Kelsey Lu serves it up straight from the soul, no chaser. Growing up, music was her way out, having run away from a strict religious home to go to a conservatory. Now it’s the way inward--her cello cradled on her lap like a guitar, plucking and bowing her way to enlightenment. Kelsey Lu casts a synesthetic spell on her listeners. Her playing is barefaced with yearning, devoid of the trendy, ironic stance of her millennial peers. She has the elegance of Ella Fitzgerald, the badassery of freak-funk diva Betty Davis, and the haunting quietude of early Roberta Flack circa First Take.
But any attempt to classify Kelsey Lu is an affront to her abundance. She is the trickster: swinging between binaries--black and white, classical and neo-soul, North and South--refusing to be reconciled. In some ways, she has no identity. And yet she has found her footing on liminal territory, playing with sound on a plane all her own.
What motivates you to create?
The way that I’ve identified myself as an artist and as a being in this world, has been through sound. I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness in a pretty extreme way, and that caused me to miss out on a lot, even cultural history. So religion is the reason I left home to go pursue music at college. Music was always my release.
Writing didn’t come until later down the road. I started to write my first year of college--not songs, just writing down my thoughts, which turned into poetry. When I started writing songs and singing, I’d go back to the poetry I wrote. And most of those poems were about me leaving home and feeling lost, and not having a sense of identity. Then I had my first relationship, and when that didn’t work out, I stopped writing; I was afraid of facing myself and opening up wounds. I didn’t have the motivation or drive I used to, so it took time to get that back.
Now, I mostly write about past relationships and love. I’ve also been writing songs inspired by my dreams lately--I have very visual, realistic dreams. But the biggest inspirations for me are love and loss. That’s such a cliche, but it’s something that everyone can relate to.
Are you currently in love or in loss?
How do you express love?
Through sound, vibration and energy.
How has your musical style evolved over the years, especially as you come to reckon with the changes in your personal and artistic life?
I started playing music when I was really little and it was inspired by my family. My dad in the studio with his congas, while he painted his portraits. That’s one of my earliest memories: being in his studio and him blasting jazz or Fela Kuti and playing his drums, my mom playing piano, and me and my sister dancing around. My mom actually got me my first cello.
But now I’m moving away from doing things other people told me to do or just going along with whatever is presented to me. Now I feel like I’m taking it all into my own hands. I’m using bits of what I’ve done before as inspiration, not as the main drive or voice but as a means of finding my own voice. When my album comes out, you’ll hear classical sounds and strings, some songs that have a heavier beat inspired by hip-hop, and some parts that are jazz and Latin-inspired. I think because I come from a place where everything was put into a box, I want to go as far away from that as I can while still preserving a focus.
You’ve found a freedom within the confines of classical music. How did you integrate more contemporary styles?
At school, a teacher helped me to see Bach in a whole new way. Bach’s Cello Suites are drilled into every Cellist’s brain, and I previously just memorized them--but he broke them down section by section. He helped me to see that it’s all a pattern, it’s all just repetition, but you can change the feeling or sound of one repeated verse and turn it into something completely different. College was a conservatory so it was a lot of work, and eventually I wanted to do other things- not just classical music- so I started collaborating with other artists at school and that got me into improvising and playing with dancers. I started going into practice rooms at night and turning my cello to the side and playing it like the guitar. I just started playing with sound. And then I started singing, which I hadn’t been doing before. I’ve been singing for a long time- mostly in church, of course but I used to be so scared of singing in front of people. I was like, I know I have a voice, but now I have to figure out what I can do with it.
How did you become more comfortable with your voice and singing in front of people? How do you synthesize playing cello and singing?
I’ve been playing cello for so long, it’s like another limb to me; it’s like another part of my body. Lately, I find myself singing like I play the cello- they’re kind of one, singing and playing cello aren’t even that separate for me anymore.
But my first-ever singing experience was so bad! I sang Jennifer Lopez’s Waiting for Tonight at an amusement park- I was crying and I was like, ‘I’m never going to sing in front of anyone again!’ It was only when I first heard Etta James’ At Last, that I knew I was going to be a singer. I sang it for my mom and she started crying.
Much later, when I was on the road with Nappy Roots, I was singing backup for them. Then I started singing my own songs but the songs I was singing were on top of a track that was produced. And that’s completely different to the way that I perform now. Now I’m performing with my instrument and there’s no recorded track and I also use my loop pedal and RC 30. For some of the songs, I’ll have a loop that’s already saved on there and I can just add to it. Sometimes I’ll just start from scratch completely and build the song as I’m going along, but I rehearse it. It’s kind of like structured improv-I don’t know what I’m going to play before I play it but for the most part there’s an overall plan of execution. Eventually, I‘d like to play with a band but for now, it’s just me, and I like the feeling of playing live instead of singing over a track.
What are you working on right now?
I’m mostly playing live and working on an album with Kyp Malone and Miles Robinson. We started working on this last year and the process has been really beautiful. It started off by going away to Hudson, New York, where we stayed for about 10 days. We woke up every morning and wrote, recorded, and then stayed up and wrote some more. It was just really great to get away from the city and be around nothing-which for me is really important.
Do you have a community-artistically or culturally? If so, how did you find it and what does it mean to you?
I do, and I still feel like I’m finding it-more so now than ever. It’s taken a while, too.
The brain is a really powerful thing, and so is your energy. You attract people who have the same ideals as you-you may not even know that they’re there yet- at least that’s how I’m experiencing it. People come in and out of your life. I have friends from college that have been there for me, people I’ve met in New York, and people I’ve found who’ve gone through the same things that I have. Knowing that I’m not alone has completely changed my life. It’s been really helpful. There are so many beautiful people in New York, it’s such a great place to find people who are creative and can accept you for you. You don’t have to hide from who you are here.
I find community through social media too. It’s so laughed at sometimes, people love to hate on it but the beauty of it is that it’s a platform for you to share yourself and for other people to connect to you. As funny as it is, there is real connection there, even on Soundcloud.
And being in artist collectives has just changed my life in as far as being proud of who I am and feeling accepted. The collective I’m a part of, HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN, has so many different minds and perspectives, and it’s been incredible to be able to experience having a voice of my own and being embraced.
As a racially mixed woman and someone who experiments with fashion, how do you play with how you are ‘read’ by others? Are you interested in how others attempt to comprehend you?
Growing up, I felt a loss of identity because I wasn’t talking in a certain way, or I wasn’t sitting at the right table in the cafeteria, or I wasn’t dressing in the right way. I didn’t fit in because I had white friends and the South was still de facto segregated. I wanted to identify as being mixed, not only as white or black. I even had a perm most of my life because I didn’t want to stick out with curly hair. Since then, I’ve had natural hair for seven years, and people have started to read me more as black. These days, I identify as black and I’m far more proud of it.
In terms of fashion, growing up, I really wanted the trendy, expensive stuff, but my parents couldn’t afford it. So I would create my own style from whatever I could find at thrift stores. Lately, I like to have crystals around my neck, as they hold energy. There are two rings I always have on, made of turquoise and silver. And right now I’m wearing a velvet hat with a shiny plastic brim--which gives me a 80s-90s pro-black vibe. What I have and what I wear changes with my mood- I’ll go from wearing all-black to crazy patterns. I like to be perceived as creative and I want to inspire somebody else to dress how they want to dress. Sometimes I think of fashion kind of like a social experiment; it changes the way people look at you.
Where do you seek and find inspiration, creatively and spiritually?
Nature, and the universe. I grew up in North Carolina, so I went hiking every weekend and loved being outdoors all the time. That’s where I find the most peace and inspiration-being surrounded by nature and feeling at one with the earth, because that’s where we all come from. I think I’m finding my own spirituality. I have little things I do, like lighting sage, burning incense, palo-santo, and just things that cleanse like having crystals around. I’m a rock scavenger- I went to Alaska this past summer and brought back so many rocks, twigs, branches, and pressed flowers. I find a form of faith in that. I’ve also had ancestral spirits guiding me in my life. Even though I grew up as a Jehovah's Witness, I have always had a very childlike ethos and curiosity for things otherworldly and beautiful.
I always knew that there was something greater that I was meant to do…
What role do you see yourself playing in the something greater? Is music is the conduit?
When I’m on stage and playing in front of people, I black out and something takes over. At the same time, I feel everyone who’s in there and even people who aren’t there. I want to take everyone in the audience to another place because music has always been an escape for me. Music is my chance to create a beautiful world of my own and I want other people to experience that, that feeling of love and that we’re all in this together.