Kehlani: ‘People were very invested in my chaos and darkness’

Kehlani: ‘My life is actually really sweet right now' (Bria Alysse)
Kehlani: ‘My life is actually really sweet right now' (Bria Alysse)

Kehlani’s life once played out on social media in eye-wateringly brutal detail. The musician would engage with critics, take on trolls and clash with other artists, while certain men would make their private affairs public – often with dire consequences. At one point, it got so bad that they ended up surviving a suicide attempt. No more. “I’m cruising so hard through life right now,” the US artist, who prefers they/them pronouns, says. Their skin is glowing from a morning spent surfing down at the beach; a kaleidoscope of tattoos swirl across their face, neck, hands. “I’m exiting this stage of my life where I was hyper-dependent on anything outside of myself. I’m in this new era that’s about… me.”

Combining alternative R&B with lyrics that delve into dark and difficult places is Kehlani’s lingua franca. Such is their artistic cachet that scores of mainstream acts – from Calvin Harris to Stormzy and Eminem – are clamouring to collaborate. They harmonised sweetly with Stormzy’s gruff vocals on “Cigarettes & Cush” in 2019. The previous year, their smooth delivery on Eminem’s “Nowhere Fast” added some sensitivity to his machine-gun rattle. On Calvin Harris’s feature-packed Funk Wav Bounces Vol 1 project, their vocal acrobatics on “Faking It” received plaudits from rapper Lil Yachty, who can be heard exclaiming at the end of the track: “Oh [they] killed that s***t! That was hard… I didn’t know [they] could get that high.”

Kehlani also comes with a poignant level of emotional honesty – including for their interviews. As I admire the view from their veranda – a seemingly endless expanse of treetops and clear skies – they reveal they were forced to move from California’s Simi Valley last year due to a “crazy stalker incident”. They don’t elaborate on what happened, or (understandably) reveal where they’re living now. But it’s still a rare kind of celebrity candour. And for years, Kehlani felt as though that honesty, coupled with the dark themes in their music, kept fans coming back. “People were very invested in my toxicity and my chaos and my darkness,” they say. ”But my life is actually really sweet right now.”

Kehlani knows what it means to hustle. Born Kehlani Ashley Parrish, the Grammy-nominee had a tough start to life. Their mother was on the run from prison when she gave birth prematurely in Oakland, California, while on the phone with Kehlani’s late father, a drug addict who was also serving a prison sentence. Kehlani was rushed to hospital and spent time in foster care before being adopted by their aunt. After a dancing career was ended by an injury, they made it to the 2011 final of America’s Got Talent as the lead singer of PopLyfe. Piers Morgan, one of the show’s judges, advised Kehlani to go solo. They ignored him. Shortly after PopLyfe were voted out of the contest, the group split and Kehlani ended up temporarily homeless. It wasn’t until AGT host Nick Cannon offered to fund studio time that Kehlani was able to release their debut mixtape, Cloud 19, in 2014.

Kehlani was reminded of the thrill of those early recording sessions when creating new album Blue Water Road, a career best. The songs were initially conceived as deluxe tracks for 2020’s critically adored It Was Good Until It Wasn’t. Their team of producers and co-writers worked on the music in Malibu for just over a month, grabbing dinner from a local cafe on the beach and sitting around barefoot, discussing music and looking out at the ocean. Kehlani says they took the “path of least resistance” when it came to the lyrics: “I didn’t fight anything.”

You can hear this on Blue Water Road. It’s considerably more playful – and confident – than any of Kehlani’s previous material. “Working on being softer,” they croon on opener “Little Story”, surrounded by swooning violins, plucks of harp and a breezy acoustic guitar. Justin Bieber, who joined forces with Kehlani for their 2020 single “Get Me”, returns for the wistful “Up At Night”. Rapper and singer Blxst pairs his low mutter with Kehlani’s airy, Janet Jackson vocals on “Any Given Sunday”. Even “Wish I Never”, which samples the bouncing beat of Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story”, takes a fun approach to the kiss-off song. Adeya, Kehlani’s three-year-old daughter with guitarist Javaughn Young-White, can be heard burbling at the end of Thundercat collaboration “Wondering/Wandering”. It’s more refined than the squelchy synths and sizzling beats of 2017’s SweetSexySavage. It’s an uplifting contrast to the stark loneliness of It Was Good Until It Wasn’t. It’s also more pop: Kehlani has always spoken of how they were as influenced by Gwen Stefani and Britney Spears as they were Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu.

That’s not to say they’re avoiding well-trodden themes, such as infidelity and toxic relationships. It Was Good Until It Wasn’t is widely believed to address Kehlani’s former relationship with rapper YG, which ended over an alleged infidelity on his part. “All of this love is toxic,” Kehlani mourned on the album opener, over a shivery trap beat. “And that damn Don Julio made me a fool for you.” Over Latin-influenced guitar licks, they leaned into their sexuality on “Serial Lover”, singing: “I got bodies I’ma take to the grave/ I got girls I wanna give my last name.” YG also appears to be the subject of new song “Wish I Never”, with Kehlani singing: “Should have never took that mission/ Never got into your Lambo.” (YG regularly posts about his beloved Lamborghini.) It’s these hyper-specific details that can send fans into True Crime mode.

“‘Wish I Never’ is definitely about that person [addressed on It Was Good Until It Wasn’t], but it’s coming from such a relaxed place, and it’s less about him but the s*** it created in my life, like… damn, that threw me off my axis a little bit,” Kehlani says now. But Blue Water Road explores “multiple loves”, past and present. Over the years, they’ve been frank about how they identify, at various points describing themself as a lesbian, pansexual and queer. Now, they prefer to avoid labels altogether. “It’s not f***ing realistic,” they say. “It’s just not. Pre-social media, we were all allowed to navigate all these different things [and] fully experience the journey for ourselves. But now there’s such a pressure to always have arrived at the destination…” They don’t regret testing out different labels in the past, even amid scrutiny over celebrity bandwagon-jumping. “I have no shame in just being whatever I felt made sense. And I’ve never had a problem sharing that, because I’m the one that has to live with it.”

Kehlani’s past relationships were once painfully public affairs. In 2016, they endured a social media storm amid allegations that they’d cheated on NBA star Kyrie Irving. Canadian artist PartyNextDoor shared a photo of Kehlani’s hand on Instagram, implying they were in bed together. Shortly after, Kehlani attempted to take their own life. “No one was cheated on and I’m not a bad person … ” they wrote on Instagram, while recovering in hospital. Two years later, Irving issued a public apology to Kehlani and called social media a “monster of a platform”.

Kehlani seems to agree with him. “It really made me confused about what my life actually was, for a long time. It’s something [society talks] about casually, like ‘social media is f***ing us up’, but it’s a real thing. I feel you don’t even notice until you come out the other side of a big experience with it.” Now they consider themself fully detoxed, and hold back certain parts of their personal life on their feed. “I used to just volunteer my business,” they admit. “I will never take for granted the amazing beautiful fanbase that being vulnerable has brought me… but at the same time, I’m very grateful that I grew up and learnt that I’m allowed to keep [some things] for myself.”

I learnt that I’m allowed to keep some things for myself

This change in outlook has radically altered Kehlani’s attitude towards life. “Once I detached, I was like, ‘I’m hella vast, I’m hella limitless,’” they say with a grin. “I’m capable of being all versions of myself.” The same can’t be said for their peers, but Kehlani is also over airing celebrity beef in public. “I wouldn’t call it out in the same way. Everyone’s going through their own s***. And I’m very fortunate to have gone through this at the age I did. I meet peers of mine well into their thirties, who are still trapped in the cycle that I was.”

‘I’m hella limitless' (Bria Alysse)
‘I’m hella limitless' (Bria Alysse)

I wonder about the album cover for It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, where Kehlani was seen peering over a wall, looking shocked as debris burns behind them. It looked like a Pandora’s Box scenario, or a case of someone thinking “the grass is greener” then learning, to their horror, that it isn’t. “I think it was a play on ‘the grass is greener’, because no matter where you looked it was chaotic,” Kehlani agrees. “I had chosen someone who wasn’t for me, and my big old stupid heart… I was looking at this chaos and going ‘I’m gonna touch it!’ Not even realising how beautiful the garden I was growing on my own side was.”

The Blue Water Road cover shows Kehlani much as they are now: peaceful, surrounded by nature. They jokingly describe this new phase of life as their Eat Pray Love stage, remaining coy when asked if they’re currently in a relationship (or relationships). “I’m in my loving-myself, living-my-best-life era,” Kehlani says. “Pasta and passion and other languages and travel...” Over the past year, they’ve been through a “crazy spiritual uprooting” where they let go of a lot, and tore a few walls down. “If all that chaos hadn’t happened, I don’t know if I’d be this person – someone I’m really proud of,” they say. “I’m proud of my resilience, of my withdrawal from things that don’t bring me joy.”

This year they’re planning a tour, more travel, renovating a home studio, getting better at guitar, and “taking myself on dates. Just me. I don’t think I give myself enough dates – fancy ones, like the spa, cinema… s*** like that.” What about a birthday party? “I’m more excited about my album’s birthday,” Kehlani says with a shrug. “I’m just happy to be alive, for real.”

‘Blue Water Road’ is out now