, it feels like one of the deepest of fronts and it feels like misunderstanding. I thought that that tension was so interesting: Why does it feel so upsetting when we are misidentified?”
Heading into this EP, and really any project, K.Flay explains her routine:
“I prepare by being very cautiously optimistic and by refocusing on the reason that I made the songs, because I think music is so strange, right? A song for whatever reason can hit immediately and connect with people immediately.”
For up and coming artists in the industry, K.Flay offers one piece of advice:
“Try not to be too influenced by other people’s expectations. If you are putting out music that is true to you, it will be true to someone else and therefore something good will happen. As unselfconscious as you can be, please hold onto that. You want to be proud of what you did and proud of the people you met along the way.”
Watch & Listen To The Entire Interview With K.Flay Here: