FEATURE | 16 December 2018
Photos: Kim Hiorthøy
Interview & Text: Martin Hufnagel
KELLY LEE OWENS
Kelly Lee Owens released her self-titled debut in 2017 and it was one of the most refreshing and unpredictable albums that year.
I met with Kelly in London to talk about Björk, the term 'perfection' as well as self-love, self-care and self-value.
I guess since you released your album, a lot of things have changed for you. What has been the best moment of 2018 for you so far?
It’s gotta be getting an e-mail from Björk’s team, saying, ‘Björk e-mailed us directly today, asking if Kelly would like to do a remix?’ That for me just felt surreal.
Have you met her before?
Yes, it was her release party for 'The Gate'. I took my album and my EP with me in a little tote bag to give to her. We have mutual friends but I didn’t know if she listened to my music so I gave her some of mine, because I knew she’s a record nerd, so she would maybe listen. It was at the side of the DJ booth when I gave it to her. She was so shocked and happy and said, ‘If you have a glass, I have champagne’. I didn’t have a glass, so I was scrambling around, and ran to the bar. She waited for me and then opened the bottle, poured it, and said cheers.
I can say that her music inspired me, and more like her character seemingly, she allows me and a lot of people to go to a place of constant inspiration. I know it’s not cool to talk about this stuff especially if you end up knowing that person a bit more, but at the same time it’s just part of my journey. We’re both just music lovers and nerds, and that’s where you bridge the gap.
You worked in a record store around the corner, so I guess you’ve always been a music fan. Do you remember the moment when you felt like you just had to make music yourself?
I think very early on, because music was always the thing I gravitated to the most. Instead of hanging out on the streets when I was a teenager, I was always just in my room, constantly listening to music, kind of embarrassing myself in the mirror with a hair colour vibe; all the while harmonising with certain cassettes. Even in primary school I did an a-capella song in front of the whole school assembly. I was shy in person but performing was like I escaped somehow in a positive sense. And then, I read the credits of a big pop band and I remember I found out whoever it was didn’t write the music and I cried.
Because you identified so much with the song and it felt like a big lie to you?
Yes! It was a lie, I felt fully betrayed and I cried about that. I couldn’t understand how someone could really perform and sing those words if they hadn’t created that. My idea is of completely fulfilling that whole creative world idea right to the end. I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
I had the same kind of moment when I found out that 'Still D.R.E.' wasn’t written by Snoop Dogg and Dre but by Jay-Z.
Wait I don’t even know that... What? Really? Did you feel betrayed?
Yeah, I felt like that, too. Until this day, when I like music, it has to feel authentic.
I know it sounds crazy, but when you love music that much it can hurt, you know.
Kelly Lee Owens, Kelly Lee Owens (Full Album)
How do you work on songs?
I don’t usually go into the studio with any pre-conceived ideas. An idea to me would be like a sample. I’ve done so many samples that trigger ideas. But I can store that in there, even if I don’t use that sample for six months. There are things I recorded ages ago that I’ve got in a bank. I still know what I want to do with that sample when I eventually get around to it. But apart from that, it’s in the moment and it’s whatever comes that day.
Some people go, “What? What do you mean you just go into the studio? How can you?” and that’s people talking from their left brain, it’s the right brain’s like, “Yo yes!" You got this space, you got this time, like we gonna do whatever it needs to come thru in that moment. The creative thing is so fast for me, I just like that flow to be as free as possible. And that’s the other reason why in the studio you do have to split your brain off to the technical side sometimes. Working with engineers, they do stuff physically, so you can flow and you can do all these things.
I just thought about it because when I started with photography, I started with digital but then I had to choose from 20 pictures, and that took the flow away from me.
I think it can kill it.
Yeah, I was never satisfied. Then I started shooting analogue, and I was so happy because it was just taking a picture with 2 different lenses, and then that’s it.
Exactly, you capture the moment. That’s all we’re trying to do.
Still, sometimes, I mean for me the perfect picture doesn’t exist. Because I think there are too many aspects which you can’t put into one picture.
So what would the perfect picture would look like to you?
I don’t know, I think it doesn’t exist, but that’s what keeps me going.
It’s not perfect in that moment but you’re never satisfied, which is totally normal, and it’s the kind of thing that if when you’re completely satisfied you’re done with that thing. It’s like you have loads of money, you should be helping people but with all those choices it could be overwhelming in a sense because you can have it all. In a way the limitations prove to be the most essential thing somehow, so I’m kinda grateful for them. At least most of them.
It’s a challenge to find peace with yourself and not always be thinking that this is not good enough.
That’s why working with one person in a room or having one person that you can send something to is helpful. You can go from ‘I wanna say this thing, but if I say it and I’m gonna sound stupid’ to ‘Oh damn, maybe I’ve got something to say.’ We all need that, there is no shame in that. Also, that’s just the development of self-value, self-love. These things are connected. And it’s good not to have so much of an ego that you know this is how every single thing should be.’
Kelly Lee Owens, 'Anxi'
Some artists create special stuff but they’re never happy with it.
I had a thing on my first album which is very typical for anyone who creates anything. I thought, ‘Oh man, I should’ve EQ’d that instrument differently but I didn’t and I regret it.’ The person who is listening to it doesn’t give a shit.
They don’t know what you had in mind.
No one else has ever commented or picked up on that cause when you present it, that’s the way it is and people just connect with it or they don’t. But you have to. Same goes for a picture. Still with the imperfections: I don’t even call things that, like whatever they are.
Because, what is perfection?
That’s the bigger question, even in society. We’re really questioning society in many aspects at the moment, and what we’ve been fed with most of this bullshit, and we’re all waking up to the realisation that we’ve just played a part in this horrible game that’s been going on for a long time and it’s designed to control us, designed to manipulate us, designed to make us who we are so we buy things, buy into ideas and concepts that are bad for us.
So we never get over the initial stage of being traumatised. A trauma from a young age that we’re not even aware of. That’s how we’ve been designed to be so we can never fully experience self greatness, we can never feel self-power because we’re kept in this lower octave.
And that’s how you find ways to transcend. We’re all looking for ways to come into our own power, and power has a negative connotation to it as well. It doesn’t have to be. It’s self love. You love yourself, do you? It’s the greatest power in the most positive sense you can have. Without it you have nothing and society is really playing on those insecurities, because what happens when we become powerful? We then come together, collectively, this is what they fear.
I can’t answer that. But speaking of collectives, just yesterday, when I travelled to London and passed the border, I thought that I took the ‘free’ border for granted all those times.
As a musician as well, whenever I play outside the EU I have to pay to prove that I’m not bringing in my equipment to sell. So what happens so someone who’s just starting, who plays anywhere outside the UK now if it’s not in the EU anymore? You can’t do it. It’s another form of control. Money is energy. If you can control energy and accessibility, then you’re winning, right?
In Germany you also have to pay around 100€ when you wanna get married.
What are you paying for?
Exactly, it’s the same with the ATM machines, you’re paying to get your own money? What is the concept?
We need people to start questioning the madness that we’ve been fed by our parents, our grandparents. It goes beyond that , it’s like ancestral trauma, pain and conditioning. I think this generation is trying to undo it and right now it feels like we’ve been sleeping in a cocoon.
I can understand that it might be scary for someone that the world is changing so fast and so much, so the people want to hear something very easy that they understand and agree on, like ‘Make America Great Again.’
When was it great? Tell me when, and tell me why it was great and who did it benefit?
They don’t question it. It seems like some people just want to paint a black and white picture in a world that gets more complex every day.
Every day! We’re literally on one planet together in a universe. We don’t know if there’s any other life forms. We created the borders, we created the divisions and it’s all controlled. I think the most important things is this idea of collective consciousness and we’re realising that what I do affects you, what you do affects me. Everything is rippling, everything is affecting everything else.
Through the internet and the media we have access to a bigger, more complex picture.
But again, it’s the people who are fearful of change who are voting in these people, as their last-ditch attempt. Obviously our generation has access to way more information, whether it’s starting to be censored or not. We’ve been exposed to way more. Yet, lot of people are so controlled by the media and there are people who even if they knew the facts wouldn’t change, because it doesn’t benefit them. But that’s another topic.
You can choose the news outlet that you want to get your news from and what you want to believe in.
Same thing with Facebook. They keep you in a bubble, but at least we know now. There is more room to debate because we’re just aware of the algorithm now. It comes back to your own choice. Do you want another truth or not? And we had the conversation with people who think differently who are left to understand where it comes from. Take the whole debate about men, women, feminism all the stuff. We need men on our side, and not alienate them from the conversation.
Of course you can rage and you can cry for what has been done to you as a woman and the pain that goes back generations. Yet, at the same time, I can say I know wonderful men who understand that women becoming equal benefits them, there is less pain for them in that situation. Sorry we’re not talking about my music here..
No worries. I love conversations that take another route. Do you still have the time to be a record nerd?
Honestly, I’m not being a record nerd so much and I miss it. Working at the record store grounds me, so I do just one Sunday shift every few months or once a month if I can. I drink my coffee, listen to records and I feel myself getting excited about music again.
It’s great you’re saying this, perhaps others might be happy that they don’t have to go back to do a normal job.
I see the benefits of it for me and I remember thinking when I worked full time it was 45 hours a week, 9 hours a day. You also have to get there, you have to get back. Then you’re trying to write songs about that. I don’t know how I did it but I’ve always worked very hard and that set me up.
The music industry, it’s literally nonstop. I’m one person, and yes I have a good team and people around me, but I’m the person because I care about that, the executive decisions, the decision making, about everything. We’re talking about contracts, we’re talking about the album. I’ve got the shows, I’ve got to DJ and I’ve got to practise… there’s so many elements and if I don’t delete the Gmail app from my phone when I’m on holiday, which is been like literally once in 2 and a half years, then I don’t switch off.
Again, self-love, self-care, self-value, it feeds all back into the same loop, no matter who you are and what you’re doing. Recently, I’ve come to realise that I’m needing to not value myself on outward achievements and my work ethic. That’s the trap. I come from a family with a strong work ethic, and I know how to work, but that's just another form of capitalism as well.
It’s like we’re becoming robots! We don’t even need AI. Without music, without all the suffering, without all this technology, who am I without that? That’s confronting, and that’s what I’ve been working with a little bit. It’s not easy sometimes but it’s so necessary.
I came across your album at the end of last year, sometime during those magical days in between Christmas and New Years Eve. I took one week off, put it in our CD player and it kept playing on repeat.
People keep saying that they play my album on repeat, and I feel that’s an achievement. People’s attention span, including my own, is very short these days. I think that’s because I get caught so easily that I do use these little tricks in production, meaning that the brain doesn’t quite catch on to certain things in that first go, but it might hear it in the second.
‘In Rainbows’ by Radiohead has certain production techniques I use to keep myself wanting to listen to this song, so it hopefully translates to other people. It makes me so happy, every single person and I’m not just saying it. I never take it for granted coming from that DIY-background.