Leven Kali's Expressive Soul Reaches Towards Excellence
Leven Kali is just stepping out of the gym when his phone goes.
Life is 24/7 right now, he explains; when not writing music he's recording it, or speaking to collaborators, or sorting his live plans.
The past 12 months have been incredible. Releasing a full collab with Syd last January, his innately soulful songwriting reaches upwards into its own heavenly realm.
Ending the year with his fantastic three-part EP 'I Get High When I Think About Us' the Santa Monica native is allowing himself to dream big.
Stopping in his tracks just long enough, Leven Kali opens up to Clash about his focus in the studio, his surprise appearance on Drake's last album, and why Stevie Wonder remains a permanent point of inspiration in his universe.
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‘I Get High When I Think About Us’ was an amazing way to end the year…
Yeah! Before that I put out two songs - ‘NUNWRONG’ and ‘Good Loving’ - and I did that in early October, so I just felt that I wanted to keep giving the fans music. And I have so much music. Some people have an issue making music, but for me, I have an issue putting it out sometimes. So I just have so much music. It felt like a good time, and an easy way to get off some songs. Having Buddy and Na'kel was just good timing. It felt right. We were all excited about that music.
Does being around people like Buddy and Na'kel Smith inspire you?
Definitely. And it’s cool because – with those people in particular – I was pretty much regular friends with them before we even made a song together. We had a really good energy so when we finally got into the studio it was fun! And that’s how I feel a lot of relationships in music on the West Coast have come to be. We just hang out in non-musical settings and then we end up making music together and that’s always – to me – an organic thing.
You can’t force creativity, can you?
Completely. But it all depends. A lot of the time you’ll go into the studio with somebody and you might play each other records and then something inspires you and then you just go right off the bat, or you’ll be in the studio and just talk. For like three hours. And then you barely start working on something but it was more important to be able to talk and connect because when the next time you make music it’ll be special.
You had a credit on Drake’s ‘More Life’ - did that come about in the same way? In the past he’s actually DM’d people on Instagram!
Haha, he didn’t DM me! That was a song that I had already made with Snoh Aalegra, and then BOI1DA and Drake heard the song, and then they wanted to use it as part of the album. So that was crazy! I mean, it was so wild… I ended up meeting Drake around the same time, not even through that song. It was a wild time. I actually met him in London, through a completely different connect. It was all during the same month.
You’ve been incredibly productive – do you approach the studio in the same fashion as you do the gym, for example?
I’m leaving the gym right now and I’m headed to the studio to have a voice lesson. And then I’m probably going to just stay in the studio. My mom gives me voice lessons, so it’s not like I have to go too far out of my way to make that happen, but I try to be focussed.
I mean, I was in college – I dropped out of college to pursue music – and then when you leave school and there’s no more schedule for you, then you’ve got to make your own schedule. It took me a little bit of time to focus it, and not just be up until 4am every single night and then wake up at 2pm. I’m trying to figure that out. But sometimes it just goes like that – you end up working late, and you’re over-tired.
It feels like hard work sometimes but sometimes you can spend five minutes in the studio and it means more than when you’ve been there for 10 hours. It’s all random, there’s no formula.
Do you tend to work on one song at time, or do you have a collection of different ideas at various stages of completion?
Lately I’ve been trying to finish things more because it got to a point where I had so many unfinished ideas that were really strong – good songs that I had just left 70% of the way – and I’m at a point right now where I really want to finish everything and be able to put it out so I could have a clean slate and just create fresh again. I guess right now I’m trying to finish things, and stop jumping around so much in the studio.
Does 2019 represent a clean slate to you?
Almost! Honestly, I still have 50 songs and like 100 ideas that may never see the light of day but I want to finish as much as I can and put it out. I’m working on another EP right now. Once I get these songs out then it’ll feel like more of a clean slate. 2019 is the year to share everything with the world. Visually, audio. In my eyes I didn’t actually do that much last year. This year I want to have the foot on the gas and just not stop releasing music.
You mention visuals – is this a full three-dimensional project to you, then?
Yeah. And I really feel like I haven’t put enough time into the visual side of things. I’ve been so preoccupied with the music. So this year I want to dabble in the videos more and show people that me and my homies can really perform, and we’ve got good energy.
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‘Do You Wrong’ - your collaboration with Syd – landed 12 months ago, how did that one come about?
She’s super cool. She’s exactly how you would expect her to be. Very chill, very sweet. It was me and Syd and then our friend Zack Sekoff who is such a super-talented producer. He’s a genius. It was the three of us in the studio, and we had a really good time – it was really natural. We made the beat on the spot, wrote the hook on the spot, and then we went back to her house a week later to record the vocals at her crib. It was really just two sessions.
Sometimes it just falls together, doesn’t it?
It was crazy! It took us two sessions to make it, and then the week before we turned the song into the label my hard drive completely crashed. It froze. And I lost the whole song, so we had to re-make it five days before it was due. And all we had were the vocals from an email. So that was crazy! But the actual creation of the song was effortless.
Does it often tend to be that way with your work? Or can you become obsessive over a song?
It depends. Like, I’m definitely a perfectionist. But sometimes you can’t help but recognise that the energy was so good you can’t really change it. It’s art at the end of the day and sometimes something that takes a long time to make can seem effortless, and sometimes the things that happened fast seem complicated. It’s hard to tell after the fact.
We need to chat about your live show – when will you be back in the UK?
I can’t wait to come back to the UK. I did one of my first live shows ever at (London venue) KOKO – I opened for Jazz Cartier. And that was an incredible experience. I want to come back, I want to be over there so bad. I was actually born in Holland, so I’d love to be in Europe ASAP.
Really? When did you move to the States?
When I was a baby. Like, immediately. My parents were just over there temporarily. I don’t speak any Dutch but I’ve been over there and I love it.
It’s funny I’ve got a lot of fans who have reached out to me from Amsterdam and they have no idea that I was born there. My name ‘Leven’ means ‘life’ in Dutch.
Is a full length album on the horizon yet?
It’s funny because the EPs that I put out – like ‘I Get High...’ - I don’t personally see them as EPs. And I feel like it’s a totally new era in music, with digital, and with DSPs and stuff, it’s not the same as how it used to be. Even downloading mixtapes when I was in high school – it’s not the same. And I just wanted to put out music like two songs at a time, three songs at a time, just to see what the climate was like.
And then this project that’s coming up in the next couple months, this is my first ‘proper’ EP. It’s going to have 30 minutes of music and it’ll be a proper EP. Then I’m slowly building towards an album. I want to make a cohesive project at some point, but right now I feel like I’m still putting together music from the last year or so. I’m still trying to get off all this music that I’ve already made.
The digital environment is incredibly flexible.
And it’s funny because the cycle of how things work – like when the Beatles were putting out music. Before them it was singles only, and then it became the record, and albums. I feel like right now so many people drop singles that it’s almost like the 40s and the 50s, but it’s completely for a different reason – it’s attention span, rather than the amount of space on a record.
It’s interesting to me how the cycle of culture happens, and what people are willing to spend time on – especially for new artists.
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You’ve done a few different collaborations – do you have a dream collaborator?
To be able to work with Stevie Wonder would be incredible. He’s the last living legend. For the longest time I really wanted to work with Ty Dolla $ign and this past year I was able to work with him, so we got some stuff that’s going to come out this year. That was a huge milestone for me, as he’s one of my favourite artists.
But working with Stevie Wonder would be the top of the top. I saw him at a party one time – I was about 10 feet away from him and my heart stopped. It was pretty crazy! I would say him.
He’s like Mozart, honestly!
Yeah he’s unbelievable! And he retains that impact. I always think there’s no way that he isn’t recording music, because every time I hear people talk about him they talk about him in the studio. So he probably has thousands of songs over the last 30 years that are just incredible.
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