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K.Flay on Hearing Loss, New Album 'Mono,' and Finding Meaning in Randomness

'I relinquished the notion that anything happens for a reason. I think we make meaning out of the things that happen. I think that's the human project.'

qmono final artwork
Source: Giant Music

K.Flay took an introspective turn with 2023's 'Mono.'

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Breaking onto the music scene in the early aughts, singer/songwriter/producer K.Flay was primarily known as a rapper, making her own mixtapes and picking up some notable fans with her first proper album, 2014's Life As A Dog. (Taylor Swift spotlighted her 2015 collab with Louis the Child, "It's Strange," for her Songs That Will Make Life Awesome playlist.) 2017's Everywhere Is Somewhere and the single "Blood in the Cut" continued her winning streak, garnering Grammy nominations for Best Rock Song and Best Engineered Album.

Life was pretty good. Until it wasn't. Two weeks after climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in summer of 2022, she became completely deaf in her right ear, for reasons still not completely known. While she had struggled early on with alcohol (an addiction that took the life of her father at a young age) and overcame it, this sudden deafness and a bout with Covid-19 left her "worried [she] wouldn't be able to sing or make music like [she] used to."

And now her album Mono (which was released in September 2023) has all the raw nerves exposed, yet has moved her delivery from hip-hop to a multi-layered tapestry of indie-rock, brooding self-examination and ethereal introspection. Q spoke to Flay via Zoom about all of the above, but got things started with something just plain cool: her song "T-Rex" is featured in Netflix' Oscar-nominated animated feature Nimona.

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qkflayphoto by danielle ernst
Source: Danielle Ernst

'We take for granted the way that we interact with the world from a sensory-physical standpoint. And when something changes in that landscape, it requires a great degree of mental flexibility.'

I want to start off with something fun: Nimona getting nominated for an Academy Award.

It's awesome! Since I got involved with the film, which was early on, they sent it to me as storyboarded parts. And I was just very honored and glad to be a part of the project. The directors and producers went through a lot to get that movie made. It's been a long labor of love. And you know, it's always nice to see something that is meaningful and good come out of that.

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Source: ℗ © Kristine Flaherty, Jason Suwito/K.Flay/YouTube

K.Flay - T-Rex (from the Netflix Film "Nimona") [Lyric Video]

You've talked about your hearing loss while making Mono. How big a shift was that mentally?

I'll start with the giant shift, which is that we take for granted the way that we interact with the world from a sensory-physical standpoint. And when something changes in that landscape, it requires a great degree of mental flexibility. You talk to people with any type of disability that comes along in life and there's a real adjustment. More than anything, it requires an openness and flexibility of mind to say it's going to be different now.

The thing that required basically no mental shift was how I approach making music. Maybe I gotta turn my head a little bit so I can f--king hear. But other than that, the same ingredients of creativity, the same ways that I get out of my comfort zone and try to explore new territory? That's remained consistent. So I think there was something really exciting about this last year and a half which has been a reminder that enormous things can change and other things can stay exactly the same. There was something really grounding about that. To know that a lot of the fundamental approaches that I've been employing continue to serve me and remain true.

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qkflay carsick image credit chiara ceccaioni
Source: Chiara Ceccaioni

K.Flay is not goofing around this time.

What I took away from some of the songs on the album, was that you were angry about what had happened, but you didn't necessarily want to blame anyone or anything. However, with "Are You Serious?" you question that.

That's the first song I wrote after losing my hearing. I had set up a studio day for a couple of days, which is kind of psychotic in retrospect that I was wanting to be back in the studio. I mean, I was still in a place of massive, sensory disorientation. I was with my producer Jeoff Harris, whom I worked on three songs on the record with and who I really, really love. I'd had the idea for the riff the night before. Jeoff was like, "Listen, we don't have to do anything today." I was like, "I don't know. I could explore this thing." He said, "Just go. Write exactly what happened." I performed it for him. He was like, "How do you feel?" I'm feeling mounting pressure. I'm feeling, this anxiety, this incredible chaos within. How do we represent that? Let's do a tempo change. I give a lot of credit to Jeoff for encouraging me to be in that moment.

I do hope that there's a little bit of humor in that question of "Are You Serious?" because let's say you get home from the grocery store, and you drop a dozen eggs on the ground, and you're like, "Are you serious?" But I do think you're correct in that long ago I relinquished the notion that anything happens for a reason. I think we make meaning out of the things that happen. I think that's the human project. But we're living in a random universe. A lot of random sh*t happens. And it's okay. It's okay that random things happen.

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How long was it before you did your own response back further down the album? In harnessing that chaos, you've addressed it right up top on Mono.

Prior to the hearing loss I had been working on demos, some of which in final form appear on the record. "Raw" is an example of that. Once I lost my hearing, I realized, "Okay, I can still make music. I still want to make music. And I'd like to make this record." I hit up Paul Meany and asked him to executive produce the record. And Paul really helped me think about this project holistically, which is one of the big roles of an executive producer.

He and I had been talking about the idea of doing a long cipher track, a needle drop cipher track, which became "Yes, I'm Serious." We're here on this earth and this body one time. And are you going to treat it with care and respect? To me, that is such an important part about being alive. Losing my hearing just focuses me even more on this. I actually do care. I give a s--t. And maybe there's a lot of risk when you care, because if things don't work out. you're very vulnerable. Now, I would argue being vulnerable is like sort of the superpower of being a human. So I don't even think that's a bad thing, but it's uncomfortable for sure.

And so all this was swirling in my head, and I thought, "Let me do a response to that. Let me answer that question I'm asking. I'm tough. I solved my problem. But yes, I'm serious. I end that song with a line about "f--k this whole place, but I built it." A lot of what I'm talking about in that song is like a reckoning that happened years ago, but it was a reckoning that helped orient me and giving a sh*t. If five people hear it, it's worth it. If no people hear it, it's worth it. If five million people hear it, it's worth it. But the point is to care.

Source: ℗ © Kristine Flaherty/K.Flay/YouTube

K.Flay - High Enough

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What does your "now" self feel about the music that you made a while ago? Do you feel that's a completely different person or do you still have that connection?

Oh, absolutely. I feel very connected to that person. I also have a lot of compassion and understanding for that person. I think it's helpful when we're looking back on our younger selves to remember that usually most people are doing the best they can with the tools and information that they have. Seven years ago, I was doing the best I could with what I knew and I just didn't know as much then. I was figuring s--t out. It's me and I've had my own journey with alcohol but none of my relationships were dependent or really connected to alcohol, so my life never changed. I could have treated myself a little nicer but I think the music that I was making was just very authentic to my experience.

Some songs on this album end with a high-frequency tone. I'm curious how that transpired.

That tone you hear was three weeks after the hearing loss, the exact frequency of my tinnitus. When we played that tone, I couldn't hear it, because it was the same frequency as the sound I was hearing! Then I used that as a motif of disruption in the record. It's meant to represent that sense of interruption. The abrupt turning.

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Let me ask, has there even been a thought of actually mixing this album in mono?

My brother was actually the first person to ask! I thought about doing a limited press of the record in mono. The other day I was with some friends and we were listening to the Beatles remaster of "She Loves You" in mono. And it's like, s**t sounds so good! I spoke a lot with Michael Freeman, who mixed this record and who mixed my last record about mono versus stereo. I think there are ways in which the stereo experience helps tell the story. But Michael and I talked about how a mono mix really forces you to focus on the essential elements because you just have less space. Because, you know, limitless options does not frequently equate with the best result. So, yes, definitely thought about it. Not sure. I've been thinking about some kind of limited final press. We'll see what happens.

Source: ℗ © Warner Chappell Music, Inc/K.Flay/YouTube

K.Flay - Carsick (Official Visualizer)

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And playing live? How has that been for you?

It's been awesome. The record came out September 15th and three days later, I was in Europe playing our first show. We open the set with "Are You Serious?" because I also like opening a set with the song that opens the record. And literally everybody in the crowd knows every word.

One of the other songs that I liked was "Spaghetti." This theme of "you've been so good at manipulating thought patterns of 'I'm on this side and you're on that side.'"

I'm glad you liked that song. It was a real surprise of a song. I just started playing it live a couple of weeks ago in Texas. And we're experimenting with this call and response at the end: "And by you I mean me, and by me I mean you." So for a song that was crafted as just having fun and being in love and making a song, its imbued with this spirit of something quite deep. It's been cool to see that song come together and then be in the world.

Yeah, it's not quite a kumbaya.

No, it's not a kumbaya. I mean, I haven't written my kumbaya yet! [Laughs]


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