It’s easy to think of a Stanford alum lecturing behind a podium. But rapping on a stage? Slightly less indicative of the institution. Kristine Flaherty ’07, otherwise known as K.Flay, is Stanford’s answer to M.I.A. Wielding a distinct cross between feminist lyricism, hip-hop and indie mash-ups, K.Flay’s music proves that suburban queens can rap.
Starting her sophomore year at Stanford, K.Flay began writing music and performing at venues on campus.
“I was just making music for fun,” she said. “It was a release when I didn’t want to do schoolwork, kind of a cathartic thing. When events were happening on campus, I just played.”
Two full albums and several releases later, her Cubberley Auditorium debut has given way to the stages of major music festivals like SXSW and CMJ, and tours opening for Passion Pit and 3OH!3.
So what’s it like being on the road with the other bands?
“We use similar software, so it’s cool to watch how other people set it up, and learning how they organize their set,” K.Flay said. “The learning process is what’s important about being on the road.”
But unlike the bands she’s toured with, K.Flay is a one-person act. The verses, the guitar lines, the electronic effects are all her.
“It’s just little old me – my biggest challenge is creating a visually interesting show,” said the psychology and sociology double major. “I move around a lot. I have to be cognizant of interacting with the audience. Audiences are very forgiving, though. If you come with a genuine-ness to you, they are super accommodating. If you handle the situation, people don’t care. They give you ideas.”
Not to imply that K.Flay is short on inspiration; on the other hand, ask her about her influences and she jolts into a spirited discussion of everything from Rakim to her favorite album, “Exile in Guyville” by indie-rock legend Liz Phair.
“Hip-hop is rich in musical allusion,” she told me excitedly, after I admitted to being hip-hop ignorant. “It takes something that already existed, respects it and reuses it. A good number of contemporary songs are actually reimagining older lyrics. Like Eminem singing ‘And I am, whatever you say I am.’ That chorus is actually taken from Eric B. and Rakim. The reimagining of little things like that is the way people rediscover old artists.”
In fact, K.Flay’s music sampling has a similar effect on her own live audiences. Her newest single “Too Weak,” samples “Two Weeks,” the first single off of Grizzly Bear’s 2009 release “Veckatimest.”
“People like it!” she laughed. “If I hear a song and it strikes me in a way that I can use what’s there and innovate it in an interesting way, I’ll use it. Because there’s a previous connection with the song, it has a really good reception. I do that with ‘The Wanting Comes In Waves’ by The Decemberists, too. There’s a guitar riff after the chorus, and I cut it up and use it in the live set. It’s a cool way for people to connect to my own music, since many of them haven’t heard of me, as an opening act.”
That’s about to change though. With more tour dates set for the coming year, and a tentative new release set to drop in late winter 2011, K.Flay is gearing up for another busy year of touring and promotions.
“Right now, I have a super easy setup, it’s super portable, but I’d love to expand the live show, get a couple of other people involved.”
Though she’s hip-hop, K.Flay appreciates the music and live energy of indie acts.
“Have you heard of Mutemath? I saw them at The Fillmore, not knowing any of their music, and I can easily say they were one of the top three bands I’ve ever seen live. At one point during the show, the drummer dismantled his drums, threw out his bass drum into the crowd, crowd surfed to it and played it in the crowd. It was totally captivating. Arcade Fire are similar. They have a really cool dynamic on stage. They’re such a unique experience to see live.”
This year the goals are less ambitious than crowd surfing, though. “The main thing is to go out on the road. Try to get in front of people and just play.”
Or, as she puts it in the closing lyrics of “Too Weak”: “I, I wanna be, be somebody, someone golden.” It’s what all Stanford students aspire to.
You can catch K.Flay live next Friday, Dec. 10 at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco.