Behind Kelela’s intoxicating locks and soft-spoken nature lies a fierceness, a simmering urgency, which serves as the true source of her power. Rest assured, the singer-songwriter is using that power to create the life she wants. I know this because when we met years ago at an R Street café in her native Washington, D.C., her life was very different than it is now. I remember asking why she was moving to Los Angeles and getting a simple yet honest answer. “I’m moving to L.A. to blow the fuck up.” Oh. Right.
That was five years ago and far more difficult than she thought. Back then, I witnessed the ruthlessness of Kelela’s journey firsthand. Crashing on couches and floor mattresses, hitching rides, performing countless late-night shows, the singer’s fiery hustle attacked the sonic landscape of L.A.’s electro-bass scene with double-fisted machetes (or in her case, a microphone that she never left home without). In warehouses, abandoned churches, alleys, and parking lots, the parties would often roll till six in the morning. Often starting her performances at 4:00 AM, Kelela would be tired but determined to give all that she had left to whoever was still in the building.
During those days, she’d dream up producers for an album that no one we knew had the money to make. Finding producers she could vibe with was always a…“thing.” Most of them were in London, Germany, or an obscure wilderness reserve making weirdo Björky shit with a Plutonian twist. Kelela’s tastes were…specific. As far as collaborators went, no one seemed to know what she was looking for but her.
One night, while recording in a Burbank studio, L.A. underground art and music conceptualist/curator Total Freedom (aka Ashland Mines) found himself captivated by Kelela’s voice and offered to introduce her to his friends—bass music labelmates Kingdom, Nguzunguzu, and then Dallas-based DJ Prince William. By now, Kelela had a million cats getting at her about “doing vocals over a track,” but that wasn’t enough. She wanted to record songs—her voice at the front of the track, an equal partner in a sonic marriage, not hovering meekly beneath a swath of Atari samples. Total Freedom’s L.A.-based Fade to Mind crew came through with tracks Kelela fell in love with, and CUT 4 ME, a thirteen-track critically acclaimed mixtape, was born. A mutual friend hit me up, like, “Hey, K’s opening up for a major recording artist.” I thought, “Opening? She should be headlining that shit.”
Fast-forward to spring 2014 at the Echo in Los Angeles, where she headlines a sold-out doubleheader. Onstage are pulsating visuals: two halos of fire rotating intensely, urgently, simultaneously, and counterclockwise—the way a Gemini’s mind works, the way Kelela’s mind works—occupying our visual space without gravity. In front of us all, Kelela strips down emotionally, as if she were alone in the room—interpreting mood in real time, translating the language of a beating heart to a room full of fans who’ve all long ago predicted we’d be here doing this with her right now. She thanks us for riding with her, and it becomes clear that Kelela’s found her own space in a cosmic mash-up of electro bangers and ballads—rhythmic space sex music. At the Echo, we bear witness to her creative process, as she channels the complexity of her own needs in a way that puts us in touch with the kinetic energy of feminine icons who’ve arrived before her. But let’s not go overboard. She’s no Janet or Aaliyah. And that’s a very good thing, because as we witness Kelela peel back layers of her inner self while creating and re-creating all that she is right before our eyes, we’ll define and redefine her for ourselves—if defining Kelela is even a plausible ambition.
You went from doing shows at four in the morning at warehouse parties in L.A. to Björk shouting you out on Instagram. How do you feel about the sudden rush of attention?
The first feeling is obviously grateful. I’m really happy that this happened. That I can make my living—support myself with my art. I thought that was way farther away than when it arrived. Back then, I was trying to find my voice, my crowd, find whatever my “thing” was. There was nothing glamorous or cool about singing at four in the morning—I mean, it was cool, but there was no immediate payoff. Just a bunch of trying. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just knew I wanted to use every opportunity that I had to be in front of people and perform music that I relate to for people who will appreciate it.
People think you blew up after the Solange tour, but, truth is, you’ve been touring Europe for a few years already. What’s the adjustment been like?
Performing regularly is something that I’ve had to adjust to. I’m also adjusting to the demand. Before, nobody gave a fuck about what Kelela was doing, because nobody’d heard of Kelela. Back then, singing was always supplementary. It was always for fun. I could say [then] that I didn’t want to sing; I just wanted to get drunk. Now, I can only drink and party after the show. [laughs] But I get more enjoyment out of my performances now. Like, I can more reliably hit notes. That wasn’t the case before. After the mixtape blew up, I had to incorporate different habits and new ways of doing things. Like vocal exercises. I never did them until a month and a half, two months ago. I wrote “Bank Head” out of range, so I was like, “Fuck. How am I going to sing this song live?” I was scared of singing it. Now? I can’t suck. People pay to see me. There has to be a standard. So that’s what I’ve been trying to create and maintain.
How did you get hooked up with Kingdom and Fade to Mind for CUT 4 ME?
I was recording a song with a duo called Teengirl Fantasy. This was a year and a half or so after moving to L.A. I was in the studio recording a song called “EFX” and Total Freedom aka Ashland Mines came through, and he was basically like, “You should be working with my friends.” So he introduced me to the Fade to Mind folks, and I met Prince William and Kingdom at the same time. Then, like, a month or two later, Prince William came to my house and said they wanted to do a vocal project—that they didn’t know exactly how they were going to go about it, but as a starting point, they could send me some tracks. They asked me if I would listen to them, see if there were any I could freak. Then Prince Will came by and delivered all of these tracks, and I remember I only had a mattress on my floor at the time and nothing else in my apartment. I remember sitting there listening to the music and being like, “What the fuck! Like, what is this? I don’t even know what this is.” It was just too right for me. That feeling, the feeling of—
Finding that synergy?
Yes! Yes. Immediately, I remember just going for what I could. None of the tracks were easy to sing on, but I told the guys that the sounds—the sounds were just so right, so please keep sending them. I listened to a folder of thirty or forty tracks, and out of all of them, only one sounded promising. That was “Keep It Cool,” which became the first song I ever did as a Night Slugs–Kelela collaboration. After doing that one track, Ezra [Rubin aka Kingdom] called and said he had a song that was coming out as an instrumental on a compilation that he’d sent to Ciara’s people but hadn’t heard anything back from them and that I should try to get on it.
What track was that?
“Bank Head.” When I first heard the track, the first melody that came to me was sooo Janet [Jackson] to me. Like, I felt Janet could do that type of phrasing, but I felt a little weird about singing “duh duh duh duhhhh duhhhhh,” [sings chorus to “Bank Head”] but I did it anyway. And then they sent me more tracks. The tracks on CUT 4 ME, a lot of them were in response to what I did on the “Bank Head” track.
Janet. Tracy Chapman. Amel Larrieux. Aaliyah. How much are you influenced by those artists?
[thinks] Tracy Chapman made me feel okay with ambiguity, gender-wise. Amel is extremely beautiful but really personal. When you listen to her, when you see her live—her live presentation is like, “Hey, I’m just like you.” The feeling that you are her friend… She’s more committed to connecting than the image. I want people to walk away from my shows feeling that. I don’t want to be distant. I want people to have the feeling when they see me live that they met me. From Janet, it’s definitely the need and the want to feel ever sexy. Like sexy from the beginning to the end. A commitment to sexy. With Aaliyah, there’s beauty, then there’s this…gracefulness. Ease. Making something extremely difficult look extremely easy. Not doing a lot—or the most. Like not doing the dance all the way. Like, give me the choreographer that’s going to teach me the dance, but I’m going to do it like this… [dances easily] That feeling of at any time she could go there. She could go there, but she chooses not to.
You could do those things.
You might catch me doing them. [laughs] I’ve been trying to thread and weave the disruption that type of ambiguity can cause in the way we see femininity. I want to be onstage and hear people say, “Why is she wearing so much clothing? Oh, wait. Why is she naked now?” I haven’t done that. But one day I might. I want to create an expression of womanhood that’s multifaceted—more complex. One that says there’s more than one way to be a woman. I think I’ve always wanted to complicate that.
“Cherry Coffee” has some pretty introspective lyrics. But then I’ve heard you say you don’t write lyrics. What’s that about?
I meant write the phrasing. The phrasing comes to me from, like, nowhere. It’s the one thing that makes me think there’s a God. After I’ve got the phrasing, I’ll sing something that’s in the vibe. [sings] “Catch me, I’ll feel better, say it’s over, baby…” At that point, it’s the just melody that I’m going off of—the one I’ve created—and I’m literally conjuring up words out of my ass to fit lyrics for the song—for a phrasing that I feel like I didn’t compose. I hear the bits. Fill in the bits with melody. The melody with phrasing. The phrasing with lyrics.
Do you write the best from pain or love?
Extreme sadness and pain. Hurt. The songs on the mixtape came at the time I was breaking up with my ex. Specifically, the idea of not letting go of something you don’t want anymore, but letting go of something you actually do want and can’t stop wanting. I like new love too. Basically, I’m a sucker.
What are we going to hear on the new album? All new material or cuts from the mixtape?
All new. There’s still some residual stuff with my ex. But there’s a hopeful, new-experience kind of energy. There’s so much reason for me to reflect. Like, “Wow, this is really happening. It’s crazy. It’s real.” And also talking about how I can accomplish other things. I really try to express that sentiment, like, you can really do this. You just have to not do anything else. You have to act like whether you get paid, or not, whether you have girls or don’t have girls, guys—whether you have friends or not—you cannot do anything but your passion. You cannot stop. This album is about me constantly thinking of other ways to break down barriers. I feel like the universe really does listen.
What are the most important traits for an artist to have?
Humility. And drive. Confidence. I feel like the intersection of confidence and humility. An artist who’s situated between the two, that’s the ticket for me. Feeling like you know everything but you also don’t know anything. That humility—I want it to always be there, but I also want to have confidence that’s rooted within. Confidence that isn’t dependent on anything external. And when it’s not there, it’s because I didn’t place it there, not because something didn’t happen on the outside. I’m learning that.