New Noise: K.Flay Pumps 'Blood' Back Into the Heart of Rock and Roll
"I’m like, just, getting into Sabbath, if you can believe that," says Kristine Flaherty with a laugh. The versatile 31-year-old singer-songwriter -- better known as K.Flay – realizes it’s somewhat unusual that she’s only now diving into music that’s more typically the stuff of high-school notebook scribblings and clumsy basement riffing. "I think I used to have this conception of 'heavy music' as being aggressive, unpleasant -- confrontational in a way that I did not want to be confronted," she explains, recalling her teen years when she was “scared of those kids” who listened to the likes of Black Sabbath and Metallica.
But as she prepares for the release of her sophomore album, Every Where Is Some Where (out April 7) – which, with its growling guitars and weighty subject matter, is pretty damn heavy in its own right – Flaherty admits she’s come around to the metal gods. “I think I understand some of the nuance of it,” she explains. “I love lyrics, ultimately. With Sabbath, there’s a story that’s really happening, and that makes it something that I really want to dig into."
It's much better late than never for K.Flay, who developed a devoted fanbase over ten years of mixtape releases in the underground rap circuit, before shifting her sound more to rock with her 2014 proper debut LP, Life as a Dog. That evolution continues even further with her excellent Every Where Is Some Where, which features the Alternative Songs top-five hit "Blood in the Cut," and will mark Flaherty's first release since signing to Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds' new Interscope imprint label Night Street Records.
Not that anyone will have trouble keeping Every Where and Masters of Reality straight. K.Flay's music is an expansive, practically post-genre blend that also incorporates pop melody and production depth, EDM stadium largesse and tension/release, and hip-hop swagger -- as well as plenty of bars still from Flaherty. But if nothing else, her new guitar bent gives her a lane on the airwaves she hasn't really had before.
"It’s definitely been helpful at radio because it’s the very last element for a music industry that still gets very, very delineated," she says of her new genre association. "Obviously streaming, it’s like, whatever. Anything goes."
If Flaherty has had to play a little catch-up with classic rock, it's fitting with her career timeline, since she didn’t actually start listening to or performing music until the mid-'00s, after leaving the suburbs of Chicago to go to Stanford. A discussion about hip-hop's misogynistic bent in the mainstream at the time led to a challenge from one of her friends: "Why don't you write a song?" Hip-hop -- her "headspace growing up" -- was a natural fit for Flaherty, and she released a series of mixtapes and EPs, which attracted label attention and scored her a deal with RCA Records in 2012. But the partnership, which she later called an "ill-advised marriage," was fraught with musical differences and ended by 2014.
By the late '00s, Flaherty had discovered Liz Phair's classic 1993 debut Exile in Guyville, which she cites as being her gateway to the world of alternative rock, and bands like Garbage, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Metric. She found herself inspired by "these women, who are such bad asses -- and not being bad asses for the sake of it, just being themselves and saying something and standing behind something."
Rock started creeping into her sound, partly because she enjoyed how it took her out of her comfort zone. "Not to say that about rap, 'I know everything there is to know' -- please don't quote me saying that!" she jokingly pleads. "But that was my developmental [music], that I feel much more familiar with, on some level, than rock."
Flaherty quickly proved a natural, and seeing her explosive live show -- which has evolved from just Flaherty with a microphone to her as the thrashing, headbanging frontwoman of a decidedly nu-school power trio, playing synths and occasionally strapping on either a bass or a six-string -- you wouldn't peg her for a newcomer. She's convinced some of the old heads, as her shows have started to attract a number of 40-somethings who lived through Liz Phair and Shirley Manson the first time around. "A bunch of them come up to me and they’re like, 'My kids listen to this, and they think it’s hilarious I’m at the show, but I’m a fan,'" Flaherty relates.
Which, again, is not to take K.Flay for a throwback act. Her edge-blurring sound makes her the perfect rock star for an era when such non-traditional, far-flung acts as Twenty One Pilots, Lana Del Rey and Rag 'n' Bone Man all share space on the rock charts. And her growing sound has hardly alienated her young fans, who bring nearly as much flailing, full-throated energy to her shows as Kristine herself. "You go out there and you see that people are connecting to it," says JT Daly, frontman of alt-rock tourmates Paper Route. "We had the absolute pleasure of being on the road with her, and going out and seeing these people that just flock to her."
Daly, a workaholic producer and songwriter when not on the road with his band, was introduced to K.Flay through his wife, Jordan Meredith, who shares a manager with Flaherty, and the two connected immediately as kindred spirits. "After that, I started sending him millions of demos," she says, some of which the duo ended up working on together for the album -- including "Blood in the Cut." "I played him that one and he was like, 'We should finish that song.'"
They did, and the results were stunning. The riotous "Blood in the Cut" is the exact kind of smash that rock has been missing the past few years -- riff-based but undeniably modern sounding, with a real sense of grit, danger, and yes, bloodiness to it. "To me, a lot of stuff [currently on rock radio] strangely sounds very safe," Flaherty says of the single, first heard on 2016's Crush Me EP. "I feel like in rap right now people are doing really weird things -- in a great way -- and in rock, that spirit, doesn’t feel like quite as urgent."
"Blood in the Cut" definitely does not lack for urgency. The opening lines ("The boy I love's got another girl / He might be f--king her right now") land with a snap-to-attention rawness, while the chorus ("I need noise / I need the buzz of a sub / Need the crack of the whip / Need some blood in the cut") is as darkly anthemic a sing-along-to hit alternative radio since Tove Lo's opening salvo. Both exemplify one of Flaherty's greatest strengths as a writer: her ability to overshare to a point that approaches discomfort, but gives her songs a live-wire electricity.
In person, Flaherty is actually the picture of chill affability in ripped jeans and a hoodie. "I’m not filled with darkness or something," she explains. "But I think the reason that I’m able in my everyday, regular, personal life to maintain some level of buoyancy, is because there is that other side [to me]. I do think everybody has it whether or not you want to explore it -- that’s a question everyone has to answer."
But is the seething "Blood in the Cut" based on a true story? "It is," she laments. "All the good ones are, unfortunately."
Every Where Is Some Where is filled with the stories of personal oblivion and open-veined honesty that have marked K.Flay's recent releases, but it also contains some rather lovely moments of emotional stillness. "You Felt Right" recounts a doomed relationship over a muted-trumpet groove that suggests a Sunday morning ease and tranquility, while the musically uproarious "High Enough" sees Flaherty in a lyrically rare moment of sober bliss: "I'm already high enough / I only got eyes for you." More notably, some songs on the LP see Flaherty direct her anger outward at the bigger picture: "Black Wave" sees her playing society's rat-in-a-cage with a fury that would make Billy Corgan proud, while her world-weariness is expressed with much greater topicality on the Twitter-timeline overload of "The President Has a Sex Tape."
Flaherty says that her decision to enter a more obviously political realm with her songwriting mostly resulted from a question of why she shouldn't write about how the current climate was making her feel. "If the reason is fear -- I often don’t think it’s a great reason to not do something," she relates. "Especially if it’s fear of like some people not agreeing with me... I think I want to be a person, hopefully, who has both enough education in the world and enough courage to say what [I feel] ‘Coz I’ve had that ability in my personal, emotional life, and I want to extend that to the sphere of the world, and politics. Because that stuff is important to me too."
All genre-bending and rock-reinventing aside, that fearlessness and commitment to personal expression is what most endears K.Flay to her fans. "The only thing I care about is whether art is believable to me," her collaborator Daly testifies. "There are way too many artists -- way too many famous artists -- that I just don’t believe. I just really wish that the people that had something to say or the artists that I believe had more light shed on them. And it was an absolute dream to work with someone that I believed in."
If the spotlight finally does shine squarely on K.Flay with Every Where Is Some Where, over a decade into her career, it's possible that Flaherty's late start at rock stardom will end up being the best thing for her. "The more time passes in your life, I think the greater you understand perspective," she theorizes. "So I’m happy that I’ve had experiences that have reminded me that most exciting things might not feel so exciting later, and the most disappointing things might not be so disappointing later, either. I feel like a move even ship. Which is a nice way to feel, ‘coz it’s less emotionally exhausting."