Kelela has uncovered her route to uncharted territory
“I’ve been listening to this moment … I think it’s something like 24 minutes into the mix”. Kelela Mizanekristos is at her LA home, skipping through a SoundCloud stream to find the precise moment where DJ/producer Total Freedom blends a track by Chicago house legend Larry Heard into one of her own, and she’s holding the phone up right up to the speakers to make sure we hear it. “It’s … glorious”, she sighs. She’s elated by the mere fact that someone felt compelled to explore the possibilities her voice.
And after Kelela’s Cut 4 Me mixtape dropped last October, it’s a voice that’s attracted considerable attention. Reviewers have drawn comparisons to Aaliyah, Faith Evans, Mariah Carey, Amel Laurrieux of Groove Theory and Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano, who personally encouraged her to divert from the RnB cannon in order to develop her own vocal style. She first became familiar with Total Freedom through her connection with LA collective Fade To Mind, who teamed up with their sister label, London bass pioneers Night Slugs, in order to create the thrillingly original, transatlantic formula heard on Cut 4 Me.
The release of Cut 4 Me was soon followed by the Saint Heron compilation. Curated by Solange Knowles, the album features Kelela’s P Morris-produced Go All Night among a tracklist that signals a new wave of innovative and independent ‘post-Timbaland’ RnB artists. European underground club goers have long nurtured a strong connection with RnB due largely to bass producers’ tendency to sample, chop and chipmunk the vocals of Brandy, Aaliyah, Cassie et al. And in recent years the alternative music press has also embraced the genre, perhaps in response to a circular flow of influence where bedroom producers with an affection for mainstream RnB are increasingly seeing their experimental sounds being soaked up by high profile artists enjoying prime time radio play.
So how does Kelela feel about journalists categorising her with this so-called new movement? “I have questions as to why it’s happening right now, and what that means for music when you frame something as ‘alternative’ or ‘peripheral’. Beyond it being about sheer numbers of how many people listen to the music, it can also colour the way people interpret the sounds if it’s written about in that way prior. So I have critiques about that”, she admits. “But it doesn’t cloud my ability to see that people are acknowledging something positive. And if you’re asking me the question: ‘How do you feel about being put on a list of innovative RnB artists?”, I’m elated”. Alongside all the ‘RnB Artists To Watch in 2014’ articles, Kelela’s end of 2013 victory lap landed her high spots across countless ‘Best Of’ lists and a post on Beyonce’s blog, The Beyhive. She was also shortlisted for BBC’s ‘Sound of 2014 poll’, but don’t let that put you off.
The hype, however, took some time to generate. Kelela moved to LA in order to pursue a music career four years ago, and until recently was still supporting herself at a call centre, approaching 30 and worrying she’d missed her chance because of the industry’s increasing favour towards astoundingly young artists. But a pivotal moment, she says, came in the form of a blessing in disguise. “I crashed my car, and then I got my first call to do two gigs with Solange while it was in the shop. After the shows I got a call saying that the bad news was that my car was totalled, but the goodnews was that I’d be getting a cheque for more than what I paid for the car. So I used the cheque to support myself. I was just like ‘OK, I’m just gonna go for it’. I felt like something might be going, that momentum had been created. I still have no car, but you know, I’m not a telemarketer anymore!”
Riding off that huge rush of momentum, Kelela seems determined to make 2014 another banner year. She’ll be touring internationally, both solo and with a unique live project involving Night Slugs and Fade To Mind’s roster, where the DJ sets up a multi-genre obstacle course and Kelela sings her own songs, fragments from RnB classics and improvised melodies while viscerally embracing the dark, inhibition- eroding context of the club. Right now she’s laying the foundations for her debut album, but in the meantime a single with Night Slugs co-founder Bok Bok is due in March. “What’s great about working with Kelela is that she’s really active on all the fronts of a collaboration”, the producer enthuses. “It’s not like she’ll just deliver a vocal to you and say, ‘OK whatever, we’ll see how that one turns out’. She’s really keen to get involved with the arrangements and the production side, and her melodic ideas are really, really strong.”
“Pointing to the problems and issues without being a victim to them, that’s the focus. I avoid any lyrics which sound too damsel-y or needy”
Although Kelela has moulded her own aesthetic with Cut 4 Me, she’s eager to diversify. During her early album sessions she’s been brewing ideas and demoing with Evian Christ, FKA Twigs producer Arca and Hudson Mohawke, all uncompromising beat-makers who were dug out of the underground and assembled last year by Kanye West to form his Yeezus task force. “They’re putting really innovative sounds together in a resonant but also fucked up way”, she says. “And they’re making such a ruckus that people at the radio want to see what the deal is. That’s what I want to do with vocals, I want to be resonant, but to also fuck you up a little bit.”
And fuck you up a little bit she does. While Cut 4 Me has its fair share of sensual pillow talk and gorgeous falsettos riding phased out, ethereal synths, Kelela isn’t exactly made of candy floss, and you can feel undertones of pain and anger rising in her voice. Take the sparse and menacing Enemy, where the lyrics “Now you’re up in my face/ Breathing down my neck, better back up off me now” are punctuated by the sound of glass breaking, or the way she intimately confronts the psychological tug of war that activates sexual desires on the breathy, nocturnal track Do It Again.
As a former student of International Studies and Sociology and an infatuated fan of strong, politically active songwriters such as Tracy Chapman and Miriam Makeba, there was a time when Kelela aspired to let her ideology do the songwriting. “I used to imagine that when I did write music, it would deal directly with what was going on in the world in a literal way, to make the point very clear that I was outraged. But when I started writing I remember being mad that it wasn’t coming out that way. For the most part, my body wanted to sing about really personal issues.”
You could argue, however, that there’s an inspiring potency to the way Kelela explores the personal realm. She definitely agrees, for example, with the suggestion that confronting heartache from a feminine perspective can be empowering. “This is the way I’m courageous on a track, I’m trying to say the thing that’s the hardest for me to say. Pointing to the problems and issues without being a victim to them, that’s the focus. I avoid any lyrics which sound too damsel-y or needy.”
As a cliché-dodging artist who’s compelled to explore the spaces between genre and culture, part of Kelela’s appeal is the way she eschews rigid categories. She was born in Washington DC to Ethiopian parents who emigrated in the 70s, and later moved to the suburbs of Rockville, Maryland, where she has described growing up among a primarily white crowd. Did these experiences lead to her developing an outsider mentality? “Mentality is a strong word” she says, “but being second generation, there’s a framework that is required to navigate in upper middle class white spaces, or just to navigate in spaces where you’re not American, or where your family isn’t identified as American. It’s shaped so much of my life, for sure. I’ve had a lot of experiences that have been, like, othering. And those experiences have definitely shaped me being comfortable not fitting in. I grew up listening to RnB. Then when I got hip to being outside solely black places, I got hip to music outside of RnB and jazz.”
And while she’s reflecting on her background, we ask her if she feels that it’s directly influenced her approach to music? She pauses for a moment, carefully considering the question. “As someone who deals with the tradition of RnB, but whose contract is basically outside of that, I’m housing vocals that are familiar to me in an unfamiliar context. That’s sort of how I’ve always felt about it. I’ve never said that out loud, but that’s abstractly how I’ve felt about it. I have to make music which reflects where I am, in the mix, and in this Venn diagram of genre. That’s where I’d like to be.”
Cut 4 Me is available now via Fade To Mind