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K.Flay on 'Blood in the Cut' and the power of vulnerability

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Major-label refugee K.Flay made news as the first artist signed by Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds' new label. - LAUREN DUKOFF
  • Lauren Dukoff
  • Major-label refugee K.Flay made news as the first artist signed by Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds' new label.

It says something about K.Flay that the most upbeat part of her current hit is a chorus in which she declares: "I need noise / I need the buzz of a sub / Need the crack of a whip / Need some blood in the cut."

Described by one British critic as "the mistress of maverick," the whip-smart rapper is kind of a big deal right now. Last summer, she made headlines as the first artist signing to Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds' Interscope-distributed Night Street Records. Her subsequent "Blood in the Cut" video, released last September, has now surpassed 2 million views, while pushing the single into the Top 5 on Billboard's alternative chart.

But the Stanford-educated Kristine Meredith Flaherty's future didn't always look quite so bright. Four years ago, her major-label deal with RCA Records went way south after two EPs went largely unnoticed. It's not so much that RCA was angling for some custom-made hybrid of M.I.A. and PJ Harvey, although they'd no doubt have been happy to get that. It's just that major label marketing departments are at a loss when it comes to promoting music that can't easily be pigeonholed.

The artist got back on track with her 2014 album Life as a Dog — released on the noticeably lower-profile Bummer Picnic Records — which managed to reach No. 14 on Billboard's rap album chart. She's now touring her current EP, Crush Me, with a full-length album on its way.

In the following interview, K.Flay talks about dealing with a major label, writing "Blood in the Cut" in her parents' basement, and the pros and cons of being vulnerable in public.

Indy: Now that "Blood in the Cut" reached No. 5 on the Billboard alternative chart, what does it feel like to run into complete strangers and realize that they already know your music?

K.Flay: It feels kind of weird, I guess, but I think that just comes along with being on the radio. I mean, it's really cool, and honestly it feels like the right time for everything to be happening. I'm in a headspace that's really good, I think, and my internal momentum feels really strong.

Are you happier now than you were when you wrote that song? Because it sounds like you couldn't have been too happy back then.

You know, it's interesting with that song, because I did write it at a time when I wasn't super happy. I wrote it in California, actually, in my parents' basement over the holiday, and then went out to Nashville, where I recorded three of the songs on the EP and some more songs that are going to be on the full-length. And by that point, I was in a kind of like a really positive, empowered, inspired headspace.

So what's cool for me with this song is that the verses, and the spirit of those sections, is really vulnerable and weak and bleeding something. And then as the song kind of breaks into the chorus, there is that feeling of self-awareness and power. And that was really like a true reflection of how the song came to fruition. So I like that those two spirits can exist side by side.

How different is it working with Dan Reynolds' new label versus your RCA period? Did you feel like you were being stereotyped there or put into some specific category?

I think maybe the main difference is that, when I was on RCA, there was kind of a big discussion about what the genre was, you know, whether the project was alternative, whether it was urban. And that conversation has for the most part ceased to occur. So I think that's the biggest difference now. It felt like the genre of the project was problematic a few years ago, and was a source of stress or confusion for maybe both me and the label. But now I think I'm in a spot — and certainly I don't want to speak for Dan, but I think he's in a similar headspace — where that's the essence of the project, that it doesn't exist in one space and won't ever.

As music continues to cross-pollinate, I think people have a greater acceptance and understanding of that, which is cool because that's what I've continued to do. I have collaborations that are super electronic and exist in a pretty defined niche. And then I have songs that are like, you know, weirdo rap songs, and songs that are super-melodic or kind of down-tempo. So I'm just really working to celebrate that, instead of trying to define it or put any kind of constraints on it.

Getting back to the question of vulnerability, are there ever times when you write lyrics and then, after the song's out, find yourself having second thoughts about it?

There was actually a mix tape called West Ghost that I had put out when I was living in New York a few years ago, and that was definitely a moment where I confronted that. You know, my family and friends were like, "Are you okay?" And I think that gave me a good chance to think about the things that I feel comfortable talking about, and the things that I don't. I definitely take care now to talk to those people and let them know that the version of me in music, albeit me, is like a hyperbole of me.

The moments when I'm satisfied and calm and rested, those aren't typically the moments when I feel most creatively inspired. So I've gotten comfortable with it, and honestly I feel like vulnerability is just something we get used to. And the more you get used to it, the more people expect it from you. And then I guess, in a way, it doesn't scare you anymore.

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