Songwriter and performer K.Flay (born Kristine Flaherty) comports herself with consideration. She is not a flippant person. Instead, she is precise and thorough. It’s a position born of an interest in the small, personal revelations that can become big and booming. But these can only be conjured organically or originally if one is intent on observation being a mode of education. And Flay is most assuredly paying attention. She always has been, she’s invested.
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That passion comes through in the music she makes and the albums she releases. Take, for example, the EP she released in June, Inside Voices, which harnessed the power of her id, she says. It was the proverbial blurt before the thought. Now, her newest EP, Outside Voices, represents her superego, or the more conscious, societally influenced part of her brain. The records represent a dualism that many (all?) walk around with daily, and one prominently exacerbated over the past few devastating years.
“To develop and change,” Flay tells American Songwriter, “we have to accept without judgment who we are. It doesn’t mean we need to be complacent. It actually means we should not be complacent. We have to just sit with ourselves and the reality of a situation in order to make a change.”
Between heated political elections, bitter online behavior, potentially catastrophic global weather changes, and every other seemingly big societal crisis at hand, there is ample room to recede or ignore, Flay says. But, of course, even if you run from a mirror that doesn’t change the reflection. In another way, though, Flay is lucky. She has the ability to look sternly at her life with an examiner’s eye and take stock. If this was a muscle, she’d be a bodybuilder. But it’s not an aptitude everyone has or chooses to embrace.
“It’s not just, like, the world is making my life hell,” she says. “There are ways in which I too am making my own life hell, or ways I’ve bought into this, these ideologies. Also, by the way, there are constructive manners for me to change my reality.”
In many significant ways, it makes sense that Flay’s recent foray into releasing new material has come in this double-sided manner. In a world where thoughts are seemingly more rooted in black and white or red or blue or boomer or not, Flay also knows the life of one or the other. As a young person, she says, she was very regimented. Always looking for control over her situation. It’s a common result of a child of an addicted parent, as Flay is (she began to go to therapy for it at 9 years old). But as she got older and went away to college, Flay began to embrace a lack of control. And for her, music was the conduit, the rickety bridge glued together with personal faith.
“I spent much of my young life,” Flay says, “attempting to create structures that would assuage anxieties I had about the world. In the years that followed, I think that gradual process of uncoiling myself and loosening my grip on some of these things [allowed me] to embrace uncertainty and chaos.”
Music allowed Flay to experiment, to disregard rules because there weren’t any. She began to listen to songs in a “self-directed way.” Music became the touchstone that she both relied on and chased. It broke this desire for control, this right or wrong idea, and allowed a window into a more nuanced, grey area perspective.
“Music allowed me to change,” she says, “and accept that I can make mistakes. I can grow as a person. I can try on different identities and different outfits.”
The now-35-year-old artist experienced major success about five years ago with the release of her single, “Blood in the Cut.” The song earned her a Grammy nomination and many, many pairs of ears. The song’s music video boasts well over 20 million views. As her name was rocketing up the charts, Flay says she had a, “Wait what?” moment, almost in disbelief of the success. She says she can remember writing the lyrics to that song in her mom’s basement.
“Things begin in really small and humble ways,” Flay says. “And sometimes due to a confluence of factors, they resonate and reach a lot of people. I was overwhelmed in a positive way by how that started to happen with some of my music. I think more than anything it really encouraged me to double-down on my songwriting perspective.”
She wrote confessionally, specifically, including lots of details from her own life. Songwriting became an almost meditative process, almost spiritual, offering a sense of physical and intellectual freedom.
“I like to try to be in a state of non-thinking when I’m working on music,” Flay says. “That doesn’t mean that after the process I’m not rigorous with myself. But in that germination stage, I think a lot of the songs of mine that have resonated began in that fashion. In a very unselfconscious manner.”
It’s funny; one could argue that because Flay knew such rigorous obsession as a young person, she was able to flip the coin and lean into such rigorous letting go as a creative person. It’s another example of the dualism brought on by listening to both one’s own id and superego. It’s a place, she says, where she can feel everywhere and nowhere, connected to her body and, in a sense, rising from it. But beyond the exulting nature of her process, there is also deep scrutiny along the way. She pays attention. On her new EP, one of the tracks that stand out is the song “I’m Afraid Of The Internet,” one in which Flay talks about the dangers the massive digital force can have on our lives individually and en masse.
“I was just thinking about how scary the internet is for a variety of reasons,” Flay says. “The power this thing has to change the world and any individual person’s reality.”
It’s a conundrum. Most people on earth benefit from and despise aspects of the internet. The same goes for fossil fuels, airplanes, and many other things we’re attached to. It’s a conflict born of what we want and what we know we should do: id versus superego. For Flay, as she thinks about this and thinks about the future, she knows there is no going back or stasis, there is only forging ahead. She says she’s cautiously optimistic and music has been a big reason why she remains so today.
“Music has all these different ways of expressing joy and rage and pain and misery and togetherness,” Flay says. “It’s exciting to me that we can do this magic trick.”
Photo courtesy Shore Fire Media