As much a provocateur as a troubadour, dance music singer, Kelela, infuses penetrating vocals, envelope-pushing performances, and disarming wit into her overall sound. Buoyed by the thumping beats of the Fade to Mind/Night Slugs family, Kelela’s voice propelled Kingdom’s hit, “Bank Head/Send Me Out” to new heights this year with its sensual, atmospheric vibrato. Channeling a mixed bag of artists from Amel Larreiux, Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano, to Cheryl “Coko” Clemens of SWV-fame, the Maryland/D.C.-native has created a signature stroke of accessibility in her work and a heightened sense of the abstract.
Her just-released mix tape, Cut 4 Me, personifies this sentiment emphatically, it an artful mash up of the present and yesteryear. Between gentle coos and emotive roars that are reminiscent of dance music greats before her, Kelela soars over progressive beats from Nguzunguzu, Kingdom, and Girl Unit, which mark today’s sound. The result is decidedly fresh and transcendent. Saint Heron had a chance to speak with the rising singer on her influences, creative process, and the indelible mark Janet Jackson’s, Rhythm Nation, 1814, left on the her artistry.
You once quipped you would love to “do what Brandy did, but weirder.” Does your new mixtape, Cut 4 Me, speak to that idea?
That quote speaks to that idea, but it’s definitely a reduction. What I meant was, that I want to take the singing/performance as seriously as Brandy, or Amel [Larreiux], or even [gospel singer] Kim Burrell (that last one is lofty, but it’s a goal!!), and get more experimental with what kind of production it’s paired with, as well as how I’m choosing to use my voice in the song.
The mixtape has become a powerful forum for the independent artist: this launching pad for one’s sound and a great forum to experiment. What are some of the elements (creatively and vocally) you challenged yourself to try with the mixtape that you hadn’t attempted before?
Doing less. I generally have a minimal approach to song-writing, but on this body of work, I was even more inclined to pull back because I thought it was more of a complement to the production. I actually recorded a lot more adlibs throughout the mixtape, and as we [Kingdom and Daniel of Inc] were going through the mixing process, it became more and more apparent that muting parts was the way to go. So, working on this project has taught me the value of letting things breathe.
I also thought a lot about the elements of a record that I have always enjoyed: intros, interludes, the feeling of the last track, and even fun vocal work, like hocketing. I’ve never worked on a full-length project like this, so I felt like the mixtape was a perfect opportunity to express how much I love all of that.
When does inspiration strike you? Is there a particular hour, environment you feel most inspired?
I like being warm. Hot, actually. I can’t get in a vibe if I’m cold. That’s the first part.
The second part has to do with living alone. I moved into my apartment in February 2012. That was a really big deal, because I was able to write whenever I wanted to without bothering anyone. I needed to be able to sing first thing in the morning (and sound like shit), or at 4am, and living alone allows me to do that. My most productive/creative hours are probably 1-6am.
How do songs evolve for you? Do they originate as a beat, a concept, a feeling, a word?
I never write without accompaniment. I can sometimes elaborate on a melodic idea by taking what’s in my head to a piano. But, for the most part, I’m not taking a melody or lyric to a producer and getting them to build around it.
About a year and some change ago, I decided that I would not listen to a track without recording the initial melodic ideas that were coming to me. So, my process basically involves improvising in gibberish over the accompaniment, whatever that may be. The feeling that the music gives me is what I use to figure out how I’d like to sound tonally. It also helps me conjure up word-sounds and phrasing that feel good. So, my focus is phrasing, initially, and then I move onto making sense of that phrasing with lyrics.
What is your first music memory that crystallized everything for you? A concert? A particular song/album?
Janet Jackson’s, Rhythm Nation, 1814. My dad bought me that film (which everyone should go watch right now if they haven’t) when I was five or six. It was a world that looked so cool to me. I could come up with critiques of it now, but it’s not really worth going into, because the set, choreography, lighting and cinematography of all the videos had such an impact on me. I liked the uniformity, and I didn’t think about it this explicitly until recently, but I think that tape has informed my sound and aesthetic in general.
Name a few of your dream collaborators.
Honestly, I feel like I am working with some of my favorite musicians and producers right now. But I would love to bring those people into the studio with Missy Elliot, Hit Boy, Mike Will, The Dream and the writers for some of Rihanna’s latest record. Please and thank you.
Do you feel your music fits within a certain genre? If so, how is it redefining it or pushing it forward?
Most of my vocal style certainly comes from the R&B tradition, but I also have vocal influences way outside of that sound. Same goes for production. I love a lot of popular R&B production, but I’ve also been listening to other instrumental music that doesn’t fit in that vein for a while now. So, I feel inside and outside of genre.
Ultimately, I am striving for something that causes you to stop mid-sentence when trying to categorize it. Not because it doesn’t incorporate namable elements, but because it’s so synergetic that it sounds like something new.
Lastly, I read that Little Dragon’s, Yukimi Nagano, offered you crucial advice at the beginning of your career, saying that as soon as she stopped trying to sound like Faith Evans, she was able to come into her own voice. When did that moment happen for you and when were you able to become fully formed as a vocalist?
The truth is it’s happened over time. It started for me while singing standards in bars on U Street in DC. I would learn the songs by listening to different renditions of the same song, and then go sing it live. Slowly, I started to fuse them all together and could hear that it was sounding more and more like me. But singing songs that other people have written still wasn’t enough of a vehicle to give me the confidence I have now. Ultimately, it took Cut 4 Me to make me feel confident in my sound, like, “if you don’t like this, I dunno what to tell you…let’s talk about something else.”