Music by VICE

Kelsey Lu Had to Manifest Hopeful Pop from Pain

We met the pop cellist and singer in London, hearing about the tumultuous journey behind her stunning debut album 'Blood.'

by Tshepo Mokoena
Apr 24 2019, 2:45pm

(Photo via PR)

Last year, North Carolina-born, California-based artist Kelsey Lu was in London, high out of her mind while trying to get some work done. She tells the story with a smile as wide-open as the arms in which she received me at her AirBnb in the English capital earlier today. But back then, around last autumn, she was trying to sort out the tracklist of her luscious, somewhat long-awaited debut album, Blood (released last Friday, April 19).

"I had the place to myself and was like ‘OK, I’m gonna buckle down,’" she remembers

"I found a little weed gummy in my bag and took the tiniest little nibble of it,” The next thing she knew, “I was standing in the kitchen thinking, ‘how did I get here? What am I doing?’” I’m talking high high."

She bursts into a part-chuckle part-scream laugh, which starts off as a yelp before gurgling, rounded, in the pit of her belly. Buoyed by the gummies, she couldn't listen to her own music without laughing. “I was like, ‘girl, you’re so serious. You’re doing the most.’” And she explodes into another laugh, this time one that borders between guffaw and growl.

Chances are, busting out into unstoppable fits of giggles won’t be your instinctive reaction to hearing Blood. That’s not to say it’s a sullen, mopey album, by any means. Lu (she goes by that rather than Kelsey) has produced a stunning piece of work. As a debut offering, it soothes, a warm splodge of Play-doh in your hand that can stretch itself over style and genre. Cello may be Lu’s primary instrument, a classical background nestled neatly in her back pocket. But this is more a blend of experimental pop shot through with elements of baroque-folk (“Foreign Car,” “Pushin Against the Wind” or single “Due West”), chamber music (see opener “Rebel” and “Too Much”) and a massively rewarding disco flourish (more on that in a minute). Blood sees Lu find her true direction. She easily could have released a completely different album—after all, the industry first started paying attention to her in 2016, with her live-recorded Church EP. Instead, she took her time, tracking her journey from the South to New York to the West coast, finding solace in its space and light.

Today, she practically emanates that light. The city could use some—outside, it’s typical London: a murky sky, clouds that later turn to spitting rain, a bite in the air that reminds you March is most certainly not real spring yet. We’re both a bit under the weather. Within minutes of my arrival Lu flicks the kettle on in the kitchen, reaching for mugs to hold herbal tea then spraying an echinacea-based immune system booster directly into my mouth. But through what she describes as the “ugh” of a sluggish day, the warmth that radiates from her music presents itself, wide-eyed, in her character. She laughs a lot. She opens several sentences with “it’s funny” before leading you through winding stories of her adventures in New York or on the road with hip-hop group Nappy Roots, sometimes losing herself halfway there. By the time we’re on the living room sofa, she’s spelling out the title of a book recommendation and politely turning down a Terry Riley and Don Cherry album piped out from the Bluetooth speakers.

It’s almost immediately clear how she could’ve landed a record deal with Columbia off the back of Church, even while making the sort of pop you wouldn’t tend to associate with a major label. I’d imagine the sheer force of her talent and vision, plus a personality that fizzes like sherbet had something to do with it. Raised by Jehovah’s Witnesses, she cut ties with her family as a teen to study cello at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (she and her parents are on better terms now). You may have heard about her as a cellist, in fact, through her collaborations and performances with people like Solange, Kelela, Sampha, Lafawndah (via her Honey Colony project) and Dev Hynes. After wading through dark moments—an abusive romantic relationship, spending lots of time alone in her Brooklyn room, losing the motivation to play cello—she eventually put together the songs that would comprise Church. Soon she was meeting the people she calls her spirit guides (among them visual artist Sienna Shields and TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone), pinging from New York to New Jersey’s Hoboken (where she wrote “Shades of Blue”) to Charlotte, North Carolina. Later she realised LA helped unlock her songwriting. After the EP’s release, Blood came together in California.

“I think I needed a perspective outside of the bustle and hustle of New York, and LA was a place for me to free my mind in a new way. And in an actual, physical way, the space I had there freed me,” she adds. She learned she couldn’t rush. “In the process of making the album for the past few years, I’ve developed more of a deep understanding of—and appreciation of—giving myself time and space to finish it.” I bring up an old bio I’ve seen online, that lists Malone as one of the people she was working on her debut album with. Did any of that stuff make the cut here? She laughs, uproariously. “It’s funny, I listened to the songs we made together, recently—for the first time in a loooong time. I can play you something.” Then she squeals and sounds like she wants to retract the offer, with a cascade of “no no no nooooo.” But soon, she plays me some snippets. What I hear sounds like the sort of icy, late 2010s R&B-pop being made by people like Banks. It feels nothing like the Lu we hear today.

Kelsey Lu Blood album cover art
The Blood album cover art (Photo by Tyler Mitchell via PR)

And she gets that. Before she felt as happy in herself, her music also just didn’t sit right. “It was a mixture of things. It was during the period of shitty management, and… and unfortunately I was listening to bullshit,” she says, finally, cracking up. “On the one hand I was listening to bullshit, but also on the other hand something was telling me that… that it wasn’t the thing for me to come out with, first. I felt like, ‘Is this me? I don’t know if this is me?’ And I think that’s not even necessarily ‘cos the music wasn’t me. It’s more that I was in a place of confusion, of my intentions with the music I was making.”

She shifts on the sofa, crossing her legs, while fiddling with one of the seven rings on her two hands. Besides when she speaks about her abusive ex, it’s one of the few moments today when she seems to dim. “I was finding my voice, still. When I listen to it now, it’s kind of hard to listen to… I’m like, ‘girl, why were you trying to be, like, some pop star? Who were you going for?? I respect you for it, but who… who whowhowho, what were you doing?” She’s able to laugh about it now, and does, cracking a joke about her “theater kid” tendency to embellish her speech with so much added drama. “But it’s cool, I was trying to find something.” Now she approaches pop head-on, with the disco flourishes of a song like “Poor Fake.” She squeals when I bring it up, telling me how she worked on it with producer Rodaidh McDonald (The xx, Sampha), daring herself to include a Diana Ross-style spoken section.

The genre resonates in other ways for her too, though. “The disco era wasn’t only a really fun period, but also a social one. A mixing of races, genders; it brought people together: the queer scene, the gay scene, the trans scene—all of that in that period saw an explosion of a welcoming and acceptance. A sort of harmonious party. So I feel like, in having that song on the album, it’s also speaking on that.” Beyond that, she says through a cackle, the song’s also a diss-track of sorts, aimed at an ex-lover “who is a ‘disco connoisseur’ aaaand… fucked with my heart”, as she puts it. Still, this album roots itself more in messages of hope and nurturing love than cheeky revenge schemes (though the song’s double meaning now makes me chuckle). Lu says Blood runs in three acts, as signified by the three “KINDRED” interludes. The title track hammers home the album’s positive point most clearly, on a repeating “but it’s all love” hook that follows heavier verse lines such as “blood is written in the law” and “bodies hidden in the floor.” On it, strings leap over themselves, soaring in a bid to knock the breath from your chest. Overall, “Blood” hows how well Lu can navigate pain to craft something beautiful.

I ask about her recent tour, with Neneh Cherry, and playing such intimate music live. She clocks suddenly how she’s drawn inspiration from both father and daughter. “I was gonna say that she’s an iconic woman to be inspired by musically, but also I grew up listening to her dad”—and indeed, that Don Cherry and Terry Riley collaboration on the speakers is nearing its end. Neneh, she adds, was a major inspiration. I mention that Neneh particularly felt like one for mixed-ethnicity women in pop—someone who owned her identity without feeling they had to exploit it.

“I definitely feel a kindredness in that, for sure,” Lu says. “The thing of people…” she sighs. “Wanting to pigeonhole you… or even just wanting to make your identity some sort of story? That’s so tiring. Sooo tiring. It’s like, ‘Yeah, I am who I am, and that is what it is.’ But I’m making music and it’s about the music.” Identity, as she puts it, “doesn’t have to be The Thing That Drives Everything.’ I’ve just been doing my thing, you know? Within doing that, if I’m pushing against stereotypes, then that's naturally what’s happening.” She pauses, ending with a clear full-stop: “The things I do are intentional but… not calculated.”

And so you walk away from a sit-down chat feeling that Lu is genuine. You get the sense she’s using too much brain power on creative thought, devising her next little slice of expression, to be playing mind-games or plotting. Before I have to leave, she claps excitedly, thinking out loud about what she’ll need to wear to help her upcoming COLORS session pop visually (she lets me in on the secret of the colour-saturated backdrops). Mostly, she truly can’t wait to share the album in full, after what feels like a while. I mean, she did sober up and sort out that tracklist eventually, cutting down from wanting about 19 tracks to the current 13.

Sure, we live in the single-track, playlist, streaming era. “But I guess the biggest excitement for me is that I feel like the concept of the album is lost,” she begins. “People don’t listen to albums anymore. Like sitting down to listen to the whole thing, from front to back. Even I don’t… I feel like I fall victim to that as well. But I’m starting to resurface in being able to listen to music. And I’m most excited about people being able to consume this as a whole body of work, with interludes and… the three acts.” She stops, then stage-whispers this last line, for added effect: “It’s all there.”

You can stream 'Blood' in all the usual places here. Lu plays a London headline show at Kings Place on Tuesday 23 July.

You can find Tshepo on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.