K.Flay Talks Optimism, Sisterhood and ‘Solutions’

The archetypal artist broods by candlelight, suffers violent paroxysms, and channels a lifetime of pain and anguish into tunes ready for consumption. It’s his or her duty to rail against the complacency of the masses by avoiding the naivety of cliché at all costs. Ironically, in today’s world, it’s the tortured artist that has become the cliché; it’s positivity and optimism that have the real edge. Singer-songwriter-rapper K.Flay is leading the way with her bright new album “Solutions.”

K.Flay emerged in 2014 with her DIY EP “Life As a Dog,” and instantly stood out for her distinctive voice, emcee skills, and unique blend of genres. She revives the sounds associated with rap-rock hybrid acts that were ubiquitous two decades ago and recasts them in a fresh, contemporary format, with her own signature spin. Her 2017 major label debut, “Every Where Is Some Where,” garnered critical acclaim, earning her a Grammy, and sending her on a steep rise to fame. After a grueling couple years of touring and recording, K.Flay receded from the spotlight for a period, during which she sought satisfaction and inspiration from the simpler things in life. This experience informed and shaped the breath of fresh air that is her latest album.  

K.Flay spoke with Entertainment Voice to dig into the details of the new album. She delved into her attitude and mindset, the troublesome state of society at large, the uplifting potential of music, and the stories behind her new set of songs. 

Your new album “Solutions” was inspired by your time spent focusing on the simple, innocent amusements in life, What do you think of the concept that it takes emotional tension to create good art?

This is an interesting question. I don’t know if you’ve been listening to Conan O’Brien’s podcast. It’s very, very good. He talks a lot about this. I do think emotional tension is required to make good art. I don’t think suffering is required, and I don’t think chaos is required, but I think there’s a difference. Imagine someone like Emily Dickinson. She’s basically stuck in an attic or something. There’s a degree to which her life can’t be that chaotic situationally, contextually, right? But I think, “How’s she able to make great art?” Because she has emotional tension inside of herself. And I think there has to be friction in order for vulnerability to really strive, and to really be, kind of, unlocked. I think that’s where there’s that misconception because it’s a blurry line between being the kind of super suffering artist and the person who’s able to engage with the feelings that precede suffering, and often lead to it, and lead to bad behavior and all of that stuff, where you can still reap the creative benefits from that.  

A striking line from “I Like Myself (Most of the Time)” is “I see photos of vacations, and I know they’re faking laughter.” This is a complaint about social media that’s getting steadily more common. How do you feel about that whole phenomenon? 

As someone who has to be on social media for my job, the way that I use it is different from how a lot of my friends and family do, which is just to share parts of their lives. There have been times when I’m having the worst day ever, and I have to post something like, “Okay, we’re playing Philly tonight,” and there’s a real disconnect, at times, between this image and this identity that we curate online and our, kind of, authentic self, and I do think there’s something really dangerous about that. It used to be you couldn’t really curate your image. You just were what you were. You couldn’t control how other people saw you, and we’re living in this time where everybody can control how other people see them — not just celebrities, not just world leaders, but eight year-old kids can curate their image online. So for me, that’s really interesting territory just to think about — identity and selfhood, and how that kind of fucks with us, to be honest with you, because I don’t think the human brain is equipped to really process all of it, and I think it’s the reason, honestly, why a lot of people I know are really stressed out. Anxiety is, kind of, at an all-time high, and I don’t think it is unrelated to the curation of the self which is happening everywhere.  

Your lead single “Bad Vibes” is a refreshingly positive song that calls out people who feel obliged to be all doom and gloom. Why do you think we’re generally conditioned to make fun of positivity and embrace negativity? And do you think your background in psychology and sociology has influenced your optimism?

Culturally, I think there’s something about positivity that often strikes people as guileless or naive — that in order to be a smart, intelligent person, you have to engage with the problems of the world, and I do agree that positivity and negativity both need to be tempered. From an art standpoint, it’s always been cooler to be dark, and I don’t know why. It feels like there’s something kind of dangerous about that, and something exciting about that danger, so I feel like there’s a component of that there. I just feel like we’re at a moment, culturally and globally, where what’s dangerous is to be kind of positive. (Laughs) I think the pendulum has swung so far that, to me, the coolest thing on the stage you can do is get up there and be a voice for hope and positive change. I don’t think it feels that edgy or exciting to complain right now. (Laughs) And I mean I love to complain, but the world is so terrifying, especially when it comes to climate change and what’s actually happening to our planet. We need action immediately, and I think what can call people to action is a sense of optimism, a sense of possibility, and that’s imperative to me at the moment. 

In terms of my studying psychology and sociology, I don’t know. It’s been so long, on some levels, since I was really engaged with that kind of academic stuff. I think it’s influenced the way that I think about the world, and it’s given me a critical lens to be a good learner, but I’m not sure it’s actually impacted. 

The handclap-heavy backbeat of “This Baby Don’t Cry,” co-written with Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds, has a peppy quality to it that works perfectly with the optimistic message of the song. How did you and Reynolds end up matching music and lyrics so well on this song?

That song actually had a pretty interesting genesis, which is Dan and I had a couple days in the studio together, and I was pretty close to being done with the record, so we were kind of sitting there and think about what’s missing on the whole thematic, sonic, whatever. And Dan was kind of like, “I feel like you’re missing a riff-driven, kind of punky song,” and he started playing, on bass, a version of the riff of that song. I kind of just started freestyling, but it started to feel really good — the rhythm of it. The attitude of the song was there, and the spirit — I’m going to be myself and do my own thing. Dan and I know each other well enough at this point where he knows my style and how I like to work. I was off writing verses, and we both felt really excited by that, and kind of left the song there. 

Then I got into the studio with my collaborator Tommy English, who I did a bunch of the other songs with too on the record, and I just felt that he would vibe with the idea. I played it for him, and we immediately started working on it. It didn’t have a chorus at this point, and in the process of working on it, I’d had this really bad day, and I’d been crying all day, so I came in and I was really bummed out, and it led us on this path because I think that, for me, sensitivity kind of feels like a superpower, at times — if I can harness it correctly. (Laughs) Sometimes it feels very debilitating. I think what I wanted to do was reframe that sensibility and crying because I think that so often the things that make us kind of weird, or feel different, especially as young people, when you repress that — as an adult, those are the things that make you interesting and exciting and creative and fun to be around, and compassionate, and all that stuff. 

And then there was a whole other version of the song where we had this melodic part and a totally different chorus. The song has a bunch of different iterations, but it ended up just feeling the strongest with that bass riff, that handclap pattern, which is all Tommy by the way. He and I kind of got on the mic and just started clapping, trying to figure it out. (Laughs) For me, that song is really cool because I always like when a song gets richened over time — you know, on different days and in different places. That can be a really useful way to write because you’re forced to revise and edit as you go along. That was how that one came about. 

About your single “Sister,” you’ve explained that “being a sister isn’t about gender or DNA,” and that “girls are sisters and boys are sisters.” If you named your song “Brother,” do you think it would have changed the connotations at all, and if so, how?

Well, I think in many ways brotherhood is to speak in relation to institutions in our culture — and I think that’s not a bad thing — institutions like school and work and a sports team and a fraternity. And I think women are given this latitude to have closeness wherever they go, and I think it’s one of the really nice things (laughs) about being a woman that you’re kind of afforded that freedom, and I think everyone should have that freedom, and I don’t think it should be connected to gender. So to me, brotherhood is kind of a different entity. I think sisterhood feels like creative family, and that can happen inside or outside of an institution, so I do think it would be a different song. And I also think there’s something really fucking powerful about a man saying, “I want to be your sister.” I think there’s something kind of transgressive about it, and powerful and exciting. It’s culturally appropriate for a woman to wear a suit, but it’s not for a man to wear a dress — on some level and in some places, and I think that’s indicative of entrenched misogyny, ultimately, that I think we need to fight against. And I think writing a song for everybody called “Sister,” for me, feels like a version of everybody putting on a dress, and I think that’s a very compelling and potentially powerful thing. 

You’ve worked with some late ‘90s/early aughts rap-rock hybrid staples like Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello and Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda, and one can hear the spirit of that era in your new album. How much of this do you think is from direct influence, and how much is coincidental?

It’s certainly unplanned. It’s just kind of a natural extension of what I’m listening to, and certainly anytime I’ve collaborated with another artist, I start getting into their music and their headspace. It’s hard to pinpoint it, but I think it’s probably a mix of intentional engagement and then, sort of, osmosis on some level. (Laughs) 

You’ve described “Not In California” as about “being in a place that resembles the world you know, but feels different somehow.” Alienation from our rapidly changing environment has been a common theme in music. Zero in, as best as you can, on what you think it is precisely that makes us feel like “we’re not in California anymore.”

Well, I think in the United States and in other countries with these populist, or whatever you want to call it, leaders, I think there’s this sensation that the people who represent us on a political level and a national level do not have really any relation to our core values, and that’s even true for a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump. The idea is that our elected officials represent us, but fundamentally, we look at them and see that they don’t. That’s a very disorienting and disturbing state of affairs. It’s a very, very troubling thing. 

I think there’s a political sense to it, and the other sense is that we’re living in this age of immense technological power and capacity, and yet, our Earth is changing. You can just type something on your iphone (laughs) and fix it. There’s this feeling that we’ve never been more powerful as technological beings, and yet we’re watching and we’re looking as we are utterly powerless in the sense of natural disasters and this changing globe. To me, those are the two ways that I’m really experiencing the “not in California” phenomenon.

As the story goes, you once set out to make a rap parody, and then discovered that you genuinely enjoy making music. What do you think about the blurred line between irony and sincerity in music?

We discussed earlier, about positivity. I think positivity without cynicism is sort of powerless. It’s like an impotent thing. And the same way, I think sincerity without a little bit of irony is also kind of impotent. (Laughs) I think that there has to be a touch of that, or at least an awareness of it, or a previous engagement, but I’m always more on the side of sincerity. 

You have a slew of huge festival dates ahead as well as both American and European tours. Having pushed yourself to the max, found peace, and returned rejuvenated, how do you anticipate your new songs will translate to a live setting?

We’ve had a little bit of touring already this year, playing about half of the record, and honestly, it’s been great. It feels really good to play the new songs, and I think, juxtaposed with the last record and the material from before, it’s almost like what we were talking about — having this balance between the darkness and levity. I think, for me, it feels like that’s now built into the set in a different way than it was before, and as I’m up there on stage, it feels really good to have both sides of the coin. 

Solutions” is available July 12 on Apple Music. The North American leg of K.Flay’s “Solutions” tour begins Aug. 2 and runs through Oct. 12. All tour dates and tickets are here.