Credit: Courtesy of the artist
The day before I speak to Kelsey Lu, she records a Snapchat in which she appears possessed by the “holy ghost of Michael Jackson.”
The singer and classically trained cellist, who prefers to be called Lu, has been encamped in a studio purpose built by Jackson “for his pet monkey Bubbles all week.” If the video is any indication, an electric cabin fever looks to be taking hold.
It’s here in Los Angeles that Lu has been working on her debut full-length album, the followup to last year’s ethereal EP Church. And much like that first recorded offering, Lu’s dreams are starting to play a significant role as her next project takes shape, albeit under vastly different circumstances.
“It’s going in the same direction that I’m really excited about,” Lu tells GRAZIA. “I’ve been dreaming about it,” she says, inadvertently invoking the haunting refrain from the EP’s opening track, Dreams.
“I didn’t even know that I was dreaming about it until it happened. I have a clear vision of what I want and a better feeling of myself, of healing. I feel more awake and conscious of so much more and I really hope that’s translated and comes through.”
Church, as is now inscribed into contemporary music folklore, was recorded live in a single take at the Roman Catholic Church of Holy Family in Greenpoint, New York, under the supervision of Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly, who recorded, produced and mixed the finished product. It’s a brilliant introduction to the artist that is resonant with the gravitas of its setting, at times sonorous, pure, soaring and startlingly confessional.
“Feels like I’ve got the Holy Ghost”, Lu intones by way of an introduction to the EP, which opens with a four minute rhapsodic cello prelude – one that builds and falters and builds again with renewed force, aided by a loop pedal; one that on first and multiple listenings thereafter retains its ability to transport its audience somewhere else entirely, somewhere that feels both extremely intimate at times and impossibly vast at others. It’s as though at any given moment she could be speaking only to you in a whisper, before turning to erupt and bellow in the face of a stadium-sized crowd.
It’s almost as if she has been possessed by Jackson’s holy ghost all along.
Credit: Kelsey Lu/Instagram
Kelsey McJunkins was born into a profoundly religious Jehovah’s Witness family in Charlotte, North Carolina. To hear her tell it, her exposure to the world of pop music was limited. Instead her parents, both musicians who encouraged her prodigious forays into classical composition, surrounded her with jazz, with piano and percussion. At 18, Lu ran away to the North Carolina School for the Arts on a scholarship to escape an untenable home environment. She soon dropped out to tour with Southern hip-hop collective Nappy Roots, before decamping to New York, where she eventually met Dev Hynes, the prolific musical polymath behind Blood Orange, on the set of a short film for the designer Derek Lam.
That connection considered, coupled with stints freelance modelling for brands like & Other Stories and Levis, and it sounds as though Lu has a long-held affinity with fashion. Not quite, she says. “I’ve always loved clothes, I guess, [but] I didn’t grow up wearing high fashion. My parents, they were artists. I grew up going to thrift stores. The fashion world can be really scary.” Lately, Lu appears to have found favour with Gucci’s incumbent creative director Alessandro Michele, under whose tenure the label is “reaching out to artists and creatives who are [likeminded]. “I was so flattered that they reached out to me. They’re so nice. They made me feel so comfortable and really were interested in my art. That meant a lot.” Lu also scored the soundtrack for lauded British-Jamaican menswear designer Grace Wales Bonner’s first runway show in June last year.
It’s easy to see why Lu would catch Michele’s eye, with its penchant for esotericism: both share a sense of the baroque, the avant-garde, the emotive (as well as a sense of humour). It feels as though they’ve both taken familiar elements synonymous with classicism and made them something indisputably modern, at times otherworldly and entirely their own. Like Michele, Lu too is unafraid of collaboration, and counts Hynes (Lu appears on the Freetown Sounds track Chance), Kelela (for whom Lu played cello on the singer’s long-awaited album) and Solange (Lu contributed vocals alongisde Hynes and Sampha on the interlude This Moment) amongst those with whom she has worked closely. From those experiences, Lu says she learned that “we all have our own way of going about it. There’s no right way to [make music].
“It’s really important to create space for all parties involved. That makes it all the more enjoyable. It’s a really wonderful time to be alive. I feel really happy to be alive right now.”
Credit: Kelsey Lu/Instagram
Later that day Lu, now 27, will move into a place of her own “after a long haul of a time of not having one and relying on the love and generosity of my dear friends.” It’s one of two grounding events at the end of a year in which Lu not only embarked on her first European tour, but played festivals and stadium shows in support of artists like Sampha and Florence and the Machine. Lu remains undaunted by the scale of these shows, and those still to come as “once I start playing I get into my world. I found that on the road sometimes I felt more of a connection in those large spaces than in those small ones.” Lu will next play to Australian crowds this month at Mona Mofo in Hobart, Sugar Mountain in Melbourne and at a Sound Select artist showcase curated by Laneway’s Travis Banko & I OH YOU’s Johann Ponniah in Sydney.
The latter will take place, fittingly enough, in a church.
Days prior to our conversation, the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline was stopped at Standing Rock – another defining moment at the end of a turbulent year. It’s an event that Lu describes as “the best thing that happened that year.
“That was a beacon of hope for change that will stand as a precursor to things [to show] that if people join together to fight and stand up for what’s right on more of a mass scale then things can change. The fight isn’t over for them – there’s still so much to be done, and for so many others. It was definitely needed. That was the best news of the year.”
“Music has always been healing for me,” Lu continues, the once measured spaces between her words growing shorter with evident passion. “I feel accomplished based on the feedback from my EP [that] it has been a healing point for a lot of people. That’s so great, but now I want to do more. I want to merge not just the feeling of healing but the outpouring of community I guess. More fundraising and more collaboration. More outreaches. I want to learn how to merge music with community and outreach and things that are more tangible than music – not to take anything away from the power of music. I want to learn how to make both of those things more powerful.”
RSVP for Kelsey Lu’s headlining appearance at the Red Bull Sound Select showcase alongside Bec Sandridge and Jack Grace at Paddington’s Uniting Church on Friday January 27 here.
Tile image: Michelle Leviton/Instagram
Cover image: Matthew Felix/Instagram