rising star leven kali premieres a funky california love song, featuring syd
Playboi Carti collaborator Leven Kali is ringing in a big 2018 with a G-funk-laced antidote to January blues.
Photography Julian Burgueño, styling Zini and Tommy Nowels.
I first met Leven Simon-Seay when I was 12 years old in the middle school jazz band in our mutual hometown of Santa Monica, CA. I was on trumpet, he was on drums. In addition to holding down the rhythm section for a bunch of pre-teens, he played competitive golf, loved funk music, and smiled constantly. I later switched schools, and when we reconnected after high school, I was introduced to Leven Kali, the radiant adult version of the perpetually happy kid I played Herbie Hancock standards with. The only thing different was that he stopped playing golf and started featuring on Playboi Carti albums instead.
A songwriter, producer, and singer, Leven’s music is a lush, heartfelt, and precocious blend of funk influences (think Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, and Parliament), G-funk-laced California grooves, and contemporary neo-soul revivalism. Leven continued to play in the jazz band in high school and started making his own music with friends after graduation. One of these friends, Zack Sekoff, remains a close collaborator and has gone on to produce for Thundercat and Vince Staples (he produced nearly half of Vince’s new album). A few songs on SoundCloud later, Leven was writing and producing for artists like Ty Dolla $ign, Skrillex, Topaz Jones, and Southside; his collaboration with Snoh Aalegra, “Time,” was sampled by Drake on “Do Not Disturb,” landing Leven a writing credit on More Life. And around this time last year, Leven ended up in the studio with Playboi Carti, earning one of three guest spots — the others belonging to A$AP Rocky and Lil Uzi Vert — on Carti’s highly anticipated debut project.
With the momentum of all these early triumphs, Leven is finally coming into his own as a solo act. His 2017 singles, which include “Yours,” “Joy,” and “Smile,” are catchy, wondrously soulful jams enlivened by Leven’s comfort and charisma behind the mic. You can pretty much hear him smiling as he sings, and when he performs — with the help of the same crew of high school friends — his energy is incendiary. Scheduled to perform at Bonnaroo this summer and with an untitled project on the way, Leven is wasting no time in 2018: today, his latest single, “Do U Wrong,” which features Syd, is premiering exclusively here on i-D. A bonafide good-weather track, “Do U Wrong” finds Syd and Leven in perfect harmony, trading playful bars addressed to prospective lovers over a deceptively layered piano-centered groove produced by Syd, Leven, and Sekoff. Like all of Leven’s music, “Do U Wrong” seeps into you like drunkenness — it spreads through and warms you, and by the time the song is over, Syd’s hook is ringing in your head like a hangover. The track is playful but sincere, and cocky without being condescending; at one point Leven wonders, “Do I text twice, or do I play cool?” He’s not serious, though, because if there’s one thing Leven Kali does effortlessly, it’s exactly that: play it cool.
Home in Santa Monica, Leven took a moment to talk about how the new single almost didn’t happen, how he started performing, and about bringing light to an increasingly dark world.
What was the recording process behind the song?
[Syd and I] just started coming up with ideas; we played music for each other and got a vibe. There was no intention to make a song together, or to do a song for her, or a song for me; we were just making music.
There’s a crazy story, to be honest with you. We’d done the whole song. I was finishing it up with Zack Sekoff on New Year’s Eve, and that night, [my girlfriend] Sofi was landing at the airport and I had to go pick her up. Right before I left, my harddrive crashed. I lost the whole session. I lost all the music; I just had the vocals in an email from Syd. I had to re-sing all my vocals, had to remake the whole beat and everything. So we redid the whole song, picked up my uncle Ricky from the airport, had him play guitar again...it was crazy.
Wait, who is uncle Ricky?
Uncle Ricky — his real name is Ricky Rouse. He’s a legend in his own right — he played with everybody, and he was the bandleader at Death Row with Snoop and Pac and them. He recorded the guitars on the song some months ago, and then the harddrive crashed. But he happened to be flying in back from Arizona on the day the song was due. So we had to remake the song, then pick him up from the airport on Friday, had him replay everything, mix and master it, and turned it in the same day.
You’ve spent most of your career, especially early on, writing and producing for others, and you have a tight relationship with your collaborators. Is it different stepping into the spotlight as a solo artist?
I definitely think of myself more as a “team oriented” person...it’s been a smooth transition, but it’s also been kinda weird. Initially I wanted to write for other people and produce beats, but everything sort of moved at a fast pace. I would come up with an idea for a song and someone would be like, “Oh man, you should put this out yourself it sounds cool already.” And that turned into this. I’m still working with everyone around me...everything is a collaborative group effort, it’s just that my name is on it now. And that’s how I see it.
Songs like “Joy” and “Smile,” and your sound as a whole, are overwhelmingly positive. What do you want people to feel when they listen to your music?
I’m not setting out to only make “happy, happy” songs. I want the music to always make people feel, in some way, good — I have songs I’m working on for my project that are on the sadder side of things, but at the end of the day it’s still soulful; it might be sad but it’s still positive. We call my band “The Moon,” because when it’s dark out, the moon is shining. Everything we’re doing, we want to bring light to. This world right now, we’d all agree, isn’t too bright. I want to be bringing light, and I want to be doing it in an honest way, on record, off record. That’s the mission.