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Q&A with K. Flay

Chicago native rapper K. Flay has been all across the country touring since the release of her crowd-funded album, "Life as a Dog," in 2014. She was in Chicago for a few days after playing the FirstBank Pavilion with Third Eye Blind and Dashboard Confessional this past Friday, June 26, and Up to Tempo's Kelly Pyzik sat down with her at a booth outside the Haagen Dazs counter in the Navy Pier food court to talk remix culture, independent production and being weird on social media. Check out the audio interview here or read the Q&A below:

U2T: Where do I want to start here? Alright, well, the first time I saw you perform was at my school, Grinnell College, like a year ago.
K. Flay: Oh, shit! Yeah, I remember, that was right when we got this duck … this wooden duck. It was in an indoor area … Yeah... That was a fun show!
U: Yeah, it was a super fun show. You were honestly the most high energy, enthusiastic performance I feel like we've had in that space because a lot of people come out and when the show starts there's only like 15 people in the audience and it kind of psyches them out, but you were just totally into it, which was so cool. So, I wanted to ask you how you feel about little shows like that, what are the different vibes between crowds, what helps you enjoy a performance if not just a huge crowd?
K: My orientation going into anything performance-wise is just being grateful that you have the opportunity. For most people, when you start making music it's hard to get a gig. You've got to beg people and then they let you on as first out of five on some bill. I'm always just in a very genuine way excited and happy to play. What I've made an effort to do is, because I know some of my friends are just like, “Yeah, man, this show just wasn't that crowded, I couldn't get my energy up,” and I think obviously you want to be able to draw some energy from a crowd, but I don't think that should be what you need. It should be an added bonus if the crowd is super hyped up. It's kind of your job to bring energy to it. That's sort of what you're supposed to do. Regardless of how many people are there or where we are or if it's a normal venue or a weird venue or outside, just try to give the same show as I would give anywhere. And that makes it more fun, too. Otherwise it's boring and kind of a bummer. You don't want to just be playing the keyboard, like, thinking about Chipotle.

K. Flay's latest album, "Life as a Dog," can be found on SoundCloud. Photos by Becca Grischow
U: Do you still like playing little shows? Do you still think it's fun?
K: Yeah, totally! I think there's a lot of intimacy in a live show, period. It's sort of the one place where you look at people and touch people and sweat on people and other people are touching other people, not in a strange way but, well, perhaps … sometimes in a strange way. But it's an opportunity for something that's physical and honest, so the smaller the venue the more that is. Especially because you can just hang out before and after the set. Because, I mean, everyone's just people, you know, at the end of the day.

U: You started out releasing music independently, and you're back on that now, how have you enjoyed that trajectory? Have you enjoyed coming back to releasing stuff more independently?
K: Yeah, definitely, you know, with this last release I think it was the move, for sure. There's obviously benefits to being part of a larger system or a label system, many of those are financial benefits, but even when I was signed, from a creative and from a social media and photos and whatever standpoint, they weren't doing anything. So, it was kind of like an indie project, I was just on a label. It felt pretty natural, going from one to the next, back to this. I think I learned a lot of things about what I wanted to be, the kind of music I wanted to make, how I wanted to do it, the kind of people I wanted to work with. Because I do think in this business, or in any business, people possibly can become co-opted by bad things. It's such an intimate business in so many ways that the people who are a part of it I want to be people that I care about and think highly of and trust. So, yeah, it's felt really natural. Learned a bunch of lessons, applying them, and then as we approach the next record, I'm not sure how we're going to do it, if it's going to be completely indie again or if we're going to partner up with someone, but even now partnering up with somebody I feel would have such a different structure given everything that has happened.

U: What would you say are some of the biggest lessons you learned from the experience of being signed?
K: Probably the biggest lesson is that you have to listen to your instincts. It's kind of cheesy to say, trust your instincts, but it's true. As an artist, I think you're probably already a little vulnerable in the sense that you're looking for affirmation and feedback and emotionally perhaps very sensitive, and then all of a sudden you have this situation where a ton of people are talking in your ear telling you what's good, what's bad, what you should look like, what you should do, "This is cool, well, this person thought this was cool," and you're sort of feeling like you've been spinning around, and it's like, “Where's North?” Retaining that sense of an internal compass is probably the greatest lessson.

U: I think your social media presence is a really fun one, out of a lot of artists.
K: Oh, we're about to film some ferris wheel shit!
U: Where did the idea for the Can't Sleep videos come from, or what's the idea behind it?
K: Pretty much all of it is either some weird idea I had, or my manager, who is also just like my really good friend, that he had, like, "Why don't we try this or film this?" It's all really organic. To me, social media is super fun, it's just a way to be weird. When you take it so seriously, you want every picture looking, you look super hot or mysterious or whatever you're trying to look, it's like, you know, fuck it. We're all just a bag of bones, and if you can bring your bones to somewhere interesting, like the Haagen Dazs store (gestures to sign above the booth of the Navy Pier food court) … It's another creative outlet. I think you can either embrace it, or you can try to be like all your photos are black and white and have cropping. I just can't be bothered to do that. I don't fucking care.
U: Do you find it to be a good way to engage with fans, do you get a response back?
K: Oh yeah, totally! It's a sort of unpredecented, Twitter expecially, it's unprecedented access to anyone. And that goes for artist to artist. Sometimes I'll like somebody's stuff and I'll just hit them up, like, "Hey, I like your stuff," and then we can have a private conversation and exchange phone numbers and link up and collaborate. Back in the old days, I guess you just have to tour with someone, meet them, it just was a different level of connectivity, or opportunities for that.

U: There have been a number of Vanic remixes of your songs, which I think are fantastic. Was that something that you guys decided on together as a collaboration?
K: Well, he hit me up, I don't know when, like, "Hey, I'm a fan, I wanted to remix something." So I checked out his stuff, thought it was really cool, and just sent him stems. Then he was like, "Hey, I really like this song, too, can I do this one?" So, since I have everything, all the stuff that was recorded, it's super easy to do things like that. The first one went really well and was cool and fun, so we just kind of continued.

U: Do you like the collaborative opportunities that EDM and the internet have created like that?
K: Yeah, you know, we live in a bizarre remix culture at the moment. Yeah... I'm not even sure of my thoughts on it. I think remixes are cool and I also make them, but it's strange. Like, can you imagine someone remixing Bob Dylan? It's just odd. I know of course it's different because things are recorded on a grid now and everything's different that it used to be. I think it's cool, for the most part. But I think there's a little too much emphasis on remix drop shit and not just songwriting. I would rather hear a song and then maybe if I'm out, turn on the remix.
U: I think it's also really frustrating how hard it is to sort between good remixes and something that some dude made in his dorm yesterday.
K: Right, and there are certain remixes that I think honor the original and offer something interesting. And then others that don't have as much of that.

U: What are some of your thoughts about how remixes can honor a song?
K: Well, I think they honor it through a spirit of collaboration, like, it's not all of a sudden a deep house song, but elements of the original with whatever the remixer's style is. I think it's about trying to make it, like … a really, really small halloween costume. … Like, no mask, face paint. Smell me? I'll leave it at that, leave it up to interpretation, let the people decide.

U: What is your writing process like with the relationship between music and lyrics?
K: I pretty much always write to music. I'll start something, like if it's just a little riff, like give me three chords, and loop that, and then start writing. I know some people come up with melodies or whatever, but that's never really been the case for me. I kind of like getting into a vibe and then writing from there.

U: Do you write in other capacities besides lyrics?
K: I kind of do, but no one has ever seen it, so maybe I'll unveil it one day. We'll see, I've got a few things I'm working on but it's top secret at the moment.
U: What do you like writing on your own time?
K: Pretty much fiction. So, maybe I'll just switch to writing books and not have to drink beer all the time. That would be nice.

U: And the last two questions I always ask are, what's on the horizon and what's the dream?
K: Well, the immediate horizon, this summer we're touring. We're out through August and then some more touring in the Fall. Then when the touring is not happening I need to write the next project. I've done some of that already, so I need to finish a bunch of shit, because I'd like to have something out, at least a single, like top of next year and have the record come out maybe Spring. I don't know, this is my big plan at the moment. And then, what is the dream? I guess the dream would be for this next record to do well, for people to enjoy it, and to be able to continue doing this. And to get an apartment and to save some money, that's the dream. Some modest dreams. I mean, I have other dreams, too, but that's the main ones.

K. Flay looking as badass as ever at Navy Pier.

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