If a fan approached the merchandise booth at a recent K.Flay show, they would have found a rather unassuming book, delicately stamped with the words “Crush Me.”
The book invited fans to leave a story and express their inner emotions regarding a time they were “crushed” or a time they crushed others. As the tour continued on, topics grew and evolved, encompassing everything from inspirational quotes to personal stories. Open to a random page and readers would find exclamations of heartbreak and celebrations of gratitude. They’d find confessions and questions addressing misdirection. One entry, shared on K.Flay’s Instagram account, reads, “Sometimes I close one eye, hold up my thumb and pointer finger to crush people’s heads, toss the imaginary head in the air and swallow it. Girl Power.”
The “Crush Me” book, an idea that came to Kristine Flaherty, also known by her stage name K.Flay, is a physical representation of the things that make up her artistry. Just like Flaherty, the book embraces individuality and honest emotion. In genre-defying songs and experimental sounds, her emotional transparency is cohesive, as is Flaherty’s delicate care for words.
In 2003, while a student at Stanford University, Flaherty discovered her passion for writing music. After a conversation with friends about the anticlimactic rap world, overflowing with misogynistic and generic messages, Flaherty set out to prove even she could write a song with the common formula. Upon doing so, she found herself enjoying the process.
Flaherty continued to develop her sound and found roots in hip-hop. Remaining open to all kinds of influences, she found inspiration in indie, alternative and folk rock, leaving her music untainted by expectations of conforming to a genre. Early releases, like 2010’s “No Duh,” are adrenaline-packed rap tracks, but later releases like “Thicker Than Dust” embrace heavy alternative-rock instrumentals.
Crush Me, Flaherty’s latest release (August 2016 via Interscope/Night Street), is a combination of all of her talents. From alt-rock to mellow rap, K.Flay has proven, yet again, that she is a force of nature when it comes to beating heartbreak in the most badass way.
The four-song EP is strung together with a common thread: channeling initial reactions into a personal strength. It’s seen in Flaherty’s impressive single “Blood In The Cut.” Lyrics like, “I need noise. I need the buzz of a sub, need the crack of a whip and some blood in the cut,” detail a longing to feel raw emotion as deeply as possible rather than pretend the feelings do not exist. While written from the perspective of a heartbroken individual, raging to feel the devastation in it’s fullest, the agitated and heavy production of the track is aimed at a fueling redemption, giving power to the individual in a moment of emotional confidence.
This theme carries on throughout the EP.
“You Felt Right to Me” falls closer to Flaherty’s rap roots, embracing a lyrical flow and narrating the story of a failed love. The song is an excellent example of Flaherty’s unabridged storytelling and willingness to feel every emotion. Through the song, the narrator speaks of reconnecting with an old lover, only to find the reconciliation to be detrimental. The full-circle storyline takes listeners through heartbreak and self-revival with lyrics like, “You should have known don’t trust a poet cause we know how to speak.”
It’s this cohesive concept of expressive revolution which makes Crush Me so endearing. The collection is a hard-edged ode to its main weaponry: honest emotion. In it, Flaherty has crafted the repetitive concepts of love and loss into flourishing power anthems of individualism. By addressing concepts like inauthenticity in self-image in “Hollywood Forever” and the pressure to live an uninterrupted, cookie-cutter life in “Dreamers,” she has created a collection addressing a wide-range of roadblocks, channeling each into a personal victory of strength and healthy rebellion.
Atwood Magazine recently had the chance to speak with K.Flay about writing Crush Me, and the key to keeping these unceasing themes so unique.
A CONVERSATION WITH K.FLAY
Atwood Magazine: Your latest EP Crush Me has a common theme of topics that attempt to hold you back. Did you write the collection with the intention of creating a concept album or did they just happen to fit together?
K.Flay: You know, I’ve been kind of working on the full-length album for the last year kind of in bits and pieces, you know, a couple weeks at a time. So I had this collection of songs and I knew I wanted to put an EP out but we had this group of different songs that could be pieced together in different ways. When I was thinking about what made sense in terms of consistency and clarity, but also, kind of what could help give people and maybe new listeners an understanding of the different elements of what I do. I felt like this group of songs had that coherence but also had enough diversity to kind of show the different modes of expression that appeal to me.
So almost experimenting with… I know you consider yourself to be genre-defying, so experimenting with different angles there?
K.Flay: Yeah! I mean, I think, for me, when I started making music I was very much in a hip-hop world. That was how my listenership experience, as a real lover of music, that was the birthplace of that for me. So that’s always been a part of…but then as I started really making music I was kind of never part of a scene. I was just being exposed to so many different genres, I think I’ve just adopted a lot of that along the way. There are times I feel like whatever I feel I’m trying to say is best expressed through a more rhythmic, dense approach and sometimes it’s best supported by a more pissy and melodic approach. I kind of just follow those instincts wherever they may lead.
It’s clear to listeners that your lyrical content is of high priority to you.
What does your typical writing process look like?
K.Flay: I mean, usually, and it can vary. I find that songs kind of end up evolving in one of two ways, at least for me. The first is just this, like, outpouring that sometimes happens. Two songs on the EP that were like that were “Blood In The Cut” and then the last song “You Felt Right.” Those were both two songs that I sat down and I had a little riff that I was writing to, and then I wrote the song in 30 minutes, both of those. And that was the song. I never changed anything. The other two songs on the EP which are called “Hollywood Forever” and “Dreamers,” those evolved in the way that a lot of songs also evolve for me which is, I start with elements that will end up in the final version of the song, but I really push myself to revise lyrics, to think about what I’m saying and am I saying it in the most concise and affecting way or am I being, like, a little bit lazy and not perhaps being a precise as I’d like to be. Because definitely for me, what I’ve always loved about all music and all my favorite artists and all of the records that really have meant a lot to me and all the people who have are people who focus on lyrical content. That’s sort of a signature element of what they do. Some songs, like I said, are done in 30 minutes and some take, maybe like three or four days, sometimes two weeks. I’ll think of the thing I was missing at five in the morning ten days later.
Watch: “Blood in the Cut” – K.Flay
You mentioned your single from this EP “Blood In The Cut.” Where did the inspiration for that song come from?
K.Flay: The inspiration, unfortunately, came from my own life. I guess not unfortunately at this point. Now I’m not so upset by it. But I had been in this relationship that was not a very positive one for me in a lot of ways. I was feeling very broken by it and very powerless in this particular situation. That was the mood I was in when I wrote the song originally, but what’s interesting is that I wrote it over Christmas Time, actually in my parent’s basement which was it’s own bizarre experience (laughs), but I didn’t end up retracking the vocals. You know, we didn’t actually produce the song out until months later. That was a point where I was, emotionally and psychologically, feeling pretty good and pretty empowered. It’s interesting for me because, even when I play the song, I try to tap into both of those moods. I think that’s kind of the essence of that song. That’s the essence of a lot of the songs on the EP, that transition from a powerless, weak and doubtful, whatever those adjectives are, and moving toward a place of ownership and transcendence. It was cool for that song because that’s how it was made.
So “Blood In The Cut” came from a real-life experience you had. Do you tend to draw mostly on things that happened to you or do you ever write from a fictional standpoint?
K.Flay: I never write from a purely fictional standpoint. There’s sort of this narrator that I feel runs through most everything I’ve done. That voice is pretty consistent. A lot of what I talk about is just straight up, exactly how I’m feeling and exactly what has happened to me. Also, I think, that version of me that exists in song form is kind of a heightened version. If in normal life, on a scale of one to 10 I’m a five amount depressed, when I talk about that in a song and when I think about it distil that feeling, it can sound like a nine or something. I think, certainly, the experiences and the sentiments are true to life but I think in the process of writing and when you’re in that zone of introspection, for me, often just being alone, those feelings become concentrated in a way. It’s all real stuff. A couple things in the past I’ve used some experiences of people who are close to me and kind of tangentially incorporated those into songs. For the most part it’s just my inner life.
And you’ve encouraged your fans to express their own experiences by introducing the “Crush Me” book on your tour. Where did that idea come from?
K.Flay: That was really just an idea I’ve had. I think it was, I can’t remember initially when it came up. It was months before the tour started. I just thought, like, the thing that I’ve discovered through touring and one of the reasons I really love it is that it is, sort of, this beautiful equalizer. It’s a reminder to me every night that wherever I am, if I’m in Dresden in Germany or if I’m in St. Louis Missouri, everybody who’s at that show is experiencing, essentially, the spectrum of human emotionality every night. I think there’s a humility in recognizing that and appreciating that. There’s also something very affirming about being connected to people. I think, more than ever right now, we live, especially in this country, in such a polarized world. It is important to engage in activities that remind us that a lot of those polarizing elements were created by other people as, like, tools of oppression. Not to get too deep on it but, like, there is a very real and very common thing that unites us all. It was one of those things where I, we started the book and I posted about it once and it just kind of took on a life of it’s own. I wasn’t positive that people would be excited about contributing but I do think that everybody has that impulse to take their experience, or elements of their experience, and make that something tangible: write it down or shout it or paint something to represent it. I think that’s a common human urge.
Do you have a favorite entry off the top of your head?
K.Flay: Well, some of them are very long so I can’t quote them here. But I was actually taking a photo of one this morning. I thought it was so cute. It just says “Pluto is a planet in my heart,” [laughs]. I thought that was very sweet.
Aw, it is!
K.Flay: It’s cool because there’s these little gems like that and then there are these really heartbreaking stories about what people have gone through and there are these other great, but also long, stories or redemption and self-discovery. It was really a joy reading it. You know, you just feel connected to people. I think that’s an important thing to always try and feel.
In an interview with NY Daily News, you said “There’s only so many variations on the basics of human relationships.” Love and loss are topics that are constant written about in every artistic medium. What do you think is the key to keeping those concepts original?
K.Flay: Well, that’s a great question. I think the key to keeping those concepts original really centers on detail. I’m a very avid reader of both novels and nonfiction. I think, for me, what makes a novel great or what makes a journalistic enterprise great, what makes a song great or any kind of written form stand out is in the details. To me, the right detail shines like a unique light on a common experience. It’s like a new way of seeing the same thing. I think, you know, it’s incredibly difficult to do, but that’s my perspective of it. It is true. The circumstances of our existence change. Like the Internet didn’t exist when Charlotte Brontë was writing, but there’s nothing foreign at all about any narrative from basically any point in time dating back creationists or, like, The Odyssey or something. So I think, to me, it’s all about the way the story is told and the details that make up that story and define it.
Another track off of Crush Me, “Hollywood Forever,” expands on the darker parts of fame. In your experience, what has been the most difficult part of dealing with fame?
K.Flay: Well I don’t really deal with fame at all [laughs]. In a weird way, like, right now, everybody’s famous in a sense. Everyone is visible in this way that they weren’t before. Even at your high school or within your work group you can kind of be low-key famous. And I think, for me, that was more how I was conceptualizing that song. I think it’s tough, looking at yourself all the time. You know, posting photos of yourself and seeing yourself over and over again, I do think is damaging in a way I haven’t truly been able to articulate yet. I think too much self-awareness can be a limiting factor. I think it can infringe on your sense of freedom and spontaneity and un-self-consciousness, which is a really beautiful thing to have. It’s like what children have, I think, to me, part of the reason why children tend to be quite happy, assuming everything else in their life is okay. That song was sort of me thinking about a lot of this stuff, but I mean, I keep a pretty level head with everything. All of the people close to me in my life are people that I’ve known, for the most part, people I’ve know since I was a teenager. I think that’s an important element too: making sure that your family, whether it’s your biological family or your family that you choose to create as an adult, that those people ground you and don’t make you feel image-less.
Your sound has secured you room to experiment and grow. What can listeners expect to hear from you next?
K.Flay: Well, I’m actually on my way to finish one of the things they can hear! I’m finishing the full-length. I’m really excited about it. It’s essentially an extension of the EP, but continues to develop in ways that the EP didn’t have the space to. I’m gonna be back on the road. Yeah, kind of just doing the thing (laughs.)
Well, I know I’m excited. I’m sure the rest of your fans are as well.
K.Flay: Yeah, I hope so! I’m excited!
Flaherty’s sound can be considered dark and rebellious, but holds an incredible amount of reliability. For someone who formed her image on her tough-girl aura, Flaherty’s lyrics are surprisingly soft and sensitive. Her individuality in refusing to conform to a specific genre is just one of the many things which makes her an unstoppable powerhouse, and her ability to remain completely transparent, yet empowered, is what will continue to draw fans. It’s the same reason concert-goers poured out their deepest moments into a book they knew she’d read.
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cover: K.Flay © Lauren Dukoff
:: K.Flay 2017 Tour Dates ::
2/04 – Las Vegas, NV – Bunkhouse Saloon
2/05 – Phoenix, AZ – Crescent Ballroom
2/06 – Albuquerque, NM – Sunshine
2/07 – Colorado Springs, CO – Black Sheep
2/09 – Tulsa, OK – The Vanguard
2/11 – St. Louis, MO – Delmar Hall
2/16 – Indianapolis, IN – HiFi
2/17 – Covington, KY – Madison Live
2/18 – Nashville, TN – Exit/In
2/20 – Charlotte, NC – Visulite Theatre
2/21 – Atlanta, GA – Masquerade Hell
2/23 – Norfolk, VA – The NorVa
2/27 – New York, NY – Bowery Ballroom
3/02 – Buffalo, NY – Waiting Room