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Kelly Lee Owens
Kelly Lee OwensPhotography Sarah Stefeford

Six things that inspired Kelly Lee Owens’ new album, Inner Song

The Welsh musician reflects on the ways her grandmother, her home country, and healing therapy influenced her second album

InterviewSelim Bulut

Kelly Lee Owens is back with her second album, Inner Song. Mixing transportative dream-pop and thumping techno rhythms, Owens explores issues both personal to her, like the breakdown of a bad relationship, and more universal in scope, like the anxiety of climate change. Through it all runs her dedication to the Earth, the body, the mind, and the soul.

There’s a lucidity to Inner Song, both in Owens’ clarity of purpose, and in the literal clarity of her voice, which is used less like a texture than on her 2017 self-titled debut. The album opens with an instrumental cover of Radiohead’s “Arpeggi”, connecting the music to its implied title by adding actual synth arpeggios to it, while “Corner of My Sky” features the voice of one of rock’s most influential musicians, John Cale. 

We spoke to the Welsh musician about some of the things that inspired Inner Song.

HER HOME COUNTRY, WALES

Kelly Lee Owens: When you asked me to write up the six things, I was actually driving through Snowdonia. Wales is the place where I’m from. I feel like the landscape of the place that you’re from always influences you. It even influences your accent – you especially hear that in the south, where the intonation is very hilly and grand, very up and down.

Wales is a complicated place. It has a complicated history of oppression – from the English, unfortunately. We weren’t able to sing or speak our language for a long time. Only in the last 10 years or so have the road signs, for example, been changed into Welsh and English; it’s been mostly English throughout the country. There’s a lot of poverty. We’re still dealing with the repercussions.

With this album, I knew I needed to pay homage to where I was from, and a great way to do that was to use the language. And I thought that would be me doing it, but I’m very lucky to have had John Cale be the person who came through. When I made the track (“Corner of My Sky”), I asked if he’d be interested in reciting his own poetry and talk about his own relationship to his home. I read somewhere that one of his biggest regrets is that he’d lost a connection to where he was from, having not lived there for a long time. When I got the press release for the song, I realised he hadn’t written in Welsh for decades.

THE KORG MONO/POLY SYNTHESISER

Kelly Lee Owens: This is James Greenwood’s synth, who I collaborate with. It was made between 1981 and 1984. It plays the biggest part in the music that I make – it makes the percussive parts, the melodies, the white noise, the arps, the basslines sometimes as well. It’s the only other synth I’ve been in love with, besides the 808. I’m not this gear nerd. I’m kind of like Jon Hopkins or even Four Tet, in the sense that we don’t need much, but once we find our thing, we’re good to go. Sometimes, less is more, and knowing something really well adds heaps to the creative process. So it’s a little shout-out to that synth, because it’s been the backbone of most of the things I’ve created.

RADIOHEAD AND THOM YORKE

Kelly Lee Owens: I have a cover of “Arpeggi” as the album opener. I am a big fan of Radiohead, so it almost seems sacrilege, something I shouldn’t have done, as a fan – when songs are really great, sometimes you think you should leave them. But look, I’m not trying to be Thom Yorke vocally here. I wanted to pay homage to In Rainbows, as for me it’s one of those perfect albums. It’s definitely a Desert Island Disc for me. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to it – I always find something new, especially in the production. 

“Arpeggi” is one of my favourite tracks. In the end, it became a stripped down instrumental, darker in a sense than the original. When I think of ‘arpeggios’, I think of synths. This is why I did it. “The song says ‘Arpeggi’, but then there’s no synth arpeggio? That’s weird.” So in my head it was like, “Let’s just do synth arpeggios and build upon that.” It’s two takes, layered up. I tried to record vocals, but then was like, “Nah, Kelly. Let’s not even mute that, let’s delete that. That doesn’t need to be there. Thom Yorke does it so well, so let’s just let the music do the talking.” What it represented for me was a beginning, the arpeggios rising from a murky surface towards the light. That very much was the beginning, where I needed to start the journey of this record.

I’d really love to work with Thom Yorke. I know I’m probably the ten millionth person to say that, but I do think we’d create something incredible. But who knows, he’d probably hate it. I don’t think he likes many things.

HEALING SOUNDS, A BOOK BY JONATHAN GOLDMAN

Kelly Lee Owens: Jonathan Goldman has this organisation called the ‘Sound Healers Association’. He’s interested in the effects that sound has on the body. I believe trauma is somatic – we store a lot of trauma in our bodies. I’ve personally had trauma release body therapy sessions, which is one person talking you through different parts of your body, then you shaking and releasing with your voice what you need to release in that moment.

I was a bit sceptical, but she explained it to me like a zebra being chased by a lion. If the zebra were to run, the fight-or-flight thing would kick in; if the zebra got caught, the other part of the nervous system would kick in, where everything shuts down so you don’t feel pain. If, for some reason, the zebra escaped, that zebra would then shake for 10 to 15 minutes to release all that adrenaline and energy and trauma that it’s been through. And, obviously, as human beings, we don’t do that, so it gets stored in the muscles and the microfibres of the body. All this stuff is interesting to me, and I stay open to it.

Jonathan Goldman explores the voice as sounding, and how it can release certain things. My mind gets blown when I hear about these different ways of exploring sound as medicine. We’re only on the cusp of understanding the potential that sound has to help us. On the record, this came out in me believing that my voice was a valuable instrument, whereas on the first record, I hid it under heaps of reverb and space echo. I lost my voice three times in one year, and I actually played two shows in Mexico without vocals. I’d seen a doctor, they gave me steroids and injected me with a drip, just to play these shows, and in the end I couldn’t. I realised in those moments how precious it is to communicate in that way.

After that trauma release therapy, I was really low for a week. It was my body allowing me to actually feel what I’d been storing. And in that week, I wrote all the lyrics for the album.

EXPLORING THE HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS WITH PSYCHEDELICS

Kelly Lee Owens: Graham Hancock believes it’s a fundamental right of sovereignty to be able to explore your consciousness via psychedelics. To live in a society that doesn’t allow you to do that is not a free society. For me, it relates to everything – to the natural world, because I think through psychedelics you can connect more deeply to your place on this Earth and your interconnectedness to everything else, rather than the disconnection from the creative part of oneself that we’re set up to go into. With psychedelics, you feel at one with all that, and start to perhaps question everything. It would make sense that a society based on control of the self, and that relies on that disconnection, would not want you to connect with your consciousness in that way. I think we’re at the cusp now of people waking up to that a little bit. 

The track with John Cale used to be called “Mushroom”. But I think that’s all I should say.

HER GRANDMOTHER, JEANETTE

Kelly Lee Owens: My grandmother was the biggest supporter of my music. She was almost like a mother to me. She came to my first show – there’s a video of her online, I think, of her dancing on-stage with me. This was one of the biggest losses I’ve experienced in my life, so I wanted to pay tribute to her with the track “Jeanette”. It’s no coincidence that she’s named after one of the most bright, sunny, upbeat, and hopeful tracks, because that was absolutely her energy. 

Her name is engraved on the inner groove of every vinyl of this record. She heard this album and loved it. She also loved (my collaboration with Jon Hopkins) “Luminous Spaces”. She loved Jon; she came to a show of mine and his in Manchester with my grandad and stayed for the whole thing – and as you can imagine, (his album) Singularity gets pretty banging. I wanted to honour that and have her live through the music and sound. She lives through me in many ways.

There was a moment in the past few years where I wasn’t sure if I could go on creating and playing shows. I was gonna cancel this show, and she said, “Don’t you dare give up, don’t you dare cancel that show, don’t give away your essence.” I was in a difficult relationship and that’s why I was drained a lot of the time. She saw that and called me out. She said, “I’ve known you since the day you were born, and that you always wanted to do this – so don’t you dare give up this now.” And when Nana speaks, I listen. I hope she’d be proud. I know she would be.