Back in summer 2022, K.Flay headed to Tanzania and spent a week climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, fulfilling a bucket-list ambition she’d scrawled in her journal seven years earlier. Within a week of returning home to Los Angeles, the two-time Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter/producer woke up one morning with total hearing loss in her right ear—a freak occurrence her doctors deemed permanent, leading her to question whether she’d ever make music again.
“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?’” says the Illinois-born musician otherwise known as Kristine Flaherty. But soon after returning to the studio and resuming work on her fifth full-length, K.Flay found her sense of purpose profoundly renewed. “I felt an urgency I hadn’t experienced in quite some time,” she reveals. “It was like this massive sensory change had put me back into a beginner’s mind, where I felt so free but also compelled to put everything I had into making the record great.”
Her first release for Giant Music, MONO in many ways marks the start of a new era for K.Flay, a relentlessly boundary-pushing artist who first achieved major success with 2017’s Every Where Is Some Where and its iconic smash single ‘Blood in the Cut’. In a potent evolution of past efforts like 2022’s Inside Voices / Outside Voices (a two-part LP she referred to as “an exercise in anti-repression”), the 14-song project mines the depths of her psyche to uncover essential truths about the pain of loss and the power of transformation. Executive-produced by Paul Meany (Twenty One Pilots, Pierce the Veil), the album also finds K.Flay co-producing alongside the likes of Pink Slip (FLETCHER, Royal & the Serpent) and Sir Sly’s Jason Suwito (Imagine Dragons, MisterWives), alchemizing that self-revelation into sublimely cathartic rock songs.
“The main intention was to make a modern rock record, or even a futuristic rock record: something sonically dense that felt exciting and energizing to me and everyone I worked with,” says Flaherty. “The whole process reminded me that there are no rules when it comes to creating. It’s all just a matter of having faith in your own perspective and taste, and making sure you stay authentic to that.”
For the opener to MONO, K.Flay chose to share the first song written after her hearing loss, a wildly captivating intro piece called ‘Are You Serious?’ A perfect showcase for her sharp-witted lyrics and shapeshifting vocal work, the brutally intense track closely documents that moment of crisis while serving as a statement of intent for the album at large. “The title phrase came into my head as I was rapping, and appealed to me on two levels,” Flaherty explains. “The first is the exasperation you feel when some bad shit has taken place, and you just look up at the sky like, Are you serious? But the other meaning is the idea of asking yourself if you’re serious about what you’re doing. Whether it’s an album or a novel or a relationship or life in general, are you going to put in the time to treat it with care? Are you going to take the risk of really trying?”
Although K.Flay’s hearing loss deeply informed her songwriting on MONO, the album explores an entire spectrum of existential questions and complex matters of the heart and mind. To that end, the frenetic lead single ‘Raw Raw’ offers up a gut-punching meditation on the true nature of vulnerability.
“I was starting to date someone new after going through a bad breakup, and we were talking about whether it was worth it to risk getting your heart broken again for the possibility of joy and connection,” says Flaherty, who co-wrote ‘Raw Raw’ with Daniel Armbruster of Joywave and Bradley Hale of Now, Now. “Of course the answer is yes, but it got us thinking about how there’s this idea that vulnerability is so soft and gentle, when really it doesn’t feel that way at all. When you’re actually being vulnerable, it feels hard and abrasive—you feel raw.”
One of first songs penned for MONO, ‘Raw Raw’ instantly set the tone for the LP’s guitar-driven and gloriously explosive sound. Next, on ‘Punisher’, the album takes on a formidable momentum as K.Flay bluntly confesses to her self-chastising tendencies (from the chorus: “Nobody knows how to punish me like me”). “Sometimes I love songs where there’s not a lot of mystery,” she notes. “You play it loud and it feels extremely good; it makes you feel tough and powerful—and powerful in a way that’s generative rather than oppressive, like a power plant or pedalling a bike.” Meanwhile, on ‘Irish Goodbye’, Pierce the Veil’s Vic Fuentes joins K.Flay for MONO’s heaviest and hardest-hitting track, an intimately detailed portrait of choosing self-preservation over succumbing to possibly toxic desire. “I was screaming in the demo to that song and eventually I realized, ‘I have a friend who screams professionally, so maybe I should get him on this,’” Flaherty recalls.
A brilliant contrast to MONO’s more brooding moments, ‘Shy’ lends a dreamy effervescence to the album—an element fully echoed in its fantastically loopy guitar work. “It’s a song about all the things you wish you could tell someone if you just had the nerve,” says Flaherty. “The truth is that I can be kind of shy, even though I’m not shy in my songs or onstage. To me that’s what’s amazing about the freedom that people find in music: you could be the one starting the mosh pit at a show, when really you’re a very mild-mannered person who works in HR.” And on ‘Spaghetti’, K.Flay teams up with indie-rock trio Kid Sistr for a gorgeously giddy free-for-all stacked with so many killer one-liners (e.g., “Life gives me spaghetti, I tie it into knots/Life gives me lemons, I eat ’em on the spot/Life gives me confetti and I smoke it like it’s pot”). “I wrote that song with my girlfriend, when I was first trying to get back into music and needed to work with people who felt safe,” says Flaherty, referring to Kid Sistr’s Sara Keden. “It’s an acknowledgement that life is both hilarious and tragic—so anytime you’re able to locate some levity, it’ll make things so much better.”
With its tracklist also including the searing commentary of ‘In America’ and metaphysical introspection of ‘Bar Soap’, MONO closes out on a note of triumph with the strangely euphoric ‘Perfectly Alone’. “There was a period in my life when I wanted to escape myself, to escape the fact that I was inherently alone,” says Flaherty. “Now that I’m sober, I’ve found that the practice of really being in the moment has led me to a place of equanimity and acceptance, so that the aloneness isn’t so frightening anymore.”
In unravelling the narrative thread woven throughout MONO, Flaherty adds that the album’s title alludes to the notion of embracing our inevitable solitude. “The title is partly a nod to the idea of mono versus stereo and that shift in my auditory experience, but mostly it’s speaking to the fact that your entire experience of this world is within you,” she says. “You can view that as alienating, or you can view it as the natural circumstances of existence—something we all share. So when people hear the album, I’d love for them to come away with a feeling of strength in their aloneness.”
As she reflects on creating her most fully realized work to date despite facing a potentially devastating setback, K.Flay connects the dots back to her longtime commitment to constant growth. “When I was 14 my biological dad died, and I was lucky enough to go to a high school that had a support group for kids who’d lost a family member,” she says. “It taught me that with every loss or difficult change we go through, we have the opportunity to either close ourselves off and become hardened, or to expand ourselves and become more curious.” And when it came to the making of MONO, that sense of expansion involved holding herself to higher and more rigorous standards in every aspect of her artistry. “In the aftermath of the hearing loss, it felt like it would’ve been okay for me to stop trying,” she says. “But I wanted to try, which meant a lot more sweat and tears and a lot more humility. It reminded me that it’s exciting to care about your work, to care about the people you’re sharing it with, to care about the world. There’s really so much beauty in that caring.”