It’s the last look of the day and Kelsey Lu is propped up like a priceless porcelain doll on a large, vintage sofa. There’s a hint of electric blue on her eyelashes and eyebrows. Her hair is spiralling away from her scalp, neatly framing her face. Her expression looks calm and collected – surprising, given that her debut EP Church dropped only a few days prior.
When she speaks, that coolness still lingers. With just her cello and a loop pedal, she recorded the EP live in a single take in a church in Brooklyn. It’s an assured move for a debut release, and she seems characteristically unfazed by the process. “I didn’t think of it as being scary,” she states. “It wasn’t until I heard the masters for the first time that I was like, ‘oh my God – this is live, I did this.’”
Originally from Charlotte, North Carolina, the musician-meets-model left home at the age of 18 to study to become a classically trained cellist. “It was sitting propped up against a window,” she says, recalling how the instrument instantly seduced her, “and I was like ‘what is that thing?! I must have it, it must be mine.’” Explaining that it was “love at first stroke,” the singer says that her cello is “like an extra limb” – and she plays it as such. Within her music there’s a discernible congruity between the haunting tone of her voice and the resonant sound of the strings. Lu’s striking talent has led her to collaborate with some of today’s leading avant-garde creatives.
She has recently worked alongside Dev Hynes on his Blood Orange project and lent her cello to Kelela’s upcoming LP. The singer has even extended her expertise to the world of fashion. Grace Wales Bonner, Lu’s close friend, has quickly made a name for herself with her designs, which regularly draw upon the African diaspora. For Bonner’s SS17 show, Lu was asked to create an accompanying soundscape. Delving into the rich history of Ethiopian and Caribbean music for inspiration, she found the process enlightening. “There was music that I’d heard and that I’d known, but I’d never gotten to the roots of before – and that’s so important,” she explains. “There’s also something important about supporting women, and especially women of colour,” she adds.
Opportunities to work with other women are instances that Kelsey Lu seems to hold in high esteem. At the end of last year, she featured in the ‘For Women, By Women’ lingerie campaign for the Scandinavian retailer & Other Stories. “I didn’t feel like I was just this flesh, or this skin walking into this shoot. It wasn’t like ‘look at all these people who are thin and tall and I’m the ‘eccentric’ one’,” she says of the experience. In the images, she can be seen embracing natural beauty and an unapologetic approach to body hair – a choice that she has received criticism for online. “Some people are just still set in society’s ways of telling you ‘that’s not hot, that’s not cool, that’s not sexy’,” she says. “People will always have something negative to say, but you’ve just gotta keep strolling.”
In regards to the way she dresses, her parents can be held partly responsible. Childhood trips to thrift stores in Philadelphia gave her the foundations, but it’s her dad who plays the role of unlikely style icon. “I found a photo a couple of years ago that I had never seen, of him in high school and he had on these flared pants and this really cool hat – I was like, ‘fuck yeah, I know where I get it from.’” It’s the free-spirited grace of the 70s that Kelsey Lu draws upon most for inspiration and she can regularly be seen donning a pair of flares or standout shades. From the way that Lu herself communicates, it’s clear that this is someone who knows their identity in terms of not only style and sound, but also standpoint. “It was such a powerful time,” she remarks, “statement wise, for black people and such an important time for fashion – so that’s why I like to pull from it.”
Photography: Steph Wilson
Styling: Charlotte James
Styling Assistants: Asha Hai + Ella Self
Make-up: Chloe Botting
using NARS Cosmetics
Church is out now via True Panther / Matador Records