By Brian Ives
Three years after her first full-length album, 2014’s Life as a Dog (and seven years since her self-titled debut EP), K.Flay is returning with ‘Every Where Is Some Where,’ which is due out Friday (April 7). The album is very much of this era, and has a sense of dread about the current administration, even though much of it was written before President Trump was sworn in. In this long-ranging interview with Radio.com, K.Flay — a.k.a. Kristine Meredith Flaherty — discusses her feelings about the current political climate, how her parents’ divorce affected her life, and some of her musical influences – Trent Reznor, M.I.A., and Emily Haines.
You went to school for psychology; that seems to manifest in your lyrics a bit.
Totally. I didn’t grow up doing music, but I certainly grew up consuming lots of art, and especially novels. That was probably the largest thing that I was participating in as a young person. When it comes to visual art, written art, listenable art, to me the main thing is detail. We’re only saying how many things? “I love you,” “I hate you,” “I miss you,” “I’m bummed out,” whatever it is, but it is in the way you say that, and it’s in the novelty, the turn of the phrase, whatever.
So I think growing up reading so much, it really impressed upon me that it’s not so much about the plot, it’s about the way in which something is conveyed. So I’ve tried in my songwriting, both overtly and just naturally, to be pretty specific and kind of detail oriented. I think schooling bolstered that for sure, but that’s always what I’ve loved about the authors that I love, the songwriters that I love, it’s always been about those kinds of details.
My favorite author as a kid is this guy Walter Dean Myers. I was obsessed with him. He wrote a book called The Glory Field, which is probably his most well-known book, but he’s sort of a “young adult” author.
As I got into high school and started reading a little bit more complicated stuff, I’m a big Marilyn Robinson fan, I love her. I loved William Faulkner growing up. Big Margaret Atwood fan. I’m actually re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale right now with a couple of my bandmates. So: a pretty diverse group of authors.
What songwriters impressed you?
I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to Emily Haines’ solo record. I don’t know if you know Metric at all. She has a solo record that’s truly one of my most influential records to date. It’s called Knives Don’t Have Your Back; it came out over ten years ago. But her songwriting style, when I was listening to that, I was like, “This is how I wanna write songs.” It’s very specific, kinda quirky, but feels like, “Oh, yeah. I know that experience, I know that feeling.” And for me, listening to that kind of stuff was very, very influential.
You wrote a piece for Medium where you described the day you and your mom left your dad, and how that impacted your life…
So the story you’re describing is: my parents were splitting up; it was this very contentious moment. I was quite young, and my mom and I had to leave the house, and it was raining, and the weather was horrible in Chicago, which is where I grew up, and we were really upset. My mom was devastated. It’s like, she has this kid, what do you do? You’re alone now and we’re living with friends. We just kind of decided that it would be this funny moment, that we’ll laugh about it.
I feel like that demonstrated to me that you could understand the truth of a situation, the facts, but you can also decide in the narrative of your life — because we’re all making up our lives as we go, and we’re deciding what events meant something and what events didn’t — you can decide how to interpret things in some ways. And of course, there are acts of horror and really terrible things that I don’t think totally apply to this.
But yeah, something about that really affected me as a young kid and then continued to stay with me as a grownup, and I think as a songwriter I’m constantly doing that. I think people think it’s usually the huge events that influence a song. For me, often it’s not; it’s like, a small thing someone will say, or a very small interaction I’ll have, and I decide that I wanna make that into something with meaning in a way.
So that’s kind of the spirit of the record, and I was also definitely thinking about where we’re at, at this moment in United States history, which is obviously embedded in world history… because a lot of people I know are feeling like, “What’s happening? How do I cope with this? What can I do?”
I feel super empowered right now, both personally, politically, whatever, to make meaning out of this moment that we’re in and make a meaning that feels right to me. So hopefully, we can do that.
Why did you decide to write that piece? You really put a lot out there.
I really feel like it’s a product of the times. I don’t think if it were 2014 I would’ve felt the need to say some of those things, because it does feel like this moment of reckoning, and I think whichever side of the political spectrum you’re on, I think everybody feels that way. So I guess I just wanted to elaborate on that and put it out there. People, I think, are pretty aware of my general political stance, but I wanted to talk about it in a more abstract way or symbolic way and to hopefully have a message that’s positive. I think there’s some darkness on the record, but it doesn’t feel like a negative to me; every song feels like it’s transcending. If there’s a bad situation, the point is to basically fly above it, look down and reimagine what’s going on. So that was sort of the impetus for writing that.
Another thing that’s a part of that statement, and a very real part of my experience touring, is that every day I’m with different people, so that’s already novel in and of itself. Most people aren’t with hundreds of new people every day. I hang out at the merch booth after the show for a long time and chat with everybody, so I really feel like I get to know the people who are at the shows.
And I’m pretty consistently overwhelmed by the positivity, the connections that I feel between people and that I see people forming between strangers and people they already know at the show. And I see what to me feels like a beautiful reminder of our humanity, our tolerance, and our appreciation for art, which I think is important. I guess that going all over the world — not just the United States — and seeing that, even in places where I don’t speak the language, but feeling that, it’s a really uplifting thing, and I think it’s an affirmation of something that does exist. So to me, there’s a lot of hope in that.
I bring out this book on tour, it’s called “The Crush Me Book,” and people basically write whatever they want, stories about their lives. It’s taken on a life of its own, but every night after the show I read about people’s experiences and how they’ve come to whatever place they’re standing at now, it’s pretty moving, and it makes me feel like there is a lot of love and there is a lot of desire to connect, both with yourself, with others, with art, with ideas, and I think that is a really vibrant, real thing that makes me feel good and really hopeful.
The audience is young, and I’m always like, “You guys gotta vote. You are the future.” Like, we are all part of this, the people who are going to occupy these positions and be the leaders of things. So it’s kind of incumbent on us to do something.
In some of your Instagram photos you’re wearing a shirt that says “Immigrants Welcome.” Small acts like that probably are empowering to your fans, particularly ones in red areas.
Yeah. I was listening to this new podcast that just came out, and this woman was interviewing a pastor from northern Wisconsin, whose congregation had voted for Obama in ’08 and voted for Trump in 2016. And she made this really interesting point about how he was saying that his congregation knew [Trump is] a bad guy. Nobody was like, “This guy’s great. He’s the moral center of our country.” They knew he was bad, and yet they still voted for him. Those bad things that he did, they weren’t bad enough to get them to vote against him.
For me, that really resonated because I think they’re bad enough. I know that everybody is flawed, right, and we live in this age where everything is so visible, so nobody has this unmarred reputation. We’re all screw-ups. But I think there are some things that are bad enough, and I think we’re maybe not agreeing on what those are. That was just an interesting way to think about it.
But with that being said, yeah, I’ve got this “Immigrants Welcome” line of shirts and hoodies made and we’ve been wearing them on tour. But it’s cool, when we’re in the South in smaller towns and places that were definitely red territory, a lot of people have come up to me and just… it’s nice to at least be a very small voice of—hopefully—inclusivity.
Those people who voted for Trump probably felt like their lives were supposed to get better under President Obama, and that didn’t happen. Someone had to pay, and that was the Democrats. And plus, Trump promised that he would change things for them.
Right. Yeah. And I get people being dissatisfied with the status quo, and we’re in the midst of incredible change. The rate of change in the world right now is unprecedented. So I think of course fear in the face of change is natural. We all feel that. But I think it’s what we do in the face of that rapid change [that matters].
You seem to have the punk rock spirit of, “Yeah, I want to sell records, but I’m going to say what I want to say, regardless of the consequences.” That’s a choice you’ve seemed to make.
Yeah. It’s definitely a choice. There’s a song called “The President has a Sex Tape.” You know what the crazy thing is, I wrote that lyric before the sex tape story [broke].
“Black Wave” reminded me of Nine Inch Nails.
That’s awesome. I wrote that post-election, right before Christmas, I had just gotten off tour. I don’t normally like to yell, but I kind of felt that way, just like wanting to scream a little bit. Yeah, I love Nine Inch Nails, and when you think about [Trent Reznor] and his career, this constant juxtaposition of things, I feel like that’s been at the core of that band always. Even a song like “Closer,” right? Sonically and lyrically, I feel like he’s really, really talented in doing that specifically, and I think that specifically for me is very evocative. So that was even on “Black Wave” trying to have some melodic elements, some gnarly elements. Hopefully, it all makes sense.
Tell me about your “origin” story: you decided to become a musician because you liked hip-hop, but not necessarily the lyrics you were hearing?
Sort of, yeah. I got to college and, as many people do when they go away from home in whatever capacity they do, I was immediately consuming all this culture and art that I hadn’t really been exposed to. And I was in California in the Bay Area where always, and particularly at that time, there was this very hyper-local, really interesting indie rap scene. A lot of the people I was meeting in college were from California and knew about that and were already kind of involved as listeners. And so I started getting really, really into that and also listening to UK grime. This was around just after Dizzy Rascal’s first record came out and a bunch of that stuff, Wiley, and all these artists that I never knew about.
It didn’t feel like there was a Kendrick then, who was on the radio and just being so creative and interesting. And so I was like, I’m hearing this stuff and it’s so good. Why isn’t it on the radio? And I was just frustrated I think with that. And of course, I had the hubris of a 19, 20-year-old.
But yeah, I was in this conversation with a friend, and he was like, “Well, why don’t you make music if you’ve got so much to say about it?” And then I just did some stuff really as a joke, and then started making music, just on the side. I was a very, very serious student, so that was definitely my focus in college. But I played house parties, frat parties, weird campus events. I was just all over, I was just this weird girl. And I kinda feel like it’s just been this really long summersault. Little things have happened that I think I could have either taken as like, “Eh, I’m gonna stop,” or “Eh, why not [keep going]?” I chose the latter, and over time I started to get better at what I was doing.
And the key change that happened, and this was after college when I was starting to play shows in San Francisco and elsewhere, was that music became a part of my emotional life and identity. When that happened, and it was kind of an imperceptible moment, but I think when it happened in retrospect, that was when I was all-in and pretty committed to doing it. But it’s very strange. I’m glad that it happened; I’m really glad that it happened, but I guess it all came from me talking a lot, which is not surprising [laughs].
Where did you think college would take you when you started?
I think I thought I was gonna stay in academia, and actually, one of my best friends did just that. There are many people in my life who remained in that realm, but I think that was really my intent. I like being in places where it feels like it’s a culture of openness and learning. I just like learning, and I was a raised in a very curiosity-focused household.
One problem that people seem to have with the president is that he seems to lack curiosity.
It’s very weird. I’m hoping that this administration can be sort of a mirror for us. Like, a warped mirror. Sometimes you gotta date the wrong person to know what you want. Sometimes you have to make mistakes. We’re a pretty young country, and we’re definitely making lots of mistakes. I hope this isn’t a grave error that is irreversible, but I do think it is a way for us to say, “Who are we? What matters to us? What do we wanna fight for?” I think that’s important to know, both in a very personal way in your own life, but in a broader societal way.
That reminds me of a line in a Bruce Springsteen song, “Long Walk Home.” The narrator remembers his father telling him about the American flag. “Certain things are set in stone/Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t”
This book The Handmaid’s Tale that I’m reading, a big part of it is this idea of freedom to and freedom from, and I think that’s a really resonant concept. This book was written in the ’80s, though it’s disturbingly applicable today. But I think that’s a worthwhile thing to consider, what kind of freedom are we looking for? Food for thought.
There’s a risk in talking about politics, especially for an artist that is new to much of the country.
Totally. There’s a risk in everything, and I think definitely my goal in life is to try to be brave, and it can be hard to do that. It’s easy to criticize people who are trying to be brave in their own way, whatever that is. But to be perfectly honest with you, any political thing that I have written or done has been met with a lot of encouragement.
We’ll see how everything changes in the next few years and pans out, but as a woman who—I think—has some level of understanding of the world, and I’ve had a lot of experiences, I feel like I have something to say, and I’d like to say it, and I’d like to engage in a dialogue. I think that’s the starting point.
I know M.I.A. is a big influence on you.
I started listening to M.I.A.’s first record in college. I remember I went to San Francisco, to see her. I’ve seen her a bunch of times live, but that first show I went to was wild. It was like one of those shows where someone is just beginning in their career and you feel like you have access to this beautiful moment that would never exist again, and that’s what that was like for me. Just seeing the energy of somebody who was clearly making things, not for themselves, but making it in a very self-directed way that felt really left of center and really different and really wild, even though it wasn’t technically “wild” music. I guess some of it’s kind of wild.
There was a heaviness to it, a weight to it, I suppose. I loved that. And I think I’ve just always liked any artist like that. But especially as a young woman, I like other women who have a vision, and they’re doing it in a way that’s totally unique to them. That’s always been really exciting for me.
So she’s just an artist that I started listening to right when I was beginning to make music, and so I think as a consequence of that. She just kind of occupied this space for me creatively. And also it was very genre-less-ness in its ultimate form. It was like, “What is that?”
That “genre-less-ness” seems to have influenced you.
I kinda took a step back and thought, “Making music that’s kind of in a bunch of worlds, what’s the bad part of that?” And the only bad parts were when I had to try to explain myself to people in these novel or meaningless ways. Like if I’m at a wedding, and someone’s like, “What do you do?” I say I’m a musician. Then they go, “What kind of music do you make?” Not to discount that conversation, but I don’t know if that’s a great question necessarily or if it’s a question that really makes a f—ing difference to me. It’s like asking anybody who’s doing something kind of abstract, “Describe that thing.”
That’s a situation which is annoying, and sometimes interviews that are not very good, then it’s annoying. Those are the only real places where it’s been a hindrance to me, and I kinda took a step back and was like, “Well, if that’s the worst thing, it ain’t that bad.” So that was kind of the revelation to me.
But the person at the wedding is probably just trying to get an understanding of what you do. Is it heavy metal? Is it jazz? They probably don’t mean any harm.
Totally, and I think it’s harder because the lines are a little bit blurrier in general with creative fields. I think it’s harder to describe it, but I agree with you. I don’t think there’s any malevolence in that line of questioning. I think it’s just people trying to be polite, which I respect. I’d probably ask the same question too.