LOS ANGELES — Karlea Boyer believes there are two levels of music artists.
The first is the singer/songwriter, where an artist has a very specific idea of what a song should be and will fight for that vision.
The Iola native lives more on the other level, a collaborative one, that can take her original idea through many transformations.
It’s a chaotic and glorious process filled with writers, singers, producers, sound engineers, DJs and anyone else a song calls out for. It can get messy. With so many visions and voices, there are bound to be conflicts.
Boyer says that’s where a little bit of cannabis — legal in California — comes in handy. Pass around a joint, and those visions mellow and merge.
“It’s like a counseling session,” Boyer said. “You sit back and open up and have therapy in the studio. Everyone has their defenses lowered. Everyone is very philosophical. The writers take what you’re going through and put it in lyrical form. It’s how you get to the raw music and make something out of it.”
A LOS ANGELES recording studio filled with some of the biggest names in the music industry is a far cry from small-town Kansas where Boyer grew up.
The daughter of Robin Boyer and Carriie Cheung, she spent her childhood in a doublewide trailer north of Iola, on property owned by her grandparents, Marvin and Ruth Boyer. The area is known as “Boyer’s Lake.” Her father lives now in her grandparents’ house. Her mother now lives in Oklahoma. Karlea is the oldest of five siblings.
The Boyers raised exotic animals: zebras, emus and more.
“I’ve always been an animal lover,” Boyer said via Zoom while sitting in her LA apartment, far removed from her small-town roots.
Her conversation with The Register took place in late May, not long after Boyer released her first single, “I Could Use a Drink.” Rolling Stone magazine calls it a “Song You Need to Know.”
Boyer moved to LA while still a teenager, after graduating early from Iola High School in 2006, earning dual credits from Allen Community College.
Her mother was born in Hong Kong, and her extended family operates China Palace in Iola.
Boyer’s mother knew the challenges that might face her children as first-generation Chinese Americans, so she trained her focus on their American side.
“I speak a little bit of Chinese, and from my aunts and uncle at China Palace I knew some of the traditions,” Boyer said.
From the age of 5, Boyer began attending South Street Dance Company under the instruction of Tasia Cooper.
“That’s when I solidified that I wanted to be a triple threat. I wanted to be on stage, singing, dancing, acting,” Boyer said.
“That was my whole world growing up. I’m so thankful for all the life lessons that gave me.”
She described herself as “a dramatic and stubborn child.” Cooper taught her how to channel her energy into achieving her goals.
“I would be so frustrated with myself — that I couldn’t get this tap combo or I didn’t make the cut at competitions — and it helped me mentally vent. I’m so lucky she put up with all my tears and frustration.”
IT WAS important to Boyer’s family that she continue her education. They wanted her to become either a doctor or a lawyer.
So, Boyer applied to both UCLA and Whittier, colleges that would take her to LA. She told her parents she would move to LA to live for a year and establish residency, to qualify for the cheaper in-state tuition.
But, in the back of her mind, she had no intention of actually pursuing law.
“I bluffed my way here,” she admits.
Her parents, though, were always supportive, even when they realized Boyer would rather pursue music than law.
To make her way in LA, Boyer tapped into her experience as a waitress at Iola’s China Palace. In LA, she worked as many as four jobs at a time, mostly as a bartender at clubs. She took advantage of every opportunity, working until 5 a.m. nearly every day.
“I was always hustling, hustling, hustling, meeting all these people in clubs. Producers. Artists. Promoters,” she said. “There was always a method to the madness. If I had to make money, I wanted to be engulfed in the world where I needed to be.”
For a couple of years, Boyer worked for a cannabis company. She wanted to learn more about marijuana, and felt the best way was to immerse herself in the burgeoning pot industry.
It was the same for the music industry.
There’s much more to making music than simply recording a song. It’s a tough business, and Boyer was determined to learn as much as she could about the business side.
“I wanted to learn the business so no one could ever take advantage of me,” she said.
Such determination, also took its toll.
Boyer said at times she’s battled depression, anxiety and fear.
Despite everthing, she kept going.
“While you’re working three jobs just to be able to support and feed yourself, you have to say ‘yes’ to any and all opportunities to become successful,” she said. “I said yes to everything. And now I have the power to say ‘no,’ which I have found to be a powerful thing. Now I get to choose what projects I do.”
Her hard work also translated to traveling the world, meeting record executives in places like Denmark, Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai. In Hong Kong, she was able to impress Warner Records’ Chinese executives with her limited knowledge of Cantonese.
“My stock went up. They were like, she’s totally marketable. So now they want to work with me.”
She’s worked with some of the most important people in the industry, who have helped artists like Rhianna and Ariana Grande get to the top.
She recalled working at a party, and someone introduced himself as a producer who had worked with Beyonce. Throughout the night, three other people said the same thing. Eventually, Boyer realized that it took a huge team of people to help someone become a star.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason she’s always been so open to a collaborative approach to her music. The more people who can help her — and, in return, the more people she can help — the better her music will be.
The production team LionChild helped write and produce “I Could Use a Drink.”
Boyer’s label is HRT Records.
ROLLING STONE praised “I Could Use a Drink” for its “dance-pop lightheartedness.”
It’s a break-up song grounded in reality. It’s about wiping away the tears, and — with the help of a drink or two — setting yourself free.
“I don’t wanna cry, I don’t wanna think.” Boyer’s chorus starts with a plaintive cry before abruptly switching to an uncompromising admission: “But if you ask me, I could use a drink.”
In a video that’s been viewed more than 56,000 times on YouTube, lyrics flash across the screen intercut with a scantily-clad Boyer bopping along to the rhythm in her living room. (Warning: Explicit lyrics.)
Like most songs, this one tells a personal story and Boyer could relate. She and her boyfriend of 10 years had recently decided to call it quits, after a year of giving the relationship its final chance.
The song also ties in with today’s COVID-19 pandemic and the isolation created by the virus and a global shutdown.
How do you cope with a breakup during a pandemic?
Boyer first heard a demo of the song just before the coronavirus closed down LA.
The song fit not only her situation, but also the world’s, she realized.
At first, she wanted to record the video on a private jet, with a bunch of carefree girls dancing about the cabin. But that didn’t feel true to this place and time, and the plan was scrapped.
Social isolation is the worst way to mourn a relationship, Boyer realized.
In normal times, pre-COVID-19, she might have been able to hop on a plane with her best girlfriends, get drunk and escape to an exotic location or a hot nightclub and dance through the pain.
She might have recruited a friend to accompany her as she drove past her ex’s house over and over again, just because she was in the neighborhood and not, you know, to see if he was home.
She and her friends might have stalked his social media pages, getting together over a bottle of wine to gossip about his posts.
“Women do crazy things when we go through a breakup. Imagine being on lockdown. You go down this whole rabbit hole,” she said.
“Everyone is going through something during quarantine. Isolation. Depression. Job loss. So when I was working on this song, I was thinking about all of that.”
So, instead of a jet full of carefree women, Boyer’s video is just her. Alone. Singing. Dancing. Coping.
FIND Boyer’s song, “I Could Use a Drink,” on your favorite music streaming platform including Spotify or Apple Music.