Story / Brooke Segarra
Photos / Daniele Fummo
In the thick of 2017, much of the music in my inbox and on show bills is filled with pointed anger given the state of the world—the human race, civil rights, wildlife, etc.—and rightfully so. I appreciate any well-articulated stick-it-to-the-man album written by someone who knows more than the meme in my newsfeed, but I find that empowerment, for me personally, is harbored in the works of artists who, despite oppression’s heavy hand, unapologetically express their majesty. The artists who talk about cumming, weeping, triumphing, and breathing each day in their respective realities. This year, Kelly Lee Owens humbly emerged with one of those albums to every jaded music journalist’s joy.
The Welsh singer, producer, and relative newcomer received much fanfare during the release of her self-titled debut, but prior to that Owens immersed herself seamlessly into the zeitgeist when “Arthur” was played at the Alexander McQueen Fall 2016 show and again when she reworked Jenny Hval’s glorious “Kingsize.” Two weeks ago, I saw Owens perform her first show in the United States at Brooklyn’s Good Room. After a day of think pieces yanking me by the headline and bearing witness to how much the revolution will not be televised, I arrived at Good Room braless in a black slip dress, met up with some friends and, with a room full of strangers, danced to the fluid, unsuppressed, healing frequencies derived from one woman’s self-expression. Maybe I was particularly sensitive to it that night, but I certainly felt an offline community in the room up until the music stopped. Prior to her show at Good Room, Owens and I spoke about being obsessed with your craft, perpetuating zero bullshit, and just saying ‘no’ to artist exploitation.
What place from within yourself do you tap into when you’re writing and, particularly, when you were writing this album? Do you look into the past, the present, the future? Is there a certain headspace you have to be in?
Well, with this album, I didn’t really know I was making an album. I was just making individual songs. It was kind of nice because I didn’t have that pressure at the time. Piece by piece, it came together. Ever since I was quite young, I would have these notebooks that I would write in kind of like an emo teenager just writing down thoughts, poems, and everything else. I would start there with my music. So there’s definitely some references of the past, and some obvious relationship stuff that’s thrown in there lyrically and, perhaps, “feelings-wise”.
In the end, the lyrics also ended up reflecting the future, because in the past few years we’ve all had to think quite a bit about the future of the planet, the human race, and how we’re all going to live together. I think those influences are just subconscious if nothing else. I think no matter what I go through, there’s always this resilience and a sense of hope that everything’s going to work out okay. I think as a human being, to get through life, you need to tap into those sentiments as much as you can. When my album did come together as a body of work, each song on the album has different moods and different shapes, but I think underlining all of the tracks is a sense of hope. I think there’s a lot on people’s minds at the moment. I’m going to start writing again soon, and it’ll be interesting to see what comes up during that process.
It’s interesting that you mention the sentiments of hope on the record. When I was listening I found there to be this sort of beautification of an ennui. I guess after experiencing a listlessness or a dissatisfaction, hope would be the next step.
Totally, because you can’t just stay in one place or in one mood. In the tarot cards, the hanged man, is the person who is just static. He’s in one position and he just stays there with no backward or forward motion. I feel that that behavior and mindset is stifling. We all have those moments. It can happen to the best of us. We get overwhelmed by specific thoughts or feelings. I push myself to find that place where I can move forward.
So to the extent that all artistic representations of ourselves are personas, (since you the artist are picking and choosing what you want to show or express about yourself,) how much of ‘Kelly Lee Owens the artist’ is a persona that you devised because you’re trying to communicate something? Or do you feel that this self-titled debut is wholly a representation of yourself?
Yeah, I think it is 100% me. To be honest, I’m not someone who can create, what I see as, bullshit. If I wanted to do that I would have, as you mentioned, hidden behind some kind of different name or pseudonym. I’m all about transparency, openness, and no ego. It’s about me being me, and connecting with people through music. Using my name is just keeping it no frills. It’s as simple and direct as possible, and as honest as possible as well. That’s important to me because I’m not trying to pretend I’m anything but who I am.
There’s a particular strength in that. There’s a special power in putting yourself wholly out there and unapologetically saying ‘this is me.’
You’re going to be judged either way. That’s why I think it’s important to be true to yourself, protect your essence, and make what you think is good. Don’t compromise too much. It’s important to do the things that terrify you. Sometimes I think to myself ‘What would I be so scared of doing?” and then I do that. Ultimately, you get the most satisfaction when you crack it, and you won’t always crack it, but that’s okay too. It’s cliché, but if you give it a good bloody go you can’t regret it. The biggest regrets are always the thing you don’t do.
Profiles of you online tend to paint this somewhat rosy picture of you making this album and getting to this point in your career. In short, they all seem to go something like, ‘You were working in a record store, you met Daniel Avery and Ghost Culture, you went into the studio, and then your debut came out to much critical acclaim.’ I’m sure it wasn’t all rose petals, though.
Oh my god, no. My very good friend and I were just having a conversation about this. He asked, ‘Oh my god, why am I doing what I’m doing? It’s not happening for me.’ My god! The amount of times that I nearly gave up, and would question what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it. I would say to myself, ‘This is just hopeless. Why do I bother?’ You put yourself out there to be judged. That is why you have to be so strong in yourself, and know that you’re doing this for you. If you’re doing it for yourself, you’re protected because you know that your work, to you, is good. However there are so many days where I just go ‘Why am I doing this?’ I mean you do it for yourself, but of course you want people to care and connect. There is a certain validation that we seek, whether we admit it or not. People connected to this album way more than I ever expected, because I also tried not to expect too much. I’m just pleasantly surprised. With all artists and freelancers you’re going against the grain. We’re not fitting, straightaway, into society as ‘they’ would kind of like us to. It’s much harder, because we’re not going down the conventional route. You need a lot of self-belief and determination. It’s classic, but what I would say is, surround yourself with people who support you. If you have one relationship who’s going to pull you down and not support you it can ruin everything. We question ourselves enough as it is. I was lucky enough to have people who supported me, and that’s the reason why we’re talking now, probably.
You mentioned once that in order to finish an album you have to be obsessed. Could you elaborate on what you meant by that? As an artist, what does being obsessed during the creative process mean for you?
Well, in general, I’m a perfectionist. I’m a Virgo, and we’re supposedly obsessed with the details. I think for me, obsession is just the carry through of vision. You have to be committed and obsessed, because no one is going to be obsessed for you. People can support you, but you’re the driving force. The follow through is hard, so you need to love it. You need to be obsessed. My work is very detail-oriented in terms of production, automation, and the sound. I like to play with the rhythm so it’s not quite on the grid, and your mind never quite gets the beat. I feel like that keeps you wanting to listen. It’s that amount of detail that has gone into what I have crafted.
Do you feel a sophomore release pressure? You’ve created this album that’s not so much the norm, and that doesn’t come around too often. I’d imagine listeners are craving some insight into what’s next for you.
Yeah! I’m like ‘Oh that went well. Uhm, I wasn’t really expecting that much.’ So you go back to the drawing board and you’re like, ‘What now?’ It’s great because the label I work with just said to do whatever I want and have fun. That’s the first pressure off. Then it just comes back to myself. Do you go down the route of making something similar, or do you make something completely different because that’s something people say you should do? I don’t know the answer. All I know is that, as with the first one, I will follow my intuition and my emotive core. What I produce in my own head and heart is my compass. Keep the door open.
In order to create art you need some time to pass too. Well, personally, I find that to be true.
No one talks about the amount of pressure on people to deliver an album every year. I mean you might get an album next year, but only if that’s right for me.
The art of patience is what I would say to anyone who’s currently trying to craft some kind of world for themselves. Patience is the hardest of lessons, but you have to keep going. Just don’t give up too soon. And keep it real for god’s sake. The last thing we need is more ego maniacs in the world.
Is there anything you wish you would be asked in an interview, or that you would like to add? I feel like when you’re an artist you’re always at the whim of what the interviewer asks.
I think people know this by now, but I do craft, arrange, write, and perform everything. And you know what? It’s not fucking easy. That’s why you want people to know you do all those things. Björk is now talking about it because she got fed up. People are reviewing her live show and no one’s talking about the string arrangements that she made from scratch! The amount of effort that goes into it is insane. As an artist your whole soul and your whole life goes into this. Oh god, did I connect to that line in Radiohead’s “Daydreaming” where they said ‘we’re just happy to serve you.’ It’s like you’re doing it for yourself, but actually, no you’re not. The music you make is not for you in any sense. It’s for other people to take and use as they need.
I just don’t want any more allusions. I’m sick of the allusions that artists put across half the time. I saw this article that said if we stop pretending that we’re super successful and making all this money, then we’ll probably all get paid well and not do things for free. I just want to talk about this because it’s really important that we stop pretending that exploitation is okay. We all need to stick together as artists and stop accepting low or no pay because we put our time, money, and effort into what we do. I just need to talk about this more and more.
FOLLOW KELLY LEE OWENS