Kelly Lee Owens: “I Have a Bit of a Problem With Genres”

With her hotly-anticipated second album about to drop, Paul Hanford speaks to Welsh electronic musician and producer Kelly Lee Ownes about embracing the past, the uselessness of genres, and how music and creativity can help heal trauma.

10 min
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Aug 25, 2020
Paul Hanford

For someone in the midst of the often grueling promotional routine of back to back interviews, Kelly Lee Owens is remarkably upbeat.

“It’s a nice thing to be getting back into the rhythm,” the DJ-producer tells me. After a decision to wait for record stores to reopen, her second album is finally being released.

Inner Song could cut with stroboscopic precision onto the darkest dance floor, if dance-floors were currently a thing, whilst simultaneously drawing connections to a vast lineage of musical history. This is techno that somehow could only have ever been made by a noughties indie kid from Wales, who cut her teeth selling merch at gigs for The Maccabees and who absorbed vinyl working in some of London’s top record stores. She’s made no secret about the difficult time she went through that led up to the record’s creation, and Inner Song feels like what happens when the cathartic process of making music leads to something life-giving. So if Kelly seems full of good energy, could it be that the album is impossible to discuss without some of that magic being present?

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The nearest thing Inner Song reminds me of, not in terms of the actual sound but in some other way, is LCD Soundsystem, in that it’s a completely futuristic record but also feels part of a massive musical history — I can hear so many different elements and feelings.

It’s interesting you mentioned LCD Soundsystem because when I was selling merch for The Maccabees, Sound of Silver came out and I became completely obsessed. I was eighteen, exploring my indie roots and that album crossed over for me and I just fell in love with it. But I think for me, it’s a combination of my experience working within record stores. It’s so nourishing and such a privilege to be exposed to all the new stuff, but also the older stuff, the stuff that I missed, the stuff that I wasn’t born to witness at that time. I want to create music that is of the moment but could be in the future, and also in referencing the past, in my own way, is as honest as possible.

There’s a sense of being inspired by a spirit rather than an actual sound.

Totally. Because those feelings and intuitions can be expressed in any kind of medium and in different genres, [so] why limit yourself? I have a bit of a problem with genres, and even now people say, ‘Oh, techno queen’ and I’m like, well, that’s nice, but that’s just one element. Sometimes I don’t even know if you can call it techno. I understand that sometimes it’s easier to reference things, but there’s a track, “Re-Wild,” which is actually more R&B influenced. And then you’ve got the weird shit with John Cale; trippy, one key stuff.

How did the John Cale collaboration come about?

As Welshies, it’s that thing of when you’re from somewhere and someone else is from there too, you’re like, maybe we should connect. And it just happened to be John Cale and I’m very grateful that it was. He asked me to do vocals for one of his tracks and then we stayed in touch and I just knew I wanted to work with him. His voice, it’s so iconic, just to hear him speaking in an interview, it has this depth and commands attention, so I wanted him to tell a story that related to where he came from. I remember reading that he’d lost his connection to Wales and that was one of his biggest regrets. He was like, ‘Yeah, I haven’t written in Welsh for decades’. And so it makes it even more special that after two decades where he hasn’t written anything in Welsh, on my track, he felt comfortable and able to do that.

Inner Song, as a title for the LP, feels like it’s got a connection to listening into yourself. I read somewhere before that you’re very interested in the healing potential of music.

I think it’s something we’re only touching the surface of, or re-touching the surface of, because I feel like for thousands of years, this has been known, it’s just been forgotten somehow. I was reading a book called Healing Sounds and it talks about Tibetan monks, where they’re chanting up to fourteen hours a day and they did an experiment where they stopped chanting completely for three or four days. They became lethargic, tired, depressed basically. They see it that the chanting has specific frequencies and resonances that can recharge the brain. Ultimately everything is vibration and everything has a resonance. For me, going to sound baths, if you haven’t done it before, after you’ll have the best night sleep of your life. It’s one way to release trauma. We all have a sense of trauma, especially in childhood, there are things we don’t even realise affect us.

Did the healing aspect of music help during the making of the album? I heard that you’d gone through quite a difficult time before.

Yeah. So making the album I was post-going through something which involved a lot of different types of losses, one of the main ones being a loss of self through a specific situation. I questioned whether I could make anything anymore, because it was draining of energy and I was in a very difficult place to be in. I hadn’t really made much over those three years because the first album rippled in such an organic way that by the third year, I was being asked by Jon Hopkins to tour around the UK with him and to DJ at fabric, and I didn’t have that downtime that you’d perhaps expect. So when it came to making the record, the floodgates literally opened. The music before the vocals was written in about thirty-five days, which is no time at all. I didn’t create for so long that it all just came out.

Do you ever get nostalgia for when you were an indie kid?

Oh, totally. I mean, it’s some of the best years of my life, 2007-09, so much fun. Oh my God, I had a car, I just drove around. I did road trips every week. I was going to all the live shows and experiencing everything for the first time and soaking up this super exciting world and meeting all these people. I was in a shop in Soho today and there was a playlist on playing Maximo Park. I was like, ‘Oh my God, do you remember?’ And I thought ‘God, I’m fucking old now, the way I’m speaking about music.’ But music is that direct access to a memory. I’m just grateful I experienced it and that’s always part of me. I haven’t moved on and now I just do techno only, it’s forever interweaving.

I always feel a lot of the people you see at Berghain were probably in Australian indie bands ten years ago

(Laughs) Yeah. Things just evolve and that’s the thing.

Inner Song is available now via Smalltown Supersound. Check it out on Beatport.

Paul Hanford is an English-born, Berlin-based podcaster and writer, specialising in music and identity. As well as Beatportal, he’s written for WIRED, Native Instruments, Mixmag, Boiler Room, Highsnobiety, Somesuch Stories, BORSHCH and The Wire. His podcast, Lost And Sound, was awarded backing from The Arts Council Of England and attempts to show the human stories behind underground music. Find him on Instagram.