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Artist Q&A: Flora

Flora. Photo by Aaron Rhodes.
Brought to you by 90.9 The Bridge.

Flora Billen has been having an interesting year. In addition to surviving eighth grade -- no easy task, COVID era or not -- she also released her first EP as a singer-songwriter. Keep Calling features five songs of bright, infectious, and occasionally angsty indie rock that combine teen bedroom pop charm with rock studio know-how. The know-how comes courtesy of her father Dan Billen, known for his time in the band The Billions and his work at Primary Color Music, the commercial music company owned by his brother Sam. I visited Flora and Dan at The Farmhouse Studio (another part of the family operation) just outside Lawrence, Kansas to talk about Flora’s big debut.

So you’d been playing violin and piano actively up until recently, but now you’re working more with guitar and bass. What led to that?
FB: Well, actually, I find bass and guitar more easy than what I was taught in lessons, but my grandpa taught me how to play guitar mostly, and my dad, so I thought that was really easier than piano and violin.

Are there other instruments that you still want to try? Or do you feel like you're kinda settling in with the ones you're working with?
FB: I kind of like the ones I play, but I'm thinking of progression because I'm kind of good at drums.

When did you realize that you might want to release your own music?
FB: I've always planned on doing music, since my dad has been in the music career for a really long time along with my brother. So I've kind of always wanted to make music and do stuff like that. But definitely through quarantine is when I started to want to make music.

So what were the first conversations you guys had about releasing music? When did it kind of feel like a real thing that was happening?
FB: Well, actually, me and my dad, we would go on walks to this gas station, which is like a mile away and we would do that just to bond and we started to think about writing music just for fun. And then once my first song was recorded and once I heard it, I knew it was like really good.

Yeah, hearing your first song recorded always seems to bring out a lot of feelings.
DB: Yeah, it was just all in theory until we did that. It was kinda like, “I hope this works.”

You guys had said that you only wrote and recorded a song every month or two. Was that pacing kind of intentional?
FB: Yeah, pretty much.

DB: Yeah, especially since it was during school, too. So now that we have the summer, we're gonna try to hit it really hard and record an album this summer together. My goal is to try to have Flora do more, because she was just 13 at the time that we did all this, so I did a lot of the heavy lifting stuff. So even though Flora can do a lot on her own -- like she's used Logic and recorded songs up in her room and they're just so much more raw and maybe, in a lot of ways, better because they're more real, since I do commercial music, mostly, I tend to overthink it, overproduce.

So I'm hoping this summer when we work together that Flora does more and her brother who's also really awesome, he's 17 and he's a producer too, so I'm hoping that I think once they do more, it's going to sound less like a 43 year-old man who had his hands on it.

That is kind of fun to think about though -- the combination of hi-fi commercial music experience and the rawness of teenage bedroom writing. Were there any moments during the making of Keep Calling where you had to tell your dad or brother to step back at all, Flora?
FB: So, well, sometimes when my dad writes songs, they're kind of cringey a little bit, like the lyrics, because he's used to writing [for] commercials. So I'm like, oh, hey, Dad, I think you should change this word to something else. Sometimes it can be cringeworthy.

DB: It's so funny because like, musically, I can pass for younger, you know? I think I can get that ‘90s sound perfectly, you know, but lyrically, it's just so hard for me. It's so embarrassing to admit, but there's so many times when I help Flora write these songs, some of these lyrics I would write just based on our conversations and she would just say, “No, there is no way,” and I'd be like, oh my gosh -- as you get older, you’re blind to it. So if there’s anything cringey on there, it’s my fault.

I’m guessing Flora and Isaac are helpful for that when you’re writing your commercial music, too.

DB: Yeah, Flora and Isaac, they have to come in and bail me out a lot, especially if I get assigned hip-hop. Because we do all different genres for commercial music. So they'll assign hip-hop to me and I'm like, oh my gosh, I just cannot. So I have to have my kids come help me make it sound real.


Flora and Dan Billen. Photo by Aaron Rhodes.

Was it kind of difficult at all to be open and vulnerable about the lyrics for these songs since you were working on them with your family?
FB: Yeah, it's hard when people ask me what the songs are about, because it could be about so many other things. It's just a lot of things. The songs mean a lot of things.

Between the two of you, what taste in music do you have that overlaps, and then what’s different?
FB: Well, yeah, my dad, kind of the indie rock and I want to go for lo-fi sometimes. So maybe in the future I can make more lo-fi vibes and then he can still stick with indie rock.

DB: From my perspective, a lot of stuff Flora listens to, it's like they're not even on the grid, like it's just all over the place, but it sounds so good. But anytime I've ever tried to fix something that's lo-fi and just like real off the cuff, it is almost impossible for me because I'm like a perfectionist, everything has to be quantized and everything and so that's the thing I was talking about earlier, I just have to like pass the baton and not be that. But I think a lot of stuff Flora listens to is just way more raw and almost feels unscripted. Which is the opposite. Like, I listen to a lot of stuff that's super tight.

I like the appearances of the rotary phone in the album art and the music video. What inspired the visual aesthetics for Keep Calling?
FB: My music is almost like ‘90s vibes, ‘80s vibes -- mostly ‘90s -- so we were trying to go for that theme. My recent music video was kind of like ‘60s a little bit because it was shot on 8mm film.

DB: And we filmed it all out here. So that's all the farm stuff you see is like all these barns and stuff. Yeah, but it's funny if you look, the aesthetic of the visuals have changed as Flora has grown over the year, because when we started, like I said, she was 13, she just graduated eighth grade last week. And it is crazy how when you're at this age, you grow warp speed. So when I would say when we recorded “Keep Calling,” Flora was a little girl, she was a little girl. And then when we recorded the last song, “No One Asked,” she was like a different person, like an older teenager. And so when you look at even the visuals and the pictures on Instagram, everything starts kind of pink and like real little girly, and then in just a year, and then it's just getting a little more, I don't know what you'd call it, like, grungy or something. I don't know, it's just so crazy that we captured this at this age.

The zine you made to go with the EP mentions your interest in illustration. You did some work on the album artwork, right?
FB: Actually, my dad wanted me to write out different letters to see which one fit [for my name on the cover], so I just drew a bunch of different fonts. I think we both drew a bunch of different fonts and eventually we chose one we're like, oh, yeah, that one fits perfectly.

Are there any other illustration projects you kind hope to do in the future?
FB: Well, for a while I was doing portraits of people, just for practice for illustration. That went pretty well, but school started, so then I lost track of that. But I think I'm gonna get into that again.

DB: But she's really good at comic strips. Like I used to try. I'm an illustrator, too, I used to try to do comic strips and they're just impossible because you have to have the punchline at the end and just the way it's set up and she's been doing that, like, since you were really little, she has a knack for like setting up the story. So on the next zine, we're working on it now, we're gonna have more for comic strips in there.

Is it ever stressful juggling a bunch of different creative outlets like that?
FB: Illustration is kind of like a hobby for me, but I think in the future I want it to become more professional. I might take college classes on illustration or graphic design. But for now, my priority is music.

Do you hope to be playing live here soon? Getting a band together?
FB: I was hoping to get a band, but so far, no one that I know is good at playing instruments that are in the kind of style I do. But I'm really hoping to have concerts and stuff once COVID-19 has gone away.

And what should people expect as far as the full-length album you mentioned?
FB: Well, I think since I'm gonna be more involved, it might change slightly, but I don't really know yet how it's gonna change. But I think we'll see how it changes.

DB: Yeah and we have like a couple horn players lined up. So I want to at least, you know, me injecting myself again, but I want to have more real horns and stuff on it. I think that'd be really cool. Like, have you listened to Andy Shauf? He always has this horn section that comes in. It just sounds so awesome. So I'm hoping to maybe in a lot of these upcoming songs, have some real horn players in there and hopefully do more things so the whole thing is just more consistent, like tighten it down. Because this one, as you know, it was like every couple months, it was just kind of like a whole new project. Hopefully this one we get it all where it just sounds a lot more consistent.

Listen to Keep Calling at or on digital streaming platforms.

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[This article first appeared in Issue 3 of Shuttlecock's free monthly print edition. Click here to order a copy online, or pick one up for free at locations around KC/Lawrence/JoCo.]      

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