360°Sound caught up with non-binary indie singer-songwriter KALI (pronounced Kaw-Lee). The 17-year-old multi-instrumentalist and producer from Los Angeles, who uses they/them pronouns, just released “Insomnia,” the final single from their forthcoming second EP. Earlier this year, KALI went on a tour with bedroom pop musician Claud and also played gigs at SXSW in Austin, Texas. In this exclusive interview, KALI talks about the many instruments they play, the new single, songwriting, and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360° Sound: How do you describe your music to people?
KALI: I usually tell people to listen to it because I think I have trouble putting it into a box. When I’m making music I don’t really consider genre as something that I aspire to be a part of. Not in a pretentious way but in a way where I listen to so many types of music that I’m just really trying to pull from all of my influences and make something that just sits right with me regardless of what kind of box an algorithm would put it into. I usually brief people that I’m a multi-instrumentalist and a producer so everything that you’re hearing is directly from me in the truest parts of myself.
What all instruments do you play and how long have you been playing them?
I started taking piano lessons when I was 4. A lot of musical theory is derivative of classical piano playing, and it’s a really helpful instrument to know how to play in terms of getting the basics of theory down and branching out to other instruments. I started there, and then about two years into that, I started learning how to play guitar and started singing. I then picked up bass and drums and played violin for a stint in elementary school and then moved to upright bass when I was in high school.
I began working on everything, taking lessons pretty seriously up until around age 14. I was really into making music around that time. I’d done the demos for my first EP. In the beginning of high school, I was really heavily involved in orchestra and jazz band. I’ve been playing in different kinds of settings with music for a really long time. I think lessons were super helpful in giving me the tools, and then the different context that I was able to use those tools is what has made my ability to create and compose stronger.
I would consider myself to be a guitarist and a bassist predominantly, but I have a soft spot for each instrument that I play and everything kind of builds off each other. When I went on the road in March, I did a power trio and played bass live, which was really fun.
Your new single “Insomnia” dropped on May 18. Tell us about how that one came together.
I’m really excited about this one. This is the final single I’m releasing in support of my next EP. When I wrote it, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be the last song on my EP because the way I wrote this EP and produced it was like in a six-week period where I would make a demo, which would take me a week, and then I’d do the next one.
I was at a point in a weird situation with someone that I had feelings for, and it really wasn’t working out. I sort of had to let go of this hope that things would eventually get better and come to terms with the reality that I’m able to care about someone, but it doesn’t mean that their place in my life is contributing to positive mental health. That’s what this song is about.
On your Facebook page, it says “hey i’m kali im 5 feet tall and i make music about how i feel!” Does your life and feelings directly inform your songwriting?
Yeah, I would say that. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s always about me. A lot of my music is influenced by the people around me like my best friends, my parents, and experiences that they have. I would consider myself quite an empathetic person, and I’m really impacted by those who I choose to spend my time with.
I would consider my songs to be about relationships, not necessarily romantic, but relationships between my friends and I, between my parents and I, relationships in terms of perspective. Me and my music, everything is related, every part of my world is related to one another, and everything is filtered through my perspective, which I’m able to express in my music.
You covered Prince’s “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” for Amazon Music. How’d you go about choosing that song and interpreting it?
Prince is one of my favorite artists and just someone I really look up to. He presents himself in such a confident manner. He plays everything and writes everything himself. I truly look up to him. It’s known that he hates people covering his songs, and so he’s unfortunately passed so I thought I’m not going to get any flak from him for this cover.
I’d been listening to that song on that record Prince. I think that was probably the first Prince record that really impacted me. I was just in love with that song at that point of my life, which was about a year ago. I tried to go about it in a way that was like, ‘OK, I’m making a new song, but it’s already written, and how can I make this my own and bring it into the sonic landscape that I created with the music that’s coming out?’
You’ve collaborated with some well-known producers. What are some things you’ve learned about producing music in the last few years?
I feel like I take something away from each person that I work with. Production is dependent on the person. For my first record, I was working with someone who was more dedicated to executing the vision. My demos for the Circles EP were definitely a lot less detailed and fully crafted than the ones for this next EP. From that experience, I was like, ‘Oh, I want to do more by myself. I want to be more detailed and articulate, and I want to make more decisions early on.’
Through this process for this new EP and the songs that have been coming out, I took it upon myself to do as much as I could to fully form the songs from start to finish and so the process was a bit different in working with someone like Tony Berg, who is very opinionated. It was very interested to work with him because he does have his own opinions and it was really helpful to learn how to communicate my wants and needs for my music and become more confident in that sense. From him, I’ve learned that there has to be focus on the song and the story that you’re trying to tell. As much sound that’s going on, if there’s not a story beneath all of that then you’re not crafting anything with full meaning. That was very impactful, and I’m really excited for this EP to come out.
What are your goals as a musician?
One of my main goals is to go on some more tours and open up for some bigger artists and then when the time is right, do a headline tour. My biggest goal in terms of creating music is to release a full-length. I’ve never done that. I’m in the process of working on one now. Also, working on other people’s music that’s not my own, whether that be co-writing or playing on other people’s records or producing. The goal is just to have my hand in as many pots as I can stir.