Kelly Lee Owens, On Senses and Psychics

Matthew Howland
photo by Alley Rutzel

Although Welsh musician Kelly Lee Owens released her first studio album in 2017, she is a well-established figure in the electronic music landscape. Following a stint in the London-based group The History of Apple Pie, Owens released the Oleic EP in 2016 and collaborated with producers Daniel Avery and Ghost Culture, among others. Her much acclaimed self-titled debut came out in early 2017. KEXP spoke to Owens about her influences and musical friendships prior to an energetic performance at the 2018 Capitol Hill Block Party. The conversation began with a question about the musician Arthur Russell, for whom Owens named her gorgeous track "Arthur."

KEXP: How has the music of Arthur Russell impacted your life? 

Kelly Lee Owens: Hearing Russell's music for the first time sounded otherworldly. I don’t think I’d heard anything like it before, and it took me to another place. I’m pretty straight edge — I don’t do any drugs — so music for me is a direct experience that takes me somewhere else. His music totally does that, and at the same time, it cossets you. The more I learn about him, the more his music clicks for me. It was so inspiring to hear about someone who created constantly and made no compromises. Even when he was dying, he was still creating and making music. It puts things in perspective for me. Sometimes I have that thing most creators or artists do, where they say they should be creating all the time. It’s not always possible and that’s okay, but at the same time, it is great to have people like [Russell] to look up to and aspire towards. It keeps me going. 

Do you remember what the first track was you heard by Russell?

I think “See-Through” [from World of Echo]. It was randomly on my iPod, and I still to this day don’t know why. There was one track by Russell on this shitty iPod Nano I had. It was untitled, so I had to do research to see what it was. The version must have been recorded in a live setting or something because you can hear him talking to a sound guy or engineer. It’s remarkable because it’s live but so transcendental. 

I’m a bit of a weirdo, and I went to see a tarot reader. She said to me a male energy with a bowed instrument is going to help you and he may be not of this Earth. At the time I said okay, sure, but now when I think about it that track [“Arthur”] was the reason I got signed to a label and was the first track of mine used by Alexander McQueen for a runway show. I remember it got the best review from Piccadilly Records [in Manchester], who then later made the album their number one record. They said, “releases like this are the reason why vinyl exists.” For a vinyl nerd, you can’t get a better review than that. So, Russell has helped me. That track ["Arthur"] was one of the ones that just flowed out. It was done in less than a day, half a day maybe. The initial melody came to me in maybe ten minutes, and I thought I was just recording a melody idea but I’d go back and put lyrics in. It didn't need them though. Sometimes that’s the beauty of time when creating music: having that space. 

I’ve recently become friends with Jon Hopkins, and he’s become a sort of mentor to me. We interviewed each other [for Interview Magazine], and he spoke about the beauty of having time and space to really understand what a piece of music needs. I think that not every label understands that, but the ones that do will eventually put out better music. 

What is it like having people in your life like Jon Hopkins and interacting with their music? Do you listen to it, and have it inform what you make? Or does it form part of your relationship as friends, where you interact through music? 

That’s funny, because I heard Immunity and his Brian Eno collaboration [Small Craft on a Milk Sea] which is just incredible, and I always resonated with his sounds. He was able to combine this expansive sonic space with beats that were so present. I was in awe of Immunity. I would constantly go back to that record. We DJ’d somewhere together in Norway, which is where my label is from. We went out to dinner, and had good wine and food, and had a conversation about Logic and Ableton. The whole time he was trying to convince me to move from Logic, which was what he did Immunity on, to Ableton. We realized that we connected on many levels: we had the geeky shit, the music stuff, and the spirituality. It’s so nice to hang out with someone I really respect, and he tells me often how much he appreciates the album. 

How did your remix of Bjork's "Arisen My Senses" come about? 

Bjork asked her label to reach out to me, so it was Derek [Birkett] from One Little Indian Records. That was a good day. I met Bjork a few times quite briefly because I worked at Rough Trade East and she’d come in and buy records. We partied together a little bit once, and I actually brought her my album on vinyl. I thought she probably wouldn't listen, but she gave me some champagne and said cheers. It was super nice of her but I thought nothing would come of it. Then she used “Anxi” on a few mixes or something like that, and she asked me to do that remix. Her request came a few days after The Guardian posted an interview when I said, “Bjork should let me remix one of her tracks.” That could be a complete coincidence. I don’t know to this day. Either way, I am very grateful. I still can’t believe it happened. I should probably retire now, I don’t know what else can happen after that. 

I don’t think I’ve told Jon [Hopkins] this, but I almost tweeted at him a few years ago saying him and I should work together, being really arrogant. I just knew that we would connect musically and personally. It has very much proven to be true, and I’m grateful for that. 

Did working with Jenny Hval come about that way? [Owens remixed Hval's 2015 track "Kingsize," and collaborated with Hval on album highlight "Anxi."]

No, that was because of my label. They said, you've never done a remix, and Jenny has a remix you could work on, so how about you try that? I did it and sent it to her, but I still hadn’t met her. I created the music because there was no music on the track yet, so it was almost like just creating a track myself around her incredible vocals. She has such a great speaking voice. Her lyrics are so provocative at times, I just love it. She wrote back saying that she and her band were listening, and they loved it! I didn’t realize how it would spread, and I still think it’s one of the best remixes I’ve done. I guess it wasn’t really a remix, because it felt more like a collaboration. So we just continued that process for "Anxi."  

There are few other people that can create the environment that Hval can with just her voice or vocal texture. 

Oh my God, seriously. With “Anxi,” some people thought it was me singing, but none of those vocals are mine. I just took it and produced the vocals, and put sidechain on during the more dance-y part. Pretty much what you hear is what she sent me. It only took a day, but she managed to do all these harmonies and layers on top of the lyrics. It was really impressive. 

Was she a good example of someone who gave you a different perspective on your own voice? Or are there other artists who helped you understand your voice in a way you didn’t before? 

I think playing live has informed my voice more than anything else. Of course, one’s voice changes and develops over time. I think slowly I’m finding more strength in my voice. People like Bjork have inspired that because she just goes for it. So I think maybe I could do that, and perhaps I can already in certain moments. It was interesting when I released that Aaliyah cover [2017's cover of "More Than a Woman"] because my label said they didn’t know I could sing. The ranges on my voice are getting wider at both ends, lower and higher, so I have more of a range to work with. I’m starting to write my second record and getting deep into that process soon, so I’m open to what becomes of it. Like Bjork's approach, I want the vocals to be more intuitive. The vocals were the last thing I focused on for my last record, so I’m going to see if I can do the opposite in moments on this one. I’m still all about creating space. I don’t like to fill up space for the sake of it and am always stripping things away. It can be a meditative experience to allow our minds, even for a few seconds, to be in a musical space that’s not full. 

Are there particular textures, either sonic or natural, that you find yourself drawn to?

My mind immediately goes to the EQ’ing of a track. I’m very wary of super high frequencies and everything I make is EQ’d relatively in the lower-mid range. However, going to sound baths is opening me up to higher resonant frequencies. I’m trying to explore where that could take me. I live in a place where we have Tibetan bowls, a gong, percussion, a ceremonial drum, symbols… and chimes! I’m obsessed with chimes. Especially Hawaiian water chimes, which are just otherworldly. I am trying to move up the spectrum of frequency at the moment. I think those sounds are always connected with nature though. We have taken those sounds from nature and harnessed them to create either an instrument made by the hands, in terms of something wooden and organic, or electronic. I think they are all the same thing really. An expression of nature. 

Which of your senses has the greatest influence on you? 

Sound, definitely. I’m even struggling to talk to you because there’s music playing overhead and I’m immediately drawn to it. I’m always analyzing sounds around me, but not in a bad way. My ears are attuned to such small volumes and frequencies and subtleties, it’s impossible not to be impacted that way. I also have a kind of crap sense of smell, and my eyesight at some point will get worse, so let’s hope my hearing holds out.

Another thing I’ve realized is the importance of giving my ears a break. It is so essential, nevermind just as a musician. I’m always either in the studio, playing live, or listening to music — either from records or headphones. Giving your ears a break means you can hear more. You come back and can hear many more details. This one time I didn’t listen to music for maybe a week on holiday. On the plane home, I put on headphones and listened to Radiohead's In Rainbows, which I think is one of the best things ever created. I love them so much. I heard things I had never heard before in that album because my ears had time to heal and rest. Any part of your body needs that space. Between touring and making a new record though, it is difficult to take a day or two off. I want to be able to hear something when I’m older. 

Owens, at Capitol Hill Block Party 2018 // photo by Niffer Calderwood

Kelly Lee Owens' self-titled debut album is out now via Smalltown Supersound. 

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