By Kat Bein
Palm Studios has a real cool cat in singer, songwriter, and producer Leven Kali. The former golf star gave up the green for a new kind of swing about four years ago, and he's never looked back. That's not to say he gave up every kind of green, though. His soulful, breezy style is suited for the smokers out there, from sunny California to chilly Lake Tahoe, where he tore up the main stage at SnowGlobe Music Festival this past weekend.
His music has brought him to Korea, to sushi with Usher and Skrillex, and to a higher state of creativity with his friends and live band, The Moon. He's got a ton of new music planned for the start of 2018, and MTV News caught up with Kali to hear about his wild sonic journey around the world.
MTV News: You brought a lot of energy to your set. This is a different environment from Southern California.
Leven Kali: It was crazy, because literally the last time I was outside, I was in Puerto Rico. I've been in the airport for like 15 hours trying to get back. My girl's family has roots in Puerto Rico, so I went out there with her and her people. We just kicked it for a few days on the beach, then got smacked in the face by the airline and now I'm here, but it feels so good to be here.
MTV News: I read that you were a Division I golfer before you decided to pursue music full-time. What made you give that up and dive in?
Kali: I was always in music. My mom is a musician, my dad is a musician, all my uncles and aunts are musicians. My senior year of high school, I committed to play golf in college, so I didn't have to apply to colleges. I had that whole year to fuck around and just get ready for college, but I ended up doing music that whole year with the homies. We were making songs about parties in high school, making fun of kids and whatever, but then it turned into like, "Damn, these songs are kinda good, even though they're jokes,” and it just built from there.
MTV News: It's been a wild couple of years for you.
Kali: It has. I was in college, and I went to Korea to do songwriting for K-pop bands.
MTV News: You did a song with EXO.
Kali: Yeah, we did “Love Shot” for them when I was out there. They released it this year, and it's been going crazy for them. Those moments and experiences made me feel like I should definitely jump all the way into this.
MTV News: What was it like to work with K-pop artists?
Kali: You know how a lot of music and entertainment culture starts in America and reverberates into the world? When I went there in 2013, 2014, they were just starting to really grab on to hip hop in more of a trap sense. They've been loving R&B, but they wanted me to work with the younger artists to teach them swag culture. Some of them were incredible. You can tell that they're obsessed with the culture. They would tell me about not being able to see girls and do certain things, and that was mind-blowing. They're picked at, like, 12 or even younger [to be K-pop performers], but it was still happy. It wasn't negative. They definitely wanted to be better. They want to learn. They're in the studio in the middle of the night every night. Dedicated, for sure.
MTV News: And last year you did some work with Usher and Skrillex?
Kali: I was in the studio of this place called Record Plant. It's a big studio in L.A., and Skrillex and Usher were having a session. This was probably a year or two ago now, but at Record Plant, you've got to imagine, you walk into the studio, and there's literally Razor scooters with license plates on them that say, "Skrillex," "Ty Dolla $ign," "A$AP Rocky." It's a fun place. Skrillex and Usher were together at that moment when I walked into the room. They're two of the nicest people I've ever met, and we just had a creative click. Some of the stuff we made ended up on Skrillex's OWSLA project. The Usher songs are in the vault right now, but it was cool. Usher took us to dinner at Nobu in his Wraith. It was surreal — and he really is one of the best singers. You know when someone walks into the booth behind the mic, and they do their little chants before they start going? His warm-up is insane.
MTV News: What's it like producing and writing for other people as opposed to yourself?
Kali: It's dope. In the beginning, I saw myself as a producer and a writer, and I would make music that people thought would only work with me. That's sometimes a struggle, trying to send songs to people but it's like, "Damn, you should just put this out yourself.” But I'd much rather be with somebody. Instead of writing for people, I like writing with people. Sometimes it works when you send somebody a track and they send back a verse, but it's always way more special in-person.
MTV News: You released a couple short EPs this year in quick succession. Why break it up like that?
Kali: It's 2018 — or 2019. Why not do some new shit? It's interesting, because it seems like this cycle of time. Before records were a thing, people put out one or two singles. I don't think that it's a perfect cycle, but I think there's things contributing to it being like that again. People have short attention spans, and sometimes three songs go together and they don't work in a project. I have a plan to put out an EP this year, and then I might drop little packs. I might do an album. Whatever the people want.
MTV News: Talk about the next EP.
Kali: This will be the proper EP length, like seven songs. To be honest, I have so many songs. My hardest problem is how to get it all out in a cohesive way. It's a better pressure.
MTV News: You recently released a pretty cool music video for “Too High.”
Kali: First off, shout out Na'Kel Smith and Buddy. It means so much more when you do stuff in the room in-person. That song was a perfect example of that. I had the first part of that record already done. I linked up with Na'Kel and Buddy came through. We all smoked a ton of weed, and it was super chill. We're all actually friends. I met Na'Kel when he pulled up with a mutual friend literally in a shopping cart. Buddy I met at Coachella. You can tell that we're actually friends on the record, which is probably why it's cool.
MTV News: Are there lessons you're taking from 2018 into 2019?
Kali: If you don't grow every day, you're tripping. Do things. I'll sit on stuff and deliberate, and deliberation is the death of progress. Deciding on a place to eqt, or deciding what music to put out. If you start doing something, you'll build on that, and you'll make it special no matter what. You just have to start. Put it in motion, and then it'll become how you make it.