I meet K. Flay (Kristine Flaherty to the German customs authority) right before her show in Leipzig. Because you don’t get to talk to so many pop stars with not one but two degrees from Stanford, I chose being smart as the topic for our interview. K. Flay doesn’t know her own IQ, she admits, but she agrees anyway and the idea seems to work: Here’s our chat about Crowdfunding, Adele, a mouse called Algernon and the feeling that being on tour with your debut album is like your first relation ship with a serious partner.
Being smart does not make life easier, does it?
K. Flay: I don’t know. There’s a novella called Flowers For Algernon. You read it when you’re like ten years old and it’s about this mouse called Algernon. Scientists try to increase its intelligence and have developed a certain kind of medicine. They give it to this mouse and they notice a great mental performance afterwards. So they decide to test it on humans and they find this kid called Charlie. He’s a really sweet guy, but with a low IQ. They give it to him and he starts to get pretty smart. But as he is on the upward slope, the scientists see that the mouse is starting to regress. At the end Charlie is stuck in this mind that he knows is limited, and that is stressful to him. And with all the revelations he’s had after taking the medicine, he gets in all kinds of trouble that he didn’t need to bother with before. It’s a nice story that illustrates: Sometimes it’s easier to not think too much. Which is why people drink and do drugs and all this kind of stuff, maybe.
I chose this question because I think it must be pretty hard being on tour and not being dumbed down. There’s a lot of routine and not too many things happening that may stimulate you intellectually. Would you agree?
K. Flay: Yeah, there’s a definite monotony to touring, potentially. Often it’s like: You get in, you load in, you have your first beer, you soundcheck. Like you said, this routine just repeats ad nauseam. But you’re in different cities all over the world every day, which is quite stimulating. And when you have downtimes you can be reading and watching films and stuff like that. You need to make the effort to expand your world.
Is that what you do?
K. Flay. Yes. I try to make an effort to do that. And I just try to stay in touch with the world. Because sometimes it can feel like this life on tour with your crew and your fans and all these emotions when you’re on stage is the world. But of course it’s not. The world is continuing to assemble and crumble in front of our very eyes.
I think that your songs are amazingly clever, and I like that a lot. On the other hand, you can be blown away by songs that are completely dumb, just an outburst of emotion with seemingly no interference between the brain and the mouth. Do you think you can do both?
K. Flay: There’s probably a sweet spot in between. There is something that has this visceral emotionality that you’re talking about, whether it’s joy, sadness, despair or whatever. But I like the idea of intercepting that element with something that is kind of conceptually clever. When you think about the greatest pop songs, the best ones, I think they exist somewhere in that space: Emotionally, they are so true. But it’s also like they turn the words in this one way or structure the verse in a really interesting way or whatever.
You are aware that the song did not just pop out, but that the artists put some effort in it.
K. Flay: Yes! When it’s just something that popped out, it may not have as much resonance over time. We were listening to Adele earlier today and I think that she is actually a really good example of this. Her songs are not super high concept, they are pretty much about love, about relation ships. But think about Someone Like You! That’s a song that everyone can relate to and that was clearly written out of a sense of heartache. But it is done in such a clever and interesting way. It’s like: Man, fuck! This song rules! It’s good to the point that you could be 85 years old looking back on the first person you loved or you could be 10 years old and still love that song and connect to it.
Do you sometimes wish you could switch off your brain and think less about life in general or being an artist in particular?
K. Flay: Yeah, there’s something to that. Overthinking is often detrimental. A lot of the better things I’ve done and the things that people liked, I didn’t think so hard about. Not to say that I didn’t give a shit, but it was less filtered, less revised. But I also think there’s something to being critical of yourself and having a standard for what you want to create. I don’t know where the line is, but of course I wish I could switch off my brain, sometimes.
Does it happen when you’re on stage? It seems like the perfect excuse for being someone else, for having an emotional outlet.
K. Flay: Yes. I feel that when I’m on stage I’m not thinking too much, which is nice. But sometimes I do a lot of thinking: I’m singing one thing and my mind is somewhere else, and that’s never good. The more you can relive the experience of the lyrics, the more you can get lost in this moment.
It must be funny for you being on tour with your debut album. Because you’re definitely not a newcomer. How does that feel?
K. Flay: It’s like if you’ve been hooking up with a bunch of people but you never had a serious partner, you know? It’s like that. You’re experienced, but you never had a meaningful relation ship. Since the record came out in the US last summer, it does feel like all these other releases and projects are like experiences, but they weren’t relation ships. Like you’ve been around the block, but you never brought anyone to the wedding.
You lived in Chicago, Stanford, New York and Los Angeles: Do you think that moving a lot prepares you for life on tour? And is living in different cities inspiring, music-wise?
K. Flay: Definitely. Different cities inspire different kinds of creativity. You know, I was complaining to someone about L.A. the other day. Because it’s so nice all the time. You have your own space there, not like in New York where everything is crowded. And I was realizing I wrote a bunch of really happy songs when I was there. It must have been the sun shining (laughs). In New York I’ve often written a lot of darker things. I think it has to do with the idea of vulnerability. In general, when you’re out of your comfort zone, you are vulnerable. The times when you meet people who matter are times when you and they are vulnerable. And often the times when you create something that is particularly meaningful is when you’re vulnerable. It opens up something in you emotionally and experientially that is really potent. I don’t live anywhere, actually. I grew up in Chicago, my last apartment was in New York and then I’ve been kind of staying in Los Angeles. Now I’m on the road all the time. That’s like a constant state of vulnerability. It’s like walking around without a coat. So, from a creative standpoint, despite its psychological implications for me, I do think it’s good.
So, because you’re moving all the time and being vulnerable all the time, we can expect even greater songs for the next album?
K. Flay: I hope so (laughs).
Do you write songs while you’re on tour?
K. Flay: I have a hard time doing it. Usually I need to be alone in a room to write, which rarely happens on tour. I feel like touring life is like gathering the raw material. Then, when you’re back home, you have the time to filter through those experiences and distill something.
So you write a diary?
K. Flay: I keep notes, I’ve got a ton of them in my phone. And I have a Word-document where I keep lines, ideas for songs, that sort of thing.
I wrote in my review of Life As A Dog that I noticed something like a silicon valley spirit, in the sense that it embraces technology, it knows about the importance of a USP and it wouldn’t mind being successful. Would you agree?
K. Flay: Totally! I like that comparison. I have put out a bunch of material, but this album really feels like Step 1 in terms of the ethos of it, the sound of it, the lyrical spirit. I feel like since putting out that record, the rest of what I’ve been doing has been better, or at least I like it more. It seems like I’m figuring out what I want to say and how I want to say it. That is funny because I put out a mixtape, one of the first things I ever did, called I Stopped Caring In 96. That was the year I stopped caring about people’s preconceptions and misconceptions. Then I realized that recently I had another one of those moments, right before I put out this record. I really stopped caring. I’ve been on this roller coaster, I’ve been signed and I thought that mattered, which it didn’t. I thought all these other things sort of mattered that didn’t. So I decided to just make the music I want to make, and if people like it, they like it. And if they don’t like it, they don’t. That sparked a very fruitful, creative period with my own stuff or the collaborations I did. Getting back to what you said: The period before was so overthought. Should this be rap? Should this be this? What’s cool about this? What’s not cool? Fuck it, nobody cares. Stop caring, everyone!
Did you ever regret rejecting your major label deal? There might have been moments when you thought: This probably was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I’ve blown it!
K. Flay: I was signed to RCA for almost three years and it was just not working very well. I made like 60 songs which were supposed to be for my album which never came out. I was able to try things and experience with my sound and learn some lessons and nobody had to hear all this shit that I’ve made. That was a blessing. But I was feeling totally powerless and really shitty about myself. And I felt like I sucked at making music. Sometimes I listen back to some of those songs and they were devoid of some of the soul and spirit that I had when I began. So I never regretted it. The thing I might regret is signing the deal in the first place.
Ultimately, you financed Life As A Dog via crowdfunding. Was it difficult? If you can’t even tell yourself if K-Flay is rap or pop or indie or whatever, it must be pretty hard to market it as a product to invest in.
K. Flay: What I discovered is that by touring in the US over several years, I had built a legitimate fanbase. Not just people who listen on Spotify while they make dinner, but people who pay 15 bucks to come to the show and are really investing themselves into the music. And I could rely on them. I guess they don’t care too much about what genre or what scene I might be put in. They’re fans of the perspective, the narrative.
Do you see any other artists around who work in that way? Mixing genres without becoming interchangeable?
K. Flay: Right now, we are at a time where everything is becoming much closer together. Look at Taylor Swift, who started out as a country artist and is now an international pop phenomenon. But I don’t just mix genres for the sake of it. Part of the reason why I ended up between different sounds is that I like different things. It’s not necessarily about mixing them, it’s just about variety. That’s why I love Outkast so much. They are one of the first groups that I really, really liked as a kid and then continued to appreciate differently as an adult. They’re a good example of that, too, if you think about all the different things that they’ve done. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is like a legit pop record, Stankonia kind of is, Atliens is rap and still weird. And I guess, that’s what people love about them. Their perspective.
Do you think Andre and Big Boi are smart people?
K. Flay: Oh, yeah! I think, to create music or to create anything over the span of decades that resonates with people, you have to be intuitive and clever. It’s one thing to have a hit song at this particular moment – by hit I don’t necessarily mean something commercially successful, but something that more than just a couple of people care about actively. In order to do that consistently, there has to be something pretty interesting happening in your mind.