K.Flay and the Climb Upward

Published July 10, 2014

ABOVE: KRISTINE FLAHERTY, AKA K.FLAY. PHOTO COURTESY OF WILSON LEE

As K.Flay hangs out on her bus in Buffalo, New York, someone is coincidentally trying to convince her to eat Buffalo wings. It’s also raining like crazy and she just witnessed a kid sink into a mud hole. For the 28-year-old Stanford graduate, born Kristine Flaherty, it’s just another day on the Vans Warped Tour.

While she travels the country on a tour traditionally dedicated to punk bands, K.Flay’s debut studio album Life As A Dog sits at number 14 on Billboard’s Rap Albums Chart, in between Talib Kweli’s Gravitas and Rick Ross’ Mastermind. That’s not bad for an indie rapper who began her music career in a college dorm and funded her album through PledgeMusic.

Despite releasing a handful of mixtapes and EPs leading up to Life As A Dog, it wasn’t until the past couple of weeks that she truly entered the mainstream radar. While taking in the Warped insanity around her, K.Flay filled us in on the new album, female rappers, and the highs and lows of being a 20something.

MELANIE GARDINER: As your first time on the Warped Tour, what’s the craziest experience you’ve had so far?

KRISTINE FLAHERTY: It happens quite a bit out here, but I’m still totally fascinated and somewhat scared by circle pits. I had no idea what they were before the tour. It’s basically a bunch of people running at full speed in a giant circle in the middle of the crowd. At Every Time I Die’s set in Montreal, there was this giant circle pit and it was raining and I felt like I was watching the strangest ballet ever.

GARDINER: The tour is traditionally known for showcasing rock acts, but you’re repping hip-hop. What’s the vibe been like?

FLAHERTY: The feedback has been great. The other bands are incredibly supportive, and I think a lot of the kids are stoked to see something totally out of left field. Historically, a lot of non-rock acts have done really well on the tour, so I was excited from the beginning.

GARDINER: Another thing to be excited about is that after its debut, Life As A Dog was at number two on the Billboard Heatseekers Chart and at number 14 on the Rap Albums Chart. What’s it like seeing your name up there with hip-hop heavyweights?

FLAHERTY: It’s pretty amazing. I was on a major label for two years and stuck in a bit of limbo, being told—at least implicitly —that my music wasn’t ready to be out in the world. So, it feels pretty gratifying to have released the record independently and see people supporting like that. 

GARDINER: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned as an independent artist?

FLAHERTY: As an independent artist, you control the means of production, which is the ultimate form of empowerment. It’s been cool to think, “I can do whatever the fuck I want,” and turn those ideas into real things. I started out releasing music independently, so this feels like a very natural return to my original ethos.

GARDINER: Life As A Dog is darker lyrically than your past work, but more melodic sonically. Was that a conscious direction or just a result of the recording  process?

FLAHERTY: A mix, I think. When I first started making music, I was all about wordplay and how fast I could rap, but over the years I’ve really gained an appreciation for melody. What’s cool is that when you’re singing, you have to be concise, and when you’re rapping, you have the opportunity to be really detailed with your lyrics. In terms of the content, it’s definitely darker, but I also think there’s a sense of hopefulness in there as well, a desire to make things better despite mistakes and regrets.

GARDINER: I noticed a lot of the lyrics are laced with cynicism and the negative aspects of dealing with the realities of being a woman in your twenties. What are the best and worst parts about being a 20something today?

FLAHERTY: The best part is that you’re still defining yourself in a major way and there’s so much room for discovery and growth. The worst part is that you think you know what you’re doing in the moment, but realize later you are an idiot.

GARDINER: Time and time again, you’ve been asked about how your interest in making music started as a dare in college. Do you remember the exact moment where it went from being something you did for fun to becoming something you wanted to make a career out of?

FLAHERTY: I’m not sure I can pinpoint the exact moment, but it was around when I released a mixtape called I Stopped Caring in ’96. It was the first time that I was writing consistently emotional stuff and I think it was also the first time I realized that I legitimately needed music in my life. From that point forward I really felt like I couldn’t stop.

GARDINER: Iggy Azalea has proved there’s been an evolution in hip-hop, recently saying “We are at a time where a white girl can put a song out and people will start to say, ‘Oh, maybe this can work.'” Do you agree with Iggy, and are you a fan of hers?

FLAHERTY: I remember listening to Ignorant Art when it first came out and being like, “Holy shit, that’s cool,” and I think there’s certainly an ongoing evolution in hip-hop, particularly with regard to female artists. It feels like we’re at a moment where the diversity of perspectives and sounds is increasing pretty rapidly, and that there’s space for someone like me, who’s not totally hip-hop but not totally alternative either.

GARDINER: As a result, your music reaches fans of all genres. In the last couple of years alone, you’ve opened for quite the mix of artists, including Icona Pop, Passion Pit, and Snoop Dogg, and now you’re on Warped. Who is your target audience?

FLAHERTY: It’s really interesting living in between genres. I get to play with bands in all corners of the universe, which in a certain way, clarifies my vision for the project. Most of the people at my headline shows are in their 20s, but it varies a ton, like I’ve had a six-year-old hug my leg after the show and a 60-year-old shake my hand. It’s cool to see people connecting with the music across different generations. 

 K.FLAY’S ALBUM LIFE AS A DOG IS OUT NOW, AND SHE PLAYS NIKON AT JONES BEACH THEATER ON JULY 12. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, PLEASE VISIT HER WEBSITE.