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Kali Flanagan Savors the Chance to Grow with the Guitar While She’s Still a Teenager

November 11, 2019
Written by
Taylor Ysteboe
Photos Courtesy of
the Artist

Since she was four years old, Kali Flanagan has cultivated a passion for music—but for now, she just wants to take it slow and find her groove.

Kali Flanagan isn’t like a lot of teenagers. Sure, the Santa Monica-based singer/multi-instrumentalist/producer goes to school and socializes with friends, with whom she exchanges the names of artists and albums she’s currently into. But when she gets home, she unleashes the creativity that has been bubbling inside her all day.

Flanagan’s natural gift for music started at the age of 4, and her hard work and dedication to the craft has helped shape her into a conscientious and brilliant musician. Initially fueled by her love of the Beatles, who “made music seem cool,” the 15-year-old continues to absorb more music as she grows older, including everyone from the Pixies, to Radiohead and Mac Demarco, to Frank Ocean—all of whom help shape her own sound. 

For now, Flanagan releases her original songs through social media only, and plays them around Southern California simply as KALI (though she formerly performed with her band, Big Wednesday). With major surf rock and jangle pop vibes, reminiscent of Alvvays and Rilo Kiley, Flanagan adds a contemporary and soulful twist to her old-school classic rock influences. An open mind and ear has aided Flanagan in sharpening her skills on the guitar, bass, keyboard, drums and violin—but she is always eager to learn more.

Credit: Zealand Yancy

You started taking piano lessons at a young age, and then transitioned to the guitar and other instruments. What inspired your passion for music?

When I was in preschool, I had this teacher—Ms. Rushing—and she played bass guitar. I thought it was just a guitar because I didn’t know what a bass was when I was 5. I looked up to her; she was one of the first mentors I had other than my mom and dad. There was an admirable quality about someone having a guitar and being able to play it. 

Do you come from a musical family? What role have your parents played in you becoming a musician?

They don’t really play music. My mom played violin when she was a kid. They’ve just been really supportive along the way, and I can always rely on them to have my back. They’re always there for me with anything I need music-wise. 

Credit: Violet Spring

When did you start writing your own music? 

I took two master classes. The first class was in seventh grade—I tried writing, and it didn’t go well. The second time I tried it again, practicing writing music and doing it more often. Then it evolved, and became a more powerful tool than me playing covers. It took over my mind—I haven’t been able to stop.

I think it was just getting over the self-criticism, and that was a hard thing to get over at first. But after I realized it doesn’t matter if it’s good or not, I just started doing it. Eventually I taught myself to produce music, and that has shaped the way I write now.

Describe your songwriting process. As a multi-instrumentalist, do you pick up a certain instrument first?

Usually I start with chords, either on keyboard or guitar. But since I usually write in a setting where I have all of my instruments and tools at my disposal, I’ve been experimenting more recently with different instruments and aspects of production, just to see where it takes me.

In the past, my writing process was [to] start with chords and build from there. Before I learned how to produce, it was just me and my guitar. I’ll still do that. I’ll get melodies in my head all the time, and I’m at school so I have to voice memo them. At home I don’t have any of my equipment; I just have a couple of acoustic guitars. I’ll usually write lyrics and figure out chords and a melody. Then I take the plan that I formulated in my head at home, take it to the studio with everything that I have, and flush it all out. 

Credit: Zealand Yancy

Where do lyrics enter into your creative process?

They’re definitely something I care about a lot, because when I’m recording vocals, if I don’t resonate with my lyrics, I won’t be able to give the best vocal performance I can. 

It’s really random because sometimes I’ll come up with chords and instantly have ideas for two verses and a chorus. But other times, it’s just like in and out of production, because once I get the basis of the verse down, I’ll start to hear vocal melodies. That helps me navigate where I want to go with a song as well. 

They’re always there. It just depends where I’m at in the production of the song or how much I’ve written, because they play a role in how I go about finishing a song and where I go with it.

Credit: Zealand Yancy

Do you plan on formally releasing any songs or an album?

Right now I’m just trying to develop my sound more and see where it takes me, because I’m 15. There was a point in time where I was definitely considering it. My mindset has changed based on how everything is playing out. I just want to use the time that I have to my advantage, because not everyone has it.

How do you balance your music with your school work?

In terms of managing time, procrastination is horrible. I try and get all of my work done at school so when I come home, I can take a 30-minute breather and then have time to go to the studio. But it’s more about getting into the groove of things and figuring out what works best for me in terms of schedule and figuring out how I can work more efficiently, especially [with] writing. That’s why when I formulate my ideas at home, it’s really cool because then I can [go] to the studio, work on a song, and finish it in a day.

It’s quite difficult. It’s a unique thing for everyone, and it’s about figuring out what works for you and not spending too much time on your phone.

Credit: Rachel Framingheddu Murray

Are there any skills you want to learn or wish you could improve?

I’m in the jazz band at school, so I take classic jazz guitar lessons. I really wish that my fingers could move faster so I could shred like Wes Montgomery. Definitely working on that for sure. It takes time, hard work, and practice, but I’d love to be a jazz shredder at some point.

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