Kristine Flaherty, otherwise known as K.Flay, is something of an anomaly. The 35 year old singer, rapper and multi instrumentalist from Illinois has spent the better part of a decade curating a musical melting pot of odd, interesting and disparate styles to create something that is well and truly her own. Her willingness to experiment has been omnipresent throughout her career, and is something that rings true whether she was recording lo-fi hip hop in her college dorm room or working with some of rock music's biggest names and producing Grammy-nominated rock bangers.
With her newest EP, Inside Voices, Flaherty is embracing a wilder and more primal side of herself. It's a brash, confrontational set of songs with a defiant energy and a point to make. The EP boasts guest performances from Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine and Travis Barker of Blink-182, but it is Flaherty's own character and eccentric charm that really drives things forward. Lead single Four Letter Words opens with a swaggering, bluesy riff and a playful yet venomous refrain of “Fuck you, you didn't deserve me”. MusicRadar caught up with Flaherty to talk about Inside Voices, the role of guitar in her songwriting, and how collaborations help to keep things fresh and exciting.
Your sound is eclectic and touches on all sorts of genres, but this EP feels like it makes a particular point of tapping more into your rockier influences. Was that a conscious decision?
"I don't know if it was super conscious, but it was a reaction to what had been happening. I started writing much of this EP right as Covid was hitting. Everyone has had their own responses to this pandemic and while a lot of artists got quieter and more intimate with their music, my instinct was to move in the opposite direction and really express that frustration.
"My previous record had been less rock influenced, and while I am really proud of that record, I think it is all part of that constant vacillation that you have as a creator where you're sort of dipping into one thing, seeing what you like about it and then sometimes returning to earlier influences. I was feeling very excited by guitar music again and that was a driving force."
Can you tell us about the role of guitar in your songwriting process, and how is it different on this new EP than on past releases?
"Guitar is typically the starting point for me. I've actually got a lot better during quarantine due to having more free time to practice. I have no technical training or anything, so the way I interact with the guitar is very primal and instinctual and I think that serves me well in a lot of ways. I tend to keep things simple, which is something that I personally like in music.
"Aside from My Name Isn't Katherine, which isn't a guitar driven song, all of the songs on this EP began life as a little guitar part and expanded from there. It was kind of natural, realising that they have a sort of energy that benefits from guitar and as such should have even more guitars on them."
Was guitar your first instrument? Does it always have a place when you write, or do you like to experiment with new instruments?
"Yes. My biological dad taught me how to play guitar when I was in fifth or sixth grade, really just so he could play with someone at home while he was drunk and wanting to solo over something. While I did learn how to play then, nothing really came of it because I didn't know anyone else who played music and didn't have much interest in it. It wasn't really until my 20s, when I started making my own music, that it came in handy.
"Guitar is the instrument I know the best. I'm sort of vaguely proficient at a lot of different things, but a master of none!"
You're an artist with a lot of crossover appeal. Do you feel like you're introducing parts of your audience to 'guitar music'?
"For sure. With rock and roll' as a genre, to use the full phrase, I think people come to it from so many different places. My career began in a more Indie/Hip Hop world, so there's a lot of fans who boarded the train at that point and have been introduced to guitar music in the same trajectory that I have. Two records ago, I started to get airplay on rock radio which was a real change. Suddenly there were people who would normally listen to bands like Disturbed who were now K.Flay fans, which was kind of interesting.
"I'm a late bloomer in every way. I literally became a fan of Black Sabbath 3 years ago. I was like, oh my god! This band is amazing! Have you guys ever listened to this? And everyone is like, 'Dude, what the fuck is wrong with you?!' But I think there is something about the late bloomer mentality of discovery that is just like...There is no right or wrong time to do anything. If you don't do something when you're 16, then it's perfectly okay. You can do it when you are 30 too. The embracing of discovery guides my music and I hope that translates to some of the fans. It's never too late to do anything and it's never too late to start listening to something."
What do you look for in a good guitar riff - both as an artist and as a listener?
"I look for both a musical sensibility but also simplicity. I like a riff that has some bluesiness to it, and taps into a blues scale. Demonic sounding riffs are a bit too scary for me! Speaking about bands that I started listening to in the total wrong order, when I started listening to Metallica, I instantly thought those were awesome riffs. There's an edge to them but there's also a real musicality.
"Tom Morello, who features on the EP, is a great example of that. So many of the iconic riffs he has written have that bluesy, wistful feeling and I really like that. To me, when you juxtapose aggressive lyrics and other aggressive elements with that, it creates a really cool tension."
The songs on the EP have a reclaiming type energy to them – what inspired that?
"The motivation has been to give a platform to the parts of myself that I often silence, or self-censor. This EP is a representation in many ways of my ID – this primal, unhinged part of me. One of the things that I consider frequently is that there's me, Kristine, and me, K.Flay. Are those people similar or different? For a long time I felt like there wasn't much of a difference.
"I'm a very mild mannered, reasonable person. I'm on time, I try to respect other people and not break the rules, so there's this element of being very contained and controlled as a person. And then there's this other side of me that doesn't want to be contained and controlled, and wants to say inflammatory things. Part of me wants to say "Fuck you. Fuck this world, fuck this society - these people running our Government don't give a shit about us. How can this be?" and I want to burn it all down.
"This EP in many ways has taken me out of my comfort zone, and I am expressing parts of me that feel very different from my civilian persona, so to speak. I think it has been important for me to do that, and luckily I have music as this catharsis."
You mentioned Tom Morello earlier. Both he and Travis Barker feature on the EP. How did these collaborations come about and what did they each bring to the respective songs?
"Tom and I actually became friends about four years ago. He was driving his kids to school and he heard one of my songs on the radio. He sent me an e-mail out of the blue saying how much he liked it. It turns out we both grew up in the suburbs of Chicago pretty close to one another and share a lot of commonalities. It goes back to that thing I was saying before - Tom's a nice guy. In some ways he's very mild mannered and reasonable, and in other ways he's known as being an activist who is in one of the greatest and heaviest bands of all time. We connected in a lot of ways in that respect. I featured on his solo album and we played a bunch of live shows together connected to that.
"I was working on the song TGIF, and found it was getting heavier and heavier. One of the producers who worked on the song suggested getting Tom involved. I texted Tom and he was like. 'Hell yeah!' and within a week he'd sent me something. I absolutely love his solo, he absolutely smashed it. The word I keep using for that song is demented. There's a demented quality to it, to the full drop of the riff in the chorus, and I think Tom's solo really has that unhinged quality which elevated everything. It really highlights the chaos of what it feels like to live in a capitalist society that you rage against, and yet you buy into because you have to pay rent.
"As for working with Travis, we had a mutual friend called Nick Long who is a super talented songwriter. He's been working with Travis for a while, and they'd a lot of work together on Machine Gun Kelly's records. I had a demo of the song Dating My Dad and that song in its pre-Travis incarnation was lacking a certain energy and a certain controlled power. It's a song that never goes off the rails, but there's something very angsty and heavy about it.
"I've been working on a really slow, ballad version of the song, and it is so sad sounding. I wrote the song at a pretty fast tempo and it has a lot of energy and is fun - But when you sing it slowly and strip it down, it's actually quite sad. In the end, that gravitas is what Travis brought to it. He's a pro. Collaboration to me is like the unpredictable mixing of energy. It is hard to describe how the end product is different, but it is different and most importantly it is better because of it."
On the topic of collaborations, you're quite prolific when it comes to them. Do you think that they have become more or less important during the last year, with the world in a state of semi isolation?
"My musical roots were in this indie/hip hop world, in which collaboration is everywhere. Everyone is always collaborating and featuring, and to me that felt very natural. I think that is in a large part why I have been so open to it and excited by it, and I think when people meet me they can sense that and are more likely to reach out. It's like that feeling of when you're dating or something, giving out certain vibes, a feeling that is hard to put into words but is understood.
"In rock music, there's not really been that same culture of collaboration - but I think that is changing. Covid may have something to do with it, but I also think the erosion of genre in some sense greatly contributes to that because people are seeing the power of collaboration. I've been talking and thinking about it a lot recently, but fundamentally what collaboration does is enable you creatively. If you do something with a friend, you will do that thing differently and behave differently because being with another person gives you license to extend the boundaries that you put on your own behaviour in a basic and fundamental way.
"When it comes to music, I think that's a very similar thing. If I'm featuring on a Tom Morello track, I don't really have to be K.Flay as I say, because I'm doing something with Tom. I can be a little loose with it, I can try something really different. And for Tom, when he's featuring on one of my tracks, he can do something different too.
"Collaboration decreases pressure, and when you decrease pressure and expectation you make better music. I think that is why a lot of debut albums are incredible because nobody has any expectations. Collaboration, even if it is just an exercise and doesn't end up making it onto a record, can be very powerful in terms of eroding that expectation structure that you have for yourself."
How important do you think it is to be genreless, or at least strive for it?
"I don't think it is necessarily important, but if you are interested in doing it then it is exciting. There are bands and artists that comfortably sit in a genre, and that's not a bad thing at all. On the other hand, a lot of artists who didn't come up in a scene and who maybe like myself were just sort of floating around and taking little bits of inspiration from here and there, it is a much more hospitable music landscape now. I definitely end up talking about genre. It still plays a role in what I do, and this EP is, for all and intents and purposes, a rock record. I do think we are living in a more fluid world in that respect, and that's generally beneficial to everybody.
"I understand the need to categorise things though, because otherwise the world is too chaotic. It is just also important that there is tolerance for ambiguity and I think that tolerance has increased, and I think that is really good. Just do what inspires you, and if that means refining yourself within a particular genre, I think that's awesome.
How have you found the last year, without being able to play live, and how have you adapted to it?
"I've spent my adult life on the road, so it it has been very interesting to lose that for a period of time. It has had two big effects on me. The first is a reconsideration of stimulation, because modern life in general - and you don't need to be a touring musician to experience this - is very stimulating. Like, here's my phone, mere inches from me at all moments. But when you're on tour, you're on a bus. So when you sleep, it is bumpy. There's constant noise. Everything is stimulating.
"Particularly in the last three or four years, I coped with that stimulation sometimes by seeking out unproductive stimulation. I've been kind of parsing that out mentally which feels really good, and I don't know if I could have done that without pausing and having silence. It has been clarifying in some ways.
"Then there's the flipside which is, of course I've been missing the release that comes with performing live. There's no comparison to getting onstage. Even when you suck, even when you are bad in the beginning and don't know what you are doing, there's no comparison to being onstage, playing your own music and letting it all out. It is extremely vulnerable but extremely exciting. It's also extremely cathartic. A good show really does leave you feeling like you've exorcised some demons. I've been missing that a lot, but it does help me to feel a renewed focus for when shows return. For both audience and performers, the live show is this safe place of catharsis and memory creation and expression, and it is a place where you can be yourself.
"I feel like it is used as a joke often, but sometimes in movies you'll have the character who works in an office and is quite uptight, but is later shown as a metalhead who is psychotically moshing. It may be used for a joke, but it's true – music is this place where you get to be the non-civilian version of yourself, and that is beautiful.
"I am so grateful we have that as a society, because we need it. There's so much to be anxious about in general. I'm excited and cautiously optimistic about returning to that fairly soon and being able to create that environment for other people to be the non-civilian and to do it in the purest way possible."
K.Flay's EP Inside Voices is released on 11 June via BMG. For more info visit kflay.com