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Kelsey Lu’s neverending trip

© Emmet Green

Words by:

Kelsey Lu is radiant in the Saturday afternoon sun, which shines through the windowpane of her London Airbnb. Her hair colour can only be described as fire – a flaming red, which works its way into hues of orange to yellow and brown. She pulls a takeaway box of calamari close to her and picks up a fork. “I’m going on tour with Neneh Cherry,” she beams. Lu is joining the singer for four of her performances across Europe in early March. “I don’t really have the words to describe her,” she says, pausing to consider her thoughts. “A woman of colour who has been such a powerful figure in the world of music, such an individual.”

To anyone familiar with Lu and her music, the synergy between the pair is obvious. Both are vanguards in their fields and each has fought hard to live their full truths. The tour is a breakthrough moment for the 25-year-old and a prelude to another: the release of her debut album, Blood. Although the exact release date is uncertain, anyone who has seen Lu play live in the past few months will already be familiar with some of its tracks. “I’ve pretty much only been performing new stuff from the album,” she reveals. “People have been surprised. They were probably expecting something else, so they’re like, ‘whaaat?’” Her eyes widen. “But they’re still captivated.”

© Emmet Green

The singer and musician first caught the world’s attention in 2014 when a candid video interview was uploaded by web platform StyleLikeU. In seven minutes, Lu opened up about escaping her upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness by fleeing to music; the other constant in her life aside from the faith. Despite holding back tears, Lu was no longer holding herself back. Almost two years to the day, she unveiled her debut EP, Church, which was performed and recorded live in a Catholic church in Brooklyn.

In six songs, Lu delivered a haunting eulogy to a past that she – through her voice, cello, and loop pedal – was burying. Receiving co-signs and credits on the albums of Solange and Blood Orange, as well as performances with Lady Gaga and Florence + the Machine, Lu’s sound refuses to be fully defined. Instead, she’s self-described it as “Luthereal”, a genre which delicately traverses a spectrum of folk, pop, R&B, and, if Blood is anything to go by, a hint of disco too. With Lu, you’re never quite sure where you’re going to land.

Born Kelsey McJunkins on May 12, 1993 in Charlotte, North Carolina, Lu was the youngest of two and raised a Jehovah’s Witness. Her home was filled with music, which offered freedom from the demands of religion. “Music was all around, it was an artistic release,” Lu reflects, looking out of the window at the high rise flats across the yard. Her mother was a pianist who loved pop music, and Lu recalls that she had tapes they weren’t allowed to listen to. “Paula Abdul was one. I remember she was like” – Lu lowers her voice to mimic her mother – “‘This is dirty. It’s too old for you’.” She bursts into laughter and adds that she listened to the tapes but she didn’t understand them. She credits a song her mum played on piano, which she can’t name but can reenact – “dun, dun, DUN!” – as having an effect on her sound. “It’s why I love Shostakovich, Beethoven, Mahler – drama, drama, drama! Thanks mom.”

Lu found the cello at nine years old, having already tried the violin and piano. “I never got along with the violin, holding it wasn’t comfortable.” When attending symphonies or her sister’s rehearsals, the cello enraptured her. “There was something about the size and how people have to wrap their bodies around it. Whenever there was a cello moment, the lower tones just filled my belly.”

During a violin lesson, she spotted one resting against the window and asked if she could take it home, her music teacher obliged. “There was a music store near my house which was my favourite place to go,” she says. “They had filing cabinets of sheet music and I knew exactly what I wanted. I was like,” – she bridges her fingers – “‘I wanna play the Bach Suites’. I couldn’t wait. I put it against my chest and I could actually feel the notes. It was full on, full body. I was just obsessed.”

Her parents were encouraging and hoped one day Lu would play at Bethel, the headquarters for Jehovah’s Witnesses. “If you go to Bethel, it’s believed you will be under so much praise from Jehovah. So I was like,” – she switches into a childlike voice – “‘I’m going to play Bethel’. But slowly I started to feel like that was not my life, that it was not the religion for me.” This awakening turned Lu’s world upside down. Instead of going to orchestra rehearsals, she snuck around. “I was like, ‘I could smoke weed instead’. That was the only way I could have a quote-unquote ‘normal existence’. Music was my way out.”

Kelsey Lu © Emmet Green
© Emmet Green

When she was 18, Lu left home after a series of “dramatic events” and “literally ran” to her sister’s school, staked out the cello teacher’s room, and sat outside waiting for him. In tears, she begged him to let her play, and gained admittance to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts on a scholarship. “I was desperate,” she remembers. “It was the only way I knew how to keep going. Music has always been the thing that’s brought me the most joy.”

College was transformative for Lu but it was also difficult. “I started writing poetry. There were times when I couldn’t sleep because I was really depressed,” she remembers. “When I think back on it, I didn’t understand what I was going through, I was just living in it. I would go to these practice halls with my cello, play it like a guitar, and hum and sing. I was getting out some form of emotion outside of playing the notes that were on the page that I’d always been playing in that way.” Lu started to improvise with other music and worked with dancers, who would perform to her cello or vice-versa. She recalls, “I was finding other expressions of music outside of the classical world.” But when school became “too much”, she dropped out.

“Music has always been the thing that's brought me the most joy”

© Emmet Green

Lu soon met a group of people who were involved in an underground hip-hop group called United Minds Conglomerate. “One night, we were all jamming on someone’s back porch. I had taken ecstasy for the first time and the sun was coming up. Everyone was singing, and it was going around until it got to me. I was holding it in for so long and then I was just like ‘ahhhhh’, and everyone was like, ‘What! Lu! You can sing?’”

A year or two later – “My concept of time is not the best,” she waves – Lu was on tour with southern rap quartet Nappy Roots. It was her first experience on the road and a period which she’s previously described as “not glamorous” but one which helped her find her own voice. On a stop in New York City, she met someone and they began dating. She had always wanted to move to NYC and, in 2012, the relationship provided the impetus to do it. Although the relationship fell apart – “It was terribly toxic,” she confides – the city was her rebirth.

© Emmet Green

“I put the cello against my chest and I could actually feel the notes. It was full on, full body. I was just obsessed”

In July 2016, Lu released her debut EP Church, which was recorded live in Brooklyn’s The Holy Family Roman Catholic Church. With the rise and fall of her cello bow, Lu sings – sometimes wails – with poignant honestly about her strained relationship with her parents, as well as with her own heartbreak and anguish. “My memories of being inside of a church were always for orchestral things or funerals – for mourning. The echoes of wailing and crying always really stuck with me,” she explains. Sonically, Lu admired the church and had been struggling in the studio because “it didn’t feel like when I would perform live”. By recording it there, she was laying to rest a heartache that she had carried for 10 years. “Mourning those feelings that I was having, it just made sense for me to do it there.”

Church followed her appearance on Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound and came a few months before she featured on the track Interlude: The Moment from Solange’s A Seat at the Table. That same year she also played cello on Lady Gaga’s Joanne and joined Sampha on his Process tour. In 2017, she performed on Kelela’s Take Me Apart and became the face for fashion label Kenzo.

Lu eventually left New York for Los Angeles and began working on her debut album, taking time out to sing on Blood Orange’s Negro Swan and play keyboards on Oneohtrix Point Never’s Age Of. Lu has since released three tracks – mostly in the past few months – including Shades of Blue, Due West and a cover of 10cc’s I’m Not in Love. On Christmas Eve, she shared a version of Joni Mitchell’s River, for which Sampha accompanied her on the piano. The track is close to her heart, despite some people not backing its release because they were worried it would be “challenging” for listeners. Still visibly frustrated, Lu, slamming her hands on the table, tells me, “I’m not going to be something that’s easily consumable all the time.”

Blood marks a turning point for the singer and musician. Not only is it her debut album – boasting collaborations with Jamie xx, Skrillex and Adrian Younge – but it shifts the heaviness of Church into a lightness that Lu has finally been able to embrace in recent years. “The overall message is one of hope,” she explains. It was important for Lu to open the album with cello and strings, which feel like an homage to Church, a nod to what she’s been through.

It’s the opening of three acts which are broken up by two interludes. As we step out on the balcony for a cigarette, Lu explains: “The first act is one of reflection, of home, and the past with my parents, their relationship, being interracial. Then the thread goes into the present time – into playtime and political observations, sexual experiences, social experiences – and it gets more upbeat and fun. The third is an outlook of the future.” The title itself remarks on the unifying bond that we all share; blood. “It’s what runs through all of us, a tie that we all have and we exist from. It can be scary and weird, but it’s also life-giving.”

Shuffling back inside to sit at the table, Lu says that yesterday she came across a folder of old files from her time in New York. “I started spiralling – but in a really good way,” she explains as I cast her a concerned glance. “I can look at it now and be like ‘damn girl, you were, like, writing songs. You were really going for it’.” She laughs at the residue of her younger self. Her writing has since taken on a metaphorical approach. “It’s direct but it’s more abstract, and it could mean anything. For me, I think the meanings change over time, so to feel like it can move through that is really exciting. I like that other people can find their own interpretation in the words.”

© Emmet Green

Suddenly we realise we’re sitting in the dark, the sun having disappeared on the horizon long ago. Lu turns on the lights and shows me some videos on her phone of her Flemish Giant rabbit, Cava, who passed away last year after a tragic accident, but who she believes is her spirit guide. We speak about TV shows and guilty pleasures. She muses that nature is her church and drinking tea is her ritual. She reveals plans to make blooming teas as merch for her fans so she can evoke memories of her shows and her music through other senses. She also weighs up whether she will return to LA because she’s fallen in love with a Virgo who lives in New York.

While she’s shy on the details of the romance, she’s generous when it comes to speaking about her repaired relationship with her parents. Lu has come full circle, seeking out a place where she can feel peace, reconnected to her own blood. “They brag about me all the time,” she smiles when I bring up her mum and dad. “It took a lot of time for me to emphasise where their fear came from because I was riddled in the pain of how it affected me, and my relationship with them, and the rest of the world. It took a long time to heal from that, but music was always the thing, beyond religion, that connected us, no matter what.”

Photography: Emmet Green
Styling: Jamie-Maree Shipton
Styling Assistant: J’Nae Philips
Make-up: Mimi Quiquine using MAC Cosmetics
Hair: Isaac Poleon
Nails: Sylvie Macmillan

Blood is set for release in spring via Columbia

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