Netherlands-born and LA-based singer Leven Kali is an optimist. No matter how bleak or dire the situation may be, the 25-year-old always visualizes the best-case scenario. Though he can partly attribute his positivity to his past life as an athlete, it is the love surrounding him that drives Kali to make the most positive music he can make.
“I’ve been very loved in my life by my family and [the] people around me,” Kali tells me over the phone. “[The music] is a reflection of the love around me—it’s an optimistic, supportive type of love. I love my girlfriend, and she loves me, and it’s a positive thing.”
On May 1, Leven Kali released the second half of his two-sided project, HIGHTIDE; a body of work meant to be more warm and comforting compared to his laidback, breezy 2019 debut, Low Tide. Though he cut both projects from the same cloth, Kali’s sophomore effort sounds more mature and more complete.
“In the last year, I’ve been getting more into movies and TV,” Kali reflects. “That knowledge has been creeping into my process and helping me understand the flow and importance [of] visual [storytelling], especially nowadays where everything is visual.”
Though he garners inspiration from the past and the present, Kali doesn’t want to be pigeonholed into making music with an expiration date. Songs like “MADE 4 U” and “RICH GIRL” borrow elements from late-‘90s R&B but with a modern flavor attached to it.
“I never want to sound fully retro, and I don’t want it to seem like I’m copying an era,” he concludes. “But I also never want to forget that era happened [...] My goal is to make something timeless that will make a 16-year-old and a 60-year-old want to dance.”
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: Your music consists of a lot of optimistic love songs—not many are about heartbreak or breakups. How does your experience with love affect the way you write those songs?
Leven Kali: In general, I’m an optimist. I’m an optimist in the sense of when I was an athlete; I would always envision the best-case scenario and that kind of trickles into my experiences in love. I’ve been very loved in my life by my family and the people around me.
[The music] is a reflection of the love around me—it’s an optimistic, supportive type of love. I love my girlfriend, and she loves me, and it’s a positive thing. I’ve been in bad relationships in the past and had extremely horrible experiences that some songs will probably touch on at some point. But overall, even when something crazy happens, I still seem to hardwire my brain to find a way to be positive about it.
What kind of creative choices did you make while creating HIGHTIDE that you hadn’t considered in your previous projects?
In the last year, I’ve been getting more and more into movies and TV, and I wasn’t raised on that. I was in the loop, and I was watching the shows all the kids watched, but I wasn’t that kid that watched classic movies. I just watched Goodfellas this year, and now I get it. That knowledge has been creeping into my process and helping me understand the flow and importance [of] visual [storytelling], especially nowadays, where everything is visual. It’s important to see the music, and that’s where I’m progressing. I’m more of a visual type of person now compared to last year, where I was purely audio and physical.
Has this newfound love for movies and TV inspired you to take a director’s role in your music videos?
It helps me realize my vision for where I want to be. It’s interesting because I’ve been having conversations about working backward from the visuals to the music on my next project as opposed to starting with music and then doing visuals. In the past, I’ve had ideas for videos and had friends direct them and stuff like that, but it was never the inspiring force of the art. Now I’m thinking about maybe having a visual idea that could [also] work as a song.
“VIDA’S SONG (STILLNESS)” stands out from the rest of the album. Can you share the story behind the song?
So that’s my mom singing, and she’d written that song a long time ago. We recently have been working on producing her project together. She has a lifetime’s worth of amazing songs. Now, I’m at a place where I can help her bring those [songs] to life. I was in a phase where I was obsessed with pitching things up and sampling things, and everybody who I played it for was deeply affected by it. [My mom is] an incredible singer [and] songwriter, and we’re gonna [release] the full version in its regular pitch hopefully in the next couple of weeks.
You were born in the Netherlands while your father was on tour. Have you guys made any songs together yet, or do you plan to?
I’ve worked with my parents on a couple songs of mine. My mom is singing background with me on “Joy” and “Mine.” All my aunties, my mom, and my sister—who’s also a killer singer—were on “LALALA.” For my dad and I, we hadn’t done anything until “MADE 4 U.” One of my dad’s close friends, who I call Uncle Ricky, came through to play guitar. So we ended up having my dad play bass on “MADE 4 U,” and Uncle Ricky [playing] guitar. That was another cool family moment.
You showed amazing chemistry with Syd on “MADE 4 U” and on “Do U Wrong.” Can you describe your creative process with her?
We met the day we made “Do U Wrong,” so [it] was like a blind date. It was instant chemistry in the room, and we had a ton of fun making that record and doing the video. Syd is super cool. It was just a chill type of vibe. We feel space to create around each other, so when we did “MADE 4 U,” she came over to our spot and just recorded it in front of us. She’s very private and pretty introverted, so to be able to be with somebody like that where we can create without judgment and fear... You can just write songs together, sing in front of each other with no Auto-Tune, or anything like that. We have more records we’re working on. I love Syd; she’s the coolest, most down-to-earth, and talented person I’ve ever met.
How did linking up with Ty Dolla $ign help you develop your craft?
Ty is my big brother. We’ve been working for the last couple years. He’s the first big artist I ever worked with. We have some cool songs we made together [that] we recorded in a session that was intended for his project. We had gone to record in a studio house he rented out, and we were just jamming, hopping around from the guitars, keys, [and] the drums. “PERFECT IS BORING” in its original form was just an idea that Ty, Arin Ray, and I had conceived with all of us on instruments. It was so cool because not everybody knows Ty, Arin, and myself were all multi-instrumentalists and producers.
“MADE 4 U” and “RICH GIRL” seem to take a lot of influence from the late-1990s-to-early-2000s R&B. How do you balance your inspirations of old school R&B with modern trends in the genre?
That’s been my mission statement from the beginning. I never want to sound fully retro, and I don’t want it to seem like I’m copying an era, but I also never want to forget that era happened—same thing for the sounds of today. I’ve always been conscious of that and using some of the techniques I’ve learned from EDM producers on a song of mine. I’ve been trying to master that. I think my favorite type of music is the kind you can’t tell where and when it’s from. My goal is to make something timeless that will make a 16-year-old and a 60-year-old want to dance.
With touring off the table for the foreseeable future, how do you plan on finding an alternative for that?
I’ve been doing a lot of these at-home performances, and those have been great. A lot of [fans] want a stripped-down acoustic vibe, and that’s been having me focusing on playing piano again. And I’m learning guitar to the point where I feel comfortable singing and playing.
Before this, I would never pick up a guitar to sing and play a song, but now I feel so comfortable. Having the songs in my hand, I feel, is the result of being quarantined [and] just being forced to play these little acoustic sets for different live performances. I think that’s a beautiful positive to take from this situation, but I’m heartbroken that I can’t go out and do shows because we didn’t get to do a full Low Tide tour. I haven’t even done a homecoming show in Los Angeles yet, so it’s tough, but you have to find the silver linings in it and take whatever you can.