Kelly Lee Owens :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

On her self-titled debut, English electronic producer Kelly Lee Owens carefully weaves lyrical threads through her avant-pop club songs. Owens came from an indie rock background, but years working in record stores opened her up to the sounds of drum and bass, Krautrock, minimalism, and dream pop, all of which factor into the palette of her enveloping new album. On the record, Owens’ vocals hover over shuffling beats and spacey washes of synth, alternately sounding rapturous and spooky. Her rhythms are insistent, often blooming into hard grooves, and while the songs cross-skip across genre, they’re held together by Owens’ songwriter instincts and an abiding electronic warmth.

“I kind of gravitate to bass quite a lot, this underwater, immersive kind of hug that it gives you,” Owens says from her management’s offices in Camden.

If her time working in record shops informed her musical ideology, it was her time working as an auxiliary nurse in a cancer treatment hospital that suggested a holistic aim for her songs. With her recordings, Owens hopes to offer “immersive, sound healing,” the kind of music that serves the needs of the contemplative as well as those looking to escape on the dance floor.

Aquarium Drunkard spoke with Owens about building her sound from the ground up, matters of femininity and masculinity, and, with the help of a psychic, we explored the role musical innovator Arthur Russell has played in her career. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Aquarium Drunkard: You worked in a hospital specializing in cancer treatment. Did the notion of creating music with therapeutic properties kind of take root there?

Kelly Lee Owens: It’s funny, I thought my work as a nurse was a completely separate thing from my music, but it isn’t and realizing that while discussing the album has been nice. Working in the hospital, it was all drug-based therapies, which are necessary for the most part. But I really felt like something was missing. There wasn’t a focus on the whole spectrum of well-being. I feel like creativity and music is so healing, it’s part of that, and I wondered how I could bring those two worlds together. I didn’t think it was possible, but the more I’ve looked into the science of sound, the more I realized they’re shattering cancer cells with resonant frequencies. At that time, I was going to a lot of gong sound baths. It was an experience of letting the music wash over you. You let go, ultimately, of control. I’m used to controlling sounds in a certain way. It was a new experience for me to just kind of let it be. It was quite a profound thing. I think [album closer] “8” brought that out in my own music, just letting something be and expand. It’s all connecting slowly, I think.

AD: I hear elements of trance, krautrock, new age, ambient, and minimalism in your music. You worked in a record stores for years, is that where those multiple influences took hold?

Kelly Lee Owens: Krautrock is something I’ve experienced more through working in record stores, flipping through the section, getting into that repetitive, percussive vibe and the energy that goes with that. But I really tried not to be influenced by anything so much. Inspired is the right word. I wanted to make something that was my own.

But when I first started writing “Lucid” or [early single] “Uncertain,” I was inspired by Bjork’s production on Vespertine. She recorded lots of micro-beats at home and recorded everyday sounds and processed those into beats, building her palette from there. I loved the idea of sampling common sounds to make music. I hear music everywhere I go. I’m like the weirdo on the tube, sampling the BPM of the escalator and shit like that. [Laughs] I’m quite geeky when it comes to that.

AD: You named a song for Arthur Russell on the record. Beyond his music, did his overall process appeal to you as well?

Kelly Lee Owens: It’s not so much about his music for me now. When I watched the documentary on him, Wild Combination, and read about him and his kind of obsession, I related to it very much. I related to his perfectionism. We all have that when we create and we want it to be amazing and never quite know when to say when.

AD: He was especially bad at finishing projects.

Kelly Lee Owens: Which is lucky for us, because we get to hear so much of his work. Sometimes I think he would probably fucking hate that, this being released or that being dug up. But we’re just kind of selfish sometimes; we want to listen to everything. But when I did put that track “Arthur” out, I posted it to his Facebook page, and Steve [Knutson], who runs Audika Records messaged me and said, “This is amazing, I’ve passed it on to Arthur’s partner Tom Lee.” Me and Steve started chatting and we’ve kept up. The other day he messaged me and said, “Kelly, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the album, as has Arthur’s sister Kate.” I was like what the fuck? [Laughs] It was amazing. It’s insane.

AD: That’s an incredible connection.

Kelly Lee Owens: This is quite weird, but I even went to a psychic a few years back and she said to me: there’s a guy around you with a bowed instrument who is going to help you. She said, “I don’t think he’s of this Earth”…and if that was Arthur, he has helped me. Because that track was the one that labels got in touch with me about and Alexander McQueen used on the runway. And it just came to me. I felt like I was the vessel and it came through. It was written in 15 minutes. It was the most meditative and spiritual experience writing I’ve had. That connection is undeniable to me. [I love Russell’s] spirit and his refusal to be categorized. In a record store, no one knows where to put him. He just did whatever he wanted to do, whatever he wanted to make. He was clearly ahead of his time.

AD: He also had roots as a songwriter. One of the things that strikes me about the record is that like his work, if feels like a club record and a songwriter record, or at least one with a heavy lyrical focus.

Kelly Lee Owens: That’s true. I come from Wales. It’s known as the land of song. It’s about melody and voice. I grew up with more traditional song structures. I listened to indie music and bands. I started in that place and discovered other ways of approaching music after working in record stores. I organically got into analog dance production. When I saw that in action with [musical collaborators] Daniel Avery and Ghost Culture, that was like a whole other world. Nothing’s forced – those two worlds, or several words – have come together in a very natural way. I’m not trying to please anyone other than myself, but I have to say I’m happy people are connecting to this album on such a deep level. People bring their own meaning and that’s what it’s about. It’s your record now, it’s not mine.

AD: Have people brought you interpretations that have surprised you?

Kelly Lee Owens: There’s this healing, escapist thing happening. People are tapping into that and commenting on that…I’ve had people say, “Your music is healing me, or I’m connecting with it in this way, or it’s allowed me to escape.” It’s almost like a modern day form of mediation brought to the masses. And I’m going to say this, it’s quite bold: but especially for men. It’s not very masculine, supposedly, to go to a gong sound bath perhaps, unless you live in L.A. or something. But men [can escape] through dance music and trance. There’s a slight feminine emotive experience within that…maybe that will allow them to tap into something else and give themselves a minute. I think men’s mental health is a really important subject.

AD: And often criminally neglected by men themselves.

Kelly Lee Owens: There’s this focus on women becoming equal and that’s so important. Because we’re not and I can’t believe we’re still having this conversation. But within that, men need to understand it and not be alienated by the conversation about equality. I just worry about men’s mental health; I don’t feel like it’s spoken about at all.

AD: That’s a fascinating angle to it.

Kelly Lee Owens: For the most part, people want to know, “What are you trying to do with your music?” But individual interpretations are helping me understand the record too. It’s got life that keeps on breathing and expanding. It’s more than I can understand alone, which is why it’s beautiful there’s this connection. words/j woodbury

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