“I’ve been inhaling paint fumes all day,” confesses Kristine Flaherty. It’s not what you think; Flaherty has actually been helping paint sheds all morning as part of a Warped Tour community service project. And if you know anything about Flaherty’s musical alter ego, K.Flay, you already understand she’s not one to follow the traditional rock-star path.

The Illinois native didn’t even start making music until she was a “super-studious” college freshman at Stanford a decade ago. A classmate challenged her criticism of mainstream hip-hop, and she responded by creating her own track, “Blingity Blang Blang.” The result impressed her friends—and even her challenger. “He was about it!” Flaherty recalls. “He said, ‘You should definitely do this.’”

So she did. That’s led to numerous self-releases; a collaboration with outré rapper Danny Brown; a major-label deal that went sour; years of touring independently; a slot on Warped; and a new album, Life As A Dog, that fuses confessional MCing with alt-rock crooning. The disc was also entirely crowdfunded through PledgeMusic.com. “To be perfectly honest, I was really nervous doing that,” Flaherty says. “There’s a public vulnerability inherent in the process. But it ended up [being] really affirming.”

Dan LeRoy talked to Flaherty about giveaways, major-label takeaways and how to show Mom she’s special.

You’re offering tons of unique rewards through PledgeMusic. What’s been the most popular item?
One of the first things to go was getting a tattoo with me. We didn’t think that’d be picked up, but it went very quickly. And we’ve sold a lot of vinyl.

Have you gotten the tattoo yet?
That’s coming in the fall, after Warped, because the schedule’s pretty hectic right now. I think I’m gonna get a “Mom” tattoo.

With the heart and arrow, and everything?
Yeah! I mean, I love my mom! [Laughs.]

Does the winner have to get one too?
No, no obligation to get matching tats. That being said, if the winner wants to get a “Mom” tattoo, I’m for it! [Laughs.]

You’re releasing Life As A Dog on your own after getting out of your deal with RCA. What went wrong there?
The project was sort of genre-less. It wasn’t strictly hip-hop or strictly alternative. Initially, that was attractive. But when it came down to the way major labels are structured, that caused a lot of confusion. I worked with a bunch of producers, and my sense of myself as an artist and a writer got really muddled. I kind of lost my instinct.

But in my opinion, they were pretty cool about letting me go. It just kind of seemed like a bad relationship. Like you marry this guy you met, and then you say, “Naah.”

Was there a track you wrote for Life As A Dog where you felt like you got your instinct back?
Yeah! It’s the fifth song on the record, called “Fever.” It was the first thing I had made in a long time that had that balance of elements. It was dark, but not depressing. It had the hip-hop component, but it also had melody. One of the big things I learned while I was on RCA, working in the studio with all kinds of people, was an appreciation for melody.

It sounds like you’re singing a lot more on this record. That’s a conscious thing?
A hundred percent. I didn’t do music growing up, so I didn’t even know how to sing onstage. But the more I toured, the more feedback I got from people: “We like when you do this.” When I started, I focused on rapping super-quickly, and coming up with these clever rhyme schemes—which I still love. But I’ve come to appreciate the conciseness of a more melodic approach.

There’s been a lot of discussion recently, in light of the success of Iggy Azalea, about who’s “entitled” to make hip hop.  What’s your response?
It comes up a little less frequently, because the music is in more of an alternative direction. But rap and hip hop have been part of pop music for my generation for as long as we can remember. It’s just an element of expression. We kind of took it for granted.

The cool thing about hip-hop is that it has a particularly confessional nature to it. I think that’s something I’ve always strived to do, because that’s kind of where my head’s at when I’m writing. [Because] I’ve always been a bit of an outsider, it’s really just me trying to be me.

You’re going to honor your mom with a tattoo. I know you double-majored in psychology and sociology at Stanford. How does she feel about this career choice?
My mom and my stepdad have been amazing. I can’t say definitively that they’re the most supportive parents ever. [Laughs.] But they live in Oakland, and they’re at every Bay Area show. My mom used to ship out my T-shirts and merchandise from her office. They’ve just been incredible. But I’m, at this point, the least-educated person in my family, in terms of schooling. [Laughs.]

I think it’s really cool, because my mom loves to write. And my dad loved music and live shows. He died when I was 14. So I think my mom is kind of stoked and happy… because it’s like a little part of him that lives on. alt