Kelsey Lu: “It’s great to see an uprising and the inevitability of change”
The American iconoclast has created an audio-visual project from lockdown in the Cayman Islands, watching the US Black Lives Matter movement from a place with a painful past. By Ilana Kaplan
Kelsey Lu didn’t expect to be in the Cayman Islands this long. The orchestral pop iconoclast had envisioned staying there for a short window, leaving, coming back and bringing other collaborators down to work with her. Then Covid-19 happened, and she’s been staying at Palm Heights hotel alone (other than with her partner) for an artist-in-residence program, during which a few artists could come and create on the property. Palm trees, blue skies – there are, perhaps, worse places to be stranded.
Through the resort’s residency, she was meant to be developing her second album and finding inspiration while “engaging with the local environment or heritage of islands”. In a way, she’s been a “guinea pig” for the residency. Aside from a Samoan boxer who came down to train for three months of the Olympics, the singer – who prefers to go by “Lu” – ended up being the only person to take part in the program.
Joining a wave of genre-bending Black artists such as Kelela, Blood Orange and Sampha, Lu’s arresting, looped cello ballads and shape-shifting dream pop melodies have made her alluring to listeners the past few years. Her songs, a hazy blend of classical, R&B, melancholy folk and indie-pop, have prevented her from being boxed into any one category.
A singer and cellist who was previously based in Los Angeles, Lu has been able to find a creative spark during her time in the Caribbean. But it hasn’t been limited to just a record (though she aims to release one in 2021). Inspired by the nature of the Islands, she’s been working on an ongoing, audio-visual project of meditative sound baths called ‘Hydroharmonia’.
“I performed [in the Cayman Islands] last year,” she tells NME on Zoom. “I had just finished a tour, and my partner’s old friends with the events curator here, and they were like, ‘Do you want to come and stay for a weekend?’” She decided, why not? “[I had] never been to the Cayman Islands. I [think] about the Cayman Islands as like offshore financing and you hear [about] money laundering,” Lu quips.
Her experience, however, has not been anything like the stories she’s heard. “The place that I’m staying is centred around wellness, and the person that brought me here curates a lot of art forward and creative figures to come and stay, and get inspired,” she says.
Still, in the midst of a pandemic and the uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Cayman Islands has admittedly been a “bizarre place to be.” “There’s no sense of civil unrest here on the visible spectrum, at least where I am,” Lu, 29, says in a hushed tone. “But then, it being a part of the Caribbean, where historically slavery is at the forefront, it’s interesting.”
The dichotomy of being in such a naturally beautiful place that has “such a deep and ugly colonial past, even into the present” isn’t lost on Lu. For her, it’s a lot to be consuming, since “so much of what I do and what I pull from is energy, vibration, spirit guides and ancestors.” Even from afar, she’s in awe of what’s going on in America. “It’s great to see an uprising and the inevitability of change, so that’s hopeful,” she says.
Despite being away from America in the Cayman Islands, Lu has also never felt more comfortable in her own skin as a Black, queer woman. “I’ve never been to a place where I was like, ‘Wow, I can really be queer, I can be Black and not feel like everyone’s staring at me,’ or that I’m the only one here like this,’” she says. “It was a different feeling from anything that I had experienced, going to a place that is known to be a resort or a destination where it is usually white and has people of privilege and money – I would not [expect to] feel comfortable [here].”
The singer and cellist―whose real name is Kelsey McJunkins―was born into a musical family in South Carolina. Growing up with a percussionist father and a pianist mother, Lu began studying classical music and composition at just six years old through piano, violin and cello. Music became a central part of her upbringing and transformed into an escape, as she grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness in a strict religious household. It was tough on her identity, and at 18, Lu left home to attend the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
After a year, she dropped out and began touring with hip-hop collective Nappy Roots. While she pursued a career in music, Lu has avoided being boxed into any kind of genre label―her music and collaborations have been fluid. She’s worked with a gamut of artists including Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, Jamie XX, André 3000, Kelela and Solange (along the way she played cello for Florence + the Machine).
The singer fondly remembers working on Solange’s 2016 album ‘A Seat at the Table’. Her favourite moment occurred when she spent a day collaborating in a Los Angeles studio with Solange, Kelela, Hynes and boundary-pushing singer-songwriter Moses Sumney. “We were all just singing on top of the instrumental that she had been working on, and it was just a beautiful moment of unity and Black love,” she recalls. “I feel like that was my peak of that collaboration.”
For her own projects this year, Lu intended to bring a slew of collaborators with her down to the Islands, but she’s not sure when that will be possible. Instead, during this time, the singer has pushed herself into free-flowing art and education. Part of her processing has also included revisiting the complex (and often whitewashed) history of music. Her demeanour intensifies as he explores the headiness of the subject―she’s a sucker for “nerding out” on sound. “One of the ways that the image of classical music has been imposed on people through time [has been] this white place,” she says. “[I’ve been] studying the history of how that’s come to be.”
Lu has been re-examining how society has absorbed history. “We’re realising and waking up, and many people are waking up to the fact that what we’ve been taught through history is not the full picture.” In particular, she’s been re-visiting how, historically, white men and women have declared perfect pitch – 440 Hz – as standard in music.
Through her own studies, Lu has found that 432 Hz was the preferred audio frequency for artists from Verdi to Vivaldi, and it’s become a way for her to rebel and reclaim the idea of the accepted standard. “[Using] 432 Hz is my sort of stand against [history] and trying to heal, trying to move our atoms to resonate in harmony with nature,” she says. “Once we connect to nature, we really get connected to healing.” And that’s what she’s been doing.
“I’ve never been to a place where I can be queer and Black and not feel like everyone’s staring at me”
While she initially came to the Caribbean to work on the follow-up to her vibrant, avant-pop debut ‘Blood’ last year, her focus shifted. “It dissolved into me just making something that’s more pertinent to healing, meditating and processing on, ‘What is the now’ and ‘What is the future?’” she says. Her love of nature, which has long been an inspiration for her work, was the spark that led to ‘Hydroharmonia’, these stunning, harmonious soundscapes as a way to ingest what she’s been absorbing on the island.
In the inaugural episode, she documented the movement and reflection of the sun―just her processing and coping with the protests and the pandemic from afar, while still pulling from nature. While she shared the first episode in early May, on Juneteenth – the annual commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States – she created “a meditational sound bath tuned to the frequency of the universe (432 Hz).”
“This past ‘Hydroharmonia’ is for Black people specifically,” Lu says. “This is my ode, especially, to persecuted women. [Black and indigenous people and women of colour] have historically been the central voices and leaders in revolution and abolition, and of hope and love. ” Within the nearly 20-minute composition, Lu weaved in Afro-Latina poet and lyricist Aja Monet’s poem about oppression and liberation, ‘Black Joy’ . “[Monet] is someone who’s constantly active in doing the work and has been for a long time,” she says. Lu wanted to use the poem as a tool for healing and space.
But lifting other Black and Brown voices has always been a natural part of Lu’s work. On the first anniversary of ‘Blood’, back in April, she released live video performances of ‘‘Foreign Car’ and ‘Pushin’ Against The Wind’ from a one-off Los Angeles performance called ‘Propagate’ where she intentionally shot songs in a house designed by Paul Williams, the first Black American architect to become a member of the American Institute of Architects in 1923. She also worked with stylist Mindy Le Brock to curate looks from up-and-coming African designers to pay homage to her father’s heritage.
“[With ‘Propagate’] we got to push for things that aren’t being shown as much, giving other people a chance instead of just going with what’s normally being presented or platformed,” Lu says.
Growing up, Lu and her sister were usually the only ones in the orchestra who were Black. With ‘Propagate’ and her music career, Lu has made it a priority to have diverse string players. “It’s not something that I suddenly feel like it’s important now, or I got to jump on the bandwagon of ‘we’ve got to do something now,’” she says. “It’s always been important.”
More recently, though, Lu has shared her first single since the release of ‘Blood’ with ‘Morning Dew.’ The song has existed in Lu’s life for several years, evolving into a variety of shapes over the years. When she wrote the song, she was essentially squatting in an old factory in Hoboken, New Jersey – back around the time she penned her celestial 2018 single ‘Shades of Blue.’
“When I wrote that song I was really depressed and going through a lot of changes, musically, managerially, everything…” she recalls. While she had attempted to record it since, it just never felt right. But last summer, Lu was back living in New York for the first time in a few years and ended up recording the song in the same place in which it was written. “So much had evolved over time that the lyrics really changed for me,” she says. “For me, it really represents an evolution and a new beginning of the many shifts that have taken place since then.”
Lu seems to be in the middle of another period of transition. She’s not really sure what her album will fully look like, but she’s aiming to release it in 2021.
“I’m always looking for hope―I’m looking for a sense of hope and comfort,” Lu says. The response to ‘Morning Dew’ has been one of comfort from listeners. People have been telling Lu that they can’t stop playing the song on repeat. “I find comfort in Slipknot sometimes, or Korn,” she says. “I mean, it’s weird, we all find comfort in different ways. But I think really, essentially whatever my album’s going to be [is] to just keep searching for that sense of unity and comfort.”
– Kelsey Lu’s ‘Hydroharmonia’ project is online now