The Welsh techno-pop auteur talks about her remarkable 2017 and drops a mix featuring Yves Tumor’s metaphysical mood music and Björk’s banging bliss-pop
For Kelly Lee Owens, 2017 was a year of firsts. In March, the Welsh musician put out her first album, a self-titled set of songs fusing the electronic and the organic, bringing together her love of techno, dub, ambient, shoegaze, and avant-garde music with a pop songwriting sensibility. Then she played her first solo shows – she’d previously performed with a backing band, but as somebody who writes, sings on, and produces all of her own music, she’d decided to take full control instead. Next, she embarked on her first set of North American dates, a coast-to-coast undertaking that she describes today as “amazing” despite it at one point literally leaving her hospitalised. Finally, she rode a tour bus for the first time, supporting Mount Kimbie around the UK on their winter tour.
“It’s like the end of a chapter,” Owens says, reflecting on the past 12 months. “I have a clean slate now, artistically.”
Capping off the year, Owens put out two new releases: the first, a 12” single, features a cover of Aaliyah’s “More Than A Woman” backed with Owens’ own dancefloor-primed club mix; the second is an expanded edition of her debut album featuring three previously-unheard tracks. Though these releases were both planned months in advance, they fell at a particularly serendipitous moment, as Owens recently got a major boost when Björk – one of her all-time musical heroes – included her track “Anxi” in a DJ mix for Mixmag. You could call it a happy accident, but for Owens, who has been on her own spiritual journey throughout this year, these fortuitous moments seem to be happening more and more frequently.
We spoke to Owens about her remarkable 2017, while she put together a Dazed Mix featuring an experimental selection, from Yves Tumor’s metaphysical mood music to Björk’s banging bliss-pop.
How has 2017 been for you?
Kelly Lee Owens: The first quarter of it was spent in slight apprehension. I was putting the album out in March, and at the beginning of the new year everything was ready to go, but people hadn’t heard it – apart from press. So I got people on Twitter going ‘Kelly’s album is amazing!’ and I’d be like, ‘How did you hear it?!’ I was still this protective mother, wondering how the baby had got out into the world. So there was apprehension – but already these tiny positive associations and a little bit of excitement.
I was trying not to get too ahead of myself thinking ‘Everyone’s gonna love this.’ In March I played my first show as a solo artist, as opposed to hiding behind a band. In the beginning it was a bit shit you know? It was me, with two arms, trying to operate several synths at once and doing the vocals. I was throwing myself out there, unprepared as usual, then I did a headline show in London which was amazing. There were loads of plants in the room and I just said, ‘I’m just gonna take these on stage!’ (laughs) It’s that thing where technology and nature meet, the organic and electronic – and that’s been an interesting theme, funnily enough, that people have asked me about quite often. ‘How do you combine those elements together?’
How did it feel putting the album out into the world, getting that release out there after working on it for so long?
Kelly Lee Owens: It’s funny that it’s called a ‘release’ because it was, physically, a release for me. There was a sense of relief, as I’m sure there is with most artists. Then there was the realisation that it wasn’t mine anymore. It was never for me, actually.
The word ‘healing’ was used (by people talking about the album) so many times that I couldn’t ignore it. I’ve been on a spiritual journey myself, and perhaps it has come into the music. (You can hear) my obsession with weird resonant frequencies in the final track. I can imagine people (listening to that while) laying in a dark room just being stoned, or in a flotation tank. I don’t take drugs I don’t drink – music is that direct hit for me. It has been like my meditation.
“I named the last track on my album ‘8’. It’s the ending (of the album) and the beginning of the next thing. It’s a reminder that I did it – I put out an album, and I can hopefully do it again” – Kelly Lee Owens
Speaking of spirituality, I can see you have a tattoo on your wrist that looks like the infinity symbol…
Kelly Lee Owens: (laughs) Okay, so my lucky number is eight. I was born in the eighth month of 1988, and I would see this number in very random and weird places. One time I was in Amsterdam and I was wandering around, and I got really lost. I saw something glistening in the sunlight, picked it up, and it was a St. Christopher medallion – protection for the traveller. I picked that up and looked up, and there was a stage door that had a giant ‘8’ painted on the back. This is when I was thinking about whether to make my own music. That was like a message: ‘Yes, you should. It’s a stage door, you’re gonna travel, it's your journey.’ Then I got this tattoo and I was telling the tattoo artist about my relationship with eight, and she looked down and her cap was a gold eight.
I named the last track on my album ‘8’. It’s the ending (of the album) and the beginning of the next thing. It’s a reminder that I did it – I put out an album, and I can hopefully do it again.
You recently put out a special edition of your debut album. Why?
Kelly Lee Owens: When it came to the process of deciding which tracks to include on the album – which is the bane of every artist’s life – I was fighting with my label about specific tracks being on there. They said, ‘No, we see it as a ten-track album, you have to trust us here.’ In the end it worked out best, but there were still these tracks that were made in that period (that I wanted to release). You can hear in ‘Pull’ and ‘Spaces’, I recorded those songs two-and-a-half years ago and you can hear it in my vocal. I wouldn’t say there’s a maturity in my voice, but there’s another tone in my voice now, whereas those were very pure and innocent, in a sense. I didn’t want to just leave them behind forever – they were part of my journey, part of my story.
You recorded a cover of an Aaliyah song too. What drew you to that?
Kelly Lee Owens: Well, Aaliyah herself was… Well, she is, I don’t like saying ‘was’. I remember hearing about her death on the radio; it was the day after my birthday, I think. I remembered ‘if at first you don’t succeed…’ and those lyrics stuck with me, even as a kid. Whenever I listened to her music there was this darkness – she wasn’t just attracted to the light, she would symbolise these super fucking dark moments, and I loved that. Anything that’s too clean or too pure or too bright, I don’t always resonate with, so the melancholic stuff I enjoyed more.
When I did the cover, I was pleased enough with it that I think people would get a sense that I was trying to complement something that was already incredible, not try to take anything away from it. I thought, I’m just gonna be brave and put it out there and see what happens. Accompanying the cover, I wanted to do my own remix. I think songs have several billion lives, and that’s why I loved remixing and reworking other people’s stuff.
We’ve spoken a lot about the past, but are you working on anything new?
Kelly Lee Owens: Yes, I was recently in the studio for the first time properly working on new music. I made something mad that involves an organ, strings, and sub-bass. The organ is related to my great-grandmother, who played organ every Sunday of her adult life, apart from the one week she gave birth to my grandmother. It’s a bridge between what I did before and, perhaps, the next thing. I’m looking at all sorts of strange instruments to combine with beats. I don’t know what that’s gonna be, but I’m excited by that prospect.
“I was recently in the studio for the first time properly working on new music. I made something mad that involves an organ, strings, and sub-bass. The organ is related to my great-grandmother, who played organ every Sunday of her adult life” – Kelly Lee Owens
What else is inspiring you right now?
Kelly Lee Owens: Spirituality is very present. I literally live in a house where we have a ceremony where there’s a gong and there’s crystal bowls. I recently played a London headline show where the opener played gong for 20 minutes, with crystal bowls and all sorts of weird instruments, then we did three songs together. And that’s one of the people I live with!
Do you have any new year’s resolutions?
Kelly Lee Owens: It’s a bit hippy-dippy, but I just want to rebalance myself. As an artist, you’re expected to give give give, to expose your creation, yourself, your essence. In interviews, you have to divulge quite a lot. So I want to take a little bit back and find some equilibrium in order to be able to give again.
01. Robin Huw Bowen – “The Bells Of Aberdyfi” (played on Welsh triple harp)
02. Alice Coltrane – “Vrindavana Sanchara”
03. Björk – “Blissing Me”
04. Four Tet – “Two Thousand And Seventeen”
05. Yves Tumor – “Role In Creation”
06. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – “I Am Consumed”
07. Laurel Halo – “Aquifer”
08. Visible Cloaks – “Screen”
09. Moritz Von Oswald & Ordo Sakhna – “Draught”
10. Jacqueline Hubert/David Rosenberg – “Talk 1”
Kelly Lee Owens (Extended Version) is out now