Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Kelly Lee Owens by Parri Thomas 02

River of sound

26 August 2020, 08:00
Words by Ed Nash
Original Photography by Parri Thomas

The creation of her sophomore album saw Kelly Lee Owens undergo a period of transition and regrowth, where she not only rediscovered herself, but the world around her, she tells Ed Nash.

Kelly Lee Owens’ new record Inner Song is the story of the rewilding of her creative spirit, and as with all great stories, its narrative is multi-layered.

In part, it documents the joy of a three-year period since Owens’ self-titled debut, for which the Welsh artist saw critical acclaim, toured the world and collaborated with the likes of Björk, Jon Hopkins and St Vincent. It’s also a story of solitude; the loss of her grandmother, and the end of a relationship. Underscoring everything is a constant that drives Owens forward: her love of music and belief in the healing power of sounds and words.

The last time I spoke to Owens was on a sunny afternoon in Camden, with her self-titled debut Kelly Lee Owens a month away from release. The world is a much different place now, yet Owens is still as curious and just as excited about the work she’s created. While the announcement of lockdown in the UK will be remembered for generations to come, for Owens it’s also the three-year anniversary of her first album. “I guess that’s why we’re still talking now,” she tells me. “A lot of things went right.”

The evening that lockdown was announced, Owens opened a bottle of rum she’d been holding onto - a gift from Roskilde Festival where she played in 2018. “It’s 59% alcohol and I was ‘It feels like a good time to finish this off’,” she explains. “We cracked it open and had a bit of a dance around the house.”

Owens has racked up a slew of festivals over the last three years, but the experience of life on the road has been bittersweet: “On that level it’s been absolutely amazing, but what comes with that is a lot of hard work, tiredness, and the body reacting to the amount of travel. I was going through a lot of difficult stuff personally, and that was ongoing from the moment my album came out, so I didn’t feel like I could fully celebrate.”

There was a certain irony in the name of the festival where she found she could finally exhale and reflect on her achievements: “The End of The Road was a pivotal moment,” she tells me. “It was only then that I allowed myself to feel and to celebrate everything that had gone on in the last three years, to receive applause and have it soak in that people had connected to this. It felt safe in that moment to celebrate in my own way.”

Owens coped with touring by seeking refuge in solitude and found respite, reflection and ultimately, regrowth. “I’ve literally been in my own world, healing in my own way,” she explains. “Going in and doing the inner work and looking at things within myself.”

Her take on lockdown has been similarly focused on self-development - going in and doing that inner work - but Owens feels it's a way of thinking that will time for many people to adapt and adjust to, to look not just at the outer world, but also inside ourselves. “For some people it will be the first time since they were a child that they’ve connected with their emotions; people are so afraid of doing that, but the fear of that is pain itself,” she muses. “We need to be mindful about these things and be radically compassionate with ourselves in this moment, to allow ourselves to feel and heal.”

Healing is about a gradual, ongoing process of undoing the knots in one’s thinking, she explains: “It’s not easy to do, it’s part of our capitalistic society, and weirdly we need to rebel by not doing much. I don’t mean inaction, I mean in a spiritual sense, and going into one’s psyche.”

Delving into her psyche for Inner Song, Owens has compiled a stunning collection of songs for the head, heart and feet that explore the nature of the self as well as love, loss and transition. “It’s been amazing and beautiful,” she says. “There’s been this steady growth that I talked about with you all those years ago. I’m a stepping-stone kind of person, I wanted things to grow organically and naturally and it really did. The music garnered a lot of respect and that’s what I wanted for it. It kept growing, so that meant I’ve been kept busy, which I feel very blessed about.”

That growth saw her appear on the radar of some of her heroes. “I kept being offered opportunities... a remix of Björk and St Vincent, a track with Jon Hopkins,” she explains. “Peers of mine and people I’ve respected along the way have connected to the music and supported me. Björk doesn’t have to do that, but she’s so on the pulse, she’s always been about pushing new artists forward.”

Her time spent tending the counter in Pure Groove, Rough Trade and Sister Ray showed Owens that her musical heroes weren’t untouchable. “People who are put on a pedestal want the opposite of that. I learned that when I was working in the record stores, with people like Björk, Nick Cave, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant coming in - separately, obviously - and they’re just us. There’s something beautiful, especially in a record store, about being in a humble space, where you’re just all music nerds.”

Owens’ collaboration with Jon Hopkins on “Luminous Spaces” threads back to the joy and bitter sweetness of the last three years. The producer sent Owens his stems of Singularity with the freedom to rework whichever song she wanted to. She picked her favourite: “Luminous Beings”. “There’s a certain amount of trust you invoke in someone when you send them your stems,” she tells me. “Like ‘Oh my God, this is me fully exposed, this is the fragments of my soul that I’m handing over in its rawest form.’”

She met her match in terms of perfectionism as the project progressed: “There was so much juice in them, my mind was blown. In one track there’s a hundred and fifty stems. I was flabbergasted at the level of detail. I thought I was detail-orientated, but this was a whole other level. Now I understand why it takes him five years to make a record.”

Her reworking of the track - titled “Luminous Spaces” - became an elegy for her grandmother, one of the most inspirational figures in her life. “I’ve never listened to something I’ve created so much,” she recalls. “That was during the period that my Nanna passed, and it kept me going, it kept me so uplifted. It’s like I wrote it for myself before something happened, that I didn’t know I needed. The power of music, and the power of allowing that flow to happen proved itself to me in that moment.”

The last time her grandmother saw Owens play live was as support to Hopkins in Manchester. “I was thinking ‘Are they going to watch me and then we’ll go?’,” she tells me, “because Jon’s set is even more banging than mine, but, oh no, they stayed and danced!” Shortly after her grandmother passed away, Hopkins got in touch:. “He sent me such a beautiful message saying ‘I know how much she meant to you.’ She loved Jon, she loved how many opportunities he gave me and how supportive he’d been, so it really felt like a little family affair.”

Another John has also been a source of friendship, inspiration and collaboration for her: John Cale, who appears on “Corner of my Sky” reciting a poem over a dizzyingly intricate Owens arrangement. “I forget that he’s on the record and then people remind me, and I go ‘Oh my God...”

The pair were supposed to meet for a cup of tea in L.A., but schedules meant they eventually met in London, when Cale got in touch and asked if she wanted to try a vocal on a song he was working on. “I was like ‘Oh my God, oh my God. Play it cool,” she recalls. “His first question was “‘So where are you from then?’ He was trying to listen out for my Welsh accent, which isn’t very strong because I’m from the North and very close to the English border, but he could hear the lilts coming out and we were laughing about that.”

When it came to add a vocal to the as-yet unreleased Cale track, the grandmaster’s instructions were seemingly simple: “He said ‘OK, you’re going to sing along with a line that I’ve written. I’m going to sit down and chill and let my engineer record it. We’ll see how it turns out and what we’re going to do with it.’” She took a moment to appreciate the surrealness of the situation: “I’m standing in a huge vocal room and John Cale is looking at me with crossed arms on the other side of the glass. I’m like ‘How the fuck did this happen?’ [but] at the same time I thought ‘You’re here for a reason, because someone’s connected to what you’re doing.’

As she started singing, Cale suddenly jumped up, uncrossed his arms and waved them in the air. “I stopped, because I was so scared,” Owens tells me. “I said, ‘Is everything OK? Have I done something?’ And he was like 'No, it’s great! Keep going!’ And I thought, ‘Oh. My. God!’

“He can make you do things you’ve never done before. I reached a high note that I’d never reached before - or after - and he did that. He encouraged me and I got to that place. I still don’t know how, but it felt like absolute magic. I was ‘OK, this is all the stuff happening that I read about.’”

After the session, Owens was pondering what to do with a “psychedelic lullaby” she’d written and told Smalltown Supersound label boss Joakim Haugland, “I think I can hear John Cale’s voice all over it. I’d love for him to recite poetry or come up with lyrics, maybe some Welsh....?” Owens sent Cale her composition, reasoning that, “If he likes it, he likes it and if he doesn’t, he’ll tell me to fuck off. That’s how he is, and I love him for that.”

The punt paid off: Cale’s manager replied saying “John thinks he can do something with this. Give us some time and we’ll send over some stuff.’”

When Owens received her psychedelic lullaby, complete with Cale’s words, it was another pinch yourself moment. “He delivered all the stuff you can hear on the record, but in a completely different order,” she explains. “It was all over the place, and in a really amazing way.” Owens’ drive and self-belief convinced her it could be even better, and she set about rearranging Cale’s work. As she tells the story, you can visualise the creative musical cogs of her brain whirring: “I was ‘OK, I can hear what needs to happen’. I rearranged and re-produced the vocals. At the very end, there’s the line, ‘I’ve lost the bet that words will come / and wake me in the morning’ and it rises, because he says something else after that. I chopped it there, because I thought ‘Oh, that’s so profound. I have to end it with that.’

"And him singing ‘The rain, the rain, the rain’, I cried when I finished the arrangement, it was so beautiful. There’s a fragility in him and a purity when I hear him singing in Welsh, it made me feel like the child John Cale - the boy from the Welsh valleys - was there.”

As much as Inner Song is the story of Owens’ personal and artistic re-wilding, working with Cale was also an opportunity to pay homage to her Welsh heritage. “I needed to bring it back to the roots somehow and John said that was what he really needed too, in himself,” she says. “There was a point in time where Welsh people couldn’t speak or sing in their own language and I want to show off that it still exists and it’s gorgeous. People from Wales aren’t just white men with beards making folk music. I want people to know I’m from that place, and to understand the beauty of the language. I wanted to be proud that I’m a woman from Wales that makes electronic based music, but also that I’m more than that.”

With all the interweaving themes of Inner Song, how important was the catharsis of the creative process? “It’s a blessing that we have that outlet, because everyone goes through dark times in their lives and not everyone has an outlet, or knows how to express the things that they’ve gone through. Art and creating can transmute all of that, but it’s not the only way. When I say ‘creating’, it could literally just be writing down your thoughts to process and reflect. I would encourage that for anyone, in any way.”

Owens adds that expression isn’t limited to writing a song - there are a multitude of means of expression, the key is getting it out of ourselves. “Ironically, at the moment that’s what a lot of people will be having to do,” she tells me. “With this forced isolation, we’re having to face ourselves, and this is what most people don’t do.” She laughs and adds, “I’m kind of an expert at it now!”

There’s also the ineffable joy of hearing a song and feeling a connection with it? Nick Cave wrote on his blog The Red Hand Files that, “when I listen to a beloved song, I feel, at my very core, that that song is speaking to me and to me alone, that I have taken possession of that song exclusively. I feel, beyond all rationality, that the song has been written with me in mind and, as it weaves itself into the fabric of my life, I become its steward.”

“Yes! And how amazing is that feeling?” Owens responds. “That feeling morphs as time goes on, but it’s the most liberating thing. It could be music, a book, anything, but we’re always trying to find elements of ourselves because we have so much more in common than the things that separate us, and that’s so important to remember. It’s the truth in everything, feeling in, leaning into the cracks, seeing where we’re at right now and being honest about that. We all go through awful times in our lives, some worse than others, but we bond in our collective trauma. I don’t think it’s a downer, it’s a beautiful thing.”

"Inner Song only took thirty-five days to write the bones of the music because it was about being a vessel, a conduit, allowing the ideas to flow without having to perfect them in that moment.”

She finds connections between the experience of listening to a song and the work of the philosopher Alain de Botton, the founder of The School of Life. “He’s brutally honest about the fact we’re all inherently flawed, to which people go ‘What do you mean I’m flawed?!’ We get into our defence straight away, but he’s opening a conversation into the transparency and honesty of ‘We’re not perfect beings; we never will be. We all suffer.’

“I think it’s beautiful to be open to that, not to try to uphold these ridiculous standards we hold ourselves up to in society. It doesn’t work and it makes us miserable.” Owens pauses for a second and adds, “I think my coffee’s kicking in!

Owens was wrestling with her perfectionism the last time we spoke - and talked of a desire to let that go for the next record. Did that happen with Inner Song? “Mmm… it was definitely true. The reason Inner Song only took thirty-five days to write the bones of the music - not the lyrics, vocal lines or the full production - was because it was about being a vessel, a conduit, allowing the ideas to flow without having to perfect them in that moment.”

Once the music was written, her attention to detail came into its own. She spent twelve hours days with the mixing engineer and made four amendments to the final master over five days. “I did, of course, go into the minutiae - the detail, the automation, all the stuff that I love to do - in the latter half of the production,” she explains. “I’m hardcore. I use the same mastering engineer as Jon Hopkins, Jon said, ‘A fourth amendment Kelly?’ That will always be within me and for me, that’s where the true joy is, but this time there was a liberation of saying ‘OK, tell me what it is you want me to know?’ It felt bigger than me and I wanted it to be less about me. It’s about the collective - ‘What’s needing to be heard? What do we need now?’”

The impact of lockdown and the needs of the collective is a double-edged sword for Owens. Whilst the planet has benefitted from a drop in pollution, many of us are isolated and alone. “If you can extract positives from the situation, then absolutely, it’s the pause that the planet needs, but I’m not going to make this a trivial thing,” she muses. “People are dying and these times always affect the most vulnerable people. That’s the thing I worry about the most, no matter what goes on in the world, it’s always the most vulnerable people that become even more vulnerable.”

Inner Song’s closing track “Wake Up” presciently addresses the balance between the human race and the planet, and Owens quotes the line “Never pausing to take it in / Always avoiding your sense of dread.”

“That’s what we’ve been doing emotionally and with the climate,” she says. “There’s a moment where it goes into strings and then there’s the really fast arpeggi. I didn’t even know this until afterwards - and this is the beauty of music, even the music you make yourself - is that it keeps revealing itself to you. There’ll be things that come through me that I didn’t even know or was conscious of.”

She was in tears when she heard the strings on the finished mix of “Wake Up”, realising they were playing a character within the song: “The strings were the earth, crying out - ‘Listen, listen, hear me.’ When you listen to ‘Wake Up’, think of it in that way, where the strings are the earth grieving, the arpeggi on the synth is all of the technology, the buzzy-ness of everything, that’s trying to distract us from the truth and grief of what’s happening.”

Why did she choose to end the record with a song about the beginning of the day? “It’s an ending and a beginning,” she says. “What we’re seeing now, within life, within every relationship of any kind, is that there is always life, death and rebirth. People forget about the rebirth bit, and this is within nature too. It’s a reflection of my inner world, of our inner worlds and then the outer world. There will be a rebirth from this time - in consciousness, in the way that we live and it’s important to remember that next phase. That’s why with ‘Wake Up’, it is the end, but the last thing I say is ‘Wake Up.’”

Despite its title, Inner Song addresses the external as much as the internal; the outer versus the inner world. Owens she isn’t shying away from tackling the big stuff, is she? “The big stuff? Not at all, because we are it, there’s no separation, that’s a total myth we’ve been living, and it’s not served us. This is why we’re in this mess, we completely disconnected ourselves from our truth, from our emotions.”

She feels capitalism has perpetuated a myth that needs to be debunked. “‘You’re only valid if you are doing’ and this is the irony of this moment in time. There’s no coincidence that this is happening as far as I’m concerned, where we’re being forced to be still, because it’s valid, just to be in stillness. You don’t exist to work, to perpetuate and make other people money, that’s not the purpose. Go deeper. What are you really here to do? What makes your soul feel alive?”

"My art speaks directly, and although it’s cathartic for me in that moment, what it always does - and what it always needs to come back to - is connecting with other people."

Owens tells me she read Clarissa Pinkola’s Women Who Run With the Wolves, an integral part of her creative re-growth. “Pinkola speaks about the fact that the soul life dies if you’re not creating. A lot of us have felt dead inside, a lot of us have been like zombies. The apocalypse has already been here, and we’ve been living in it in a sense. Now it’s about the rebirth, awakening and that’s ‘Wake Up’”

Pinkola’s book also played a role in one of Inner Song’s highlights, the irresistible R&B-fused funk of “Rewild”, which Owens describes as “my stoner, kind of sexy jam. I was ‘Fuck it, this is what I want to do and I’m going to do it.’ I never hold back, ever. Radiohead cover, Aaliyah cover, pretty bold, a bit risky, but to do it with respect and integrity is the thing.”

John Hopkins sent her an article about farming and Owens was fascinated with the idea of rewilding: “It’s where land and farmland rewild, and what they do in order for it to happen is… nothing. It regrows in the way that nature already knows how to do, it’s left alone. It’s the same thing with me, the rewilding of my spirit was to go in by myself and allow what needed to unfold and unfurl, and then regrow and re-nourish myself. So yes, it has come up as these themes consciously and unconsciously on Inner Song.

Sometimes it’s almost human nature to think ‘I need to work on something?’ I suggest. She politely corrects me: “Yes, but that’s what they call ‘the masculine’. When I say ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ I don’t mean men and women necessarily, within all of us it’s ‘divine masculine’ and ‘divine feminine’. It’s only in the West that we’re catching up with these ideas, they’ve been around for millennia in other cultures.

“The masculine is always ‘the doing’ - the forward motion, the cerebral, everything’s got to be quantifiable, everything has to be proved, everything has to be known. The feminine is the softness. It’s not inactive, but it encourages the stillness.”

A desire for softness and stillness permeates Inner Song, literally so, with a crispness to the vocals and a lowering of reverb. It was a conscious choice, in order to be more direct with the listener. “Lyrically, it needed to be clear,” Owens explains. “The clarity was a reflection of where I was… This time there’s a confidence, a growth within me as a human being, and the music reflects that.”

Singer/songwriters are seen as the touchstone of authenticity as storytellers, but that does a disservice to other artists: Björk’s Vulnicura documented a break-up as vividly and heartbreakingly as Joni Mitchell’s Blue. When electronics are part of the mix, does she feel lyrics aren’t taken as seriously? “Absolutely. The sound informs which words I put down and to commit to. We’re moving away from ‘the guitar is the only way to express yourself in a pure sense’. It’s absolute bullshit, whatever works for you is it. I can tell stories with a synth, just my voice, strings, or all of them together. I’m informed by the sound. I always make the instrumental music first and that informs the lyrics, it reveals itself to me as I go.

“My art speaks directly, and although it’s cathartic for me in that moment, what it always does - and what it always needs to come back to - is connecting with other people. That’s what music has always been. It’s finding the people who need to hear that or have been through something similar, who can somehow resonate with the sound, the emotions and hopefully be able to release something and make them feel less alone.”

Inner Song is released on 28 August via Smalltown Supersound
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