One day last fall, multiplatinum recording artist K.Flay woke up deaf in her right ear — hearing loss that she later learned was permanent. Suddenly losing half your hearing is traumatic for anyone, but what if you make your living as a musician?
The only thing our guest, K.Flay, could think to do was head to the studio and start making music, which was difficult with all the sensory changes she was experiencing. However, in a story of resilience and internal fortitude, K.Flay pressed onward. Listen as she shares her emotions and story and how that led to her latest album, MONO.
Based in LA and originally from Illinois, multiplatinum artist K.Flay, born Kristine Flaherty, started rapping and writing songs on a lark while attending Stanford University and soon began releasing her self-produced mixtapes. In 2017, she released her major label debut album “Every Where Is Some Where,” earning two GRAMMY Award nominations for the album’s iconic smash single “Blood in the Cut” and sending her to arenas around the world with her kinetic live set. As a songwriter, musician, and producer, she’s lent her talents to numerous collaborations, working with Fitz and the Tantrums, Bishop Briggs, Tom Morello, Louis the Child, Kaskade, Walk the Moon, Imagine Dragons, grandson, The Regrettes, Two Feet, MisterWives, and more. Whether working on her music or with others, K.Flay’s output remains rooted in her undeniable lyrical skills, an element she attributes to her innate love of language and its infinite possibilities. This spring, she announced her fifth studio album MONO — due out September 15th. The LP is her first for Giant Music and is her first since going suddenly and completely deaf in her right ear at the end of last summer. Although K.Flay’s hearing loss deeply informed her songwriting on MONO, the album marks the start of a new era for the artist who explores an entire spectrum of existential questions and complex matters of the heart and mind on the LP. Additionally, K.Flay wrote an original song “T-Rex” for Neflix’s groundbreaking new animated film “Nimona” which was released last month. A relentlessly boundary-pushing artist with more than 1 BILLION streams and 100K+ tickets sold, K.Flay continues to commit herself to constant growth by holding herself to higher and more rigorous standards in every aspect of her artistry.
Our host, Gabe Howard, is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to the podcast, everyone. I’m your host Gabe Howard, and calling in today we have multi-platinum artist K.Flay. K.Flay started rapping and writing songs on a lark while attending Stanford University. She’s a relentlessly boundary pushing artist with more than 1 billion streams, and she just recently released her fifth studio album, MONO. K.Flay, welcome to the podcast.
K.Flay: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to chat.
Gabe Howard: The listeners and I are very glad you’re here. And I want to ask you about your press pack. In your press pack for MONO. You share that you woke up one morning with total hearing loss in your right ear, a freak occurrence that doctors deemed permanent. And this led to you questioning whether you’d ever make music again. And you said, quote, “For a while it was upsetting to even listen to music. So, at some point I had to ask myself, can I still do this? Do I still want to?”
K.Flay: Absolutely. I think it might be relevant to mention because I’ve, you know, in talking about this record and the process of making it, I’ve thought a lot about this period of time right after the hearing loss, when I was really reckoning with how I was going to proceed. I do think it’s quiet, quite interesting and important to travel back in time to when I was like nine, ten years old and was in the midst of dealing with my OCD as a kid and which was, which was pretty, pretty limiting for me in a lot of ways. And I saw a psychologist who really changed my life, and he was the first person who introduced me to exposure therapy and a lot of cognitive behavioral strategies for managing my anxiety and turning a lot of these sort of irrational maladaptive beliefs into rational, adaptive ones. And so, I, as you mentioned, woke up suddenly with no hearing in my right ear and the world was a really disorienting place for my brain. My brain was just kind of in a in a tailspin a little bit when you have a massive sensory change like that. The world becomes chaotic and difficult to manage. And as I started having those fears about making music, listening to music, I do think that that little voice in my brain was like, hey, you probably need to get into the studio. Um, and that’s effectively what I did. About six weeks after I lost my hearing, I went into the studio and ended up writing what’s actually the first track on this record.
Gabe Howard: I think that anybody who woke up and couldn’t hear in one of their ears would panic and freak out. I know I would. And I’m not a musician. I’m just curious. Were your first thoughts about your career or were your first thoughts, you know, holy hell, my ear doesn’t work?
K.Flay: It’s important to mention that. I, in addition to the hearing loss, had very severe vertigo and loss of my equilibrium. So, I was like, I was throwing up like every 15 minutes. I was I was very physically sick to the point. I, you know, I went to the E.R., I, I didn’t even have the. You know, I didn’t have the mental capacity to really even think about the future. I was I was pretty I was pretty oriented in the present moment of how terrible I was feeling. I think my initial thoughts were, oh, my God. Am I ever going to feel better? And. How do I stop this? Uh, how do I stop some of these really uncomfortable feelings? So that was before I could even take it to a place of my career or the future. It was. It was really about kind of like getting back on my feet, especially the first week. It was like, hey, can I stand up? Can I move without vomiting? Can I make it to across my house okay to brush my teeth? So, it was a lot of those basic day to day concerns that I was, really, really focused on. Strangely and maybe not strangely. I didn’t panic. I feel like. I’ve had. I mean, you know, all of us have a lot of crazy things happen to us in life, but I feel I’ve had a fair number and. One thing I found to be true is that. I can handle it. Right? Like I have some evidence that even when things get really, really scary, really out of control, like, I’ve watched myself manage that. And I think, you know, over time that gives you a little bit of confidence. Um. As you as you move through these kinds of hard situations. So, I think I had a sense, luckily, that, okay, something bad, something scary is happening. But also, I will be able to manage it once I figure out what’s going on.
Gabe Howard: Now, ultimately, the hearing loss is permanent. What exactly happened? What were you diagnosed with?
K.Flay: So, I was diagnosed with something called sudden sensorineural hearing loss, which is a multi-syllabic way of saying that suddenly you lose your hearing. You know, it’s something that doctors call idiopathic, which means they don’t know how it happens. A lot of a lot of big words for describing like a sort of a freak occurrence. The prevailing wisdom around this condition is that a virus just an ordinary like a common cold or any kind of virus sneaks its way into your inner ear, which is not typically where viruses enter the body or exist and they wreak havoc. And the more serious your hearing loss is at the outset, the worse the prognosis is. And I think because the hearing loss was so profound for me right off the bat, there was there was an energy in, in these doctor’s offices of like prepare for. Prepare for a big change.
Gabe Howard: And it sounds like you were prepared for that big change. And I’m by no means suggesting that you wanted to go through it, but it does seem like you handled it well. Did it impact how you made music? What were those changes and what was the emotional toll in it? Because and please correct me if I’m wrong, you released four studio albums with both ears and your latest album, MONO, which I assume that’s where the title came from. You released with only one ear. So, I point all that out because that’s got to be a big difference in your process. How did you handle that mentally and emotionally?
K.Flay: Yes, a giant difference in the process in certain ways. And then in other ways, shockingly little difference. And so, I’ll say that the big differences were the first one’s a little bit of a technical difference. So different vocalists have different ways that they like to record their vocals. For me, I typically record with one headphone ear off and one on so that I can effectively what is called like monitor my vocal in the room to know how I’m sounding and especially when I’m recording layers and harmonies, that’s kind of how I listen to both my recorded voice and my in the room voice. Well, once I lost my right ear, I lost my monitoring ear. So, I was suddenly faced with like. Oh, God. How do I record myself? Something I’ve taken for granted. Like I’m in such a rhythm of how to sing and how I like to sing. And so, with this record, know the approach. It was more instinctive. Because I couldn’t quite it’s like I didn’t have the capacity to analyze my voice in the same way. So, I sort of just had to go with my gut. Like the gut performance, which, uh, in a way was scary because I. I was in new territory. But I do think it created, uhm, vocal dynamics that I never would have experimented with. So, I included a lot, a lot more that was not very thought out. And I think with any creative pursuit, there’s that sweet spot between like stream of consciousness, like in the moment and then revision, right? Like with any project and any song you reach that, that beautiful place where there’s enough of the in the moment feeling and enough of the kind of ex post facto edits and ideas that that you’re able to get to a really great place.
K.Flay: And I think I just had a lot more interesting in the moment ideas because of the hearing change . From a, I guess, slightly more like macro perspective, the change in hearing and the chaos of it all in my brain really made me feel urgency. Like the urgency of a beginner. So, like. If you’re if anyone listening, you’re if you’re learning something new, like a new instrument or a new skill. One of the things that happens is like, right when you learn how to do something, you want to share it. Like you’re so excited to demonstrate and share that new skill or you’re like, you know, learning to skateboard and you just learn how to do an Ollie. Like, you want to show that off, you want to, you want to perform that. So, I think, you know, it’s kind of like the lightning in a bottle of being a beginner and the hearing loss kind of put me back in that place. So, I felt like every time I made a song or had an idea or recorded something, I wanted to share it and I wanted to finish it and I wanted to make this album. And, you know, you mentioned I’ve released four studio albums before this. I’ve released a lot of music, you know, aside from those albums, you know, EPS, mixtapes, collaborations. It’s maybe been a minute since I felt the scrappy urgency of the beginner. And I really. I really felt that.
Gabe Howard: I think that might be one of the most incredible reframes that I’ve ever heard in my life. I just I love that, the scrappy urgency of a beginner. I think all of us can relate to that. We don’t have to be a multi-platinum selling Grammy winner to understand what it’s like in our careers and our hustles and our in our lives when buying our first homes, getting our first car, getting an allowance from mom and dad, there’s just an urgency when you do things the first time and it seems really awesome almost that that you got that back. Most of us don’t get to do it twice unless we completely switch projects or careers. It’s going to be a weird question that I’m about to ask you, but it was it was it worth it? I know that’s again; I hear how it sounds. But.
Gabe Howard: And we’re back with multi-platinum recording artist K.Flay, who recently released a new album called MONO. In your mind, was there? Is that silver lining worth the cloud? How do you again from an emotional and a mental health perspective you’re when I hear you talk about it, it’s so uplifting. I’m like this is incredible. And then I remember, oh, wait, you lost your hearing in one ear. That’s sad. Again, I’m just curious as to your perspective on all of this.
K.Flay: Yeah, I, it’s a, it’s a question that I understand. And people have asked it of me in different ways. And I think my answer to it, which in a way feels like a non-answer, is, of course it’s worth it because everything’s worth it like. It’s worth it because I didn’t get to make the deal. You know, like these tradeoffs. Right. And these these losses and these gains. You know, the statistical caprices of whatever the heck’s governing this world, if anything. I can tell you what definitely has been worth it is seeing this thing through and seeing where it can lead me. Like I don’t. I would love to hear with both ears. Um, there’s a lot, a lot that I miss, um, and a lot that has nothing to do with music. Just in my day-to-day life. I can’t locate sound. So, you lose that when you. When you have only one ear. It’s really hard for me to be in restaurants and parties and loud places. And, you know, my social life has been hugely impacted by this change and. There’s a lot that I still mourn and sometimes can feel frustrating, but. Undoubtedly what has been worth it is saying, okay, well, this is this is happening and this has happened. What? What new rooms is it leading me to in the house of my own life? And why don’t I just open those doors and see what’s inside? You know, and I don’t I don’t think I would have found these exact rooms had I not lost my hearing. I think I could have found similar rooms and I think I would have found different rooms. That seems maybe that’s a cop out answer, but that’s. That’s kind of how I how I feel about it. I. You know, I don’t I don’t live too much in the like, what ifs of the past or I try not to.
Gabe Howard: I’m a big what if guy. I come up with what ifs for everything. What if
K.Flay: Right. [Laughter]
Gabe Howard: I you know, what if I didn’t have bipolar disorder? What if I was famous? What if I got a job hosting The View? I don’t. I don’t know. I just. I come up with wild things at night, largely due to anxiety. But
Gabe Howard: It doesn’t serve me. I want to be very clear while I do it. I talk about this constantly in therapy. They’re like, Gabe, why? Why are you doing that? But I still want to say, though, I this is a really, really big deal. This isn’t your run of the mill. What if I had a different job? What if I married a different person? What if I had kids? What if whatever this is? What if you hadn’t lost your hearing? Seems like something that would haunt a person.
K.Flay: Um. Yeah, I. I do not feel like the what if? haunts me. Um, there have been. There have been some what ifs in my life. That that come back around like the tide. But I think as it pertains to this hearing loss. I’ve miraculously been able to. Move through it without those what ifs. And, you know, it was interesting because my mom, who’s a very anxious person, she struggled with those what ifs, in a way that was really different from me. And I’m sure it’s always harder being someone on the outside, right, watching it’s your child, this is happening to you, someone you love. Um, but it was interesting because she was a little bit of a foil for me where I was like. Mom, I’m not even thinking about that. Like I’m, you know, her. Her head was going to that that anxious place of sort of rerunning the tape and. For whatever reason, I haven’t I haven’t been rerunning the tape. And I think a big part of it, too, is. I’ve been feeling. Okay. So, I’m sure, Gabe, you can relate to this across many axes of your life, but like when you’re in the process of doing something difficult and.
K.Flay: At a sort of different increments. Along that process. You. You gain confidence? I think it makes those what ifs get really quiet. So even though I was like wildly uncomfortable with my new sensory reality and. Even though I felt grief and fear in certain ways, I was also. Like, you know, I was kind of like lifting weights, like, emotionally and psychologically. And so, I would feel, you know, like with each passing week and month and I was going through physical therapy to deal with all my balance issues. I could really see these changes happening. And at the same time, I was starting to write music and feel really connected to it, inspired and excited. And I was also, you know, in the kind of earlier stages of a relationship with my girlfriend who’s just the best. And like we were building like kind of our love and our partnership and like, so there were all these things along the way that were just like. Giving me a sense of strength. And that was that was really, really helpful I think in quieting again those. The rewind of the tape.
Gabe Howard: Before I ask this next question, I first want to make sure is the album name MONO in reference to your hearing loss?
K.Flay: It is. Um,
Gabe Howard: I figured as much. I thought I
Gabe Howard: Cracked the code, but I never, ever like to assume. But. But I’ve got to ask, is, is it from your perspective, is that a bit of gallows humor? Is that a is that an empowerment? I’m taking it back and you can’t stop me. Why did you name your album MONO?
K.Flay: Well, okay, it’s partially gallows humor because I think like, oh my Lord, if you cannot have a sense of humor about the total absurdity of life, yeah, I actually think you’re just missing out on a delightful part of the experience. Um, but it’s, it’s also, you know, more broadly connected to mono as a prefix. Uh, mono as a prefix. Meaning one. And, for me, the journey of my adult life has been and this this relates to my sobriety as well. And my decision to quit drinking and sit in that discomfort is that I have been. Scared. By the fact that we’re born alone. We die alone, and we’re stuck in this body. Kind of alone and. We can be with other people and we can be connected. But yourself, you are kind of a discrete one thing. And the fact the mere fact of that has been a source of great angst for me and I and I think this this record, I hope, you know, listening from start to finish and this is again been sort of the, the journey I’ve been on personally as well is like song one is like, oh my God, a crazy thing happened. I’m scared and alone. And by the end, we get to the song perfectly alone. And it’s like. Here I am. I’m sitting with all this discomfort. And I’m. And I. And I’m alone, and that’s okay. So. You know, it’s a, it’s certainly a nod to the hearing loss, but more broadly, it’s about that that other struggle of. Coming to terms with really just being a human on this earth.
Gabe Howard: I love music. I love gallows humor. I love it when anybody can look at the absurdity of the world and turn it into a positive for themselves. As somebody who has experienced depression, I got to tell you, the number one tool that I’ve used is just to take a good hard look around and think, well, well, hell with it. And I usually don’t say hell with it. I’m just on a PG-13 podcast. I K.Flay It’s awesome. It’s awesome. Everything that you have done. Thank you so much for talking about it. Where can folks find you on online? Where can folks get your album? Tell us everything we need to know so that we can all become super fans.
K.Flay: Okay. Well, you know, I love my super fans and I welcome, I welcome new additions. Uh, you can find me pretty much anywhere and everywhere on the Internet. This new record, MONO, it’s available everywhere you stream music. We also have a few different vinyl variants if you are into vinyl. And we spent quite a bit of time on making some really cool packaging for that. It’s a really, I hope, a very gratifying experience to listen to the record on vinyl. And Gabe, I really appreciate the conversation and you creating this space. I think, you know, one of the most instrumental parts of my the, the recoveries from hardship and grief throughout my life has been community dialog. And again, sort of dismantling the infrastructure of shame. So, I just appreciate you for creating a space that that does that very thing.
Gabe Howard: Oh, thank you. Thank you so very much. And I can’t agree with you more. When I was alone, thinking about it all by myself. It’s siloed, right? You can only think about it from your perspective. Once I found a larger community and started hearing different people’s stories, it just opened up so much for me. So, thank you so much for being part of that. It’s incredible to see it grow, not based on what I started, but just in general. I am glad that more and more and more people are being open and honest about mental health.
K.Flay: Oh, my gosh. Me too. And, um, yeah, everybody, if you’ve made it this far, go stream this record, go put it on your vinyl player. I’m pretty sure you’re going to love it. And if you don’t, that’s also okay.
Gabe Howard: [Laughter] Do it. Do it.
K.Flay: But, I’m pretty sure you’re gonna love it.
Gabe Howard: I agree.
Gabe Howard: K.Flay, thank you so much. And a big thank you to all of our listeners. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m an award-winning public speaker, and I could be available for your next event. I’m also the author of the book “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations.” You can get it on Amazon because, well, you can get everything on Amazon. However, you can grab a signed copy with free show swag and learn more about me just by heading over to my website, gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is 100% free and you don’t want to miss a thing and listen up. Can you do me a favor? Recommend the show to everyone you know? Because sharing the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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