Hello, Can you start by introducing yourself and the work that you do?
My name is Kelsey, otherwise known as Feral, my artist name/last name. I make music and I also do stand-up comedy, those are my two main creative pursuits. I feel like my work hits an interesting intersection of socio-economic-political commentary and personal heartbreak.
I went through a really unusual and very specific situation in high school where I dated the son of a billionaire CEO. I was in love for the first time and I really liked the family, it was a magical experience, feeling like I found my home. Cracks started to appear in our relationship. He was so incredibly wealthy so he lived in another world. There was just no way for us to stay together, the relationship was doomed from the start. It ended eventually and I was super distraught, it’s very hard for me to put into words how upsetting it was for me to lose that person that I cared so much about. We broke up, I was just so upset and needed some way to process my feelings, and a huge thing that has always healed me is telling my story.
I wrote the album Trauma Portfolio my sophomore year of college and then recorded it the following summer. It came out in 2018 on Bandcamp and then in 2019 everywhere else. I was very naïve in terms of the business side of the music industry so I had very few plays. I was able to establish myself in the Berkeley music scene, that’s where I was going to school. I think had a good following in the Berkeley area.
One day I decided to make a TikTok tell the story behind one of my songs, “Fuck the Bourgeoisie.” I told the story with the song playing in the background and it just blew up immediately in a crazy way. Having that TikTok go viral was very life-changing for me, I got so many opportunities as a musician from it. I know it is kind of messy to put your emotional baggage on the internet but it feels really healing to me. I’m the happiest that I’ve been in years because I am speaking my truth.
Did that process of sharing that story publicly and then having it blew up change how you understand or process that experience?
There were times when I was worried about the song being misinterpreted because there is a very satirical element to the song. It is meant to be as much of self-criticism as it is meant to be a criticism of the family I am talking about.
There are lyrics in there that are about being complicit. It is about a young person learning about wealth inequality and trying to see if you can date someone wealthy and still feel good about yourself. It is morally corrupting to put yourself in that position. If someone else has blood on their hands and you reach out to hold their hand, you get blood on your hands too.
I think there are a lot of layers to the song. I am worried about people looking at the funny parts and not grasping the deeper meaning. I’m trying to communicate a lot of things in a three-minute song and you never know if you are going to get all the way through to people, especially if they can’t relate to it. I think that is the magic of songwriting, that there is always a piece of the song that hits for people even if they don’t get the whole story. All I can do is try my best through interviews and my words after the fact to reiterate what I was trying to get across in that song.
I look at it as a less lonely feeling now. The song is about being in an isolating situation, I didn’t know anyone who had a breakup like that. Now, after having people reach out to me about it, I listen to that song and know I’m not the only one.
I am interested in the intersection of music, comedy, and political awareness in what you are creating, can you talk more about that?
I think that music and comedy really play into each other, both are forms of creative writing and storytelling. I think they each help the other form of writing, they support each other and strengthen one another. I will say that writing comedy is harder than writing songs, but I’ve also been doing it for less time.
For the political and socio-economic commentary, I want to be careful to not overstate what I have done for the world, I am not an activist. I studied social sciences in college, I believe in social justice but I am also just twenty-two years old and still trying to figure out how to fix the world’s problems. I have an unreleased song that talks about being so caught up in your own issues that it’s hard to engage with the world’s issues. I do think that political commentary is unavoidable though at a certain point. We live in a society and we are affected by our social norms and political situations. I had the random luck of being so deeply affected by wealth inequality in a personal and privileged way. I had my ex leave me for a lifestyle that I couldn’t afford and like it or not, that’s political. I hope I am engaging with these topics in a way that is doing it justice, I hope I am telling the story in a way that brings light to these issues and helps people feel less alone if they are dealing with these issues. I am also not trying to claim to have all the answers.
Comedy and songwriting are some of the best ways we have to call out systems of oppression or of inequality. They give a sense of bravery that you may not have in regular life to speak out about things. I also think they are some of the healthiest ways to deal with these feelings of abandonment and anger.
I’d also love to hear more about your podcast, “The Hopeless Romantic Critique of the Untouchable Elite.”
In the first TikTok I made, I kind of told the story behind “Fuck the Bourgeoisie” but I kept it pretty general. It blew up and I got so many messages asking who it was that I was talking about. I understand people are curious and want to know, but I wasn’t ready to name names.
The more I thought about it I realized that I was creating this rule for myself that I had to protect these people who didn’t protect me. I was prioritizing the reputation and feelings of my ex-boyfriend and his dad more than my feelings and what I needed for myself. I still have so much love for them that it was getting in the way of me loving myself.
I was sitting on some comedic material about my ex-boyfriend and his dad and I decided that I was going to perform them publically. I discovered I loved joking about it. Getting on stage and talking about it was a huge step for me in terms of acceptance and closure.
At that point, people had heard the song and watched my comedy so I realized that the information was already out there. I felt ready to share so I told the story start-to-finish on the first episode of the podcast. It was the last piece that I needed to close that chapter of my life and be able to move on. At the end of the podcast, I asked people to reach out if they had similar experiences and I would potentially have them as a guest on the next episodes. I’m hoping to turn it into an ongoing show where I interview people who have dated the super-rich, famous, and powerful. It has the chance to become a supportive community for people who have gone through this very specific, shitty situation. I hope it takes off in its own way but even so, I am just grateful to tell the story.
You have been really prolific, in the past year especially, having three singles come out and blowing up on TikTok, what does your creative process look like? How do you stay motivated and inspired?
I go through fits of creativity. I get inspired in waves, I get in songwriting moods. I always start with the lyrics, that is the focus of my music. I am not a great guitarist, I am not a great producer, I wouldn’t even really call myself a singer. I identify as a songwriter because I think that is truly where my talent lies, in the lyrics and my ability to tell a story.
I always write about real-life experiences, I have yet to master fictitious or conceptual writing. I mainly draw from this one relationship, probably because it is the only relationship I have ever had, but also because it was a really upsetting life experience for me. It’s not the only thing I write about, I have some versatility, but in general, the drive I feel to write songs comes from the heartbreak.
Do you feel like your music fits into a certain genre? Are there specific musicians you take inspiration from?
People ask me this question a fair amount, especially when someone is booking a show they always want to know the genre of music. I’ve been struggling with trying to define it for a while now and I have come up with a few answers. I like to tell people that the genre is TMI because it is very personal music. I also like to tell people that the genre is “angry girl music of the indie-rock persuasion,” which is a quote from the movie 10 Things I Hate About You. When I am trying to be more specific, I say it is a mix between riot grrrl and singer/songwriter. I feel like it has the attitude, punch, and gutsy lyrical quality of a riot grrrl song but I think that instrumentally it is more of a singer/songwriter, bedroom-pop kind of sound.
I am a multi-genre artist, I genre bend and blend. I have tried to label it but ultimately it is Feral, it is just my own thing, and I think that is cool too because it doesn’t sound like everybody or anybody else. I do want to give credit to Alanis Morissette, Liz Phair, Mitski, Pom Pom Squad, and Dazey and the Scouts. I have influences, I’m not reinventing the wheel here, but at the same time, I feel like I have created my own niche which feels cool.
What are you working on now or looking forward to in the future?
My most current project is the podcast. Creating another album is a huge dream of mine and I have enough songs for one now. It’s written, I have a title picked out, now it is just logistically and financially figuring that out. I also just moved to Los Angeles so I am trying to immerse myself in the local music scene here. Hopefully, I can find a producer in the next year and start working on the album. I hope people who like my music will follow along and listen to it when it is eventually out.
Words by Riley Gunderson