“Music is a language so the more you know about a language the better you can communicate your ideas to other people,” says Leven Kali on how his work producing and writing for other artists across genres informs the way he approaches making his own music. In the language of music, Kali is multilingual having worked with Snoh Aalegra, Playboi Carti, Ty Dolla $ign, Smino, Jazmine Sullivan, and most recently, Beyoncé for her Renaissance album. The different perspectives and sounds are contexts for how he can best communicate through his own music which can be described as soul music for today’s generation of youth. His catalog comprised of Low Tide, High Tide, and his new EP, Let It Rain, are tinged with R&B melodies, groovy beats, and rhythmically soulful sounds that evoke movement.
Born in the Netherlands to musician parents who were touring at the time, his father is a founding member of the funk-rock band Mother’s Finest, Kali grew up in Santa Monica, California. Fittingly, his music often sounds like the feel-good sunny vibes of the West Coast but it’s really his fascination with water that informs much of his creation. The way that music is affected by water, and humans are affected by music was a source of inspiration for Let It Rain with songs like “Eek” having the ability to change your entire mood, for the better, in four minutes or less. You may have stumbled upon Kali’s music for the vibes but you’ll likely stay for the meaning. The 6-track EP is an ode to the power of letting go and the beauty that comes with melting away what no longer serves you to allow room for more—whatever that may be.
Throughout our conversation, Kali is full of contemplative anecdotes relating to music and the overall journey of life which give further insight into his music and the many takeaways listeners can apply to themselves. Below, he chats about the meaning behind his affinity for water, sculpture-making as a metaphor for personal growth, and how working on Beyoncé’s Renaissance taught him that good things come to those who let go. You can catch him live in Toronto at Adelaide Hall on Sunday, November 6th (tickets available here).
The concept for EP ‘Let It Rain’:
The project is inspired by the lead single, “Let It Rain”, which is really a statement for the whole project in the sense of letting go and [releasing]. It’s [an] inspiration to move and to dance. For this project, in particular, I really wanted to find a place where R&B, soul music, and these sounds that I love can flow and are rhythmic and upbeat in a groovy way.
The inspiration behind the lead single:
I made the song based on conversations I had with a friend about water. There’s this doctor, [Dr. Masaru Emoto], that does these studies where he freezes water, he’ll play certain music for the water, and it changes the molecular structure of water—literally when he takes these photos of it. I was really inspired by that and thinking about how people talk to their plants and that changes how the plants grow, how we pray before we eat, what that really means, and how that affects the food. At the beginning of the song “Let It Rain”, I’m speaking these affirmations and I’m talking to this person or to myself and that concept is what inspired the EP.
How he worked with Riley Lattanza to communicate meaning in the EP artwork:
Riley directed and edited the “Let It Rain” music video as well and in [the] process of working on that video we talked a lot about the themes of the project. As much as I’m interested in water, I’m [also] interested in the balance of life. That could be the Libra jumping out in me but the cover art if you look closely it’s inspired by those Rorschach tests where they show you a blob of ink and they say what does this look like to you? If you hold the artwork [in] different ways you might see different things and the different things that you see provide a balance for what you would see if you looked at it from the opposite angle. We tried to put little things that you can find and look for and also leave room for the viewer to create their own meaning. That ties into the whole theme of this project which is self-discovery, love discovery, letting the rain wash [things] away, melting away things that aren’t who you are or what you want, and [making] meaning for yourself.
Why water is a constant source of inspiration:
I have a huge fascination with water, especially how water relates to music. When I found out about [Dr. Masaru Emoto] I was already into water and that sort of threw me over the edge. It sent me on a whole journey of trying to figure out how water is affected by music [and] how we’re affected by music. So the rain, how it literally washes away the debris on the ground, and for me, it washes away the feelings, pain, and stress that I have—whether it’s actual rain or even just taking a shower. Water, for some reason, touching my body has a profound effect and I feel like the music that I write is different when I’m around water. If I’m near the ocean and writing music it feels different, easier even, than if I’m in a studio with no windows. The way that we relate to water and how water works in the universe is a beautiful way to look at life, how we approach problems, and how we approach the journey of life.
The most purposeful song on the EP:
“Melting” is the most meaningful to me from a concept standpoint [and it] represents this phase that I feel like I’m at right now. I’ve gotten to a certain point where in order for me to continue growing and experiencing new things I need to unlearn what I’ve learned so far, make room for new, and melt away the things that maybe aren’t who I truly am in order to embrace the real me. I think about it how sculptures are made versus how buildings are made or even songs. We look at music as layering, you start with this sound, you have another sound, this lyric, you layer things on top and you create this product or piece of art. With sculptures, everything is there and the sculpture is removing everything that isn’t the sculpture to reveal [it]. Instead of chipping away, I like to think of it as melting away everything that isn’t the sculpture. That song is inspired by that concept and I’ve been really thinking about that every day for the last while.
Photographed by Vonny Lorde.
How touring and live performance can inform the creative process:
When you do a live show and you’re on stage looking at the crowd and you’re singing your songs you realize that it’s pure communication. When you’re alone in your studio and you’re making music, at least for me, I wasn’t at first necessarily thinking about the person that was listening to me. I was just thinking about my process of making the music and telling my story and then you get out in front of people and you realize wow in telling my story there are certain parts of it that are communicated clearer and I wonder why that is. [I’ve] definitely been thinking about the live experience and creating the songs in a way that the feelings I have that I’m getting out are going to be communicated well so that we can share this experience together.
What’s changed since his last project:
Since High Tide came out in May of 2020, at that point we weren’t sure how long the pandemic would last, there was a bit of hope that it would [only] be a couple of months. At least for me I had an expectation of what my next few months or couple years would be like after that project came out, being on the road, [and] doing all sorts of things. When you’re thrown off of the path that you expect to be on, you can either panic and freak out or you can adapt and let go of your expectations and control over your future and you end up in a more peaceful place. It’s almost like the tighter you hold onto things the worse off they really become. You get rid of this room for magic and the universe or god and being forced to do that taught me that with everything I need to not hold on so tight and let go to really be able to grow and receive the things that I want to experience.
Creating alone versus collaborating with others:
If I’m working alone or with my core team that I’m comfortable with, those sessions I like to go in with a plan and sometimes without a plan. When I’m collaborating with [other] people I like to make the collaboration organic and unique in the sense that what we make is something that we both conceived and shared in the inception of. If someone is being brought into the project, I try not to just send things to people, like can you touch this or send your verse back, I feel like in order for the collaboration to be meaningful it needs to be something that is birthed from both of us connecting and being together organically.
The importance of intent in the creative process:
Whether I’m in the studio or not when the actual creation process starts there needs to have been something inspiring to cause me to start recording or playing. That’s the biggest difference between now and past projects. I may be able to go into the studio and make whatever and if it was cool I would hold onto it but now I’ve been inspired by the process being kickstarted by the feeling of having to get something out. So if I have [a] conversation or experience then it’s like okay I want to bring this to the studio as opposed to whatever the fuck is going on imma just go in and make some shit.
Photographed by Vonny Lorde.
The relationship between music and mental health:
The way that I think about it is music and spirituality. Spirituality for me is very grounding and serves as a way for me to check in with myself mentally and physically. Those things get expressed in music, especially on this project, with the idea of letting things go, melting away, and letting expectations, pain, and fear wash away. I feel like my mental health is served through my spiritual connection to music.
How knowledge of production can be advantageous:
It informs everything, music is a language so the more you know about a language the better you can communicate your ideas to other people. It’s like maybe you can go to another country and you know enough to ask to go to the bathroom but could you tell a story? Could you crack a joke? The more you know about a language or a culture the more you can communicate and music is all about communication. Working with other people, producing, writing for women, writing for older people, whatever it is that gets me out of my perspective as me, gives me more information, context, and perspective to be able to communicate using this language of music.
His experience working on Beyoncé’s ‘Renaissance’ album:
My biggest takeaway from that is actually expressed in the song “Melting”, I have a lyric where I say “you have to let go to get everything you asked for” and in the process of working on that album there are so many moving parts [and] it’s such a big operation that it’s impossible to predict or control what’s going to happen. Even musically, how the song will take shape, through the evolution of the songs the goals may evolve as you’re working on a record, it’s very hard to have an expectation and then see that expectation through. You have to let go of your control of the process and just give yourself to it and then you can actually be present in the way that you need to be in order to create that type of music at that level. It’s not my project, it’s her vision and I need to let go and be a part of that as opposed to trying to control something and do what I think is right. That’s true in all [collaboration] is that you have to let go of your control to really get the end result that you didn’t even know you could make.
On his collaborative relationship with his parents:
The biggest lesson I’ve learned from my parents is the importance of community [and] that’s outside of music. My family is scattered around the world, in LA, a lot of my family is not necessarily blood. My aunts, my uncles, and my cousins may not be blood [but] I would be nothing without them. It takes a conscious effort to embrace and create that community and to keep it together. Seeing my mom and dad navigate the world with these relationships that they’ve had for years, I’ve seen the importance of that. Relationships and love are more valuable than money and opportunity. There’s that proverb where it’s like you can move fast alone but you can go further together.
In a deeper sense, what we both learned from each other is the learning process never ends. The student becomes the teacher, the teacher becomes the student and that cycle keeps on spinning. I’m at an age now where when I talk to my parents, a lot of the conversations are about deeper things, you can talk about things almost as friends even though it’s always that dynamic of parent and child but there’s more of that understanding as you get older. Even the fact that we’re able to talk about things and work through things together is a lesson in itself that you’re never too old, too wise, or too removed to be able to learn something through somebody.