Kelly Lee Owens Finds Her Voice
“There’s music in everything, and I hear it,” Kelly Lee Owens says. “Everything vibrates, everything has a frequency. It’s fascinating to me.”
I’m sat across from Owens in an east London coffee shop listening to her philosophies. She’s inspired. As Owens talks, she gesticulates wildly, with her hands cutting shapes in the air as she settles on her favourite topic: music. The 28-year-old Welsh producer and singer creates vivid, hallucinatory songs rich with psychotropic textures. She’s got a beguiling voice and a gift for melody, and her tunes radiate energy.
Owens first made noise within the electronic music world as a guest vocalist and songwriter on Daniel Avery’s huge 2013 debut album Drone Logic. On the album’s standout track Knowing We’ll Be Here, her lucent voice lends a humanity and emotional power. This appearance was the springboard to an intriguing duo of self-released solo singles that revealed her talents as the author of weird, wonderful electronic pop pieces. Uncertain was a gorgeous torch song, all neon-lit synth strings, mechanical bass tones and lush vocals, while Lucid reveled in its disarming key changes and its epic, cosmic feel. A cyborg cover of Aaliyah’s RnB classic More Than a Woman, posted to her SoundCloud, confirmed Owens’ psychedelic vision. “I like to explore that immersive quality, to get lost a little bit,” she says. “I wouldn’t say I’m a heavy drinker or influenced by drugs, so music is an escapism. Art that is linked to that in some wayis what excites me. Music can take me to another place entirely and it’s quite meditative.”
Now signed to Norwegian label Smalltown Supersound, an imprint home to such diverse acts as Todd Terje, Neneh Cherry and Dungen, her recent EP Oleic embarks in a tougher direction, with a thorny take on dance music. Elliptic is raw, classic electro, with a thrumming bassline and trippy bleeps, while the sensory whirl of CBM hears Kelly celebrate “colours, beauty, motion” over a coagulate of 4/4 beats and kosmische keys.
An artist who Owens respects greatly is present on the Oleic EP. Kingsize (KLO Rework) is a remix of Norwegian avant-pop provocateur Jenny Hval. “We both agreed there needs to be more women remixing other women’s work,” Owens explains. “I think she’s a truly authentic artist and person, and again, she does not compromise. She does exactly what she wants to do, and brings up really interesting political topics and statements and shoves them in your face. We need more art like that, true artists.”
Having worked in London record shops for years, including Rough Trade, Pure Groove and Sister Ray, Owens is an avid record collector. She lists the likes of The Knife, Matthew Herbert, Björk and Yayoi Kusama as inspirations, but most of all, she credits her Welsh upbringing and the indomitable women she was motivated by as her greatest encouragement. “I’m inspired by strong characters, strong people,” she states. “I’ve realised coming from Wales this is connected, and I’ve been surrounded by very strong women in my life, people who’ve been through a lot but with that Welsh spirit, where you keep going. Strength of character. No matter what, they’ve got a smile on their faces and open hearts.”
Owens was born in the small cathedral city St Asaph, but grew up in Bagillt, near the English border. Close to the coast and encircled by nature, her earliest musical endeavours were in a choir. Moving to Manchester in her late teens, she developed enthusiasm for the indie scene and helped out gig promoter friends with door duties. After she pitched up in London, Owens played bass with the shoegazey pop five piece The History of Apple Pie, and her friendships with Daniel Avery and James Greenwood, aka Ghost Culture, led to a passion for dance music.
“That was my first experience of dance. And it was only really when I saw Dan and James do it, saw their process, saw how it was made, that I actually fully respected it. A lot of people can say it’s easy to make, it’s simple, but it’s not, you’ve got to be a detail-oriented freak… you get really into it. I love all that stuff, I’m a sound geek.” With a set-up consisting of the Logic progamme and a host of analogue synths, Owens has been working on her debut album, which will be released sometime early in 2017. And while she’s reluctant to reveal any details, it’s likely that Owens’ vocals will help her explore her distinctive sound. “The voice is integral, because that was my start,” she concludes. “In male voice choirs, there are certain resonant frequencies, that just give you chills. Something about that is so primal. We should never get too far away from that. It’s the human element in my music.”
Kelly Lee Owens is out 24 March via Smalltown Supersound