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Podcast 116: Kelly Lee Owens

Kelly Lee Owens shares a breathtaking hybrid mix including 30 minutes of her Underworld support slot and 30 minutes of home recording. We catch up with the Welsh artist to discuss her growing reputation behind the decks, how spirituality influences her work, and whether artists have a responsibility to make political music...

Kelly Lee Owens doesn’t believe in compromise. As renowned for her interest in exploring spirituality and sound’s potential healing properties as she is for laying down dancefloor eviscerators either live or in a DJ set, she’s equally comfortable allying both these worlds – as highlighted by her transition from Björk to DJ Koze’s ‘XTC’ in the mix she has supplied for her DJ Mag Podcast.

She first became known as the vocalist for Daniel Avery’s 2013 LP ‘Drone Logic’ and for her brutalising techno rework of Jenny Hval’s ‘Kingsize’ in 2015, before a promising series of singles manifested in her debut album ‘KLO’ in 2017. One of the most lauded electronic albums of that year, it achieved the nigh-impossible in uniting the all-weekend ravers with those much more in favour of introspective headphone listening. The album was focussed and explorative, melding techno, ambient, and new age music; as capable in pulverising as soothing, often within the same song. From the ethereal weave of ‘Lucid’ to the enchanting bassline (and chimes) on ‘Bird’ and the Jenny Hval featuring ‘Anxi’, it’s a seamless marriage of the dancefloor and something more akin to a spa.

She’s since remixed Björk and St. Vincent, while 2018 saw her make impressive inroads on the DJing front, including killing it in the main hall at Printworks and Room 1 at fabric. While she commences work on her eagerly anticipated second record, Owens is – not unlike previous DJ Mag interviewee Aisha Devi – researching the healing power of vibrations and reflecting on everything that has brought her to where she is now.

Before she retreats from the spotlight to create album No.2, we caught up with Kelly Lee Owens to talk her growing reputation behind the decks, how spirituality influences her music, and whether artists have a responsibility to make political music.

Hey Kelly. How are you? 2018 was obviously a pretty massive year for you. What have been some highlights? What have you learned along the way?

“Hey! I'm well, thanks! About to embark on a holiday for the first time in a couple of years. The past few years have been intense. Yeah, so many highlights – Feeling chuffed that people keep connecting to the music, that it keeps rippling and that I keep getting wilder opportunities to explore presenting it...

“My main highlight from last year though has to be remixing Björk. I was bloody ecstatic being asked by her to do it - There's a trust involved when it comes to being asked to reimagine a track; giving your stems to someone is musically intimate. That being said, now I wish I'd have had time to make another version of that track - a straight up club banger. Maybe she'll let me do another remix or maybe we could collaborate properly on something in the future.

“Another highlight has been touring with Jon Hopkins. I feel like I've been a part of his musical family, from opening his first ever ‘Singularity’ live show, to supporting him at Brixton, then ending the year with him DJing at Fabric. I'm grateful for our friendship and the opportunities he's given me. The other highlights, of course, are selling out my own tour dates, especially Village Underground – feeling the energy in that room was overwhelming!”

Your collaborative show with Immix Ensemble and Thomas Gill was, by all accounts, pretty spectacular. How did it come about? How did it feel to have those artists, both musically and visually, respond and work with your music in that setting?

“Well, my old pal Andrew Ellis has curated the Immix collabs for a while now, so I was chuffed when he invited me to do this. The Immix Ensemble are such amazingly talented musicians so to be given the opportunity to rearrange my tracks in this way was so special. Hearing 'Lucid' played on real strings for the first time -  I cried! I'd always wanted to hear it played that way. It also gave me a new perspective on my sound and luckily the basic song structures behind all of the beats stood up well on their own, thank god!”

Spirituality and philosophy seem to weave their way through your music in many ways. How important are those things to you, personally? What ideas are fulfilling you lately? How do you think those ideas have previously impacted your work, how do you think they may in future?

“They've become very important to my way of being and how I express myself. One thing that I've been exploring a lot recently is the remembrance of how integral for me the voice is and also how powerful it is as a healing modality. I've been reading a lot about monks who practice Gregorian chants for several hours a day. They are able to recharge their brain and energy centres using their voice, stimulating the neurons within their brain and firing up the cerebral cortex via the skull itself, which acts as an amplifier of vibration - creating resonant frequencies of up to 8,000 Hz. When they worked with scientists to experiment the effects of zero chanting per day, the monks became lethargic, ill, depressed and needed more than their usual 2-4 hours of sleep a night.

“For me personally, I realised it's easy to become obsessed with the hardware/gear stuff, which I am. But actually, having lost my voice twice last year due to laryngitis, in those moments I realised not having that element weaving in and out of the other sounds was a huge loss. I realised the deepest essence of expression can come from the voice – for me, it's the most pure and exposing thing. Our first true instrument.”

Good club music, DJ sets that actually feel resonant and meaningful – all of that requires a real empathy and internal awareness from an artist. Would you agree? Do you ever feel as though your previous career as a nurse impacted the way you approached music?

“I agree. I love the idea of taking people on a journey of sorts, however cheesy that sounds. But yeah, I aim for that when making music and also when DJing, which is why I always start with something spacious and not club-typical – Something that makes you feel like ‘Ok fuck, we're going in’ - I guess I've been to too many sound baths!”

A Kelly Lee Owens collab with Jenny Hval is always something to get excited about. Have you read her new book, Paradise Rot? What do you think draws you together as artists and individuals? Can we hope for some more collaborative work from you in future?

“I haven't read it yet actually, I have some downtime now before heading back in the studio for months on end, so maybe I'll dig in. I have no doubt it is brilliant. She is a true artist. I'm sure at some point we will collaborate again - not for the sake of it though, only if it feels right.

“On this next album I have a couple of people in mind that I want to work with. Again it depends what we come up with but I'm aiming for something really special.”

You had some pretty landmark DJ sets in 2018 as well as touring the live show. I heard a lot of people getting really excited about you opening your Printworks and Underworld support sets with ‘All Is Full of Love’. Is DJing something you’ve always done or have you only come into it as a second love after production and playing live? What’s special about it for you?

“It's not something I've always done, no and I think it's important for people to know that. But I think when you create music that is dance influenced, it makes sense for you to eventually get to that place and it's really fun to do. I think Jon got into it that way round too - producing music first and then people start offering you sets and you think 'Ok, better start getting my shit together'. I've only DJ'd maybe 15 or so times, so it's something that comes in some way instinctually when you produce - you're building and creating as you go and that's what I do when I'm making a track.

"The main thing I enjoy is seeing people totally losing themselves  - this is where I find the most bliss in DJing. It's a massive collective experience and energy exchange. It's like the idea of people congregating for religion - once or twice a week, people coming together to transcend their 3D realities. It's one way of holding space for people.” 

What can you tell us so far about your plans for writing album number two? Are you going to travel to write elsewhere? Do you think location could affect how you create?

"I don't want to say anything about the album as it's only just unfolding itself to me. Creativity is delicate and fragile at times and deserves all the freedom and space it requires. I am just about to travel for 3 weeks for a much-needed break, before heading into the studio solidly for 4/5 months to finish album number two.

“Creatively the immediate environment I'm around me affects my music in terms of me sampling on the go. So many everyday sounds made it on to the last record and EP - I feel like that's what gives it an organic feel, that mixed with the harder-edged moments is what excites me. I carry around a condenser mic that plugs into my phone so I can record anywhere and everywhere.”

It’s perhaps a strange time to commence writing a record as a British musician in a time where everything is so utterly chaotic. Do you feel a need or desire to project the current state of things – with all its hostility and fear – into how and what you create?

“I think it seeps through consciously and unconsciously - how can it not? All I feel I can do is be authentic and create what needs to be expressed in that moment, but I'm certainly not going to feed the fear - if anything I'll do the opposite and express hope. Fear is the way to keep individual and therefore collective consciousness low. It's been used as a tool in that way by people in power for so long. I think I naturally tend to gravitate to creating things that has a sense of hope, though, even through the toughest shit, as long as you look for it, you can usually find that glimmer of hope - I've had to realise that personally in the past few years, not just professionally.”

On Twitter you seem to retweet the “every colour” account a lot. It might be stupid to ask what colour you feel ‘KLO’ was, given that it was so multifaceted, but if there was a certain hue to it, what do you think it would be? What hue fills your life now as you embark on album number two?

“Yeah, well the album cover itself is grey with the palest pink border on the front and the opposite on the back. It's so pale it looks like white! That was my way of incorporating the masculine / feminine ideas and energies that run through everything I do. Acknowledging both elements with me.  The ‘every colour’ account is so wonderful. Sometimes expressing yourself in colour to music is the best way of communicating. Right now – as you can tell – I'm resonating with purple and also teals/greeny blue hues... healing and creative colours.”

Tell us about this mix! What was the thinking behind it? What should we do while listening to it?

“I wanted this mix to give a window into the kinds of sets I'm playing at the moment. In fact, half of this mix is recorded live from when I supported Underworld in December - the rest of it I put together, I wasn't going to mention this because I know how purist DJs and the DJ world can be, but I'm not necessarily here to play by the rules.”