Every song from Leven Kali is a bright and brilliant burst of energy, a direct channeling of the pure spontaneity behind his creative process. Raised in a musical family and born in the Netherlands while his dad was on tour, the L.A.-based singer/songwriter/producer joined up with a loose collective of musicians as a teenager and soon began creating his own deeply melodic but fantastically surreal blend of classic soul and hip-hop. With his two-part debut project for Interscope Records—the critically acclaimed Low Tide and forthcomingHigh Tide—Leven’s built off that instinct-driven dynamic, dreaming up a timeless yet futuristic R&B sound that matches his homespun creativity with sophisticated musicianship.
Released in May 2019, Low Tide unfolds with the bold ingenuity Leven’s shown in collaborating with artists as eclectic as Playboi Carti and Skrillex, along with the heartfelt songcraft he lent to Drake’s 2017 mixtape More Life. In bringing his self-produced project to life, Leven worked with his longtime collaborator Zack Sekoff (Vince Staples, Thundercat), revealing his roots in funk and jazz as well as a passion for psychedelia and the untamed experimentation of electronic music. “I try to be like a cyborg, and incorporate that raw instrumentation with all the 808s and synths and programmed drums,” says the 24-year-old artist, who plays bass, keyboards, drums, and guitar.
Partly recorded in his mom’s garage, Low Tide offers up tracks like “Do U Wrong” ft. Syd: a song praised by Pitchfork for “mix[ing] Marvin Gaye’s acuity with Anderson .Paak’s flow.” With its lush groove and hazy beats, “Do U Wrong” also features guitar work from Leven’s uncle Ricky Rouse (a musician who’s worked with legendary artists like Parliament Funkadelic, Chaka Khan, and 2Pac). “My family’s all over my music,” Leven points out. “I want us to be the new Sly and the Family Stone.”
Describing himself as “literally born into music,” Leven largely credits his natural musicality to his mother (a singer/songwriter) and father (a bassist for famed funk-rock band Mother’s Finest, who opened for Aerosmith and AC/DC back in the ’70s). He began studying jazz in middle school, playing everything from trumpet to drums while performing in the jazz band at Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica. Also a star athlete, Leven dedicated much of his high-school experience to playing golf, but started making music of his own during his senior year. “I got a laptop and it opened up that whole world of making beats and working on music whenever I wanted,” he recalls. “I was just having fun with my friends—that same backyard kind of vibe that I still bring to how I record now.”
Once he’d graduated Crossroads, Leven headed to University of California, Riverside on a golf scholarship but continued moving forward with his music. “I’d gotten obsessed with production, so I kept driving back and forth to L.A. to work with whoever I could and just absorb as much as possible,” he says. Although he first intended to write and record for other artists, Leven soon changed direction on his musical path. “The feedback I got was that my songs sounded really unique and didn’t really fit with anyone else, so I should just put them out myself,” he says. Following through on that advice, Leven posted a gospel-trap track called “Bruce Lee” to SoundCloud in early 2015, and quickly drew some attention. Soon enough, he’d begun writing and producing with the likes of Ty Dolla $ign and Topaz Jones, and also landed a gig writing for K-pop artists in South Korea.
Not long after he’d returned from Asia, Leven received a record-deal offer from Interscope, a turn of events he refers to as “a storybook moment.” “I didn’t have many followers or a big song out or anything like that—nobody really knew who I was,” says Leven. “I knew I had something special so I bet on myself, dropped out of school, and put all my time into the music.”
Leaving UC Riverside his third year in, Leven signed his deal with Interscope in October 2017, several months after independently releasing his first single, Joy, and earning one of three guest spots on Playboi Carti’s widely celebrated self-titled mixtape (the other two featured artists: A$AP Rocky and Lil Uzi Vert). He then set to work on Low Tide, creating much of the project in a self-built studio up in the hills. “It was like a constant party, with people coming through all the time,” Leven says. “All of the songs came together in a super-organic and effortless way—it just happened in the moment, just all of us having fun.”
To illustrate the free-flowing nature of that process, Leven points to a song called “Cassandra”: an infectiously uptempo, piano-laced track on which his vocals capture a lovestruck longing. “We had the music to that song but no words yet, and we were really hungry so we ordered pizza on Postmates,” he remembers. “The Postmate’s name was so Cassandra, so I started singing ‘Cassandra, bring me what I need right now’—that’s how the hook happened.”
Leven purposely brought a boundary-warping inventiveness toLow Tide. “I like creating sounds you can’t find anywhere else,” says Leven, who names Pharrell Williams among his main inspirations. “I want to mess with the idea of reality, so the music always has the feeling that it’s not quite of this Earth.” Also mining influence from Yayoi Kusama’s hallucinatory art installations and Kevin Kelly’s writing on the intersection of technology and spirituality, Low Tide explores the metaphysical in its lyrics as well. “The main theme behind Low Tide is how strange it is that we have this fascination with outer space and trying to communicate with other beings, when we don’t really take the time to look inside and figure out how to truthfully express ourselves,” says Leven.
A powerful sense of communion and connection infuses all of Leven’s musical output, especially his wildly joyful live show. “I love getting the crowd to sing with me,” he notes. “I always try to invite that colorful, energetic atmosphere anytime we play.” And with his family closely involved with his music from back in the days of “Bruce Lee” (to which his mother, sister, and aunt contributed background vocals), his ambition is to bring his nearest and dearest onstage as often as possible. “I really wish I could travel with everybody all the time,” he says. “They’re all super-talented, and I owe so much to everyone being supportive of me along the way. I’m definitely an example of that
it-takes-a-village type of vibe.”