Rising: Kelsey Lu ’s Dreams Are Better Than Yours – @Pitchfork19 de agosto, 2016
It’s almost two hours into our Skype conversation before Kelsey Lu notices that she has a small twig stuck in her hair. I assumed it was there on purpose, a piece of found jewelry not unlike the paperclip earring she has hanging from her left lobe. The errant piece of wood fits her overall mein: Lighting up a joint in the middle of our chat, Lu has the appearance and demeanor of a friendly coffee shop hippie, with a really wide smile and a propensity, in her music videos at least, for hanging out in the woods, in the desert, and by the ocean. Such is the earthy effect she has on an environment—even one created by a Wi-Fi connection and two computer screens. After our conversation is up, I realize I didn’t even ask how a woman currently staying in an Airbnb in the center of London wound up with a stick in her hair. It just seemed right.
The 27-year-old cellist and singer recently released a wrenching, pensive EP called Church, which was recorded at the Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in her current homebase of Brooklyn. The record is Lu’s first real step into the solo spotlight, and it is both soulful and severe, a perfect combination of the avant-garde and the emotive. Her voice is bellowing as it scales from high and sharp to low and guttural. And it’s particularly striking over the minimal instrumentation of Church, which leaves spaces open enough to make it seem like she’s singing a capella at times.
She is a powerful songwriter, too, able to convey immediate intimacy in her work, as on cavernous opener “Dreams”: “Out drinking every night, hoping I’ll run into you/I know you’re no good but I can’t get enough of you.” The EP was recorded live in one take with a small band of friends, and it sounds that way: unfiltered, unadulterated, straight-to-the-point. It can also be something of a beautiful bummer; on “Empathy,” the violin sounds almost mournful. While many of the artists that she has collaborated with, including Kelela and Dev Hynes, infuse their off-kilter sensibility into music that is poppy and approachable, Lu seems committed to difficult, rigorous, experimental sounds. Church is refreshingly not for everyone, and that’s what makes it feel special.
Originally from North Carolina, Lu is the daughter of two devout, creative Jehovah’s Witnesses who encouraged her to pursue music. She started playing early in life, but began to feel stifled by her family’s religion as she got older, and fled to the North Carolina School for the Arts at 18 to train more seriously. She dropped out after a year, started playing with local musicians (including the hip-hop group Nappy Roots), and veered away from her strict studies. She eventually moved to New York, began to sing and write lyrics to accompany her cello, and added a loop pedal to her process, allowing her to experiment both in the studio and onstage. Her setup is notable for its purity: just Lu and an instrument, which creates a feeling of solitary exposure that is perfect for her unguarded music.
Lu is as forthright in casual conversation as she is on record, and as our Skype chat begins, before we’re even able to exchange pleasantries, she tells me about the PMS that is currently plaguing her and the deep significance of why she goes by “Lu” and never “Kelsey” in her day-to-day life, eventually spiralling into a conversation about her own identity and recent contemplations about sexuality and gender. She admits to being something of a “late bloomer” in many aspects of her emotional life, unpacking things in her post-Jehovah’s 20s that many people start figuring out in their teenage years. But, as she tells me, struggle can come in handy when your job is to conjure confessionals out of thin air.
Pitchfork: How are you?
Kelsey Lu: I’m just bleeding really heavily out of my vagina, and it’s causing my body to ache. I’m feeling very negative.
How badly does your period get in your way when you’re busy rehearsing and on tour, as you have been this summer?
It gets in my way. For a long time, I didn’t get cramps or have physical pain, but I feel like it’s increased over the past few years. I don’t really know why.
I’m sorry you’re going through all of that.
That’s all right.
Just to start with, Kelsey…
Actually, before we start, can I just correct you real quick? I don’t go by “Kelsey.”
No, “Kelsey” is my birth name, but I never identified with it. When I was younger I would tell people that my name was something else. “Lu” is something that I was called before I could even talk. I would cry a lot, and my mom would and her friends would sing to me this like little thing, “Kelsey Lu, how do you do? Kelsey Lu.” I’ve always preferred Lu.
Why is naming important to you?
Because it’s an identification. The history of how people would get their names in African-American culture is pretty deep: not being able to have their own names, losing their names coming over here from Africa, being given a different name. So I think about the seriousness of what I want to be called and what I want to name myself now.
“Lu” is also more androgynous than “Kelsey”—does that play a role?
Yeah, it’s not gender-binding. In this day and age, when people are trying to gain their rights and show what they identify with against what they were born as, or assigned to be, the freedom of choice is really important. We’re all fighting for freedom right now.
How do you identify?
I just recently learned what cisgender is, and I guess I would be considered cisgender. But bi. I’ve been with women before, but I’ve never been in a serious relationship with a woman. I’m just open. It’s important for people to identify who they are but I also feel like it’s important to know that if you want to change then you can change that too. So right now I am cis.
It sounds like you’re saying that you’re still in some kind of process.
Yes, I have had ghost dick dreams.
What are ghost dick dreams?
Very, very vivid dreams where I’ve had a penis. Once, I had a dream where I had sex with a girl and was fucking her from behind. I remember it all like it was yesterday. I had really long hair. I remember what it felt like to be inside of her. It was in a hotel room in a big city, and afterward she was laying on the bed and looking out the window and I was sitting in a chair with my legs up on the bed. I was looking at her looking out the window and then I just leaned my head back and died and went outside of myself. My spirit went out of my body and I saw myself and the room. And then I woke up.
We need to be able to have an open dialogue about our feelings and experiences. Forever in my life, I never would’ve been able to talk about how I might be attracted to women or to girls. I remember having feelings when I was little and with my best friend at the time—I was over at her house, and we were giving each other massages and then we got topless, and she tickled me but like on my boobs and I remember feeling something from it. And then I stopped talking to her.
Do you feel like you missed out on some things when you were young because of the religious morality of your childhood?
At times I do feel like a late bloomer, like I am playing catch up and there are a lot of things that I have not completely looked into.
So at the moment you are currently sort of exploring your identity as a bi woman?
Yeah, I guess that’s a way to describe it. I’m just living, I’m open, I love dick and I love vagina and I love whatever makes me feel good and I love people.
Let’s talk about your music. What does it physically feel like to play the cello?
Sometimes I feel like I want to pick it up and smash it like a guitar. Those are feelings that I used to have when I was in an academic setting or in lessons or trying to play something and not being able to do the thing that I needed to do, and that was really frustrating. But now we have this language with each other where it’s like another limb, an extension of myself.
Sometimes it feels like I’m playing water. When I’m sliding my fingers across it, I feel like I’m rubbing my hands at the bottom of the sea, scraping the sand. But I played this $50,000 cello over the winter at my favorite [music] shop in New York, David Gage in SoHo, and I never felt what I had felt when I played that. The resonation was just so deep and heavy. It is a piece of wood, but I felt like I was playing a really old tree and it was singing to me.
What kind of cello do you have right now? Is it shitty?
It was made in Los Angeles; it’s not a super crazy cello. But it’s mine and I’ve had it for over 13 years, so it has become it’s own kind of thing. I have definitely damaged it. There are bite marks on the top from when I was tripping on acid and trying to eat my cello.
Do you do a lot of drugs?
I don’t know what a lot is.
Do you smoke weed?
Oh yeah. I smoke weed every day. When I first went to college I started experimenting with psychedelics and I did acid and mushrooms. I haven’t done acid in a long time, but I love mushrooms. I don’t do large doses. And I’m very careful about who I’m around. I think if it’s done right, it can be a spiritual experience, and it can go down many roads, and if you end up in a bad one, it’s about bringing yourself out of that.
How did the loop pedal become part of your practice?
It was when I first moved to New York, and I was still touring with Nappy Roots sometimes, but I knew I wanted to do more of my own thing. I was making tracks on my phone because I had GarageBand on my phone but I didn’t have a computer. I was recording different cello lines and experimenting with that, and thinking, I need to figure out how to be able to play this live. Then I happened to get this [job modeling for a] Levi’s commercial. My friend was doing the camera work for a casting agency, and he called me and said, “Do you have your cello?” and I was like, “Yeah!” and he was like, “Levi’s is looking for an ethnic female cellist.”
I was like, “Wow, OK.” It was the most money I’ve ever made in my entire life. I was in this commercial and it was international and everything, so I started getting these checks in the mail. So I bought a cello pickup and a loop pedal and an amp. I wasn’t even really writing songs, I was just playing. I was just getting lost in time, and then slowly that started to form into songs.
What did putting out Church mean to you? How does it feel?
Like a huge fart—it’s the most satisfying thing when you know you have to and it’s just pent up. And then, it’s out there. And people are gonna smell it.
You’re parents are very strict, so what do they think of your music and what will they think of reading this interview about your bisexuality and drugs and all of that.
Well, I hope they don’t read this. [laughs] I grew up with a lot of love from my parents. I know that that’s not going to change. It’s never changed. We don’t see the world the same. There’s things I need to learn to do on my own, before I can have a real relationship with them again. But I texted my mom, and she’s always wondering where I am and what I’m doing. It’s complicated.
It sounds like you’re trying to process a lot of new things in your life and work them out through music.
I’m trying to take it in and let it out and figure out how to work through everything that I’m absorbing in a way that’s healthy and positive, but that’s also woke.
What does the term “woke” mean to you?
It’s an awareness, being conscious of something. Waking up. Recently, I’ve been learning a lot and consuming a lot of information: I feel like I’m waking up to wake up.
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