Singer-Songwriter KALI Evokes Adolescent Angst On Her Debut EP Circles
In an exclusive interview, the 16-year-old, L.A. starlet dishes on a frustrating first love and inspirations from The Strokes to Billie Holiday.
In an exclusive interview, the 16-year-old, L.A. starlet dishes on a frustrating first love and inspirations from The Strokes to Billie Holiday.
Text: John Norris
When VMagazine jumps on Zoom with Santa Monica 16-year-old Kali Flanagan, she’s just gotten out of class. Japanese class. She’s in her third year studying the language, and able to put together basic sentences. “But then there’s so much like, verb conjugation,” she bemoans. “I don’t know if I could survive in Japan. But one day, we’ll see.”
The smart money would be on her mastering it.
Flanagan – who records as KALI, and whose irresistible debut EP Circles drops today – is too humble and self-effacing to embrace a word like “prodigy,” but we’ll use it for her. What else do you call someone who began playing piano at age four, picked up guitar a few years later, then bass, taught herself drums, learned violin, and played the standup bass in her school orchestra (which had to be twice her size)? By 13, she was fronting a surf-indie rock outfit called Bad Wednesday, fast becoming part of West L.A.’s DIY scene and playing storied Angeleno all-ages venues The Smell and The Viper Room. The following year – 2019 – she transitioned into her own eponymous solo project, propelled by a growing desire to make more “honest” music. She doesn’t turn 17 until September. How’s that for prodigious?
Fortunately for KALI’s creative impulses and desire to get more personal in her music, 2019 also offered her a turbulent, heartache-inducing muse – her first relationship, with a girl who was not only not out, but was chronically hard to read. As a means of making sense of the roller coaster of emotions she was going through, KALI immersed herself in writing music that year more deeply than ever before, and the result is Circles – six tracks that each offer a different take on an often-stressful situation. “Lucy’s got a secret that she might tell you,“ she sings on “Lucy”, the buoyant, surprisingly lighthearted single released in January, on which he puts her ex on semi-blast. But later in the EP, the drama takes its toll: on “Someone to Hold,” inspired in part by the great Billie Holiday, she’s at her most melancholy and vulnerable.
“I Just Wanna” exhibits some sharp elbows and a synth-ier drive, while Circles’ most exhilarating moments come on two songs anchored by rock riffs: the sparkling “Back to the Start,” which put KALI on many a radar last fall and has become a signature track, and “Too Tired”, her latest single and video, a rousing rave-up that partly draws on burning the candle at both ends – as she spent much of her sophomore year doing, as she tried to balance writing and recording with a full load of classes. The song’s music video, out today, is the singer’s fourth directed by her friend Zealand Yancy, and finds KALI knackered and banging around a house in a general state of angst. It’s infectious from the jump.
The EP was finished a year ago, with the collaboration of producer Miro Mackie (Wallows, The Neighbourhood, St. Vincent), so KALI is eager to get it out into the world. And after signing with the indie label Nettwerk, and taking on management and PR, her parents – who are themselves in entertainment – are persuaded that their daughter’s music has gotten “real, real, real” enough to let her do her junior year of school via an independent study program that allows more time for music.
Circles is, simply, one of the most remarkable debuts you will hear all year. A week before its release, VMagazine linked up with KALI to talk about her DIY beginnings, her vast range of influences (Prince and The Beatles to Phoebe Bridgers and Matt Maltese, ELO to Elliot Smith, David Bowie and Mac DeMarco), her songwriting evolution, *that* relationship, and today’s unprecedented acceptance of young queer musicians.
VMAGAZINE KALI! Congratulations on this beautiful EP. I know the singles have been coming out since the fall, and you’ve been making music and playing shows for a few years, but does this feel like a big moment?
KALI Oh yeah! Even like a year ago, just as I was starting to do the final recordings and mix the EP, I didn’t realize the amount of time and space that you put into the record before it comes out. Cause sometimes I will listen to songs and be like, “Oh this artist – this is what they are feeling a month ago.” But then I realize that really – it’s outdated! And everyone, by the time they’re releasing, they’re like past that. But for me, I’m realizing that like as much as I feel like I’ve done a lot before this, a lot of people are only beginning to know me and I’m hopefully at the beginning of a long career.
V There’s a video online from 2019 of you playing “Back to the Start” at The Smell. So, these songs date back a couple of years?
K Yeah, I basically went through a period of time that – summer of 2019 – where I was sort of, I just really got into music more than I ever had. And it was like, “Okay, every week I am gonna make a demo of some sort.” And it was also inspiring, because I was in my first relationship, and I was getting very, “I’m gonna make a song about this and then this” and it was you’re just like trying out different things, different ideas. And so, when I played “Back to the Start”, that’s the song that sort of jump-started it, this constant need to make songs, and write things to figure out what’s going on in my brain. And I didn’t realize that until that time period. And I had just made a demo like two weeks before we played it at The Smell. And then taught it to my bandmates. So that was the first time that we ever played it. But yeah, it was crazy because I had this Google Drive folder with all these songs – some were sort of half-finished. I feel like a lot of artists sort of go through this thing where it’s like, you made something a week ago, and you’re like “Oh I’m past that!” You know, “That’s trash!” And so, when it came to like the end of 2019, I was sort of trying to put myself in this more objective position, where I was like, “Okay these songs aren’t – they’re not as bad as I think they are. Let me finish them.”
V You mentioned the relationship you were in at the time, and you’ve talked before about how it informed the EP, nowhere more so than on “Lucy”.
K Yeah, when I was recording “Lucy” and even when I was writing it, I thought, “God this song is gonna be the death of me. I cannot go through with this.” And then it’s crazy, like how it’s been received. Because that really was the one I was the most insecure about when I was making the record. Just because it felt like a very direct song. I think that’s what it was. Because that was the first time I was actually not cutting corners with what I was trying to say. Like I knew the person that inspired the song…
V Compared to the others it’s pretty explicit. It’s kind of putting someone on blast.
K [laughs] Yeah!
V So, it was a “How is she gonna feel about this?” kind of thing?
K Yeah, it was like – she wasn’t a very straightforward or direct person.
V Until she had a couple drinks [as referenced in the song]?
K No, yeah! [laughs] And that’s what happened! And so I was like, “How am I gonna get away with this?” I felt like I was murdering someone. But it’s funny because for the longest time, I thought that she didn’t know, like, any of the songs. I mean, I was playing shows, and she would come to the shows. And it wasn’t like there were just those six songs – there were a lot of songs that were inspired by that situation. Of course, a lot of them didn’t make the cut, but she heard them. And so, I remember like a year ago, I was still with her. And I was like, “Wait, do you know that this is about you?” And she was like, “Are you stupid?” [laughs] “How could I not?” [laughs]
V And so all the songs on the EP really come from that relationship?
K I think they all represent different parts of my situation, but then as a whole, when they come together – which is why I am excited for the whole EP to come out – as a whole I think they represent more of an understanding, a reflection, and an acknowledgment of “that’s what happened” but that’s okay, and I learnt from it. So, it’s not bad.
V And you’re still together?
K No, no. Broken up. We broke up – it was funny, the day after I met my managers – it was a pure coincidence, I swear! It sounds so bad, like “Oh, I have a manager now? I’m off!” [laughs] But no, it had just gotten to a point like where I couldn’t, it was so indirect. And I had tried, I had poured my heart out into this relationship, but I came to this realization. I was on my floor, stretching, I was on my yoga mat – I have a very clear memory of this – and I just thought, “It’s not going to change.”
V You said you had other songs about the situation that didn’t make the cut – will they see the light off day sometime?
K Nah, they have been like put in the vault, and it’s locked. And I feel like now I’m just – maybe in the future if I’m just reflecting. Because I’m a really big Prince fan. And Prince has so much music. And it’s like – you can’t put everything out. But if I were to return to liking those songs later in life, and thought, “Oh, this isn’t a bad song! Why don’t I put it out?” I would be down for that.
V Besides Prince, you’ve mentioned a lot of classic artists that have inspired you. The Beatles, for one, who are pretty evergreen, and Bowie, another legend. But when I saw you mention ELO in one interview, I was like, whaa? I bet you can count on four hands the number of 16-year-olds in this entire country who know Electric Light Orchestra.
K Yeah. My parents were into music. It’s funny because I have all these little random memories, but yeah that, I have like strong memories of being very into ELO. And then I think at some point I was really into them, and there was this DVD shop, and my mom had bought the movie Xanadu which has – they did the original soundtrack and stuff. But I remember that time period, there was a lot of ELO on road trips.
V Neither of your parents are musicians, but you dad’s an actor, and your mom’s a…producer?
K Yeah, a digital content producer, branded content and stuff. And my dad – he’s not an actor anymore, but they both moved out here to pursue somewhat creative endeavors, so they can relate to that part of it – the drive and the hunger.
V Did anyone in your extended family play music?
K My grandma, my mom’s mom, used to play the sitar? But I never experienced that first-hand. It was always just a topic of conversation. I don’t think there was anyone that physically inspired me to play music. I just remember like wanting it so bad. I remember at a certain age I would make like noises with my mouth, to pretend like I was playing guitar? So, it was just stuff like that, and I wanted to be…a Beatle or something!
V “Too Tired” is the new single and video, and my favorite track on the EP – the “rocker” of the bunch. What can you say about that one?
K I associate that song with literally not sleeping. And literally, AP World homework, very specifically, and the color red. Because it was just like – I could not do anything that I really wanted to do. I was sort of settling, a lot? And that’s the song that I think is least about the relationship. It was about the relationship but also about – other parts of my life at the same time? Everything’s always connected. Which I find so interesting. Like, a theme will show itself in so many different aspects of your life when you’re going through it. But “Too Tired”, I was listening so much to The Strokes and Arctic Monkeys and stuff. Sort of the music that defined my sophomore year is what I think about when I think about that song.
V As for more recent artists, aren’t you a Phoebe Bridgers fan?
K I went through a big Phoebe Bridgers phase last summer! I go through a lot of phases with music, where it’s like, the people that I return to on multiple occasions I consider my favorite artists. Like for example, there’s this guy Matt Maltese, who I did a session with recently, actually, very cool guy. But he’s someone who’s quite comedic, in a sense? But it’s very raw at the same time? And I don’t see a lot of that – I feel like a lot of artists take themselves way too seriously. And like I was saying earlier, I kind of think of my songs as jokes, so I really appreciate it when artists identify with your sense of humor, or just acknowledge it.
V It’s funny because this EP is pretty heart-on-the-sleeve. But it sounds like you are a little put off by people who are too maybe up in their feelings?
K I don’t think there’s a right or wrong. But I do have this theory, I tell my friends all the time that humans, we all love to be dramatic. We all want drama? And so, it’s like a lot of times there are situations or experiences, and we sort of add more to them, we add a little flavor. You know, just to give ourselves a little more zhuzh, or something. And I think, in my songwriting, it’s more like – I make all of this stuff up in my head, and when I’m writing, it’s like, “Okay. What is actually going on?” And it’s sort of about weeding out all of the stuff that’s causing the anxiety, or the sadness and the stress. But I think everybody expresses things in a different way. Because, although I am finding clarity through my work, some people use it as, to take what they’re going through and – maybe they feel like their life is bland, and they want to paint a fantasy out of it. And that’s what is so cool, because everybody is different.
V I know you are a Euphoria fan, because I read how you had a crush on Hunter Schafer.
K Oh yeah. [laughs]
V She’s amazing. My friend actually plays her dad on that show, Jules’ dad. How incredible was her solo episode – where she’s in with her therapist and talking about going off hormones? Holy shit.
K Yeah, it’s so beautiful. And you really felt it. It’s insane when you’re watching on a screen like this close – you feel like you’re there in the room. But yeah, that episode made me cry. I remember I was watching on my couch with my computer, and I was just crying. And my mom was just watching something else next to me, and she was like, “Are you okay?” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m fine!” [laughs]
V I have to say though, what an incredibly new thing this is, that on a major TV show that you would see a trans kid, or any kind of non-binary, non-gender-conforming, queer young person in any way represented so honestly like that. Ten years ago, and certainly 20 years ago, you just did not see that. And for someone like me, to see the progress we’ve made is just breathtaking. And whatever you think of Joe Biden – he’s a kind man, and like to hear him the other night, stand there and say to young trans people, “I have your back” – I think that’s incredible.
K No yeah, I completely agree, and I was thinking recently about, how now, in a good sense, it’s like people are so embracing of artists who identify as non-binary, or trans, or queer – whatever, it’s just crazy that it’s become a normal thing now! Because I remember being a kid – I mean, I’m still a kid, but I remember even a few…like it’s crazy even the amount of change that’s taken place in just the last five years. That’s what’s wild to me! Because I’ve known that I was gay since I was in elementary school, it’s been a long thing. But it’s been crazy going from, “Oh, people are gonna think this is weird” to “Oh, that’s just normal.” And it’s not something that’s out of the ordinary. Everybody’s just like, “You do you”, you know? That’s what I love, and that’s what is so beautiful about Euphoria is that they’re not trying to make it like, another marketing strategy. It’s just people, being people.
V So, will you do live shows again – COVID permitting – in the fall?
K Yeah, that’s when we hope to get out there.
V And your parents are fully supportive? No pressure about school or having a “fall back” option?
K I mean, for a while they were very strict about grades, up until like a year ago. And then it became more – they became more accepting that like, “If Kali doesn’t go all the way in, then it’s not gonna work.” And it’s been like a mutual understanding of that. Cause as a kid I was always figuring out kind of, where is this going? It was always, “Okay I’m doing this now, where is this going.” But I think when I started actually having a team and stuff, they were like, “Oh, so this is real, real, real.” Only recently I have been realizing how lucky, in a deeper sense, just how privileged I am to have parents that have let me do all this and have been so supportive. And literally they have made so many sacrifices for me to follow this dream. And because I have grown up with that, so much of the time I am like, “Oh that’s a given” – but in talking to other people, and becoming more aware of the world around me, it’s just, I realize I am in a very lucky, unique situation. If I had parents that did not believe in me, I don’t know where I would be.
KALI’s debut EP Circles is out May 7th