- Words Miki Hellerbach
- Photography Steven Taylor
There are a lot of ocean metaphors in music. Everyone is trying to find the waviest sound. Leven Kali, however, is more taken by the intensity of the tide.
His first two projects, 2019’s ‘Lowtide’ and 2020’s ‘HIGHTIDE’, explore unique variations of spirit paralleling the emotional fervour of the oceans push and pull.
While ‘Lowtide’ floats in contemplation, ‘HIGHTIDE’ dives directly into a more active and open journey. You hear it in the driving rhythms that Kali so effortlessly explores. Your ears take in an energy from songs like “12345 (Get Real)” and “Rich Girl” that gives the feeling of bodysurfing on the perfect wave. Even on more even-toned songs like “Day After The Rain” and “Forever” that lean into a more ‘Lowtide’ feeling, the drive of a forward and active movement in the lyricism and tone keep the vigour of an undertow.
Kali grew up right next to the ocean in Santa Monica, California. To compare his musical expression to the ocean that surrounded him only feels natural. The dichotomy of the two states of the oceans ebb and flow mirroring the reactions one could have to the pandemic seems poignant. In a more sure state of the world, Kali was more pensive on ‘Lowtide’. Though in this uncertain time, Kali’s alignment with ‘HIGHTIDE’ deems his reaction more spirited. He takes his ocean water glass half full in a time when that is an opposite reaction for many.
Though self-describing as “not a political person,” Kali has spoken out on the trying political times we have faced. In a moving Wireless Festival set on Juneteenth, he presented a spur of the moment verse attached to his ‘HIGHTIDE song’, “Get By.” He rapped off his phone, “I know the times are changin/ I know our minds are changin/ 400 years of bullshit its finally time to face it.” Kali takes in what is around him like the ocean from his youth here again and goes with the HIGHTIDE of the social justice movement against police brutality and oppression.
Kali has an innate ability to create a sound that feels authentic to him regardless of the temperament of the ocean, and the world encapsulating his space. From Lowtide to ‘HIGHTIDE’, whether we hear contained focused vocals over fluttering guitar or explosive layered soul melodies over a horn section, it’s still from the core of Kali’s psyche. We scuba dove a little more in-depth on everything from high school jazz band to balancing a relationship.
What drew you to a career in music in the first place?
Music is the best way to communicate. We are divided in so many ways, and when you see a group of thousands of people, individuals, moving together because of music, you realise the power it has. We are the same and music exposes that.
You call yourself a multi-instrumentalist and producer. How do you go about building a song with multiple instruments on your own?
I usually start with drums. For example, on “Get By” I used my phone to record the drums and put my own samples on top of my groove. Then from there, it could be anything next – bass, vocals, guitar, keys, just depends on the moment. There’s no formula. Gotta leave room for magic.
You were in a high school jazz band. What did you learn during that time? Did it help you get to where you are today?
The jazz program at my school was incredible. Most of the people I work with currently were in that band too. We all have a deeper relationship with the history of music because of that program. Really knowing how we all got here today musically. Helps you understand how to keep pushing forward.
Talk to me about Hightea! Where’d the idea stem from? What’s it trying to accomplish? Also – what’s your favourite tea?
When I was a kid I loved watching those breakdowns on TV when the animators would show you how to draw the characters. You saw how they brought it to life. They explained it but it was still magical. I wanted to do something like that with Hightea – let the people behind the curtain and see how we make these tracks. It’s the whole point of being on the planet, figure out how to do some cool shit and then help/inspire someone else to do some cool shit. As far as tea goes, I don’t have a favourite. Some make you chill, some wake you up, kinda like tree haha depends on what I’m going for.
From your wireless fest live show you rapped, “red pill blue pill they both racist.” What are some of the most immediate things you think need to change in the two-party system?
I think that we have gotten to a point where politics have become religious. People judge your politics like your character as a human. Most journalism is just advocacy for their gang. I don’t know what to do. We see issues in other countries that have different government structures. At the end of the day, the root of the issue is greed. If we are busy fighting on the ground, they win. Millionaire lookin’ for another million dollars, broke man lookin’ for one.
For “Fire In Your Eyes” there are so many layered background vocals of different varieties that have a nostalgic feel. Were any of those compositional choices drawn from specific songs or vocal styles?
My favourite shit to do in the studio is layer backgrounds. I’ll just keep going. I love the lush vocal arrangements from Earth Wind n Fire and Chaka Khan, the futuristic soulful type of harmonies that prince and D’Angelo and Ty$ do, and I also love bands like System of a Down and Avenged Sevenfold – they got some crazy harmony shit going on too. When you mix all that up you got Lev.
“Can we get real tonight?” is such a specific question encapsulated by its delivery. Like MJ on PYT singing “where did you come from baby?” What is the full mood and scene surrounding what that question is drawn from?
That phrase just sounded right with the groove. It means a lot, it’s vague, but you know exactly what I mean.
Do you feel like the state of “Forever” has more to do with fear and stubbornness? Or patience and true love? Or both?
That’s deep. I definitely wrote the song from a position of love but now when I think about it, both are always acting at the same time and it’s up to you to decide which one you’re gonna lean on. I heard someone say recently that the bravest person is the one who is scared but does it anyway. You love someone, you fear losing them…? I don’t know. That balance is probably the difference [between] healthy and unhealthy relationships. Some people avoid love for that reason. Wasn’t thinking about all that when the song hit me haha. Good question
What’s the game plan coming out of this time when you’re able to perform again?
I wanna get back on the road more than anything. Music and doing shows. That’s the plan.
How does ‘HIGHTIDE’ get it’s just time to shine live?
This virus gotta go. Once they open the venues and people are safe we’ll be out there playing both tides.
You’ve got ‘Lowtide’ and ‘HIGHTIDE’ – is there a third title of the same theme in mind or will the next project start with a new one?