Kelsey Lu is a phenomenon. It is an opinion echoed by many; artists like Lu are what we need more of, artists who are multi-faceted (she is a classically trained cellist and exceptional stage performer), artists who are women, artists with unique sounds and lyricism that stirs, that evokes something deep inside. Creativity was always a part of her. Born and raised in North Carolina, she is a product of unusual circumstances. Lu grew up in a Jehovah’s Witness household and to parents who are, in their own right, musical and artistic.
It’s Saturday at noon when we run up to each other, grinning, in the middle of a loud east London hotel. “Call Me Lu,” she says. “I prefer it.” It’s cold and raining hard outside, but Lu is awash with colour – all clashing neon orange, purple, and a giant electric-blue puffa. As we hug hello, it’s as if we’ve already met. Probably because, as well as witnessing her clear-eyed honesty in interviews and on social media, I’ve been listening to her long-awaited debut album – due out in the spring – on repeat.
In previous interviews, Lu has said that the album is inspired by now and then; her past, her parents and an exploration of her family history. You get the feeling she somehow draws upon both conscious and subconscious thoughts, weaving them both into the richness of her music. The songs are also inspired by movement, by flight. There’s something ancient-new about the sounds on this album, her signature sweet-raw voice, distinctive tone and strong melodic lines paired with lyrics that betray a uniquely modern poetry. Hers is a dreamlike wall of sound-imagery that transports the listener into several states, journeying back and forth with her in space, in time, in emotion. A refreshing and unrestricted artist who is not afraid to take her time on the important things, Lu uses self-enquiry and stillness as a stimulus for many of her songs.
The very first time I saw you online you were talking about religion and expression (on StyleLikeU, in 2014). I remember taking notice right away – the interview showed so much of the vulnerability and humanity of you.
Kelsey Lu: Yeah, I’m glad that the interview exists for that reason, because people can assume so much about you as a performer, make assumptions about your character. At the time that I did it my relationship with my mom wasn’t the best, and the questions that people (tend to) ask you get to the nitty-gritty of your traumas.
How do your family feel about your work now?
Kelsey Lu: They’re supportive of my music and what I’m doing. My dad is a portrait artist – my parents didn’t have the money to be doing, like, private lessons every week for me and my sister, but he would trade his portraits for a year of lessons with teachers and we played in city youth and community orchestras. When you veer away from your parents and their path, of course there are complications. (But) our relationship is more active now than it was before. They are more a part of my life now than they were when I left home. That has taken so much time, over a decade.
Do you think that’s because they now see who you are and where you’re going?
Kelsey Lu: Yeah. And also, you know, there are some things that I needed to grow out of, the stages of bitterness and anger. (I got) into more of a state of empathy and understanding – why they did what they did, and the decisions that they made for their own lives. It has been an exploration of healing through the wounds of difference, and that’s not easy – especially when they’re your parents and your dad is like, ‘Don’t be out here blaspheming Jehovah’s name.’ That’s not what I wanna do, but sometimes I just don’t have a filter. I want to be respectful, but I also want to talk about things and some of my issues with certain religious constructs. (The album) is a message of patience and hope and love just generally. (It’s about) facing yourself and your fears. There’s a sense of freedom of expression and honesty.
I know how it is, being raised in such a religious family. Do you feel divinely led at all – like, from your dad trading art for lessons to where you are right now?
Kelsey Lu: Yeah, I was thinking about this last night! It’s like cosmic universal action and reaction to whatever is meant to be.
There’s so much fearlessness involved in what you do – your aesthetic, what you write about and how you bring that to the stage. It’s palpable. Do you still have moments where you’re like, ‘Oh, this is so far from what I was brought up in, but this is me’?
Kelsey Lu: Definitely, I’ve had that moment to myself! I always go with flow, and whatever is within that flow I respect. When I’m writing I tend to think visually, I guess. I’m a visual learner; I observe a lot and I always have. I guess that’s why the music that I make is pretty cinematic...
So cinematic. I was listening to ‘Due West’ (Lu’s ode to her adopted state of California) full-blast on the train with my head back, just dreaming. But the timing! California was burning when the song came out. You wrote about that online too.
Kelsey Lu: Really crazy! (The wildfires spread) as I was putting out a song about California as this kind of dream place. For me when I was little it always just seemed like that, the way it was portrayed in the movies. I love going to the beach; I love the water so much. The ocean is, like, a real sense of peace for me.
How long have you been in LA?
Kelsey Lu: I’ve been there for two years now; I guess what I was saying (about California) was that it seemed like such a fantastical place on the surface, but the underbelly is a bit apocalyptic and dystopian. Or not even underbelly, it’s on the surface and is the surface in many ways – (but I guess) every place has its own demons. People have their own demons that they’re dealing with. LA just seemed like this point of destination (for me), and then when I finally reached it two years ago I really started working on the album. These past two years I’ve really been homing in on the album and diving into the lyricism.
How do you know when you want to work with someone? You performed that incredible unstructured concert experience at the Southbank Centre in London in December for Honey Colony...
Kelsey Lu: Lafawndah is the mother and creator of Honey Colony and she is one of my favourite artists and people. She’s really inspiring, knows what she wants and is very vocal in that. The show was such a beautiful, egoless adventure in the way it all flowed together. That is really what it comes down to in collaborations with people: either your energy exchange is gonna be fluid or it’s not, and I don’t think you should force anything. I’ve definitely collaborated with some people I thought would be good for me to work with, and then it ended up being a total farce. You have to pay attention to your instincts. It’s so important.
I can imagine that, because you’re travelling everywhere now, you’re running your own show; you have to become almost like your own soldier. You have to raise and soothe yourself. What do you do to maintain a sense of personal care? The world, the machine, will take so much, right?
Kelsey Lu: They will slice you, dice you, put you on tiny little serving dishes! I think it’s still new to me, learning how to navigate everything. I guess it’s important to take time for yourself. Energy conservation is key. I feel like it’s been a slow but steady build. Even when I signed with Columbia, it wasn’t like, ‘Boom! I’m a superstar now.’ I still don’t see it as that; I see it as a tool that, you know, is either going to work for me or work against me, and I can’t rely on it to do the thing that I have to do myself. It has to come from me. Doing the damn thing. I feel like now is the right time. When I spoke out (previously) about bad management, management that went wrong or whatever – they were like, ‘Why don’t you just sign?’ and I was like, ‘OK, yeah,’ and then it didn’t happen. The way they reacted to it really affected me. I was like, ‘Wait – is this even what I wanted? Who am I serving? What is going on?’ I questioned what I actually wanted out of this and as I said it’s, like, (not relying on) someone else or on this machine. It’s so important to remind yourself that they need you.
“With visibility comes sacrifice, and that is a question that comes up in my mind every so often – ‘Do I really want to be out here, this visible?’” – Kelsey Lu
I know exactly what you mean! We are programmed into being so grateful, especially as women in the arts. Do you personally feel in a space of power, where you are right now?
Kelsey Lu: More so than I have been but, you know, life goes in ebbs and flows. I’m feeling good right now, but we all have moments of doubt and insecurity. I’m lucky in that I have a good community of people that exist within the world that I’m navigating, but also people outside of that. I think it’s important to have both. Essentially what brings me back to the centre is just self, because in the end that’s who you have to rely on. Also (it’s about feeling) a lightness of self, having come away from religion and that heaviness of being. I don’t know if you ever experienced this over-weighing sense of guilt?
Kelsey Lu: Yeah, I feel like I’m going through that. I’m (trying) not to lose that part of myself that does take things seriously because of the internal compass I have, but also I’m feeling lighter in ways I didn’t even realise.
I guess what all artists want is to keep gathering and letting go, and to be honest in the process. What do you look for in creating your music? What is it you’re trying to do?
Kelsey Lu: It’s really easy as a musician today to make popular music, or music that’s easily consumable. I love listening to that sometimes, and there’s a place for it – but there’s also a place and a deep need for real feeling.
Yes – we’ve gotta be saying something.
Kelsey Lu: Yeah! One way or another – whether it’s through lyricism, or musicality – I’m looking for honesty and vulnerability and difference. I wanna feel inspired. I wanna hear something and walk away from it and feel like I need to go home and lock myself inside the studio or in my bedroom. I want to have that feeling more and not feel like, ‘OK, right, this sounds like everything else that is out’, or feel like it’s all just blending in or becoming this monochromatic sound. But then again, you know, I also don’t want to dictate how other people are expressing themselves. There’s a balance in life, and so there are ways of expression that are necessary to exist as well. There are people who don’t want to be visible. Not everybody wants to be up here under the spotlight. Not everybody wants to be famous. Not everybody wants to get a fucking Grammy. That is not what’s on the mind of everyone. Not everyone wants to be seen in that way. With visibility comes sacrifice, and that is a question that comes up in my mind every so often – ‘Do I really want to be out here, this visible?’ But I also don’t want to dictate how other people express themselves. Everything has a balance. What I am looking to do is shift the focus of what is seen and consumed. Important questions to ask.
Kelsey Lu's debut album, Blood is out April 19
Hair Jawara at Bryant Artists using TIGI, make-up Ammy Drammeh at Bryant Artists using NARS, set design Lisa Jahovic at La La Land, photography assistant Jono White, syling assistant Rebecca Perlmutar, hair assistant Gordan Chapples, set design assistant Tom Hope