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The Art Of Being An Artist

28 March 2017, 11:00
Words by Ed Nash
Original Photography by Burak Cingi

As she releases her remarkable debut album, Kelly Lee Owens talks to Ed Nash about the art of composing, producing, and learning to let go

Kelly Lee Owens has always done things her own way.

Her story, which includes pressing up vinyl copies of her first single herself and having it played a year later on the catwalk at an Alexander McQueen show, is one of an inspirational self-starter. Owens knows exactly what she wants her music to deliver.

In the two years she’s been releasing music as a solo artist, Owens has had a slew of garlands thrown her way - sonic innovator, techno producer wunderkind, and ethereal songstress, to name a few. There’s merit in all of those descriptions but none of them quite get to the heart of Owens as an artist. A simpler way to put it is that she writes music that’s so original it doesn’t fit into a box.

The making of Kelly Lee Owens has been a story of persistence, unwavering self-belief, and a love of the power of music. When Owens was working in the record shops Pure Groove and Sister Ray, the ideas for her music began to take shape.

“I was there just having this pipedream, working behind the counter, seeing all these people play every day, at lunch, and in the evening at Pure Groove and being inspired by that.” Whilst there she met future collaborators James Greenwood of Ghost Culture and Daniel Avery, for whom she added vocals to Drone Logic in 2013. Owens then self-released the songs “Lucid” and “Arthur” on 12” vinyl.

The first thought upon hearing "Lucid" was “where did this come from?” It mixed a dance music aesthetic with a vocal evocative of Bjork or Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser, but it didn’t sound like anyone else. Its follow up “Uncertain” was an equally astonishing mix of song-craft, dizzying rhythms, and crystalline production.

The music prompted a visit to see her play live at her third ever show, at The Lexington. Even though Owens was the support act, the performance was a stand out: nothing you'd usually see from an artist at such an early stage of their career. Accompanied by a cellist, a keyboard/laptop player, and Greenwood on synth drums, Owens was a revelation.

Although it’s just shy of two years since that show and her first two singles, Kelly Lee Owens feels like it’s been a long time coming. But now the album is here it also feels like her story is just beginning. It’s an album that’s not constrained by genres. Clubbers from the new and old school will delight at the acid house bleeps of “CBM”. Anyone with a love of songwriting will be enthralled by “Keep Walking”. “S.O” sounds blissfully smitten. Over its ten songs, Owens' debut is equal parts immersive, cathartic, and universal. The music, singing, and lyrics create as much of a physical connection with the listener as much they do an emotional one.

“I want to achieve a balance of allowing people to be immersed in something and to escape within it, but also to feel like I’m not totally unreachable"

As we sit down in her manager’s offices in Camden, we start by talking about that night at the Lexington. “Didn’t you do the first ever live review? That was very complimentary; you helped in boosting my confidence.” She laughs at the memory but the reality is that that night Owens was incredibly self-assured, her music was fully formed, and her onstage charisma was obvious. Nonetheless, she adds: “I’m the kind of person that never forgets the people who were there at the very beginning".

Owens say there wasn’t a pre-meditated plan on the night. “It was just ‘we’ll put this band together and we’ll rehearse it.’ Me and James were in this windowless room rehearsing. I wasn’t able to move or create any kind of performance. I’m still a bit shy in rehearsals, I still don’t fully go for it, it was going on stage and seeing what happened and that’s what you saw.”

Owens touches upon the fact that new artists aren't often quite ready for live shows "but at the same time you’ve just got to throw yourself out there and then you learn what not to do and hopefully you get better and better.”

At one point during Owens' Lexington show, she got off the stage and started dancing with people in the audience. She feels that it’s important to be able to connect with the crowd. “I want to achieve a balance of allowing people to be immersed in something and to escape within it, but also to feel like I’m not totally unreachable, that there’s this connection to maintain and to have with the people who are there, whether they’re there by accident or they’ve bought tickets.”

It's certainly reminiscent of when Savages’ singer Jehnny Beth walks into the crowd. It feels like there isn’t a barrier between the audience and artist. Is that what Owens is aiming for? “She goes in, she very much commands attention, which I really admire," Owens says.

"For me it’s like a halfway house, it’s commanding people’s attention to realise that we’re together in this moment and not to be self-conscious if I approach them, I’m wanting them to connect with me in that moment. I’m also in my own world as well. I like it when the crowd get involved, it kind of wakes you up you know? You can be in this immersive, dreamy state and then all of a sudden you’re like “Fuck! There’s these human beings, they’re here and they’re real,' there’s something exciting about that.”

“I was this geeky little kid who floated around between different types of people"

For her next set of shows Owens will perform without the band. “It’s changing because I’ve changed and the sound has changed… not entirely, but I’ve come into more of a production element. I wanted to go back to the beginning and have people understand that’s it’s me that has created this, this is my world, but I don’t think anyone expects huge things of me at this point.”

Why is she so modest? “It’s just being open about the fact that I don’t think anyone is super-confident, even if it comes across that way onstage," she says. The music carries you and it's doing that justice, that’s all I care about. I just like to be humble and I feel it’s just the beginning, which also excites me.”

There was a cameo appearance from Jenny Hval at one of Owens' gigs in March last year, an artist she’s found a kindred spirit in (“with both of us there’s a sense of simplicity"). Their friendship started when Owens remixed Hval’s "Kingsize".

“It didn’t have any music, so I wrote and produced the music and sampled her voice, she’s got the most, I’ll make the word up, ‘samplable’ voice and really interesting lyrics. On the 'what is soft dick rock?’ moment I thought ‘I can see this being smashed out in a club, that’d be fucking great.’ I had these gay guys emailing me saying 'I strut to work every day listening to the song, I feel like I’m on a catwalk' and I thought ‘Yes!’ I love reactions like that, something that emboldens someone.”

Hval returned the favour on Owens' “Anxi”, making that aforementioned appearance via a video clip projected onto the stage.

“She was super sweet. At the beginning of the video she looked into camera and waved and said ‘Hi!’ I wish I’d have included it, I should have. She looked super cute as she was waiting for the track to begin and getting into it. She’s been amazing, I don’t think most people would be up for recording themselves into their Mac and allowing people to see it.”

This summer Owens' live experiences will see her tour as well as play a host of festivals, including Primavera, which she’s always wanted to go to and now finds herself sharing a bill with Grace Jones and Aphex Twin. “I’ll be there absorbing the music and probably getting more and more nervous about my set as I see all of these incredible performances. But just to see Aphex Twin do his thing live, I’ve never seen that.”

Owens says she doesn’t know what to expect from his set. “In a way I’m kind of scared, I’m like ‘will I be disappointed?’ but I just want to be in the same vicinity as him and watch him fiddle away. Whatever it sounds like I just respect him and his processes and his sounds so much I think I’ll be enraptured no matter what he does. There’s not that many people I feel that way about.”

Barcelona is a long way from Owens' days of playing bass in The History of Apple Pie, which preceded her solo career. She says it was another example of her throwing herself into something. Owens was originally meant to play keyboards in the band but when the bass player didn’t turn up she stepped in. “I can’t read or write music. I learned to play drums, that to me is the most primal thing on earth. I love the bass and the sound of the frequencies, so to play bass was cool but you’re restricted to holding this thing and being in one place if you’re singing and playing rhythm, which isn’t that easy. In The History of Apple Pie it was OK, the basslines were simple.”

Equally, when she was doing her Music GCSE, being unable to read music wasn’t an impediment. Owens was inspired by the presence of forty Djembe’s in the music room, leading to her writing an African drumming composition. “It was a free-for-all; I had people who could play drums and then everyone else. I split those off into different sections and conducted it.” She says she keeps meaning to get back in touch with the school to get the recording of it. “I could sample my own composition!”

Owens explains that she’s always found a way around not reading or writing music. Indeed, the process seems too systematic for an artist who prides herself on the instinctual. “It was too mathematical and I shy away from maths. I literally had to be sat down and forced to do the GCSE coursework, it was “Kelly, sit here” and the teacher sat next to me, separate from the class and forced me to do it.”

Despite her aversion to maths, Owens talks about her days at school with fondness. “I was this geeky little kid who floated around between different types of people, I never had one set group of friends, I could drift between allsorts - the popular people, the geeky music people. I find everyone interesting so I’d always be talking to whoever I could, even the bullies.”

At primary school Owens took her first steps into the world of performance. She played Juliet in a production of the Shakespeare play, opposite a sarcastically written Romeo whose reply to “Romeo, Romeo, where for art thou?” was delivered from the floor with “I’m down here, stupid.” “It wasn’t his line, he was fed it by our teacher Mr Green, he was really fun.” She also remembers singing an a capella version of a song in front of the school “With performance, even though I’m saying I’m not confident, I still throw myself out there and give it a go. That’s the Welsh mentality: ‘get up there, for God’s sake, stop moaning’. You’ve just got to try it, even if you make a tit of yourself people will respect you, if nothing else.”

She also sang in the school choir from the age of 14 to 16 “which was amazing for my voice," Owens says. "We’d get on a coach and be taken to a church in the next town. We performed in front of 2,000 people at one point so the element of performance was always there.” How can you have a level of individuality and performance in such a collective? Owens laughs and saysthe Welsh can!”

Through singing lessons at school Owens also discovered that her vocal range went against her assumption that she was an alto. “That just shows my lack of confidence in myself...yeah, I’ll just go for alto and just keep it here…" she puts her hand up to her shoulder. “But they said ‘Kelly, you could be a top soprano.’ I used to do Baroque pieces in school, which I loved doing but it would by ear, aurally learning, because I could never read the music. I think that’s bridged into what I do now. It’s always about the emotive quality, the intuition, and the feeling. That’s all I have to go off.”

"I guess I just have to let go of that control a little bit. It’s OK, it’s all a learning curve"

Now that her debut record is out, Owens says she’s still coming to terms with letting it go. When we met the album was just about to be released and she was still getting her head around the fact that people had already heard it. “I’m like “What? You’ve heard it? How’s that possible?” It’s still just me getting used to the fact that it’s out there. Obviously once people have it and hear it; it’s not mine anymore, it's whatever their interpretation is.”

She received an email from BBC Radio Wales’ Adam Walton saying he was going to play the then-unreleased “Evolution.” “It wasn’t out, it hadn’t been played or premiered, so I was like ‘Adam, shit! How the hell have you got that?’ He said a physical copy of the album arrived, so he thought it would be alright to play it. Owens found it ironic that in the digital age the record hasn’t leaked digitally but in its physical format. “They shipped it out too early basically, I’m so old school, I was having a go at the label and my poor manager. I guess I just have to let go of that control a little bit. It’s OK, it’s all a learning curve, I’ve just got to chill!”

Did she allow Walton play “Evolution”? There’s a pause before she says: “no. He said he’d play “Lucid” instead. I’m so lucky that people have been respectful of the directness that’s in me...thus far!”

Amidst all the plaudits Owens has received for the inventiveness of her production and use of sound, her singing is just as important to her music. She says that the desire to sing comes back to her Welsh roots; it was the first instrument she felt comfortable with and her entry point for writing songs. Yet as she’s become more immersed in learning to produce “the voice, interestingly, is the bit I’m least confident with in some ways.”

When she writes the music, the vocals are the last thing piece of the jigsaw, which Owens didn’t expect to be the case.

“I remember when I was six or seven I’d write lyrics for songs and perform them to my nan," she says. "I’d always written words and poems, so I thought ‘great, the lyrics will be the place I start' but for some reason it was the music first and then I had to fit in the vocals.

"The voice is the most direct thing, but you can use it as layers like on 'Arthur', but weirdly it’s become the bit I’m least confident about, singing is almost like the necessary thing that I have to do to convey the music. The voice is still important to me, maybe I’m just more interested in other people’s voices and what that can add to what I’m doing.”

Creating music in the studio is where she’s happiest at the moment. Does she see the studio as instrument?

“It’s a sanctuary, a sanctuary/instrument," she says. "When I’m in the studio I’m in this bubble, ‘the Analogue Bubble’, you can quote an Aphex Twin track there, it’s me in my analogue bubble and that’s my happy place at the moment. But at the same time I’m looking forward to playing more shows and connecting. I can’t not perform and the voice is obviously still there, because the songs are as important to me as the tracks are or some kind of kind of hybrid of a song and a track.”

She sees the songs of Kelly Lee Owens fitting in three different buckets, depending on the nature of the composition: a song, a track, or a hybrid of both. “I see a song as a more traditional structure, like a chorus, even if there’s just one chorus or one verse. It’s having lyrics and vocals in a more traditional sense. I see a track as more kind of the dance stuff, so “Lucid” is now a hybrid.

I hand her the album tracklisting so she can talk through which bucket each song fits into. As she looks at it she explains that deciding on which songs made the cut “took forever to decide”.

"'S.O.' is a song; the title is a double meaning, 'I didn’t know it could be so' is a line and that leaves it open for ‘didn’t know it could be so…’ what? What is the feeling? It’s almost like it’s left to you to decide what the feeling is," she explains. "But 'S.O'. is ‘Significant Other’, so that kind of gives it away, but I like leaving things open-ended sometimes.

“'Arthur' is a track," she continues. "'Anxi' is a hybrid I would say. 'Lucid' is now a hybrid. 'Evolution' is a track. 'Bird' is a track. 'Throwing Lines' is a song…maybe. 'CBM' is a track. 'Keep Walking' is a song and '8' is…. who the fuck knows?!"

“8” is the album's closing piece: an organic, almost freeform composition that’s just under 10 minutes long. Owens wrote it as she was taking gong sound-baths that further inspired her musical sense of thinking in frequencies. It was recorded in two takes the day before the album was mastered.

The memory of mixing “8” with Greenwood prompts Owens to recall the moment she realised she’d produce the album herself. “James engineered the record; I thought he would produce it with me, because I didn’t really know what production meant at first, it got to the point where I was writing stuff and I just knew what I wanted and he said 'you’re producing it.' I was like 'what do you mean I’m producing it?' He said 'you’re shaping the sound, you’re crafting it, you know what you want.'"

“We’re in 2017, we’ve got this technology, I can write it on Logic, someone can transpose it and the next minute I could have a full orchestra playing a composition"

Owens also credits Joakim Haugland from her label Smalltown Supersound in helping her understand how she could develop the music. “He had this real vision, which sounds like a grand thing but was actually so simplistic. It was transparency and honesty because that’s what he saw in me - someone who loved music and wanted to make it but isn’t interested in making heaps of money. If I can pay my bills, keep a roof over my head, and do this, that’s wonderful.”

Owens signed with them so that she could retain complete artistic control as well the ability to have a direct line to the people she’s working with. “There’s no middleman or woman. The main thing I wanted was a label that would let me just deliver and not interfere with that.” She cites her cover of Aaliyah’s “More Than A Woman” as an example. “When I said was doing that he was like 'alright...' I don’t think he expected it to be that good and when I put it on he said “Kelly, we need to do something with this.”

“More Than A Woman” brings us back to the album's tracklist. Deciding on the final running order was a difficult decision, given the desire to achieve balance between Owens’ earlier songs as well as presenting the story of her artistic development. She describes Haugland as “such a stickler, he had a vision that I didn’t see at the time. He wanted to show all the sides.”

As well as “More Than A Woman”, early singles “1 of 3” and “Uncertain” were also omitted, despite Owens initially hankering for them to be included.

“He felt that we needed to show the whole collective from three years ago to now and make it current for me even," she explains. "So that’s why 'CBM', '8', 'Evolution', and 'Bird' are on there and stuff had to be removed. We both wanted to have a classic, 10-track, self-titled album. There wasn’t a word that summed up the album, so I may struggle with the next one, I’ll have to call it Self-Titled 2!”

Deliberating over which songs make the cut on an album once came up when speaking to Owens' fellow countrywoman Cate Le Bon about last year’s Crab Day. Owens is a fan of Le Bon, describing her as “amazing; she’s got a great voice.” Le Bon said that cutting songs was what’s termed in the theatre as ‘kill your darlings’, where something works well on its own but doesn’t quite fit the whole. Does Owens relate to that? “Yeah for sure, exactly. I just found it so difficult.”

Haugland was also her artistic sparring partner for the artwork, a black and white shot of Owens looking away from the camera. Haugland mooted it as a potential cover a year ago to which Owens told him "no fucking way!"

She adds: "it showed a side of me that I was a bit uncomfortable with but a year later I saw it again and I’d kind of grown into myself enough to be like 'yeah, I’m confident enough to put that on.' There’s something genuine about it and I felt it represented the music, no makeup, something that could look classic and honest and not perfect.”

As well as her solo career, Owens would also like to compose music for films and views it as another example of throwing herself into the deep end. “I don’t feel that things are impossible. Strings [are] to me the emotive thing, apart from voice, and I think it could be interesting. Also, there doesn’t seem to be many female composers doing it. I feel there’s a lot of room for females to be in that scene.”

Owens returns to the fact that she doesn’t read or write music but rightly doesn’t see it as a barrier. “We’re in 2017, we’ve got this technology, I can write it on Logic, someone can transpose it and the next minute I could have a full orchestra playing a composition. How amazing would that be? At some point that’s what I’d love in my live show, like Björk’s tour for Vespertine, where she had the beats going on onstage and the orchestra in the pit, that was amazing. I’d like to marry those worlds together somehow.”

Mention of seeing Björk live prompts the question: where do musicians who draw on dance music get their inspiration from today? The rise of acid house in the late '80s created a symbiotic relationship between club culture and musicians, where they’d hear dance music in clubs and incorporate it into their music. Does it still work like that? Owens says that she doesn’t really go out anymore. She used to go to Fabric “a little bit, because I got free tickets, they were opposite Pure Groove - I was 'whatever' because in 2009 I didn’t really give a shit about dance music that much.” Instead she found working with Greenwood and Avery to be much more instructive: “seeing the process, that’s what excites me.”

“I just don’t like to fill up space for the sake of it, it’s not what I’m attracted to sonically...if you listen to what’s in the charts, it’s like hyper-drive"

The hypnotic feel of Owens' music, like dance music, creates a feeling of otherworldliness: an almost psychedelic at times. She recalls a conversation she had with Andrew Weatherall, who used to come into Pure Groove. Owens didn’t know who he was initially “he was just Andrew with a big beard, who has a cup of tea.

"He’d come in once a week and we’d chat about music," she says. "I gave him the 12” of “Lucid” and he said ‘Kelly, do you take a lot of drugs?’ “I said ‘no, I don’t actually!’ I think he was writing a book on LSD at the time, he said it was fascinating to listen to my stuff knowing that I’d never taken drugs. I don’t know what that feels like, but for me the music is that going in or going somewhere else. He found it interesting that you don’t have to be a druggie to put across that experience.”

The album doesn’t contain what could be termed as straightforward love songs either? Owens explains that “love is a feeling that’s not really containable, so I feel in the sound I don’t want to be too contained or too rigid. It’s always about exploring the feeling and I like to leave a lot of space in the songs for the most part.” Owens sees this space as where the magic happens for her. “I just don’t like to fill up space for the sake of it, it’s not what I’m attracted to sonically. I think too many people do that. If you listen to what’s in the charts, it’s like hyper-drive you know? Maybe the space allows you to connect with the feeling, even if it’s for a few seconds, it's room for thought and connection.”

Talk of having space in the music causes Owens to remember a time when Nick Cave came into Sister Ray. Cave had just released Push The Sky Away and Owens deliberately put on a Marc Bolan BBC live session. Push The Sky Away had so much space and he said ‘What’s this?’ I knew he’d fucking love it, because he’d just made that record, we had a chat and I said ‘it’s expansive, it’s got room for the music to do its thing and for the emotions to come across’ and that’s something that for whatever reason excites me.”

How does Owens feel now that people can finally hear her record?

“It’s like a relief. It always feels like a long time for the artist, I think. So it’s like a present to give and hope it connects with people in positive ways and inspire them, or inspire young kids or women to produce and write and take control and give something a go - it could be music, it could be anything. There’s that kind of optimism somewhere in the anxiety and the melancholic element as well. I’ve always got hope; I’ve always got optimism somewhere.”

And what are her expectations for the record? She says she doesn’t have any, and finishes with words that sum up her up as an artist: one who takes things each step at a time but, like her music itself, sees a bigger picture.

”I’m a stepping stone kind of person; I take everything as it comes and I try not to expect too much. Music comes to you in the right moment. There could be someone that listens to it and hates it, then in five years’ time they might connect with a lyric or a track. I think that’s the beauty of music, I’ve discovered that myself. I hated techno five years ago but now it’s like 'ah, I get it, it’s an epiphany.' I just want people to take whatever they need from it.”

Kelly Lee Owens is out now via Smalltown Supersound.
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