“The soundsystem was so good that I just said, ‘Yeah, fuck it – it’s Friday night, let’s see what happens.” Welsh producer and singer/songwriter Kelly Lee Owens is recalling a DJ support slot for Warp legends Plaid at London’s Southbank Centre, which she finished by dropping ‘Spectral Frequency’, a brain-hammering Special Request tear-up. “It’s 160BPM or something, it’s absolutely bonkers,” she says. “I thought, ‘Should I play this?’ But I wanted to go out with a bang. People went mad for it. Plaid gave me a nod, but they came on and it was all those lovely, gentle sounds and nice arpeggios… I thought, ‘Oh shit, maybe I went a bit too far.’ But, you know, it was Friday night. It was a talking point, and it felt like a rave.”
The mention of raving has sparked something in Kelly. “The thing is, even before the virus stopped us going out, people were craving a rave. I don’t know what it is exactly, but it’s these transcendental moments – people need them more than ever.”
That message is apparent on Kelly’s new album ‘Inner Songs’, originally due out on Smalltown Supersound in May but then pushed back to August. There are plenty of the ethereal vocals, low-key ambience and enrapturing songwriting that made her 2017 debut a sleeper hit. But there are also a good few techno rinse outs too. One of those is ‘Melt!’, the first single, which Kelly tells us is about the growing climate crisis (a recurring theme on the album), and uses a sample of the sounds of melting glacial ice.
“I wanted a big techno banger on there,” Kelly says. “But I didn’t want it to just be that. I wanted it to be organic and meaningful and create something hard out of these organic sounds.”
Aside from ‘Melt!’, there’s ‘Jeanette’ – a kaleidoscopic trancey number that comes across like a more hard edged and lo-fi version of something Bicep might make – ‘Flow’, (a breaksy downtempo cut) and an instrumental cover of Radiohead’s 2007 track ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’, renamed just ‘Arpeggi’.
For an artist who (joined by a depressingly widespread list of other female acts, including Björk) has repeatedly highlighted sexist assumptions that she doesn’t produce her own music, we wonder if eschewing her trademark vocals was a bit of a statement. “No, it’s not about having to prove anything at all!” says Kelly. “It’s purely a creative choice to balance out the album with a mix of songs and instrumental tracks.”
Born and raised in Flintshire, North Wales, Owens had a slightly unconventional route into music. At 18 she was an auxiliary nurse helping take care of terminally ill cancer patients. “I feel very privileged to have done that,” she says. “And what stood out is that the people there regretted what they hadn’t done. It took away my fear of death, but instilled in me a fear of not living well.”
With a heightened sense of the importance of taking your chances while you can, Owens relocated from Manchester, where she was working as a nurse, to London in 2009 and began working at a slew of record shops including Pure Groove, Sister Ray and Rough Trade. Referring to herself at the time as “the indie kid who knew about all the cool seven inches coming out”, she quickly found her tastes broadening. “I was into things like The Maccabees, Foals and LCD Soundsystem and The Knife,” she tells us. “Working somewhere like Rough Trade at 21 was quite intimidating. There was the punk guy, the stoner rock dude, the metal guys… I was like, ‘Shit, I really need to get to know my stuff.’”
It was while working at record stores that Kelly first met Erol Alkan, long-time collaborator James Greenwood (aka Ghost Culture, who also helped produce ‘Inner Song’) and Daniel Avery, who drafted her in to provide vocals on his ‘Drone Logic’ album.
“We did a track together and Dan sent it on to Andrew Weatherall and, bless him, he said to Dan, ‘This is fucking massive, you have to do something with it!’”
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‘Drone Logic’ went on to become a modern classic (“She was a huge part of that album,” says Dan Avery. “She nailed the ‘Drone Logic’ vocal in her lunchtime!”) and gave Kelly the perfect platform to launch her own career. “I was 28, which might seem quite late to release my first album,” she says. “But the fact that Björk released ‘Debut’ at 27 kept me going!”
The album’s success opened many doors, including remixing her heroine’s 2018 track ‘Arisen The Senses’. “When that happened I thought, ‘Oh shit, I might be doing something that’s alright here.’” She’s also worked with another icon in the shape of The Velvet Underground’s John Cale. “I turned up at his studio and went to this vocal booth that’s the size of my house,” she recalls. “When I started singing, he jumped up and started waving his arms. I was looking through the glass thinking, ‘That’s fucking John Cale through there waving his arms around, am I doing something wrong?’ But he was like, ‘No, no, no, carry on – it’s amazing!’”
He’s repaid the favour with an appearance on ‘Inner Song’ track ‘Corner Of My Sky’, where he sings in both Welsh and English. “I encouraged him to sing in Welsh,” she says. “The Welsh language was oppressed for a long time and one of the ways we kept it alive was through music and singing. I wanted to give him the opportunity to reconnect with Wales through that song.”
The process wasn’t all exciting encounters with heroes though. Owens describes the period between her two albums as “a really tough three years”.
“I was basically in survival mode,” she says. “My nervous system was in survival mode too.” Without going into too much detail about her struggles, she says body trauma therapy was one of the keys to unlocking her creativity again.
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“It’s this form of therapy where a body trauma specialist helps you release trauma you’ve built up and stored all the way from childhood, using different sounds as you move, shaking, from the bottom of your body to the top,” she says. “I don’t really have depression but the week after I was so depressed. I wrote all of the lyrics for the album and recorded lots of ideas as I could hardly move from my room.”
While there may be a few obstacles in the way at the moment, Kelly is keen to get out there and create a few more of those transcendental moments she speaks about the world craving, this time through her own music.
“Live is where I thrive,” she tells us. “There’s nothing like playing your own music to people in a space that’s your own. I hope I can eventually share this with as many people as possible!” Another thing for us to look forward to.
‘Inner Song’ by Kelly Lee Owens is out now on Smalltown Supersound, get it via Bandcamp
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