Kelsey Lu, on liberating herself and empowering others
Berlin, Mitte; There’s a flurry of action in the Sony office and then the door opens. Kelsey Lu walks in, blue eyebrows and all; regal and mysterious – like her music. Bubbly, yet restrained, when she speaks it’s slow and contemplative, demanding your full attention, it’s a restraint that creates drama. But it doesn’t feel deliberate, everything Lu says and does seems to be done honestly, naturally.
For any other artist, recording a full EP in one live take, solo, with a cello, would be a deliberate logistical endeavour. For Kelsey Lu, the classically-trained cellist and vocalist, it was the only way. Church, the six-track EP is how I discovered her dionysian music. It was an incredibly lonely and moving introduction to the artist, a talent that the likes of Solange, Dev Hynes and Kelela already took note of.
Now following the spontaneous announcement of her upcoming album Blood, I spoke to Lu about her journey, her music and how she’s using it to liberate herself and empower others.
SARAH OSEI Yesterday I got an email about doing a spontaneous interview, and in my head I already wanted to respond “No” because it’s my day off, but then I heard it was you… so here I am.
KELSEY LU (squeals and dramatically falls back on the couch) Yey!! And it’s always a pleasure to see a person of colour!
SO Likewise. You flew in today right?
SO Have you been to Berlin before?
KL Yeah… I feel like I’ve never been here long enough. I’ve experienced it in different spurts. The last time I was here I was like “Fuck Berlin! I’m never coming back!”
SO Oh, I have that every other day.
SO When did you choose to pursue music?
KL I always played music growing up actually and music was very supported at home. My parents are both musicians and in the arts. Then my older sister started playing violin – of course I wanted to do everything that she did – so I started playing violin too, then I switched to piano and then cello became my main squeeze.
SO Why cello?
KL I just fell in love with it.
SO I read that you grew up Jehovah’s Witness, which so different from your life now. Was there a moment of rebellion for you?
KL Yeah, definitely rebellion was a driving force at a point in time.
“Music was the only thing that made sense, when everything else was really confusing and chaotic”
SO Was music a means to rebel?
KL Music was always a big part of my life, but only in a classical setting. Then in my teens, I got into the natural stages of rebellion. I guess that’s when you start to question everything – your parents are telling you one thing, but you feel another way – and music was always a centrepiece in my life, a way of grounding myself. Before that I was kind of just floating about and taking what I was given, then when I started questioning things, music was the only thing that made sense, when everything else was really confusing and chaotic. When I left home it was because of music that I was able to do that, it was a stepping stone into a new life. So I went to college for classical music, but in the first year I found that classical music wasn’t the musical expression for me. I knew I needed to express myself through music, but I didn’t know how. I couldn’t really figure it out and I was depressed with all the new experiences coming at me. So I started exploring with other artists, dancing, improvising, and just playing and writing. That catapulted into continuously experimenting outside of the classical construct, which eventually led me here…
SO When did you feel that you discovered your sound and your voice?
KL It took a long time. It took some years. I was like a sponge, taking in the music that was a part of my life, that inspired me to want to sing in the first place. I wasn’t a singer, I loved singing but in secret, I didn’t tell anybody. After I left art school, I was working at a restaurant and met some locals, they told me about this nonprofit hip-hop collective. I became part of the nonprofit too, it was something I’d never done before so it was really cool. We would throw shows in town and one time afterwards we all went over to this person’s house as an after party. That’s where I did ecstasy for the first time. Everyone was jamming in the back and I couldn’t hold in anymore, I just started singing! And they were like “what?! You can sing?” Haha! So thanks to ecstasy I came out as a singer. After that I started singing with people and then I went on tour with this band Nappy Roots. Then producers started sending me tracks. I was kind of overwhelmed because at that point I was still trying to figure out my sound. Then I moved to New York and I got my own studio and I would just lock myself in there for hours. I got a loop pedal and that just changed everything, because before that I was making songs on my phone through Garageband, recording into the headphones. With the pedal I would just play and practice, create these layers and loops and just sing over them. It was really free-form and I think that’s where I found the jazz, the freeness of music. Through that time of experimentation I found my voice.
SO And that loop pedal – well, at least the concept – is the same one you used to record Church isn’t it?
SO I wanted to ask about the symbolism behind Church, the name is quite significant because you actually recorded it in a church. Are you still religious?
KL I’m more spiritual than religious. I feel like music is a religion to me, in the sense that it’s something that I have practiced my whole life, it’s the only thing that I truly believe in above anything else. Music is universal, it’s something that is attainable to everyone, anyone can make music, music is everything, everywhere. And so that to me is an ultimate religion. Yeah, Church was physically made in a church. You know, I didn’t grow up in churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses place of worship is called a Kingdom Hall and the only time I would be in churches was to go to funerals that were held outside the congregation. Church was this place that I was so enamoured with, and anytime that I would be in one it almost felt like a rebellion.
SO Haha, I’ve never heard that.
KL Haha, I just always wanted to know what churches looked like inside! Some of my earliest memories were of this one particular church. I remember the church was really big and I would pass by it several times a week to go to the Kingdom Hall and to middle school. For some reason it always drew my eye, and then one day we went to a funeral, when we drove up I was like “Oh my gosh” – it was my church! I remember as we’re walking in I hear this shrill scream which shakes me to my core. It was mourning, but it was so dramatic and loud because of the size of the church and the echo was everywhere, filling the space. I will never forget that ever. Churches are so dramatic – the echoes and the organs – and I’m a dramatic person, I love the drama. Of course there’s also the meaning of churches being a symbol of community, a safe space, but also that church itself has a history of pain too.
SO Especially for the black community.
KL Exactly. And when you hear “church” everyone knows what that is. Its meaning is universal, whether someone is affiliated with the church or not.
“Hope is one of the most valuable perspectives for black people, it’s what we have survived on for centuries”
SO It’s the same for your next album Blood, which you just announced on Instagram – the cover art by Tyler Mitchell is so cool!
KL Thank you! I love, Tyler so much.
SO Like “church”, “blood” is such a powerful word.
KL It’s a lot like Church, it’s reclaiming the word for good. Blood is something that we are universally bound to as a source of life. It’s also a very visual word. When you hear it a colour comes to mind; red is a powerful colour. There’s a fear in blood, there’s a fear of the unknown of blood – if you’re walking somewhere and you see blood on the ground, you immediately want to know what happened. Despite this, the last track on the album which is called Blood, is ultimately a message of hope. An observation of history and the ways in which it hasn’t been kind to black bodies. Hope is one of the most valuable perspectives for black people, it’s what we have survived on for centuries. For young people, especially young black people, hope means wanting a life worth living, being something that either they have not been told that they could be or that they’ve been told they can’t be, just a will to live.
SO Being a black and biracial woman myself, I wanted to ask you about your identity. You celebrate womanhood and blackness so proudly, was this always natural or was it something you had to build up?
KL It was definitely something I had to build up. I’m biracial too – my mum’s white, my dad’s African-American. If I describe myself I teeter between black and African-American. I feel like “African American” for a long time was something that was not supposed to be said, like a faux-pas in language, but my lineage, through my dad, is African. I’m still grappling with the term “African-American”, because it separates black from American, but I definitely identify as a black woman. I remember my first day of school, my parents walked me to the school bus, I remember getting on and walking down the aisle and these kids screaming at me: “Your mama’s got jungle fever! Your mama’s got jungle fever!” It was my first interaction with kids my age in that social setting and my first time being called out on my race. In America things are still so highly segregated in different ways that we’re still playing catch-up. I went through the struggle of not fitting in on either side, black or white. I think religion also played a big part in dampening the pride of being black, Jehovah’s Witnesses is very much a religion based off “I don’t see colour”, which, at least in my experience growing up, caused confusion. I remember wishing that my hair was like my cousins: “I wish I had straight hair like Sarah!” (Laughs).
SO Hair is the biggest struggle!
KL Oh my God, yeah. Hair, that’s a thing, because what you see in the magazines, movies, everything that is impressed on you makes you feel like you’re less than. I started embracing my blackness out of college, out of North Carolina. When I moved to New York I started meeting people that I find now to be my spirit guides, they opened my eyes. In ways, I feel like I was climbing out of the sunken place. I think it’s a place a lot of biracial find themselves in. What about you?
SO Yeah, I went through much of the same thing, of trying to fit in and never really being able to on either side. I think it was definitely harder when we we were growing up, but right now there are so many inspiring people showing that blackness can be anything.
KL Yeah, for sure, it’s a really exciting and empowering time that we’re living in. People are embracing the power of difference and genuinely loving who they are and where they come from and taking pride in it.
SO You said you’ve had these spirit guides in your life, what’s the best advice you’ve received? What’s the best advice you would pass on to anyone who’s in that sunken place?
KL Um… Get out! Haha, plainly put: get out. Listen to that internal voice, don’t shut it out. If you feel like you can’t hear it or that it’s not there… meditate… try and find it. It’s interesting stepping out of a comfort zone that ‘s actually uncomfortable, it’s very hard to do. Maybe you don’t even realise that you’re uncomfortable, but you have to make the conscious decision to switch it up. Just switch it up!
KL Yeah, haha, just switch it up!… I love your pants!
Kelsey Lu’s debut album Blood is out on April 19th, you can pre-order it here.
Interview SARAH OSEI
Photography TYLER MITCHELL