Kehlani: “I’m really in a lighter, more mature, happy, fun space”

The R&B star on their liberated new album ‘Blue Water Road’ – and why they have no truck with Noel Gallagher’s idea of authenticity

Since the release of their last album, 2020’s ‘It Was Good Until It Wasn’t’, Kehlani has been through a big transformation. It’s not something you might necessarily notice just by looking at them, but speaking with them or listening to their new album ‘Blue Water Road’ reveals a person who seems much more at peace with life, and passionate to be in the thick of things.

From September 2020, the Oakland, California native (full name Kehlani Parrish) spent 12 months undertaking a “ceremony process” in their spiritual practice, which she (the artist’s preferred pronouns are she/they) declines to put a name on. As part of the year-long ritual cleanse, she embraced sobriety, only went out for work-related reasons, covered their hair and more. It altered their entire mental attitude.

NME Cover 2022 Kehlani
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

“I’m in a really lighter, more mature, happy, really fun space,” the 27-year-old explains between big yawns. It’s early morning in California, where she still lives, and the sun is casting a soft glow across the room she’s dialling in from. “That was definitely the catalyst for all the new music, the catalyst for my mentality in life [right now].”

‘Blue Water Road’, the R&B star’s third album, finds its creator sharing the fruits of that growth in a record that feels reflective of their mindset. Breezy and airy, it possesses a sense of liberation as it tracks Kehlani’s rejuvenation and mixes songs that are light and fun with others filled with “intense emotions”.

Their past records haven’t always been that way and, in fact, this album began life through a series of sessions designed to produce tracks for a deluxe version of ‘It Was Good Until It Wasn’t’. As things progressed, though, it became clear that what was coming out in the studio didn’t fit that record’s mood.

“‘Shooter Interlude’ is a compilation of all the bullshit that has come out of people’s mouths towards me”

“I [was] definitely stuck in this toxic, very dark, hypersexual pocket of songwriting, which was cool for the time that I was in,” Kehlani assesses. “That’s really where I was at, but I think my music is always going to be deeply affected by whatever mindset change I’m going through.”

Not everyone will be pleased to hear that the star has found a brighter path this time around. Delve into any musical fandom and you’ll find demands for artists to stay faithful to writing and releasing dark, sad music. Even society at large feels like it writes off happier songs with the terms we use to describe them – ‘cheesy’, perhaps, or even just ‘fun’. For artists putting their authentic stories and emotions into their work, it must be difficult to see their more upbeat moments being taken less seriously.

NME Cover 2022 Kehlani
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

“I try not to pay attention to it,” Kehlani shrugs. “At the end of the day, if I chase what people want from me then I’m not being an artist at all. They might as well go and listen to the stuff that’s already out or go and listen to people who are making sad music. I actually think with the amount of healing people are doing right now, there’s gonna be a lot more artists making happy music in the coming years.”

She points to the cyclical nature of music’s inspirations and trends as proof that we could soon be in a bubble of uplifting sounds. “The ’90s had its sadder, deeper hole, but if you go back to the ’80s and ’70s, that was happy music and I think that’s making its way back around as well.”

NME Cover 2022 Kehlani
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

In the past, Kehlani’s records have focused mostly on one subject: love. ‘Blue Water Road’ still centres around romance in places, but this time they’re opening themself up to other topics too. On the dappled funk glow of ‘Altar’, she shares a story about continuing your relationship with your loved ones even after they’ve left this mortal coil. It’s an idea that she’s been putting into practice of late and stems from their beliefs.

“My spiritual practice is heavily based on ancestor veneration,” she says, explaining that the word ‘ancestors’ doesn’t necessarily have to refer to people who died generations ago. “They might have passed recently or maybe they were friends, or just spirits around you that you didn’t even know at first. Maybe you never knew them as physical people.”

It’s a process she describes within the song’s lyrics. “If I set a flame and I call your name / I’ll fix you a plate,” she sings, the practice allowing them to pick “up on your signal like a phone booth”. It’s something that’s given them a new connection to their family members, like their father, who died when she was one year old, or their grandma, who died 15 years ago. “Just really seeing the effects of that on my day-to-day life and the joy that it brought me and my understanding of the world, I wanted people to understand it [too],” she says. It felt best to do through song rather than fall back on their old habit of “preaching out a lesson on Instagram”.

NME Cover 2022 Kehlani
Kehlani on the cover of NME

Although ‘Blue Water Road’ is full of light and love, Kehlani also isn’t afraid to get real about some of their experiences as an entertainer. On the straight-talking ‘Shooter Interlude’, she spends two minutes reeling off some of the demands and judgements people have put on them since she found success in music eight years ago. “Can I borrow some money? Can you call me an Uber? / My momma needs surgery and my son needs a scooter,” it begins, later moving from financial requests to invasions of privacy: “Who you been fucking? Who you been fooling?”

“That’s a compilation of all the bullshit that has come out of people’s mouths towards me,” she explains, their expression turning weary. “It’s a peek into the exhaustion and my perspective, so you know what it’s like being in my position.”

“Noel Gallagher – whoever that is – can kiss my ass… [Harry Styles] worked his ass off”

Some people might baulk at a successful, critically-acclaimed, globally loved artist putting a song on their album to highlight other people’s want to reap the benefits of their achievements. For Kehlani, though, it doesn’t negate how thankful she is for all the love and prosperity she’s gained through their career: “I think that as artists we can have toxic gratitude sometimes – we can be toxically positive. It was nice for me to have a moment where I could share some of the bullshit that I’ve experienced sometimes. It doesn’t take away from my gratitude or how happy I am to be here and how blessed I am.”

Kehlani is proud of how those two aforementioned songs expand their artistry, but she doesn’t regret writing so much about love in the past – those tracks are what have helped them learn the most about themself over the years. “Love, whether it’s familial, platonic or romantic, shapes us entirely,” she explains. “We are who we are as humans, as adults because of the love we received as a child. I learned the most from it in my romantic relationships because that’s been the place where I have the most opportunity to grow because it’s the most private thing I’ve had ever since being in the spotlight.”

NME Cover 2022 Kehlani
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

That might seem a strange thing for someone whose romances have been given a fair amount of attention in the press and by fans online, but she clarifies it in the context of their other ties: “My familial relationships and friendships changed a lot when I got into the music industry and, of course, the nature of my romantic relationships changed too, but those are the spaces and the cracks where I get to just be myself, or fuck up, or grow, or be challenged, or experience something that really teaches me because it’s this own little world separate from how music affects my life in all areas.”

One aspect of their romantic life that Kehlani hasn’t kept so private from their fans is their sexual identity. That part of their selfhood has shifted over the years, with the musician previously identifying as bisexual, pansexual and queer, and, as of last year, lesbian. Reflecting now, she says those changes weren’t “necessarily physical or identification-based changes” but affected by spiritual things she was experiencing at the time. In relation to an interview with Nylon in 2018, she admits that she “didn’t even really know the definition of what I was saying” when she discussed her pansexuality.

NME Cover 2022 Kehlani
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

Kehlani recalls: “I had read one definition of it and I was like, ‘Yeah that makes sense, that’s me.’ And then I was asked what I was [in the interview] and I shared that, but I think in the words I used for it, I super misspoke.”

The star was reticent to share their revelation that she now identifies as a lesbian and didn’t mean to come out as such on a livestream in 2021. “I was like, ‘Damn, there was a whole fiasco about me being bisexual and then I said pansexual and there’s a whole fiasco about that’,” she says. “I didn’t even feel like I wanted to go through it again. I wanted people to talk about my music and all the different mediums of art I was exploring. But I also felt there would be a weight lifted off of me if I just shared what I came to terms with and I knew it would be the final time that I did it.”

“I try to stay away from all the floofy famous artist shit”

Kehlani has been on a journey with the evolution of their identity and it wouldn’t be surprising if she wanted to shy away from self-assigning one particular label after the public reaction to past personal revelations. But rather than viewing the terms we use to describe ourselves as the issue, she says the problem is the pressure we put on ourselves and each other to have who we are figured out.

“It’s hard when people are asking you what you are and you fall into that pressure to share it,” she begins. “Then it’s confirmed and people are referring to you as one thing but you might feel a different way next week. But I’m glad that so many people do speak about these things and do come to terms with these identities so that we all can study each other and really help each other out.”

NME Cover 2022 Kehlani
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

Since figuring out their sexual identity, the musician says she’s now “absolutely” at peace. “Not understanding my sexuality had created inner turmoil and a bad dynamic with my emotions,” she explains. “It’s like a war going on internally with yourself that sometimes you cannot place because you don’t have the verbiage or understanding yet.”

An unlikely source helped Kehlani reach that place – a Google Doc. The document in question addressed the theory that heterosexuality is automatically enforced on women within a patriarchal and heteronormative society. “It was about compulsory heterosexuality,” says Kehlani, “[and] that changed the game ’cause I was like, ‘Damn, this is what I’m experiencing’. I thought it was a joke and it was not a laughing matter at all. It changed my life.”

NME Cover 2022 Kehlani
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

There have been many life-changing moments in Kehlani’s career, with one of the earliest coming in their involvement with the teen group PopLyfe. In 2011, when she was 16, the band auditioned for and appeared on America’s Got Talent, ending up in fourth place on their season. The connections she made through that experience led to the singer to find success in their own right, with judge Nick Cannon becoming a mentor and benefactor outside of the show as she worked on their first independent releases.

Kehlani says she didn’t face much snobbery over the fact that she appeared on the show – “people just brought up how I looked and I was 16 years old; I don’t know what they expected of a mid-puberty teenager” – but attitudes towards artists who get their start on TV shows still aren’t always all-embracing. Earlier this month, Noel Gallagher blasted Harry Styles as not a “real” musician because he found fame via appearing on The X Factor.

Kehlani scoffs when NME tells them about Noel’s comments: “That person – whoever that is – can kiss my ass. They might as well call me inauthentic and I’m about as authentic as it gets. [Harry] worked his ass off to make people fall in love with him on national TV and be lumped in with a group of boys and still had to stand out from an entire group of people. That’s as authentic as it gets!”

NME Cover 2022 Kehlani
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

With a self-deprecating laugh, she adds: “I’m a Harry Styles fan, clearly, but watching the transformation that he’s taken to find his own songs and his own voice, own persona, own fluidity and image – I think he’s been brave and epic. He’s fucking tight.”

Like Styles, Kehlani has had to grow up in the public eye, having released their debut mixtape ‘Cloud 9’ at the age of 19. It’s been a rocky ride in places as she’s navigated mental health issues, those aforementioned confusions about their own identity, and dealing with public opinion about every aspect of their being. “It’s been crazy,” she reflects. “I think we deal with [a similar thing] on a small scale just being in high school, so [being in the public eye] feels like high school never really ended. I try not to put the crazy thought on it that I used to, though – like, ‘Why me? This is so crazy, this is so intense’. I just try and take it easy.”

One of the disadvantages of being a public figure in the age of social media is that your every moment will be documented online – either by yourself, your fans or the press. Although the musician admits she wishes that wasn’t the case, she is still able to find the value in those experiences being visible to people around the world.

“It’s hard when people are asking what you are [sexually] and you fall feel pressure to share it”

“A lot of those moments [of self-expression online] made people understand me or made certain people love me harder or relate to me more,” she says matter-of-factly. “Maybe it helped somebody else. God knows I’ve had a lot of people tell me, ‘When this happened, it really showed me…’ and I’m like, ‘Damn, I guess it wasn’t in vain because I guess somebody else got something from it’.”

Helping other people isn’t just a small part of the job of an artist to Kehlani, but the entire job description. “Art is shaping everything,” she reasons. “It shapes culture; it shapes political stance sometimes; it shapes understanding of the world, or yourself, or love.” Helping others through their music is why she now identifies more with the title ‘cultural worker’ than ‘artist’, a role that highlights the far-reaching and positive impact she wants to have on the world.

NME Cover 2022 Kehlani
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

Kehlani first became aware of the term when a friend sent them an article entitled ‘Cultural Worker Versus Artist’. “It talked about how keeping the freedom and safety of all people and prioritising people and the power of people within everything you do is really all that matters,” she explains. “If you can work all these activism-based and cultural shifting ideologies and practices into your art, that will forever be what’s more important than just mindlessly putting out art for the sake of accolades or numbers.”

The piece struck a chord with the musician and, ever since, she’s tried to embody that mentality, putting forward people who would be better-placed to work on projects, or suggesting changes in things so anything associated with them aligns with their politics.

She cites the likes of Tupac and Chicago rapper and activist Noname as inspirations in that area, while she’s also tried to remember that “at the end of the day, nothing really matters except making sure we’re all taken care of and living equal lives. I try to stay away from all the floofy famous artist shit.”

NME Cover 2022 Kehlani
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

A few years ago, Kehlani tried to put a plan that stemmed from this attitude into practice and bought a house and some land in Simi Valley, about 40 miles northwest of LA. Their idea was to use the space to create opportunities for people of colour and from marginalised communities to earn money from the land, as well as giving them the chance to own their own property. Unfortunately, though, she had to sell that house before it could come to fruition: “I had a crazy stalker incident so I couldn’t stay there – a coyote ate my dog and a stalker came to my house.”

Kehlani acknowledges that there’s a lot to keep track of in our world. “It’s exhausting just trying to exist and fighting to stay alive so I don’t expect anybody who’s an activist in one space to always be an activist in every single space. It’s the governments and corporations who should be taking responsibility.”

NME Cover 2022 Kehlani
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

Passion courses through Kehlani’s voice as she talks about the subject, their eyes lighting up in the same way as they do when she talks about their music. It’s all a part of the rebirth that she’s gone through, that cleanse helping them to rediscover what’s important in life and art.

“I lost my passion for a while,” she admits. “I feel like there’s an erosion of an artist that happens in the music industry – you just get less and less shiny and really dull. I got really dull for a while and now I’m back feeling everything and expressing myself again. It’s pretty priceless.”

Kehlani’s ‘Blue Water Road’ is out now via TSNMI/Atlantic

CREDITS

Styling by Oliver Vaughn
Hair by Cesar Ramirez
Makeup by Troye Antonio