Leven Kali Breaks Down New Project ‘HIGHTIDE’

Rising soul guru talks working with family and funk legends, impressing No I.D.

Crafting any kind of artistic project is always a family affair for Leven Kali. And his May release, ‘HIGHTIDE’, is a family portrait.

The record – serving as a follow-up to 2019’s ‘Low Tide’ – features some of his best friends behind the boards, his uncle sharing some words-of-wisdom-turned-interludes and his mother, Vida Simon, boasting songwriting credits on a track which initially inspired No I.D. to throw Kali in the booth with Snoh Aalegra a few years back for her Feels project.

And within the familial funk that is the 13-track ‘HIGHTIDE’, Kali’s not-blood-related uncle Ricky Rouse – known as the child prodigy who once backed Stevie Wonder and later laid down strings on ‘03 Bonnie And Clyde’ – shares a massive solo on ‘PERFECT IS BORING’, lacing guitar riffs throughout the project.

This might be a lot to take in at once. But ‘HIGHTIDE’ isn’t.

It’s a soulful journey pushing peace and acceptance during a time when everyone, including Kali, is uncertain of our post-pandemic future. “This is the worst time that any of us alive have lived through,” Kali says of the pandemic. “I hope this project serves that purpose as some light in a dark time. And I hope it gets people feeling more comfortable with loving each other and being open to the bigger sense of love on this planet. And not feeling like it’s corny to talk about these things, because if you’re honest about it, if you say that shit with your heart, you can’t really go wrong.”

We caught up with the rising funk guru last week as he took us track-by-track though ‘HIGHTIDE’ and gave us some insight on love, family and WWE walkout themes.

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FIRE IN YOUR EYES

“It always felt like the intro. It felt like walking out, like how WWE guys have their walkout song. It felt like the R&B/funk warrior walkout tune, that intro where it’s slow and then it comes back. It just felt like the spaceship was taking off and it was a signal that we’re on this ride again.”

12345 (GET REAL)

“‘12345’ was the last one we did. It was literally the end of February, beginning of February. And I just felt like we needed a little pick me up, a little flavor. And a little nod to the West Coast G-funk bassline sound, something dancy.”

A LIL’ FRENCH (UNCLE LUNCH)

“That’s my Uncle Lunch [talking]. My whole dad’s side of the family is from Miami and I grew up going to church in Miami and watching all my aunts sing in the choir and all my uncles play. And that’s so much of my inspiration as a musician.”

MADE 4 U ft. Syd

“[At first,] it sounded like a Jagged Edge song. Then, getting all the sounds to be cohesive, it turned into a more guitar-driven acoustic early ‘00s R&B vibe. I hit up my homie Nick Kennerly and the other homie Max Karmazyn. Those are two lifelong friends I actually grew up with, as a baby being pushed in a stroller on the block. Nick grew up to become this prodigy violinist. I went to high school with Max and they’re on all my projects, they’re the only people playing strings on it.”

RICH GIRL

“I grew up in West LA. And everybody you know, everybody out here, has a friend or somebody special or not special, whatever it is, but someone that takes you into that rich part of LA and we all have experiences going to the hills or whatever, going to a party in Calabasas and stuff like that.

‘RICH GIRL’ is an amalgamation of like a bunch of different people that shaped that story.”

VIDA’S SONG (STILLNESS)

“So that song is written by my mom. And she’s singing that song. She’s playing the piano on that. And we work a ton together and she has a bunch of songs that we’re working on right now to release and these are songs that she’s written almost her whole life…

So I did that for fun just like for no reason and that song honestly changed my life. I was introduced to No I.D. a week after I made that record with my mom. And I played that for him and I’m singing all the backgrounds on that. He was so blown away by the backgrounds that he immediately, that day, put me in the studio Snoh [Aalegra] to work on backgrounds on her project Feels. From that song, as you know, I started my relationship with Snoh and since then we’ve had a great musical connection. And yeah, but that’s all from ‘STILLNESS.’”

PERFECT IS BORING ft. Ty Dolla $ign

“That’s my Uncle Ricky [Rouse playing guitar]. And he plays on all my shit, too. On this project, most of the guitar is pretty much him. Ricky is a student of the Jimi Hendrix rock/R&B school. And Ricky is a super legend. And that was the first take for the solo. He just walks in and he knows exactly what he has to do. Ty’s a huge inspiration for me, too. And I’ve been working with Ty for a couple years on stuff for him and we got around to doing some stuff for me. So we got a couple of records and this one was the one for the project, and we got more coming in the future.”

DAY AFTER THE RAIN

“One of my best friends in the whole world, Digi, is an incredible producer. And we met working in South Korea in like 2015. He’s been working with this guy, John Hill, who’s another incredible producer. And this is the only song that was made kind of outside of the immediate band/family sessions.”

FOREVER

“That was like one of the first times I ever had written, ever. Like, fully all the way through when I was 18. I had no idea how to play the guitar, but I was able to kind of just make up some chords with the bottom three strings of the guitar, a very elementary version of guitar playing, and I just had those three chords. I wrote the song and it felt like it just came from another place.”

THE DEAL (UNCLE LUNCH)

“It’s one sentence and I feel like it describes my family so strongly, like on my dad’s side. So many of my uncles are rock stars in their own right. When they play guitar, when they play on stage, whether it’s at church or in the backyard or whatever, they are definitely students of the Chuck Berrys of rock and roll… I’ve always felt like I have a responsibility as a musician to embrace the rock because it’s like black people have always been allowed to do gospel and R&B and rap and it’s expected. But we forget that rock music is very black and it comes from us and it’s something that I want to keep on incorporating in my music.”

GET BY

“It’s very important to have a true understanding of what holds value. And the pleasure that a nice thing brings you isn’t the same sort of grounding sense of wholeness that you get from love and other things.”

LALALA

“I’ve always been a big fan of Earth Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and people that write songs about the collective love of humanity. And that just felt like a natural way for me to express that.”

HOMEGIRL ft. Smino, Topaz Jones

“It didn’t fit in the flow. We spent days and days and days trying to figure out the transitions and the flow of the project. And it just wasn’t fitting the tone. ‘HOMEGIRL’ is kind of like that ‘LOL’ at the end.”

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‘HOMEGIRL’ is out now.

Words: Brenton Blanchet

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