Interview: K.Flay finds a healthy, positive outlook by grounding herself in family

K.Flay, Solutions, K. Flay

K. Flay. Photo courtesy of Koury Angelo.

Even before Kristine Flaherty decided to write a hip-hop song to prove a point about how watered down the genre had become while pursuing a double major at Stanford—kicking off a sequence of events that would cause major changes in her life—she was already learning to deal with major change. First her parents separated. Her mother eventually remarried, and Flaherty found herself with two new siblings. When she was 14 her “first dad” died, and soon after, her “second dad” officially adopted her

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“As a teenager and a young person, I was very regimented. I’m still very regimented in certain ways, but there was real concertedness to the way I structured my life,” said Flaherty, now best known as K.Flay.

Since starting out and finding success in the Bay Area as an independent hip-hop artist, K.Flay’s life has continued to swing every few years: A move to New York and her first major label record deal; the introduction of electronica to her sound; being dropped by the label and releasing her debut LP on her own; moving to Los Angeles and signing with Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds’ label, an imprint of Interscope; finding mainstream success for the first time with a sound that blended pop with her existing formula and being nominated for two Grammy Awards. She’s collaborated with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda.

K.Flay’s third album, Solutions, is her first that was hotly anticipated by fans worldwide. It’s also the first time she’s taken on a positive worldview in her music, and she chose to focus on her love of her family; both that which she inherited and that which she built around her.

“I think there have been some drastic swings in my life, which for me feel very productive,” the 33-year-old said, speaking a few days prior to releasing the new album. “I think the great enterprise of my adult life has been to attempt to destroy some of that structure because I think that psychologically and experientially that’s really important to me. I’ve sort of been introducing these new big changes, but I do believe that I derived meaning and learned from those things.”

By the time she finished a long tour for 2017’s Every Where is Some Where, K.Flay was worn down and in a bad mental headspace. Part of it was her exhaustion. Mainly, she was taking herself too seriously and had forgotten what made her excited about being a musician in the past. She started to care too much about how she came off to others, how she looked in pictures and whether she hit all the notes.

“I had lost touch with the point of what I was doing,” she said. “Me engaging in this spiraling inward focus is kind of a form of egotism or narcissism. The show isn’t about me; it’s about everyone else, and the same goes for the music. … Too much inward focus is not good for any of us as humans, and this last year has been about getting out of that.”

As she grounded herself again, K.Flay came to several realizations. First, though not necessarily foremost, she had resolved to remember that while her songs were her view of the world, she wanted to write and perform them to give her fans a place where they could feel safe to express themselves.

Q&A: How’d you and Dan Reynolds come to work together?

Dan emailed me a little over three years ago, to talk music and maybe see about working together. Though I’m signed to his label—which is an imprint of Interscope—we hadn’t written any songs together until ‘This Baby Don’t Cry’ on the new record. It was a really fun process. The album was just about done, and we were kind of asking ourselves, ‘Are there any missing pieces?’ Dan came in with an idea to do something riff-driven, punky. That’s how the song started.

Q&A: What’s life for you like in L.A.? What do you like to do now that you don’t have to hustle as hard?

Life in L.A. is really nice. I’ve settled into a bit of a routine, which is new for me, and very, very good for my mental health. One of the things I love about living here is that pretty much every day is walking weather. And I love to go for long walks. Not to sound like a dating profile, but I really do! I find them both relaxing and invigorating. And I’ve been spending some really nice time with my friends and my girlfriend and my family, who’ve been able to come and visit. So, getting back to basics in a way.

Next, she decided she would focus her life, and her new music, on what made her happy. During this time, she found herself walking around her neighborhood in L.A., drawing and talking to her family more often. She also found unexpected love with singer-songwriter Miya Folick, which she didn’t publicly announce to fans until the pair’s one-year anniversary in June.

Before, much of K.Flay’s music dealt with shortcomings or heartbreak. In 2012, she told us she was chasing the idea of swinging between extreme emotions, chasing a middle ground and never being satisfied with it.

She wanted to change the narrative, and one reason was because she wanted to make a bold artistic statement, as well as a statement about where she is in her life right now.

“I feel like I’m in a very healthy mental state right now, which is a great feeling,” she said. “A lot of this last year has been about me putting in time to get to that point, in terms of like doing the things I know are good for me as a human being and going back to therapy and getting my head screwed on a little straighter.

“And the other part … in general, it just feels to be very [en vogue] to be dark, cynical and hopeless; in many ways, that’s the way we’re expected to be, especially musicians. … At this point in my life and my career, it felt like actually the most transgressive thing I could do or say is just smile and say, ‘I’m trying to be happy.’”

In many ways, she felt expected to write music about how unsatisfied she was with her life, but when she took stock of how she was doing, most of the time, she felt pretty good about herself.

She views Every Where Is Some Where as a “problems” record. That’s why she titled the new one Solutions. That’s why the album kicks off with a song literally called “I Like Myself (Most of the Time).” K.Flay decided cynicism for the sake of cynicism doesn’t do society any good.

Q&A: Who or what pulled you to Nashville to write and record?

[Producer] JT Daly! He produced half of my last record, and a third of Solutions. JT’s based in Nashville and we work out of a studio in the countryside, about 30 minutes away from the city. It’s one of my favorite places on earth. The minute I walk through the door, I feel like I know how to make things, which is a very precious and special feeling to come by.

K.Flay felt scared to play that song for other people at first.

“That’s how I knew I was onto something; because when you’re scared, it means you’re being vulnerable and honest,” she said.

Another happy song is “Sister,” on which she affirms her love for her siblings and asks for reciprocation: I want to be your sister/ Do you want to be mine?”

“It’s kind of that really like guileless way to approach things. It felt like the bravest thing I could do,” she said.

Other songs that address her new outlook include the room-rattling first single, “Bad Vibes,” the bouncy Reynolds’ co-penned “This Baby Don’t Cry” and the glitchy “Good News.” Even an edgy break-up hot-take “Ice Cream” isn’t bitter or as cutting as K.Flay would have made it in the past (just listen to “I Wish It Were You” from 2014’s Life as a Dog).

Q&A: Is “Not in California,” which addresses climate change, a protest song?

Yeah. I think that many of us are engaged with the feeling of disorientation at the moment. We have this idea about ourselves and about the world and how it is. We feel like, ‘Oh yeah, we live in an open and tolerant society.’ And when we turn on the TV, we’re bombarded with intolerance. We’re living in the apex of technology and the internet and all these amazing things, and then there’s fires everywhere, and it’s hotter than ever, the ocean is rising. We’re past the point of being able to fix it. At least for me, it feels like we have this idea that, ‘We’re making progress and it’s all great,’ but you look around and it feels like that progress has been undermined.

One of the cool things about touring is that you get to travel and meet all different kinds of people. One of the things I noticed all over the world, especially with young people, is they are engaged, want to be a part of change, want to live in a good world, and I hope this song can be a little part of that rally cry.

Happiness and positivity is the form of language on Solutions, and family comprises much of the subject matter. That begins with “Sister,” a song that isn’t solely about her sister but about everyone in her family. Even after her second dad adopted her, she didn’t fully feel connected to her siblings, but she wanted to be. She wanted to remove the “step” out of her familial bonds. The song is also a declaration of love for her second dad, Tom.

The song was borne from an initial feeling of alienation and separateness, she explained. But over the last few years, as she’s started thinking about it more, she realized that popular ideas of what families are supposed to include—blood relationships—are nothing more than a construct.

“I discovered in my own life that family is something we create actively, and there’s something very affirming and problem-solving about that,” she said. “No matter what your circumstances are, this thing of family undergirds so many of us and supports us through times of difficulty and gives us a reason to live and gives us community. Even if you don’t get that with whatever you inherited, you have the capacity to build that and make that.

“I think the microcosm of my own family is a template for that for me,” she said. “Tom isn’t my biological dad. Well, that hasn’t stopped him from being an incredible father, me from being hopefully a good and devoted daughter and building a relationship that feels fundamentally familial.”

It took K.Flay years to get to the point of thinking like that about her family. Until now, her “first dad” figured prominently in her songwriting, because she knew so little about him. After her parents’ separation, she spent every other weekend and Wednesdays with him. She said she spoke to him daily. He had a serious substance abuse problem, but she always felt supported by him.

Still, she didn’t feel like she knew him, and that began to dig away at her. She had felt haunted by his presence.

Solutions ends with “DNA,” a very personal song that addresses this head-on: “People say I look like you/ They say I got your eyes/ My mother says I’m tough like you/ Even in the ways that she don’t like/ And I can’t change it/ I didn’t choose my blood, but I made up my mind/ I don’t want to be like you/ But either way, I got you in my DNA.”

K.Flay wrote “DNA” while staying at Stinson Beach, north of San Francisco. The song acknowledges that her birthfather was put in a difficult position; having her when he was the age she is now. At the same time, the song ends with K.Flay ready to let him go.

“This record is the right time for me to engage with the fact that maybe this ghost person doesn’t really have that much to do with my life after all,” she said. “Not to diminish his role, but sometimes it feels like the absent people can actually loom larger than the things you’ve actually created.”

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