Interview: A Haunting Angelic Voice, Kelsey Lu

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A haunting, angelic voice flowing over solemn, passion-filled cello chords spills out of my speakers. It’s a full moon and laying on the floor of my incense filled candle-lit room vibing to female musicians, hoping to harness their strong, feminine energy. Kelsey Lu’s ethereal sound strikes a chord within me. Her vulnerability mirrors how I’ve so often felt. As she plays, I can’t help but think of the amazing things this woman is doing just by being herself. A string musician in an era where autotune and pre-recorded samples rule, Lu is challenging the norm.

With the release of “Morning After Coffee” accompanied by the striking video produced by Leslie Satterfield, I solidified my stance on Kelsey Lu. She’s got next. Simple as that. Her dainty frame juxtapozed by the almost-bigger-than-her cello make a powerful partnership. She has cross-generational appeal not only because she’s genuinely talented, but because she’s revitalizing jazz music in a way few others are doing.

That night, laying on the floor of my room under the full moon, I decided that I had to exchange words with Kelsey Lu and ask her the plethora of questions I had on my mind. Who does she dream of being in a band with? What impact has Sun Ra had on her life? What will she be releasing next?

Gearing up for her forthcoming EP release on July 8th, the kind and very talented 27 year-old jumped on the phone with me to discuss those things and much more.

We’ve come to learn that the musical palette of an artist is often bred within the home. Can you take us through your childhood?

It was filled with a lot of love, music, and art. Then there’s the strict religious aspect of everything that wasn’t an issue for me personally until later on in life. But, growing up my mom played piano so there was an upright piano in the house growing up. And my dad, he’s a portrait artist, so he was usually working in the studio and blasting jazz because that was mainly what he listened to. He was a jazz musician, a jazz percussionist, so he had a lot of hand drums, African drums, and congos he liked to play. Some of my earliest memories are hanging out with him in his studio and he’s working on whatever he’s doing and I’m making some masterpiece on a Fisher Price easel while dancing around to Toto’s “Africa” or John Coltrane or Thelonious Monk. So, music was always prevalent and as soon as I could start taking music lessons I was like I want to do it. My sister was a big reason for that, too. She’s older and she started playing violin and then I kind of started exploring. I wanted to play every instrument but we did not come from money so I had to pick one.

Growing up within a strict Jehovah’s Witness household, I understand that you often hid your own personality and essentiality for the sake of your religion. As a multi-faceted artist, how did it feel to have to shy away from your identity during that point in your life?

There were some feelings of guilt that came with it. I felt like I was lying and I wasn’t doing what I was “supposed” to be doing. Everyone has their rebellious years, whatever that may be for a teenager. Even if they didn’t grow up in a strict religious background.

Now that you’ve metaphorically broken free and are able to be yourself unapologetically, what words of advice would you like to give to others who are afraid to embrace their uniqueness?

I’d say don’t be afraid to embrace it. I mean, it’s scary, but usually the things that are the hardest are the things that are most worth pursuing. The easy way out is usually not the right way. Rarely the things that are easy are the things that are the most important.

Do you think that instrumentalists can sometimes be under appreciated?

Definitely. When I think of instrumentalists, I mean, a lot of people still play guitar. But I wouldn’t say that string instruments are that common. I mean, you listen to old soul records and disco, and strings and actual live instruments were so much more prevalent in music then than they are now, at least in certain genres. I guess in the more popular forms of music, instrumentation isn’t as big of a thing. If you listen, Kendrick Lamar’s album is pretty heavy instrumentally and influenced by jazz.

Many of music’s most timeless songs are remembered due to the embodiment of orchestration. How important to you is the incorporation of live instrumentation when creating a record?

It’s imperative for me. I’ve definitely made songs that don’t have live instrumentation, they’re electronic. But even if I’m just mimicking the baseline with my cello, I feel like I’ve got to have some kind of organic baseline in there. Then again, it depends on what I’m doing. If I want to I’ll randomly sing over if there’s somebody that has a dope song that doesn’t have any live instrumentation on it and it’s just a dope song, then I’ll do that. I guess it’s more about the song itself. But when it comes to making my own music, I feel like having live instrumentation is definitely imperative.

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You recently released a track called “I Respect You Black Man” which you dedicated to the iconic Sun Ra of The Sun Ra Arkestra. Can you touch on Sun Ra’s musical influence on your creativity?

I guess it’s freedom, and the choice of freedom…Of blackness and of living outside of the norm. He was more than just a musician, he was a poet, he was a philosopher, he was so many things. I guess him being a pioneer of Afro future is really inspiring. He wasn’t somebody that I grew up listening to. I didn’t start listening to Sun Ra until my 20’s.

So pretty recently?

Yeah, very recently! And he has so much material [laughs]. I was listening to this Pharoah Sanders record specifically, and it has several interviews. It’s called “In The Beginning 1963-1964,” and in it is has the interview by Sun Ra that I sampled and that inspired me to make the track. I was upstate by myself working on a collaboration with artist Radcliffe Bailey, and I was doing a lot of research on history about African Americans. So I was looking at African American history and how it ties into music, and of course that leads you down the road to jazz. Jazz was so prevalent for me growing up, and I feel like recently I’ve been diving back into that world.

It’s inspiring to see you re-purposing jazz and finding a new way to do it. We’re seeing that with artists like Flying Lotus, we spoke about Thundercat and Kendrick, too.

Yes! Thank you so much!

You were in the movie American Hustle as a member of an all Black soul band. Would you ever want to be in a band? If so, who’s on your dream band roster?

Oh my gosh. To be in?! That is SO hard! I need a minute. Can we come back to that one?

I can hear the excitement in your voice!

Yeah, I’m like oh my God!

We know that you recorded your upcoming EP Church within an actual church. Are there any features?

Yes it’s called Church, and it is being put out on True Panther Sound. Shoutout to them! There are no features. It’s all me, and it’s live.

What prompted you to create within such a non-conventional space? Did you feel more inspired within the church?

I guess I’ve always wanted to record in a church. I remember the first time I listened to a recording of this famous cellist, Rostropovich, who was playing this Bach suite inside of a church, and I was geeking out about it and the way it sounds. Also on the ironic tip, churches are something that were kind of a mystery.

Yeah because growing up you didn’t go to church!

Yeah, we didn’t go into churches. It was kind of this mysterious thing, and the only time we did go to church was if somebody in our congregation, like a relative of theirs, had passed away. So, the only reason we ever went to church was for funerals. Churches are very surreal because when we were in them it was a time of mourning, so the sound of people crying was elevated. I just love the acoustics and how emotional the inside of a church is, too. It’s just a place of communal gathering. It’s a symbol of a safe space, but it’s also weird because it’s supposed to be a symbol of a safe space, but there’s also so many bad things that have happened within churches. And also it’s a symbol of when you think about all of the times missionaries have gone into Africa trying to “save” people. That’s an interesting thing as well.

Do you feel like you’ve reclaimed and changed the meaning of the church for you?

Yeah, definitely. This project is simply Church. Even down to the font I chose for the project, it’s a font that’s used in a lot of Black, southern churches. When you think of the church, it’s powerful.

I play your beautiful sounds on full and new moons in celebration of powerful female energy. I find that your music is almost spiritual. Would you say music is your religion?

Oh yes! Thank you! Yes, I would. Especially after leaving the one that I was raised, brought up in. The reason why I left was because of music. So yeah, I would say that it is my religion.

You’ve coined a new term, or a new genre rather, which you call not “ethereal”, but “lutherial”. What does this sound like, and how will it make us feel?

[Laughs] My friend Allie [Alexandra Marzella] actually coined that! I don’t want to tell you how it’ll make you feel. I kind of want to leave that up to you. If you think of ethereal, you think of something spiritual or heavenly or elegant. There’s an other-worldliness to it, but it’s still very grounded. I like to think that hopefully when you’re listening to it, you lose yourself and that it takes you out of whatever state you’re in and puts you in another space; to kind of lose yourself to find yourself again.

Ok, last question! Let’s circle back to your band!

Ok, it’s going to be Thelonious Monk on keys. Wait, no no no! It’s going to be Nina Simone on keys. Elden Jones on drums, as he was a drummer with Coltrane and is really amazing. John Coltrane on sax, David Bowie on guitar. Who else? Can Sun Ra also play saxophone? Can there be two saxophones?

Yes!

Wait, no. He can play synthesizer and Nina will play piano! I’ll be on cello, but Arthur Russell will also be on cello. Oh, and then The Shirelles can be my backup.

Are you all singing?

Yeah! There are maybe words, sometimes.

So we’ve got your band as Nina Simone on piano, Elden Jones on drums, John Coltrane on saxophone, David Bowie on guitar, Sun Ra on synthesizer, you and Arthur Russell on cello, and The Shirelles on background vocals. Text me if you think of anyone else!

I will! I want to add!

*Kelsey later texts me and adds Alice Coltrane on harp to band roster*

If you’re in the New York City area, Kelsey Lu will hold a show on June 16th live in the church in which she recorded her EP. Tickets can be purchased here.

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