K. Flay on mental health in the music industry: “The highs are so high but the lows are so low”

The singer spoke to NME about mental health struggles on tour and “really sitting and facing discomfort in the eye”

Singer and songwriter K.Flay (born Kristine Flaherty) has spoken to NME about mental health, her future album, the poisonous drinking culture she experienced on tour and finding her inner strength.

In October, Flaherty received life-altering news: she had gone fully deaf in her right ear. She was supposed to embark on a tour in support of her latest LP ‘Inside Voices/Outside Voices’—released February 4 via BMG—but had to cancel after the medical emergency. “I got really sick and had to figure out how to adjust to this new life and had a lot of balance issues and vertigo and stuff at the beginning of that,” she explained to NME.

When she alerted fans of her new disability on social media, she tried to find humour in the difficult situation, writing, “On the plus side, I am now 15 per cent more handsome, 30 per cent smarter, and 50 per cent better at Metallica riffs.”

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“My mom taught me when I was little that even in the worst moments, we’re going to laugh about this later,” said Flaherty. “Even when you’re sobbing and the world is falling apart around you, you’re like ‘Okay, we’re going to laugh about it sometime—maybe not right now, but we’ll laugh about it.”

K.Flay
K.Flay CREDIT Trent Barboza

Flaherty has been working on embracing fleeting moments of happiness after periods of adversity. She shared that she recently had dinner with a friend who’s a fellow musician, and they discussed how in the music industry, “the highs are so high, but the lows are so low.”

“That’s true of life in general, but I think it’s a little bit heightened when you have a public-facing job. I was saying to her, from my perspective, it’s about acknowledging but not buying into the permanence of any of those moments,” Flaherty explained. “So when you are riding fucking high and everyone loves your shit and you’re on the cover of this thing and you’re playing a sold-out show, whatever it is, acknowledge it, celebrate it, but don’t buy into its permanence. And conversely, when you’re in the fucking lows, acknowledge them, mourn them. You can feel sad, but also don’t buy into the permanence of that.”

Flaherty was already going through a period of upheaval before her medical issues. In early 2021, she went through a challenging breakup with her longtime partner. After mourning the relationship, she started regaining confidence. It inspired her latest single, ‘It’s Been So Long’ which she wrote shortly after the relationship dissolved.

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“I was in Nashville, working with my longtime producing collaborator and friend JT Daly. I was out of this relationship that I’d been in for a while and really just finally getting to that place like ‘How Stella Got Her Groove Back’, all of a sudden you’re back [to yourself]. It just hit me,” recalled Flaherty.

With her confidence renewed, the lyrics poured out easily.

“For me, there are those moments when you are reconnected with your own power and confidence and you really have to celebrate them because we don’t always feel that way,” she said. ” I think I try not to revel in the angst, and I try not to revel in the joy either. I know that sounds weird, but you just want to have an equanimity and an acceptance for everything. But when you obtain into those moments, so when I’m angsty as hell, I need to write a song. When I feel happy, I don’t always want to write a song about it, but this felt like a time when I did.”

Much like for ‘It’s Been So Long’ Flaherty embraced getting in touch with her emotions for ‘Inside Voices/Outside Voices’. The record—a combination of her 2021 EPs ‘Inside Voices’ and ‘Outside Voices’—was inspired by Sigmund Freud’s theories of the personalities we’re made up of: the id, the ego, and the superego. Flaherty, who double majored in psychology and sociology at Stanford University, wanted to incorporate her academic interests into her music and exploration of her psyche.

“I think Sigmund Freud is responsible for a lot of bad matters in this world, but I do think the notion of the id, the ego and the superego are very useful, at least for me, as a framework to understand myself and other people,” she said. “I’m not aggressive, I’m not testy. I’m not really very moody, but beneath the surface, there is that person.

“I was really grappling with those feelings of my own anger, my own aggression, my own impropriety. There is a part of me that doesn’t want to be polite and there’s a part of all of us. And I think for me, I’ve pushed that down and I’ve tamped it down so intensely that the only place where I’ve really ever allowed it to come out is my music.”

Flaherty made the id the focus for ‘Inside Voices’. According to Freud’s theory, the id is the part of our psyche that rules the need for prompt gratification; when our desires are not met, we react with unfiltered aggression. But, what Flaherty discovered while writing the record was that when there’s a healthy outlet for that anger and frustration, it “doesn’t dominate the way we interact with the world.”

“I can be both a very kind person and a very angry person. Those matters aren’t incompatible. They can coexist. It’s just about how you channel shit,” she explained. “I knew that intellectually just from studying social science and having a grasp of it. But I never really thought about it in the context of myself and that was much scarier to do. Our first single off that record it’s called ‘Four Letter Words’ and the lyric in the chorus is just, “fuck you”. “It’s pretty much the gnarliest thing you can say to anyone.”

In the past two years, Flaherty has been figuring out a balance that helps her mental health. One of the changes she says has helped was her decision to stop drinking.

“In terms of my relationship with alcohol, my biological father was a very serious addict who died because of that when I was young,” she said. “I had a very black and white thinking about drugs and alcohol as a young person as a teenager. I was like, ‘Drugs and alcohol are bad, I’m not going to do them.’ It was simple. I didn’t even really have to think about it. And then once I started touring in my mid-twenties, it’s a part of the touring culture.”

Flaherty noted that drinking is “so institutionalized” in the music and touring industry that it got to a point where she realized she was abusing alcohol.

“Taking alcohol out of the equation for me again, just personally, creates an surrounding in which I feel really powerful. I used to think that drinking alcohol did create me feel powerful, but I don’t really think it did,” she reflected. “It was hard to disentangle that from a lot of cultural ideas about drinking, especially as a woman on tour with a bunch of men in the rock scene. Originally that was like, ‘Well, you’re fucking tough. You can drink with us, you can hang, you’re cool.’ I think I had to break that down and say, ‘Actually I’m just cool’.”

She continued, “Once I identified that and reduce it out of my life, what it did force me to do was really be present inside of discomfort because I was using it often as a way to try to diminish or mitigate my own personal discomfort. When I eliminated that and really had to sit and look my discomfort and pain in the eye, I could feel myself getting stronger. It was like doing pushups.”

Flaherty also says she’s embracing her inner strength. Not only is she taking care of herself, but she’s also genuinely proud of how far she’s come while facing hardships.

“Sitting inside of that whole experience, all of the chaos of it, all of the pain, the grief and the confusion and really being present for it, having no way to leave…Fuck, I’m strong,” Flaherty said. “For me, it’s so strengthening that I’ve just gone through a really fucking horrible breakup, the hardest breakup of my life. [Then] to go through going deaf, that was the hardest physical challenge. This shit is crazy, but I’m okay. Actually, I’m better; I’m stronger. So that’s the mindfuck for me is that really sitting and facing, looking the discomfort in the fucking eye. Oh man. It’s so hard, but it’s so good.”

That mentality is also what informs her future LP, which she teased is “80 per cent done.”

“I hope it will be the greatest thing I’ve ever made,” said Flaherty. “I believe it will be. It’s a record about power and it’s also informed by this experience that I’ve been going through with losing my hearing and the reckoning of that.”

Meanwhile, the recent cancellation of multiple tours from US and UK artists has brought attention to the mental health struggles numerous artists face on the road. In an open letter shared in September, Santigold wrote that she was “both sad and proud” to cancel her 2022 tour due to financial strain as well as “anxiety, insomnia [and] fatigue”.

Sam Fender also cancelled his remaining 2022 US tour dates earlier this year to look after his mental health, sharing at the time: “I’ve neglected myself for over a year now and haven’t dealt with matters that have deeply affected me. It’s impossible to do this work on myself while on the road, and it’s exhausting feigning happiness and wellness for the sake of business.”

For help and advice on mental health:

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