Photo by Wilson Lee

K.Flay Begins to Find Her Way

It was just days before Thanksgiving when Submerge caught up with K.Flay (neé Kristine Flaherty), but the indie hip-hop artist was gearing up for a working holiday. Born in Wilmette, Ill., the Stanford grad has recently relocated to Los Angeles for the time being. Newly released from her major label, RCA, K.Flay has been enjoying her regained independence and also her new surroundings.

“I think I’ve been here for a two-week stretch at a time, but never really longer than that,” she says of L.A., where she has studio space downtown. “It’s been really nice. I’m really forgetting how cold it would be in New York. I’m like, ‘This is amazing. No wonder why people want to live here.’”

After a couple of mixtapes, K.Flay released her first EP in 2010. Her most recent extended-player, West Ghost, her first and only under RCA, came out in April 2013. Though she’s starting to build up a strong catalog of songs, she admits that she wasn’t really sure what she was doing when she started out in music.

“I kind of stumbled into the whole thing,” she says. “I stumbled into recording a song based off of a conversation I had, and then I got randomly asked to play a show. I was open to whatever with no preconception of what it would look like or what it should look like or if I ever wanted to do it again.”

Now with some time in the studio—and more importantly hours logged onstage—she’s beginning to piece together what she most wants out of her music.

“I’m starting to figure out the aspects of what appeals to me and what doesn’t,” she goes on to say. “I think what was really interesting about music for me was that I had no preconception. I was sort of clueless in a way that made it a really pure experience.”

In the following interview, K.Flay speaks about her welcome breakup with her major label and what we might expect from her music in the future.

Are the songs you’re recording songs you’ve been working on for a while?
It’s all new stuff I’ve been working on. Just last week I left my record label, so I feel liberated and empowered to get back and refocus on the things I want to do and the kind of things I want to write.

Your first two EPs were independently released and your most recent was put out by RCA. Creatively, did you notice a difference between your independent and your label release?
I think, obviously, any time you’re involved with any type of label, there’s an infrastructure that has straightforwardly commercial goals. I’ve always been DIY and self-propelled, so it felt weird to be imbedded within this larger organization. It was a lot harder to get things done, and a lot of people had to be involved in the decision-making process. It’s nice being able to take control of that again.

I read on your blog it was almost like a relationship breakup. Was it something you saw coming or did it come as a surprise?
Oh no, I wanted it to happen. I think it was like a breakup in the sense that it was the right thing, but it was still kind of a bummer that it didn’t work out. I feel great. I feel super happy, but it just wasn’t the right thing at the time, so I’m looking forward to getting back to the things I love about doing this.

I saw you live once before… It was a while ago, and it was just you performing solo. I was blown away because it was just you on stage. But since then you’ve added more people to the live show, correct?
Yeah, it’s like the Partridge Family now… I have added people. I’ve been playing with Nick [Nicholas Suhr], my drummer, for a couple of years now. I felt like that was the first addition that really made sense. It’s evolved to where there’s kind of an indie rock sound to the music now, especially in the live show. That’s been really cool, and on the last two tours I’ve had, I’ve had a DJ [Noah Souder-Russo] come out as well. I still do some controller stuff, but it was really stressful at times controlling all the various electronic things, and it sort of created this distance between me and the audience. I was very hyper aware of what was going on. It’s freed me up to be more involved in the performance.

It’s funny to hear you say that, because I remember at the show I saw, you were tinkering with a lot of things then stepping back and delivering vocals. It seemed like a lot of work.
Yeah totally. It was stressful! I was like, “Why am I putting myself through all this?”

You mentioned the indie rock element, and there was one song on West Ghost, “The Cops,” that had more singing on it. I like the song a lot. I liked the whole EP, but that one jumped out at me because it sounded a bit different than the other songs on the EP. Is that something you’re looking to explore more in your music?
Yeah, I think “The Cops,” in a weird way, was the turning point in my own mind, because that is the kind of music on some level that I really want to make. I think going too far in the electronic sphere on the next thing I put out isn’t really my goal. On the demos I’m recording, I’m moving more toward an organic sound. I’ll still be rapping… When I started making music, I really didn’t even know what I was doing or what I wanted to do. I think the live show and the touring has helped guide me into a little bit more of the indie side of things.

With the new stuff that you’re working on, are you hoping to make a full-length record or do you think another EP is on the horizon?
Who knows what I’m going to end up thinking, but I am working toward putting out a full-length, because that’s what I want to do. I’m notorious for being very fickle and very stubborn. I’ll probably change my mind. Basically, I’d be a very bad government official.

Is another label something you’ll be seeking?
I’m kind of open to everything. The experience with RCA wasn’t an anti-label experience. It just wasn’t the right situation for a number of reasons. I think if there’s somebody who understands my vision, then I would be open to thinking about it, but I’m sort of using this time to return to that place of no preconceptions. I think, for me, that’s a good psychological space to be in.

Being in that place, are you surprised at the kind of stuff you’re writing lyrically and musically?
Yeah, I guess. Maybe this isn’t surprising, but I’m pleased at how it’s making internal sense. The songs relate to one another. They’re starting to feel like cousins in a way that’s really natural. That’s been good. It’s weird writing songs with a pile of expectations. Sometimes it can be really fun and challenging, but most of the time it can be really confusing and can muddle what you’re trying to say.

Are you trying to keep it simpler this time around?
I’m just doing demo stuff, so I’m not finishing 100 percent all of the production, but yeah. I think the mark of most of the songs I really connect with is, I guess, the clarity of the vibe and sound. I’m not over-thinking what I’m doing because I have a tendency to do that.

Do you tend to be more critical of your lyric writing or your music?
I’m critical of everything! I don’t know. I think it’s always weird listening to and looking back on the things you’ve created. I think maybe I just alternate depending on the mood I’m in. I’ve looked back in horror on some of the things I have created.

You have a few more dates with Icona Pop coming up. How do you enjoy being on the road with them?
I played a few shows on the road with them earlier in the year… They’re really awesome people, and their show is a lot more electronic and dance-y than what I’m doing, but it’s nice to have that juxtaposition. There’s that common theme of girls doing cool things. There’s been a really nice energy about that. I have a hometown show in San Francisco coming up, so the shows are going to be a lot of fun. It’s going to be nice, because I haven’t seen them in a couple of months, so it’s going to be like a reunion.

K.Flay will take a one-show break from her West Coast dates with Icona Pop to play Assembly in Sacramento on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013. Sirah will also be performing. You can get tickets through Catch K.Flay the night before at The Fillmore supporting the aforementioned pop superstars.