Kelly Lee Owens
Photo by Kim Hiorthøy
The Rebirth Of Kelly Lee Owens
Kelly Lee Owens' music sounds like ego death. Lulling you into a universe where differences and divisions no longer exist, where nothing is distinct or identifiable, where the voice blears into the background, the background into the voice—she shows you sound without subjectivity. The self dissipated. A terrifying state to be in, for some, ego death. But in Owens' hands, you are swaddled. You are safe. You are on the other side, rewired and rewilded. Through her progressive take on techno, she returns music to its original, ancient purpose. To heal, to provide community, to make art out of emotions too expansive for rudimentary language.
A former nurse, Owens came to view sound as medicine early on. While she was spending her early 20s working with patients in cancer wards, scientists were researching sound frequencies that could potentially kill cancer cells. She saw something similar at work when she met with the quasi nu-wave DJ Daniel Avery later on in her 20s, as she watched him in the studio, molding energies into sound. She released her self-titled, debut album a few years after, which incorporated ancient solfeggio frequencies—a six-tone scale often used in Gregorian chants. 417 Hz is said to ease and initiate change; 852 Hz is said to provoke a spiritual homecoming. Owens' music covers the entire spectrum.
Owens wrote Inner Song, her forthcoming sophomore album (out Aug. 28 via Smalltown Supersound), with the intention of healing herself. The three years since the release of her debut have been some of the most painful of her life. She left a relationship which had eviscerated her. She lost her grandmother, the closest person in her life. If her debut was the death of ego, then this sophomore effort feels more like the emboldening of ego. Her voice sits on top of the mix. The ultra-personal lyrics can easily be heard and interpreted. It’s a return to her roots, a love letter to her home country of Wales. It is, above all, a transmutation of her pain. GRAMMY.com spoke to her about death, rebirth, and why Radiohead and Wales have had a similar effect on her.
One meaning I take from the album title Inner Song is that feeling you get when you hear a piece of music that feels like the sound of your soul. Seeing as you begin the album with a cover of Radiohead’s "Weird Fishes," do you consider that your "inner song"?
I feel like In Rainbows is the sound of my soul, it’s a desert island disc for me. I’ve listened to it countless times, and I hear new things every time—the way things are panned, the production, where things are placed. It’s genius. It has the perfect combination of the production being brilliant and the writing of course being amazing, the vocals too. I did attempt to do the vocals [for "Weird Fishes"] but I’m not Thom Yorke. He has something of his own that carries in that track, so I made an instrumental, which means something different to me.
What meaning did you gain from your own version?
I placed it at the beginning of the album because it felt like a connection to the last track on my first album, which is called "8" and how that goes out into the cosmos. And in this one, it feels like a dark place to begin. It feels like bubbling up for air. Physically and emotionally, that’s what I was working with, so I had to start there.
So you wrote that cover before the rest of the album?
Yeah, like a year or so before. I was lucky with the first record in that it rippled out very naturally and kept growing and it’s been building more and more. People kept asking me to play, to do remixes, to tour, so I kept saying yes to all the opportunities, but that didn’t leave me with much time or space. I had a window of a couple weeks, in 2018. I always wanted to cover "Weird Fishes." I had the Pro One synthesiser that it was recorded on, and it was done very quickly in a couple days. You can kind of hear that in the production, but again, it was starting out from a place of simplicity, and building from that.
Why was there such a long gap before recording the rest of the album?
It was a combination of being so busy. I also DJ, and then I collabed with Jon Hopkins, and it was also about finding that creativity and confidence in order to create something that was meaningful. I think the idea of a second album for an artist is the hardest thing. The hardest part was starting it. And with the things I was experiencing personally, I wasn’t sure if I had the energy. But as soon as I got in the studio, the music was written in 35 days, so it was like a wall was broken through, and everything flowed in from behind that wall.
How did you conjure up that creative energy?
It was tapping into this thing I have in myself, which is the thing that makes me feel the most uncomfortable, and throwing myself into that space, because that’s where the most growth happens. That’s certainly being felt collectively in the times right now. I had all these doubts, but I either do nothing or do everything, so I just threw myself into the sessions, booked everything I needed to book, and hoped for the best.
Was it transformative?
I was really proud of myself, because I was very emotionally honest on this record, sonically as well as lyrically. You know, when you go through something traumatic or heavy or difficult, you have to try and tap into that creative force, so that other people can then connect to it. This album is really about me, and my transmutation of pain, and if I’m not as honest and transparent as possible about that, then I’m gonna be held back. It’s about me, but ultimately it’s about being of service to others. It’s about connection.
That’s interesting you say your music is written in service to others, because I’d say a lot of your music sounds like ego death.
Thank you! It’s interesting. Usually when we think of "ego" we might think of someone who is big-headed, but ego is there to serve a purpose too. It comes with boundaries. That’s an experience that’s been very, very important for me in the last few years—figuring out boundaries on an emotional level, so that’s what perhaps comes through sometimes in the lyrics, a strengthening of those boundaries. It’s the same in the production. My vocal is on top for a couple of reasons. First of all, when I played with Four Tet a couple of summers ago in Tennessee, he asked me why I was hiding my vocals. He told me to show them off more, which was a boost of confidence. And I also felt the messaging had to be heard more clearly this time around.
When did you first have the realization that music and nature are connected?
I think in my early teens, when I was 13. My mum had moved to another village, and she had these seven acres of land, and at the very top of the fields, I looked out on the River Deane in north Wales, which is at the mouth of the north sea. I would go up there and sit in this one particular tree, and write words of poetry and write all these melodies, and the reason I was able to do that was because I had all of what nature provides in order to reflect. Spaciousness for me in that sense is super, super important. You think about lockdown and everything we’ve been through, and where do we go? Natural spaces have been our go-to. I’ve always known, no matter what the question, that nature has the answers.
Did you always have this quasi-spiritual relationship to music, even as a child?
Yeah, I think I did. I always had the urge to perform and to connect as people. I have a Post-It note of my first ever lyrics somewhere, I think I must have been about six when I wrote them. It was a really cheesy love song. There was always this introspection within me that wanted to find a way out. And growing up in Wales, poetry was another way of doing that. There’s this thing we have every year called the Eisteddfod, which is a place where people come together to recite poetry in Welsh, sing in Welsh, act in Welsh, and show off the arts that come from our culture. Connecting with people, and understanding from an early age that it could bring people joy, as well as myself, has definitely stayed with me.
Have the people you’ve lost from your childhood affected your relationship to where you grew up?
I feel more grateful than ever to Wales, I go back often. My family is there, and it’s like anything, sometimes you need space from a place in order to appreciate what it’s given you. It’s known as the land of song, but the people are also branded as melancholic, and i think that’s because we’re unafraid to sing and write about our emotions. People who don’t like Radiohead just can't listen to that many sad songs, but for me, I enjoy artists who go to those places, or can assist you in going to those places. Wales as a country has very much been that for me, not being afraid to go into the deeper, darker, stickier places, and see what you find there.
And with John Cale's inclusion on Inner Song too, this must be one of the most Welsh albums of the year. How was the experience for him?
He said it was a lovely experience for him to go into those places, and that he very much understood the longing for the land. I could hear that already in his voice. The process itself was great. I asked him to write what he wanted, he sent it over, I arranged it all, sent it back, and he loved it.
How did you meet John originally?
He asked me to do a vocal session for his own stuff, so I ended up going to a studio in London to record vocals with him, bearing in mind I’m someone who likes to record their own vocals themselves, because i can’t have anyone else in the room, it’s a very private moment for me and one I don’t want to feel any extra pressure with. But sometimes I occasionally throw myself in the deep end, so I ended up being in this vocal booth the size of a house, looking through the glass with John Cale on the other side, waiting for me to sing something. It was a surreal moment. He said he wasn’t going to produce my part so much, but as soon as I started singing, he jumped in, and was super involved, and was pushing me to go to places I wouldn’t have gone. It was that old school producer thing, where you don’t have to touch anything but you touch everything. That’s what he did. I remember hitting a high note that I’d never hit before or after.
It seems like a lot of your confidence has come from being validated by other musicians.
It’s true. I’m happy to admit that because there’s a strength in the vulnerability in saying that of course I have doubts, of course most of us do, of course we’re all looking for validation. I think it can be dangerous when that goes into your romantic relationships. As long as it’s not a constant thing, where you need validation in the wrong sense. I think for me, creatively, not coming from a classically trained background, I was always trying to find my feet, and I am lucky in the way I’ve been surrounded with good people and the right moments, and that combination has brought out my own creativity and held it in a nourishing space, which is really essential—to surround yourself with one or two good people.
On a completely different note, how do you define death?
There are all kinds. There’s ego death. Death on an emotional level. There’s death on a creative level, there’s death on a physical level. I've literally sat with people as they’ve passed, and it’s interesting because I’ve seen bodies just become this shell, and you really do feel like something disappears and goes elsewhere. Even my grandmother who passed away at the end of last year, she was the closest person to me in this lifetime, and I held her through her death. So, I can’t fully put it into a few sentences. I just know it’s nothing to be fearful of, in terms of things that have come after it. But I’m also hesitant to tell people to not be fearful of death at a time when people are being murdered.
Did the grief you felt for your grandmother change how things sounded to you?
Yeah, I think it did. I always knew how music could literally save lives, and speak to people in a way no one else can—songs understand people in ways nothing else can—I knew all of that. But this has been a more direct thing—going into view sound as medicine, and that's still a journey I’m on, and we all are as a collective. It’s great in one way but it’s becoming commercialized in another.
Did your experience as a nurse shape your relationship with your own personal losses?
Yeah it did, because when I was working there when I was 19, it made me less afraid of death. I think all of our fears can be traced back to a fear of death. It’s kind of having a healthy relationship with death and not being so afraid of it that it can give you immense perspective and hopefully help you to live a better life. They say what’s the best way to die? Well, it’s to live well. I think always seeing the strength of people when their lives are threatened has been something that’s stayed with me. Understanding that there’s a sense of rebirth in what comes after death—that’s one thing we forget within our living relationships. Within everything, there are cycles of death and rebirth, we just forget about the rebirth bit. If you’re willing to look at yourself and do the work, there can be rebirth after death.
When artists create art from their trauma or grief, I often find that a transformative narrative is placed on them. I.e., "So and so made this art from their trauma, and they’re on the other side of it." Has that been the case for you?
Just because we go through something traumatic doesn’t we always learn lessons from it. It takes work. There’s no magic trick, we have to be mindful that it’s an ongoing process. There’s no full amount of perfection that will ever be realized, and I think that’s a very positive thing to acknowledge. We’re consistently a work in progress, and that’s a beautiful thing. I do feel a lot more centered in myself. My life experiences have shaped me, I hope, for the better, and I’m constantly looking at myself. There’s a lyric in "On": "Can only love deeply as you see yourself," and that’s something I really came across, within myself and within other people, that I felt was true. If you’re unable to look at yourself in your own mechanisms and ways of being, or you’re never willing to take criticism and feedback, how can you grow? How can you think ‘I’m good, I’m done, I’m healed’?
You couldn’t necessarily call Inner Song a corona album, but because it’s coming out during the midst of a pandemic, it will be a capsule of this time in the years to come. Is that something you’ve thought about?
I hadn’t thought about it like that, but I remember saying to my friend, oh how bloody typical of me to put an album out now. But also, I feel like there’s some sense of purpose within that. It’s a strange time, but music has always been a universal language, and I hope people can connect to it in whichever way they need.
And quarantine has also made you do things you’d never have expected to do as a musician. Did you ever think you’d be playing a virtual DJ set on Minecraft, for example?
Totally! This time brings up unexpected, bizarre things that you’d never have thought of. It’s about embracing that and being adaptable. That’s the theme for me this year, energetically, it’s one of almost complete reformation of everything. It’s about being open to the changes and flowing with them like water, nor resisting that change. That’s another thing I’ve understood in the last few years.
I have also been writing to picture which is the first time I’ve been able to do that, and something I’ve always wanted to do. I don’t think I’ve been in a creative mode, in terms of creating my own stuff. It’s for an American drama, I can’t say too much. I just love writing in this way because it’s very much about connecting and accessing the emotion of what’s happening in the moment, which is a similar thing you do as a musician and producer—trying to fit sound around a feeling or emotion you have experienced. I’ve found it to be very cathartic.
I feel sorry for the musicians who with an album due out now, who have had to sack it off because it would have just been too jarring for the moment, whereas Inner Song seems to naturally make sense for right now
Yeah, that’s why I like to tap into more personal and collective themes. There’s this track on the album called "Rewild" which is about me trying to rewild my spirit during difficult times, but it also reflects on nature and how land is being left to rewild naturally and how that creates equilibrium again, and how nature already knows what to do if you give it the right amount of space and encouragement. I think that is a global theme, with climate change, with ourselves. With "Wake Up" as well, that song is a comment on swipe culture and on the short term gain of everything. There’s that line: "never pausing to take it in." I mean, this is the biggest pause we’ve had in a long time, and I do think it’s been needed. I always look to the collective themes, and I’m thankful I did.