long-read:

Kelly Lee Owens:

Hit the Bottom

and Escape

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words & interview by tom johnson

In her younger years, Kelly Lee Owens found space and solitude in the fields around her mother’s house on the North Welsh coast, using the rurality as a place to explore her writing. Though she dabbled with music through her teenage years, she found her way to Manchester where she began working as a nurse in a cancer treatment hospital, before a move to London shifted her focus back to the arts. She played bass in the much-hyped indie band The History of Apple Pie, before a friendship with Daniel Avery led to her exploring electronic music and production. Her self-titled debut album, released in 2017 via the Norwegian label called Smalltown Supersound, became a remarkable success, leading to collaborations with the likes of St Vincent and, most notably, Bjork, who Kelly worked with as part of a remix EP based on the Icelandic megastar’s Utopia LP. As journeys go, it’s been colourful and miraculous.

Then, with the follow-up to that cherished debut primed and ready-to-release, the whole world shifted and Kelly found herself back in those same childhood fields, keeping her mum company through a global lockdown, helping to deliver puppies, and disappearing into the surrounding woodland. Inner Song, her new ten-track album, will now be released at the end of August and while the delay is frustrating on a personal level, much like many of us, it’s the communal connection to it all that Kelly misses the most. “When you don’t have that connection, in terms of live shows or even having people being able to go out and buy the record from a store, it really highlights how unsatisfying it is just to make a record for yourself,” she tells us over the phone, a few days after Inner Song was initially supposed to make its way into the world. “The real pleasure and privilege of a lifetime is to be able to connect with people in person,” she continues. “You never forget the visceral energy that is so palpable when you’re crammed in a room with strangers. You’re all connected by this invisible thread and I think that’s beautiful.”

Though this sense of unity is a pertinent aspect of Kelly’s work, Inner Song is a markedly more introspective album than that which preceded it, a deep-dive of soul-searching and self-discovery, wrapped up in beautiful washes of electronica, that drift and pulse and envelop. From the surprising and playful Radiohead cover which opens it, through an inspired guest appearance from the legendary John Cale, it’s a record that feels both scintillating and s i g n i f i c a n t ; a beautiful new chapter in an already remarkable life. 

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GFP: If you can rewind a little bit, it seemed to be a real whirlwind after the release of your first album. How do you look at that time now in retrospect? Were you able to enjoy most of that ride? 

KLO: I think that album was a slow burn in a very organic way. When I was younger, I would always see people with their first album peak, peak, peak and then have to keep that up and I thought, well actually, I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope it grows organically and then you’re in a much stronger position for your second. It all just naturally, organically bubbled up and I’m really grateful for that because it meant I could just keep playing more and more.

When I look back on it, I feel very privileged. Especially coming from a very small label. I sold quite a lot of physical copies – which is not that easy to do anymore – and that feels like a really solid foundation to spring from. I feel very lucky that that happened. It was mad that I could keep playing [the record] for almost three years. When you’re in it, there are moments where you’re like, ‘Wow, this has really come together’, like with Bjork asking me to remix or the final show we played at End of the Road Festival. That show was probably the first time in those two and a half years that I let myself take in the energy of it. I cried on stage because I allowed myself to stand there and just take it all in, and acknowledge all the hard work. 

I’ve been through quite a lot personally and I think I was in fight or flight mode, just pushing on, pushing on, pushing on. Especially the first year or so, there was a lot going on so I wasn’t able to properly celebrate it. You don’t wanna moan too much, but I have to say that it is tiring, it does do things to your body and your mind. There’s a reason why musicians are needing mental health support services –  because it’s a lifestyle that’s quite all over the place. It’s difficult to maintain relationships and friendships. 

I’m in a much better place now and I feel even more appreciative of all the things that I’ve been able to do. I don’t know what the future looks like. I don’t think I’ll be playing a live show until at least next year, which is scary because it’s 70% of my income. So you just have to hope that you’ll be able to find new creative ways to keep financially going. I feel I need to say that because I’m just at that point of doing something where there’s full stability. I’m not even fully there myself, so I can’t imagine how difficult it is for people who are brand new artists right now and I think we all need to talk more openly about how difficult it is going to be to keep going. 

How easy did you find it to write such a personal record? Was it always the plan to do that?

I had a feeling it would creep up because everything I write is connected to my life! Some artists, like Kate Bush, are very good at creating a story from scratch, but I can’t really do that. It has to be something that is connected to me personally. I knew that this stuff would have to come out and that’s why the vocals are produced on top of everything, not being used so much as an instrument but just getting the lyrics out and across and clear. I’ll make the music and then start writing the vocal melodies and lyrics and the music always informs me of what needs to be said. The emotive elements are already within the sound and I just have to put the pieces of the puzzle together at the end and try and translate what it’s saying. Some things that need to be said don’t need words, sound already has that emotive energy and carries the weight of whatever that is.

I did think about the messaging that’s in a lot of pop songs when it comes to the idea of love, and the idea that you should sacrifice yourself for love, and I just wanted to do the opposite. Love is not enough to stay. Just because you’re in love with someone, that’s not enough of a reason to stay in a bad situation. I’d rather be on my own. I wanted that to be something that people of all ages could hear and, depending on the situation, could find strength in. I don’t think that there are enough positive messages when it comes to love and being alone. ‘Alone’ is seen as such a negative thing but it used to mean ‘all one’. It was two words: All one. Whole. To be alone is to be whole. I’m not afraid to be alone, I’m not afraid to be by myself. I’m happy in my own company.

I’m always fascinated by songs that come from such an emotional place that manifest itself as a banging piece of electronic music. I guess I was late to electronic music, so all my sad music is raw acoustic stuff, but it can feel like such a revelation sometimes, listening to it come out in that way. How much time do you have to spend in finding a balance there or do you just allow it to be what it is?

I think ‘On’ is one of my favourites for that reason. I wrote it on the date that Keith Flint [of The Prodigy] died and it was called ‘Spirit of Keith’ for ages. If you listen to the instrumental, you can actually hear this slightly nineties-tinged production element. I knew it was slightly heavy, and that it was gonna be an emotional one. I already knew before the lyrics had appeared that it needed to transform. In a sense that reflects what we can do with our pain; that we can take that and go into it, explore it, look at it. Know that it just wants to be seen, and just wants to be held; it just wants to be recognised and then it can be transmuted. 

So me facing the reality of moving forward is the freedom that can come from that moment. It can be a celebration, and it doesn’t mean it didn’t bloody hurt, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t dark, it doesn’t mean that any of these things don’t still exist. There’s a duality within all of us, within nature. That’s just life. The other stuff, the good stuff – the hope, the movement, the creation is still there. Everything is still possible. The dark places are where things are created. That’s where seeds can be formed.

Were there any specific things that helped you bring that side of yourself out?

There’s a book called Women Who Run With the Wolves, and it is my bible. This is where the song ‘Rewild’ comes from because she speaks a lot about rewilding the spirit and rewilding the soul. She speaks about a woman’s journey in such a poetic way. She’s a storyteller, and that’s the art. We’ve lost that as a human race. Stories were there to forewarn us, they carry wisdom, and we’ve forgotten to pass these nuggets of wisdom down to our children and to friends and to family. So she looks at all different places in the world and brings their stories together and it’s interesting how they’re all quite similar. It shows again how we’re all interconnected. 

She says that the soul becomes depressed, fundamentally, when the creative soul dies. If you’re not feeding your creative soul, you can become lethargic, depressed, all of these things. Anais Nin says: “Creativity which does not express itself becomes madness.” All of these things are so true. It doesn’t mean you have to write a bloody album, but just do something to look at your pain and your experiences. Some form of expression and transmutation is so important, and that’s the beginning of starting to rewild your soul and your spirit.

‘Rewild’ is about that, but it also represents the rewilding that’s taking place in nature. I think it was actually Jon [Hopkins] that sent me an article about how people are now letting more and more farmland rewild and in order for that to happen, guess what? It just has to be left alone. It just knows exactly what to do to create that equilibrium – and so do we actually. If we’re given enough space and enough time and enough freedom to be able to nourish ourselves, we can rewild any elements of our creative soul. I know a lot of people will be like, ‘Ugh, God, the soul,’ but it’s just about energy, ultimately. That’s all we’re talking about here. That book has helped me so much and I would encourage men to read it as well as women. It’s been a wonderful companion. 

Do you feel lighter in yourself having finished the record? Obviously those things stay with you and change over time, but can you look at those times differently now that you’ve made this record?

I do. I can see how the situations I was in forced me to look at myself. I don’t want to romanticise anything but that was necessary for me to do. I went to therapy, and what that did was ask: ‘Why did this situation happen? How did it get to this point?’. So you undo the knots and you go back and back and back – and that’s so necessary. Yes, it took me until I was twenty-nine to do that! I was just buzzing along; everything’s fine, keep going, but actually the pause is what is important. Do not be afraid to go there. So, in a sense, I’m grateful for the situations that happened, but I’m also compassionate with myself and I see my strengths. 

It’s not like I’ve gone through this experience and I’m now this deeply enlightened creature and nothing bad ever happens to me. Bullshit! That’s not the way life is. It’s about riding the waves. People are like, ‘How are you?’ and I say ‘I’m just riding the waves.’ My friends are sick of me replying with that response! But that’s all I can say, right? That’s all any of us can say, because it’s an acceptance of that beauty of the journey that includes dark, sticky times. I think it’s Murakami that says that when it’s time to go down, go down to the deepest, darkest well. Don’t skip that. Don’t skip the grief, don’t skip the darkness. Most people are afraid of that because they’re afraid of death. It all relates to the fear of death, and Inner Song has forced me to go to those places, and I think it’s good if we can all try to do that a bit more.

I think that goes hand-in-hand with what you were saying about this current time. We’ve all got so much more time to sit and ponder how we live – not just our whole lives but each little moment, each little situation. Do you think that as a society there will be positive changes that come from this?

Yeah, I always have hope. I think hope is important. But as Greta Thunberg says we don’t need hope, we need action. We know the environment has benefited from us pausing, and we see the changes that can take place quite quickly and that’s been really positive. Maybe we won’t take each other for granted so much, and we won’t take the lives we live for granted so much. I would hope that we can see what a beautiful world this is. Not everyone lives a beautiful life, so I don’t want to sound like a privileged white twat, but let’s just take care of each other. That’s my hope for what comes from this. We’re all on this planet together, floating on a rock in space! This is literally a world affair that’s happening now and we have to understand the interconnectedness of everything. We need each other, and I think that’s the real truth that can come from it. And we need nature too – it doesn’t need us. It will thrive. So let’s just be more mindful about that.

In closing, Inner Song is obviously a very personal record for you and as you said it helps you close the door on some personal things. With that in mind, what do you hope other people are able to take from it and how much do you consider the listening experience when you’re making a record?

I consider it a lot, in terms that I need to be honest, radically honest, and truthful. Because then that experience and the authenticity of that will connect to people more deeply. That’s my only job. If I’m honest about the things I’ve experienced it can then be universal and it can then be a collective thing. I do think about people in that way and what I hope people take from it is strength. Strength in the darkness, strength in honesty; the hope that even when you’re in a sticky place you can find the strength again to come through. You can find your creative soul again and you can thrive. It’s not just about survival, it’s about thriving and to not be afraid of your emotions. Just see them and hold them and keep releasing, and know that you can come out of that much better somehow.

And then just dance and move the body! Have fun! I guess that’s the duality of it; there’s the light and the dark. It’s not really about what I would like them to take, people will take whatever they need from it – but those are the things that have been plugged into it from my heart throughout all of this.

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‘Inner Song’ is released August 28th, via Smalltown Supersound

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This interview originally appeared in Issue 6 of our physical publication.

You can find it in our Shop

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