Kristine Flaherty (better known by musical moniker K. Flay) isn't your average rapper-singer-songwriter. After graduating from Stanford with degrees in psychology and sociology, she decided to take her then-hobby of writing and performing music more seriously. Besides the occasional songs about Elle Fanning and partying, her lyrics can drive discrepancies between shoulds and musts or metaphors about crumbling states of emotional dejection.
She settled in San Francisco for a while to get started, and before long she was performing for larger audiences. This summer, she played Outside Lands Music Festival, and now she's about to go on tour with Grieves & Budo. But before she does, she has a bunch of headlining shows. Don't miss her when she heads to Orange County this Saturday to perform at Chain Reaction in Anaheim.
We had the chance to catch up with Ms. Flaherty about her already prolific presence (though not one involving a whole lot of drug use), her forthcoming releases (both an EP coming out early next year and a planned full-length album), her online book reports, the invisibility of authors nowadays, and hamburgers (because, you know, that's how we do).
OC Weekly (Michael Chin): First things first, are you still in the Bay Area? I heard you moved to Brooklyn.
Kristine Flaherty (K. Flay): Yeah, kinda--it ended up happening out of logistical necessity. This summer, I had been sort of half living in New York, just because a lot of the folks I was collaborating with and places I was recording at were there. So this summer I wasn't in San Francisco hardly at all. My mom and my stepdad live in Oakland, so I can stay with them. I moved out of my apartment, but that being said, I'm staying there tonight and for a couple days this week. I'm there in spirit.
Tell me a little bit about how you got started. You were at Stanford, right? And all of a sudden you're a rapper and a touring musician. How did that come about?
Looking back, it was really a tree of intersecting nodes at each point that sort of explain the story. As it happened, it unfolded in a pretty random but also really organic way. I was at school doing my thing, and a friend of mine was making house music--just kind of for fun, he had kind of a singles deal with an indie label--we were messing around and made a track, which he did the production for, but I was rapping on it. I had been starting to get really into hip-hop once I got to California with the Bay Area scene; I started listening to a lot of more off the beaten path hip-hop and more eccentric stuff. So I started recording these things for fun--really, as a joke--but strangely enough there was something about the process of it that captivated me, it really grabbed my attention.
I ended up buying a keyboard and a couple other things and started making beats, writing and recording on a really pretty shitty setup, though it's not much worse than what I have since upgraded to. I kind of just got started from there, performed around campus. It was more of a stress release and a fun thing. My friends and I would go to these random places and I'd play shows, it was just fun for everybody. After I graduated, I ended up linking up with a couple folks in the Bay Area who really had supported and mentored me. I had a regular job, but they were like, "Keep going with this, this could be something cool. Work at it." So I started really devoting myself to getting better as a producer and as a lyricist. I progressively got more serious about it, and I think probably about a year ago is when I really started to figure out what I wanted to say and how I wanted the project to start taking shape. Once that happened, it's been really cool. I've been out on the road and a lot of folks have been really great supporters, taking me out with them. It's been really random, but really cool.
Would you say that since your Stanford days, now that you're touring with people, that you've changed a lot as a person and as a musician?
Yeah, I think so. When I started this whole thing it something I did just as a hobby. I think lyrically my focus was more on either making people chuckle a little bit or think, "Oh, that was clever." Whereas now, music has become such an important part of my identity and my life. Even in terms of just dealing with my own problems, music is an incredible outlet for that. Over time, the kind of music that I've been making has been much more meaningful to me and much more a manifestation of my perspective and where I'm at. It feels really good to have finally figured out what I want to be about and what I'm trying to do and how music can help to convey this perspective.
I was listening to the Eyes Shut EP that you're about to release and it's heavy stuff, like the apathy of twenty-something-hood. Is that a theme that you're going to keep pursuing? No more songs about wanting vanilla coke?
That's the funny thing--in person, I'm generally upbeat and kinda goofy. But I think I explore a lot of those darker things in music. It's important to have balance. It just so happened that--I mean, with an EP especially, I think because it's a short project it needs to be a little bit more thematically focused. As a consequence of that, I kind of worked on and chose songs that were more having to do with this world view of this weird place we're at in history right now. It's a strange time in a lot of ways, and that's something I wanted to explore. But no, I've been working on some weird fun songs too. It's important to have that balance, especially on an album. I am discovering more and more that I might make some of my better stuff when there's a slightly dark undertone to it--even if it's lighthearted.
For the 2012 full length that you're planning on releasing, is there gonna more in this direction, or is there going to be more lighthearted stuff mixed in?
It's going to be a bit of both. It's been really nice because I'm just working on stuff without an agenda right now, not setting any deadlines for myself about when things should get finished. I've just ended up meeting a bunch of people and working on some interesting things. There's definitely still a streak of mid-twenties cynicism and apathy and all that kind of stuff. At the same time, I think all of the negatives in this time of life and this period we're in right now have a lot of really hopeful and positive counterpoints. That's something I'm looking at too because it's easy at times to be very pessimistic about everything. Sometimes it takes a little more effort, in a weird way, to see the happiness.
So would you say that you adopt a persona, either in your music or on stage? Are K. Flay and Kristine totally different people sometimes?
I think musically, more so than in a performance capacity. If you see me the morning of a show, I'll be wearing literally the exact same bullshit t-shirt and dirty jeans when I play the show. There's less of a performer-artist difference than there is a me-artist difference. People tend to think that I do a lot of drugs and that I'm kind of messed up. I really don't--I smoke weed, but I haven't done drugs, ever. I'm more stable and less depressed and crazy than I may come off as. That's probably the biggest difference, but to be honest it's pretty similar. I'm sort of an open book. All of the stuff that I talk about is stuff that's happened. It just so happens that I talk about certain kinds of things and not a lot about other kinds.
I watched a bunch of the book reports you do on your YouTube channel. How did that come about? They're totally awesome.
I'm a huge dork, and a big reader. I love books, and I'm in such awe of people who can write a book. It just seems like such an insurmountable task. So I was bored one day and I had just read a book I thought was really good, and I was still trying to figure out iMovie and how to edit on it. It was a bit of an experiment, but there was a small but very enthusiastic group of people who were like, "Post more of these!" So whenever I have a little bit of downtime, I do. As a fan of many other artists, any time I get a glimpse into their non-music lives, it's always fun when it just feels normal and genuine. Like if they're talking about something they like, or they're excited about. It's a way for me to be creative when I don't feel like writing music. I also think reading is one of those things people think no one does anymore, but so many people read books. I think there's a lot of overlap between musicians and authors who are prolific and have a body of work. They have a lot of similarities, but also variations in theme. I dunno though, I just really love books.
You used to do the book reports more often, but now they're kind of petering out a little bit. You aren't going to stop, are you?
I'm not going to stop! You know what happens? I'll read a book and I'll be like, "Oh man, this book was so good. I gotta do a report on it." I just end up doing a lot of bouncing around and recording and stuff, and then I start another book and I feel like it's too late. I think I just need to plan better.
So it's not because you're busy with shows? This is all in your downtime?
Yeah, I love doing that kind of thing. I want to do it more often. Actually what I'm trying to get into is--and I've done it for one of them--I want to have more interactive stuff with the authors themselves. I think it'd be really cool to have someone like Jonathan Franzen, who is in the literary world, and is actually a very salient and admired figure, but I think about 99.9% of the population wouldn't recognize him on the street. And so it's funny because authors have this weird invisibility which makes it more interesting. Unlike musicians, who are interviewed a lot and are more visible, these people are influencing culture and all of this stuff but authors aren't famous like other people are.
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It is kinda weird--you always see musicians on their album covers, but novel covers are always pictures of flowers and stuff.
Yeah--if you ask someone 50 years ago to name a famous contemporary poet, they could. A lot of people could. If you ask people to do that now, I don't think people could. It's weird because the more classical forms of art don't have the same kind of meaning as popular culture. And that's really weird. Everyone knows these popular people, but nobody really knows more traditional artists or jazz musicians.
Okay, last question. Can you settle a debate--what is the best fast food burger in California? Five Guys, In-N-Out, what?
Yeah, of course In-N-Out. Are you kidding me?
Right? One of my friends thought it was Jack in the Box.
Oh my God--what, you wanna die? The test of a good hamburger is if it tastes good, and are you physically afterwards. And if the answers are yes and no, it's a good one. In-N-Out is good, and you don't get sick. I get sick from most hamburgers, you know what I mean? In-N-Out forever.