Somewhere in her home movie archives, there’s a grainy video of preschool-age KALI jamming onstage at a recital with a guitar twice her size slung over her shoulder. Ask anyone who has grown up with the now 16-year-old Los Angeles-based artist, and they’ll tell you that music is what she was meant to do from the day she was born.
If the response to the first two songs of her young career is any measure, it would seem that they are right. “Back To The Start” and “Lucy” have racked up millions of streams over just a few months, establishing her as a promising new voice among her indie rock peers.
From her DIY beginnings playing shows at The Smell and producing on Garageband to now gearing up for the release of her debut EP CIRCLES on May 7th, KALI’s songwriting has steadily matured as she’s developed her sound. Out today is her third single “I Just Wanna,” the EP’s most frenetic and danceable track yet.
LADYGUNN spoke with KALI about the making of the song, her musical foundation, and facing changing feelings.
You started playing music when you were just four years old—did your parents play music in your home when you were growing up?
Yeah, they played a lot of music. I was really into the Beatles when I was younger. I would have these dance parties with my mom—I remember looking at the iTunes screen and pretending that I was one of them. She also had this live acoustic performance of Adele’s “Melt My Heart To Stone” that I watched over and over on my phone, and “When They Fight They Fight” by Generationals is ingrained in me because she used to play it in her Honda Civic. It makes me think about that car, and it’s just so catchy. I was also really into ELO and was a big Olivia Newton-John fan. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she was definitely my first crush. So when I heard “Xanadu,” which was ELO and Olivia-Newton John together, that blew my mind. I also used to make my dad play ELO’s “Livin’ Thing” on repeat so I could pretend that I was playing the violin. I was obsessed with the strings.
So even then you were imagining yourself performing?
Yeah! I was actually watching my old live videos yesterday for the first time in so long. At the beginning of quarantine I was watching them a lot, then I did again yesterday and it just filled me with joy.
I wanted to ask you about that. The only live video you have up right now is your first ever performance of “Back To The Start,” your debut song. When you watch that video, you can see the joy on your face. I’m sure it goes without saying that you miss it.
Oh yes. I realized this summer how much of a role playing live shows had in my life. It was something that I used to think about a lot and would look forward to. I definitely daydreamed pre-Covid about playing live shows. They’re very cathartic and help me release my stress, especially because I scream so much on stage.
That’s one of the coolest differences between your recordings and your live performances—you take moments to release like that. Have you thought about what your show might look like once you’re able to play again?
Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it a lot more in the past few weeks. I’ve been talking to my team about doing live sessions, and there’s been discussion of where I’m going to play when I go back to playing shows. It’s incredible to think about because it’s going to be completely different now that my music is out. I’m so excited for that because I’ve never experienced that before.
You can meet people who have come across your music and are now part of your world and your feelings.
Yeah, and I also just love my bandmates. I have these memories of driving back home from shows with them. After we play each show we grow closer and there’s this layer of closed-offness that comes off. It’s a very vulnerable time, but the whole experience is just so fulfilling.
Let’s talk a little bit about your new single “I Just Wanna.” How did it start?
I wrote this song when I was daydreaming about this one person a lot. Just constantly thinking about them. And at that point in time they were on vacation somewhere, so I wanted to be with them and wanted to tell them how I felt, but I couldn’t. I felt very trapped by my own emotions, and that’s how I started writing the song. I was just in my studio after a rehearsal, and I remember I got the idea for the chords and came up with the melody in a very short time span.
When you listen to it in its finished form, does it feel like it’s teaching you about how to process those kinds of emotions?
Yeah, I mean I think this song is really about letting go. That’s what it represents for me. The second verse I wrote a few months after the first when I was planning on ending this relationship, which I guess adds to this idea of circles.
Can you talk a little bit about how that extended to the EP as a whole and how you thought about calling it CIRCLES?
This process has been long, but I’ve learned so much about myself through it and so much about the artistry behind meaning what you’re writing about. What I’m really happy about with this EP is how through the art, the sounds, and even the song structures, it’s all cohesive and circular in a sense. I feel like each song is its own little circle because they all have a sense of repetition. All of the things I’m talking about were repetitive in my life that entire time—I started writing the EP when I was fourteen and it wasn’t finished until I was sixteen, so it feels very symbolic.
Given that you’re a multi-instrumentalist, have you been gravitating towards writing on any particular instrument?
I tend to switch off between guitar and any sort of keyboard. I love piano. Yesterday I wrote a song on acoustic guitar and then played it on my synthesizer and it changed the entire energy of the song, in a good way. It was not the approach I was going for at first, but now I’m totally in love with it. And I think that’s so cool. Same chords, same tempo, but you just switch instruments and it changes your perspective.
Do you remember what you started writing “I Just Wanna” on?
I think of that song as a very keyboard heavy song, but I came up with the chords on guitar. It was very slow at first, a really slow strum on my Jazzmaster, and then I switched to an organ sound, and that made me change the energy of the song to make it a bit faster. It also changed in the studio, because the first verse is just vocals and bass, which gave it this dark energy. And the picking of the bass made it more percussive.
That leads me into something I wanted to ask you about, which is your process. Artists everywhere have had to change their creative process because of Covid. What does yours look like right now within the restrictions of the pandemic?
I definitely think I give things a lot more time now. And when we were playing shows, I had more standard rock/pop song structures in the back of my head because I was thinking about playing them live. But with the last two songs on the EP, I started to think about how they could be something separate from the live experience. So with quarantine, I haven’t thought about the live stuff for a while because it’s been solely me in my studio. I was feeling very creatively fertile there in the beginning of quarantine, and then during the summer went through this period of time where I wasn’t really feeling like myself, so it’s always changing. Every day is a new perspective.
Is there anything specifically that you feel got you back to a good headspace?
Talking to more artists definitely, and also just allowing myself to not think about things that don’t need to be thought about all the time. When I make music, it’s a space for me to sort of come to terms with how I’m feeling.
What’s been inspiring you?
My friends have been inspiring me a lot recently, and yesterday I was feeling very inspired after watching a documentary called “Alive Inside” about music’s effect on people with Alzheimers. It’s so beautiful that someone can create music that exceeds their lifetime and impacts someone else by literally bringing them back to life. I feel like I made music for so long where I just thought about its effect on me, and now I feel like it can change other people. Also, I have a window in the place where I work right next to the 405 [freeway], and when I’m writing I look at the cars and it’s very inspiring. They’re just going and it’s very beautiful.
I feel that! The fact that they will always be there is comforting, in a way.
Yeah, it’s that circular feeling, you know? There’s comfort in knowing that it all keeps moving, that everything is always changing.
CONNECT WITH KALI
photos / Sophia Ziskin & Zealand Yancy
story / Connor Dillman