When I call Kelsey Lu, she’s sitting in a New York bar having breakfast at 5:50pm. She’d spent the night before walking in NO SESSO’s runway show alongside her friend, Steve Lacy. The after party, she tells me, ran until 8am that morning.
Lu is a classically trained cellist, with three runway scores under her belt: NO SESSO at the Getty Museum, Grace Wales Bonner at London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery, and Jil Sander’s Fall 2019 collection.
She talks in loops. As you begin to follow one train of thought, Lu drifts off into another entirely. It’s not until folding the second concept back into the first that you realise the connection she’s made. When asked a question, her answers are considered, dotted with sound effects she creates on a whim. A squeal when congratulated on finishing her debut album. An imitation of basketball sneakers squeaking on a court, of the game’s half time siren. As she speaks, she gives the sense that all she really wants is to paint mental imagery for you. It’s her trademark.
Her debut EP, Church, is a crystalline and pensive body of work. She recorded it in one take at the Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn. A serendipitous 33 minutes. The singles that follow, Due West and a cover of 10cc’s I’m Not In Love, are considerably lighter but maintain the contemplative roots of Church.
It comes as no surprise that everyone wants a piece of Kelsey Lu. Alessandro Michele wants her to work with him at Gucci. Her vocals appear in Solange’s A Seat At The Table, Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound, Kelela’s Take Me Apart. Lu’s charisma seeps through conversation—a gushing thank you, a description of her love for New York, a struggle to contain laughter at herself when describing an album sequencing session gone wrong.
Hey Lu—how’s your day?
It’s been an interesting day. It started pretty late. Yesterday I walked in my friend’s first New York fashion show. I opened and closed it. It was the first time I ever did a runway show. I got so high off of it, from the excitement and joy of it all and from being with my friends. There was a party for it after it and I just had such a good time. I was catching up with a friend that I hadn’t seen in a long time who is doing the illustration and animation for my next video. We stayed up talking until almost 8 in the morning. So I woke up pretty late in the afternoon. It’s a beautiful day outside, so I opened all the windows. People were playing sax in the street, and I could hear the music coming through into my room. And I just had this really beautiful moment, kind of like a romance. When I say romance, I mean romance of energy and creativity. I was really swept off my feet. I’m just feeling kind of little floaty right now. It’s been a good day!
What do you have for breakfast in the afternoon?
Yeah, look. About that. I guess my breakfast was tea and I’m actually sitting at this bar down the street and I’m having my first meal of the day! So I guess you could say my breakfast is pie and earl grey tea! What time is it there?
Oh! You’re ahead! Time… it’s such a crazy, mysterious thing.
First off congratulations on your runway show, and second of all, congrats on finishing your album!
[Yells in excitement] I’m so excited! Oh my god!
How long have you been working on it?
So much time! Oh my god. I want to say “oh, just my whole life”. But it’s definitely been at least a few years…
Three years right?
Yeah! Three years, which is so exciting because three is a magic number for me. It’s my birth number… a ruling number in my life.
What would you like to tell me about the album?
There’s a lot to tell… I’ll start with the name. The name of the album is Blood.
What a follow up to Church!
Yeah! You know… it’s reclaiming names and words. Playing with words is always like emoting and triggering something visual. Always. Blood’s a very strong word because it’s something we can all relate to. It’s the source of our lives, it runs through all of us. The album itself was written in three acts.
There’s that three again.
I know! You know it’s funny, when I was sequencing the record, I was trying to find the place for this one interlude that was more of a song. I kept thinking “Where can I fit this into a place that makes sense?” Then I thought, maybe I can just split it up? I always wanted this continuous stream of consciousness because with the album itself has such a variety of feeling. It goes through so many different worlds and so I really wanted to find a way to tie them into each other. And then I thought what if I split the interlude and I dilute it and separate it into different parts. I love that it’s in threes, because you know that’s important to me! I was like “Ah!”—so excited about it.
How do you even begin to sequence a record?
It was funny because the morning of sequencing the record I was alone in London. I actually wrote a lot of the record there. I was staying at a friends and they were out of town and I had the place to myself. I was like “Okay, time to go in on the sequence.” As I was taking things out of my bag, I saw this little weed gummy that I didn’t know I had. I was like “you know what? I’m going to take the tiniest little bit of the corner of this gummy.” And then I forgot that I did it and all of a sudden I was standing in the kitchen staring at my hands. I had a knife in one hand and a lemon in the other and I was like “How did I get here?” And then I was like “Oh my god. That fucking edible.”
Oh my god.
Then I realised that I was trying to sequence my record. Lemme get back into that. So I sat down and promised myself that I’d focus. And then I start listening [laughs] and the first song on the record is an observation on home and religion and my parents and what it all means. It’s straight to the point, gonna set you off on this heavy bass sound. And I couldn’t stop laughing! Because I was like, listening to myself and in my head I kept seeing this flash of a high school musical and people jumping across a stage. I was cracking up. I couldn’t take it seriously. All I could think was “It’s a musical! It’s a fucking musical! That is hilarious!”
Can you describe the acts for me?
The first [act] is kind of an observation of home, my parents, my Mum being white, my Dad being black and my space between both of those. Of leaving the religion I was raised to believe in; what was such a core value of my life. The displacement from all of that. All of the pain that came with leaving and then leaning into a learned harmony of acceptance through deep reflection. That ultimately leads to a freedom of movement and true observation beyond self, which ultimately leads to the crux of existence—nature. Through that you start to hear sounds of birds, bringing you into a sense of peace and comfort and vulnerability. That transitions into the second act. It moves beyond the past more-so onto a present observation and what’s surrounding that. Things like sexuality, ego, gazes, perception, heartache, humour. Kind of like a spiral. Which spirals you into the third act. Through all of those things is a recognition of the pain, and the horror and the beauty of all of those things and the ability to move past it and move onto the next. And fucking live to die another day. And in the end be hopeful of whatever there is to come. Or not come at all.
There’s a quote by one of my favourite influential composers, Julius Eastman. You should definitely look him up. There’s something that he said, that rings so true. I heard him say it, but it was like explicitly to my subconscious. It must have because when I decided to name the record Blood, there’s this talk that he gives where he’s introducing a piece that he wrote called Unjust. Before the piece is performed, he introduces it and explains what each title means. Within the explanation there’s something that rings so true. He says “without blood there is no cause”. And so, with all of that, that’s kind of the core of the record. Ultimately it’s hope. Beyond everything else, hope is something that humanity and people have clung to as a source of survival.
It’s going to be an amazing body of work.
I’m so excited for everyone to hear it in the full.
When’s it coming out?
Spring! I haven’t set a date yet… but Spring.
My Spring or your Spring?
My Spring! I forgot that we’re on separate ends of the world. What is my Spring for you?
Oh I love that! I love that so much, Autumn and Spring are my two favourites. This is so exciting to me!
It’s meant to be! I’d love to talk about your scores for runway shows.
Yeah! I did one last year at the Getty Museum in LA. That was actually one of my favourites, I had so much fun with that. A lot of the inspiration for the show was Marie Antoinette meets basketball. And so I was like “Hell yeah, I can fuck with that.” I had so much fun, going through basketball samples and ASMRs on youtube of ‘Nine Hours of Dribbling’—literally videos that people have put up of hours of different dribbling or a shoe squeaking against the floor. And then of course with Antoinette, there’s like Bach and all that Baroque shit. And it’s funny thinking about how the crossover between the art of that and how harpsichord is used there. And then in terms of basketball, how harpsichord is used in that. You know with the organs like [the half time theme song]. And sonically, it all comes together. Which is just so fucking beautiful. So that was really fun to play around with.
How did you pull that all together finally?
I took some of those samples that I found and then cut out my favourite ones and created a kick out of different dribbles. And so that was so much fun playing with different samples and textures and an environment of fun around the court. And then I let that play on, and while that was going on I played some Bach beats, one of my favourite preludes over the top of it so that was really fun. Another show that I’ve done was for Grace Wallace Bonner, who’s a designer out of London. That was really fun, that was a lot of beautiful work because she was exploring the spirituality and history of Yeboah. How it could be duly represented. And so went into studying the kind of music in Ethiopia and the kind of people. With both shows, I really enjoyed the story of what’s happening, of what the designer is thinking, their process, what their creation is based off. And then really exploring that and studying it and picking the kind of sonics of what that’s about and creating music around it.
Would you ever start your own label?
Oh hell yeah. I’d be interested in creating a platform for other people, to support them. I was talking with a friend about charm bracelets and how genius they are. Like the concept of a charm bracelet is really fascinating to me. Like growing up, there was an older woman that I knew growing up and she had the maddest charm bracelet that I’d ever seen. It was just so fascinating to me when I could see her teaching. She was very exaggerated in her hand gestures, in her movements and the charms would just be clinking and she wore multiple bracelets, it was like ASMR to me. But then how each charm has its own story and a lot of different charms are like places and places that you’ve been, that they’re just little things that you can take off and pass to someone else. I was just holding these little bits of story all around your wrist. I think that’s pretty cool.
So you’d kind of like to make a label that’s more like a charm bracelet than anything?
I’d be more interested in a platform and collaborating. I love collaborating, like right now I’m collaborating with my friend Sonia. She has a brand called Come Tees based out of LA. She’s an incredible designer. We’re collaborating on a shirt together to build up an awareness of this group called Dream Defenders Action that are out of Florida. They’re an organisation that’s taking on how important it is, as a black community, to have freedom of movement. I think there are a lot of things within the community that are outreach to prisons and black imprisonment. They were all formed by women and I wanted to collaborate on a shirt to sell at this festival that I’m playing at in Miami in a week. All the proceeds are going to go to the organisation. Things like that are more interesting to me. Ways to make clothing that isn’t always all about me. That’s helping something, rather than just creating for people to consume in a world that works off consumerism.
Completely. I watched your StylelikeU video on Youtube, from five years ago now. And you said “I just did what I needed to do.”
I do that shit every fucking day. Doing what I need to do, what needs to be done. I’m actually glad that you said that, it reminded me that I actually said that. You’ve gotta do that because nobody else is going to do that for you. At least, I didn’t grow up with the privilege of having people do things for me. Actually, you know what, I don’t think that’s a privilege. I think that’s actually an unfortunate growth stunt; to have someone do everything for you. You have to do it for yourself in order to be able to do it for others.
Speaking of, you do your own make-up—which blew my mind because it’s always really great.
Oh! Thank you! It’s so funny, usually whenever I go to shoots, and stuff I love working with different make-up artists, but a lot of the time I end up just going “Oh, don’t worry. Can I just… do that?” [Laughs] I think it’s fun to explore with your face, express with your face. It’s funny how the market of make-up right now is so crazy. How people just watch so much of it, and how make-up tutorials are such a big thing. It’s such a massive industry. It’s amazing to me how certain platforms, like Instagram, have become [a way] to gain notoriety and clout. How they gain hundreds of thousands of followers because of their make-up tutorials and what not. I’ve heard quite a few times on different shoots from about how some of these artists that do make-up tutorials and have crazy amounts of followers don’t understand how to work on someone else’s face but their own. So when they are booked to do editorials, they ultimately fail. There’s like this interesting clash or crossroad of technique, of a trend, of something that is taking over the attention on the grand scheme of society. I like to look at make-up as a really fun, playful way of expression. Sometimes people feel enslaved to it.
Do you have any covers that you wish people would listen to?
I love this song it’s called ‘Where Or When’. It’s a show-tune from a musical called Babes in Arms. And Richard Rob and the Supremes did a cover of it which is so absolutely beautiful. It’s kind of about meeting someone and you’re just so familiar with them and you’ve been in love with them before but you can’t recall when or where it’s happened. And whether it’s because I’m on this floaty love high right now, but I’m kind of experiencing that feeling now. I really love doing covers of songs and reinterpreting them in a different way. I did a cover of River by Joni Mitchell with Sampha. It’s on my Soundcloud.
I’m still here for Soundcloud.
I love Soundcloud. It was the first platforms that I put my music on. Actually, the first track I put up was a cover of a Frank Ocean song—‘Crack Rock’. That was so much fun. I did it all on cello and it was pretty minimal. We’re vibing songs that maybe nobody has heard before. Covers are really fun. Like reviving songs that maybe nobody has heard before. Finding your own glue within the story of somebody else’s lyrics is really exciting. You know? It’s your interpretation of that story. You’re taking on that story and encompassing that. That’s what I love to do with covers and with songs. Reimagining the story for itself and feeling it is really great.
You can catch Lu live at the Sydney Opera House during the 2019 VIVID Festival on June 1-2. Tickets can be purchased here.