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Kelly Lee Owens is days away from releasing her second album, Inner Song, which comes after “the hardest three years of [her] life,” as she describes it. The journey may not have been easy, but she emerged out the other side grateful.
Owens sits in London on one end of a phone interview, fresh off an online Inner Song listening party. It was the first time anybody outside of her inner circle heard the record, and she’s just getting used to her latest batch of creativity being out there.
“It’s still weird, but I’m coming to terms with people hearing it now,” Owens tells Uproxx. “Last night was an amazing reaction, and every time someone says that they love it, I kind of get this tingling and it feels really good.”
That’s the same reaction her fans (and the ones she is bound to earn in the coming weeks) ought to have when they finally get to hear Inner Song this week. Her 2017 self-titled debut album put her on the map in the electronic music world, and Inner Song is her living up to the massive potential that project showed. The album soars, thumps, relaxes, excites, and otherwise makes the three-year wait worthwhile by expertly capturing a variety of moods and aesthetics.
“A variety of moods” adequately describes the new standard of life in 2020 and how Owens has experienced it. “I’m kind of riding that roller coaster of life, up and down, and just being compassionate with myself, and also counting a lot of my blessings,” she says. “I think all of us have had things stripped away, and just understanding what’s important — family, friends, good food, health, and nature — I think all of that’s interconnected.”
Owens seemed to be on one of those aforementioned ups during our chat, as her smile could be heard over the phone as she discussed Inner Song and some of what went into it, how virtual gigs compare to the real thing, and what her next new endeavor may be.
How did you approach making this new album differently than your first one, especially considering that your first album did well and perhaps set a high bar for you for this one?
It’s always that dreaded second album thing that people talk about, right? I’ve seen a lot of my friends go through that, and I was determined to not bow down to that pressure, because it can really mess you up and it can really inhibit what it is that’s needed to come through and be said. So, for me personally, I was kind of lucky that the first album rippled and kept rippling for almost three full years.
I kept getting asked to do things like tour with Jon Hopkins and DJ. I just kept saying yes, and that meant that I couldn’t create as much as I would’ve liked to. I was really ready to create when the time came, and it was last February that the album was recorded. The music, the instrumentals, were recorded within 35 days, which is kind of crazy. I think that’s when the floodgates kind of opened. I was with a guy called James Greenwood and he just encouraged me to let the ideas flow and have them be fully formed, saying, “Don’t do what you normally do, Kelly,” which is trying to EQ the kick drums before you move on the synth melody. “Let’s maybe scope the sound, deal with nudges later, and just allow the ideas to be fully formed and honor the ideas in that way first.”
I can see it being very easy to fall into a trap where, in your mind, you say, “Well, this kick drum or whatever is in front of me now, so let’s just get it perfect now.”
That’s the perfectionist within me, and I think most people who make music are perfectionists in some sense. I also enjoy the detail, but it’s okay if the detail comes at the end, which is also a part of honoring the idea fully. I think James is not interested in that at all, but I could spend hours on automation and the nudges and making sure things flow into one another. I really, really enjoy that, but it was also amazing to feel a bit more like a conduit for the ideas this time, to actually be fully present. It was almost like it worked so well that, honestly, it was a bit of a blur, how it happened. I know I worked hard, and I know it was exhausting in a satisfying way, but a lot of the details, it’s odd: I can’t remember it. It truly was a whirlwind.
Speaking to being in the weeds of the album, you had a tweet recently that said, “Thunder contains some of the most magnificent bass frequencies.” To me, that reads as a tweet from somebody who loves samples and finding odd things to put in their music, like all the ice samples that you had in “Melt.” Were there any unusual samples beyond that that found their way onto the new album?
There’s a couple. In ‘On,’ towards the end, in the end section, there’s a really high-definition recording of a train pulling into a station. It’s just a delight for the ears. I think I kind of started the track with that and used that BPM for the track, and then set it around that, then built up the percussion, and then the melodies on the synth, and then took it away again, and then I was like, “Oh yeah, I better add that back in.” It’s just like a puzzle of triggering ideas and that’s really what samples are about for me.
thunder contains some of the most magnificent bass frequencies
— Kelly Lee Owens (@kellyleeowens) August 16, 2020
Are there any songs on the album that have taken any new meaning in light of all that’s going on? I know you said most of the album was written pre-March when all this started happening worldwide.
What I really enjoy in my personal life is, I like to think of myself as spiritual and I like to tap in. There’s a song called “Wake Up” and that was kind of a commentary on swipe culture and tech and where we’re at with that stuff, and how that’s affected us and our connection to the natural world. So, the line, “Never pausing to take it in or was avoiding your sense of dread.” You know, it’s not a judgment, it’s a commentary on — looking at myself, even — waking up every day swiping. That’s why I said, “Wake up, repeat again.” So we were all, as we’re in this dreamlike state, when we’re so vulnerable to ideas and information, we wake up and we look at Instagram or whatever, and we’re taking in all this stuff and I just don’t think that’s so good for us.
I was looking at that and then I was looking at the theme of nature versus technology. One thing that was revealed to me sonically was, I realized that the strings are like Earth, and Earth asking us to listen and connect and really be honest about what’s happening. This stuff reveals itself to me. I think that relates back to me allowing myself to be some kind of conduit for this record.
There’s a feature on the album from John Cale, which is a nice get. I’m sure it’s pretty exciting for you, especially with your background in indie and you both being from Wales. What did you learn working with a legend like that?
I think what John inspires in me is, he’s nearly 80, I think. I don’t want to push on the years in case I’m wrong. [Editor’s note: John Cale is 78 years old.] He’s just as wild and free in his creativity as possible. He’s not being like, “Oh, I’m going to be 80, I need to conform and remain relevant and popular.” He’s always been true to himself and his creative ideas and his creative integrity. I think that really inspires me about him, and I saw that when he delivered what he delivered to me, and also just the fact that he was genuinely a storyteller. That’s why I asked him in the first place. So it was just so beautiful to receive what I received from him. Then he graciously allowed me to rearrange it and he loved the arrangement.
In recent years, you’ve also managed to work with, as you said, Jon Hopkins, and you’ve also remixed St. Vincent and Björk. Are there any other greats on your list who you’d love to work with?
It’s funny you say that, because basically… Thom Yorke. [laughs] Maybe “Arpeggi” is my way of being like, “Hi.” [Editor’s note: Inner Song opens with a cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi.”] I just love Radiohead, especially In Rainbows. I mean, they’ve made so many great records, but for me, that one is a pure desert island disc, if I have to take ten albums to listen to forever. I think sonically, we’re kind of interested in similar things, but it’s kind of like with Jon Hopkins, I knew before I met him that if we were to ever collaborate, it would be something that was kind of quite epic and that would flow.
One of your recent posts on Instagram that I saw was a very bare-bones recording set-up. It was basically just a microphone, headphones, and an older MacBook Pro. Do you prefer a more stripped-down recording environment, and what can you get from that kind of setup that you can’t from a larger sort of studio space?
What you saw on Instagram is where I write and record all of my vocal ideas. For this album and the first album, I have all my notebooks, and then I get this one big note pad and I pull in all my ideas for what I need to say or what the songs need me to say. People are like, “Is that Logic 9?” And I’m like, “Yeah, dude, it is.” Everything’s old, but it still works. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? I’m very much like that.
If it does a job, it does the job. I think with each album, it’s important to introduce something new, perhaps, and that could be like… this time it was a plugin. So yeah, I think keeping it simple is great.
You did a DJ set on Minecraft earlier this year. As livestream things become more common, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on them. How does the feeling of doing something like that compare to doing an actual gig at an in-person venue?
I don’t think it can ever really compare, but there was a feeling that I got from that Minecraft thing and in the chat room last night when I did this album listening party, and everyone turned on their screens and I could see them bouncing in their bedrooms or living rooms. I still felt a sense of community and togetherness and interconnectedness, which is really all it’s about. But there’s nothing like the palpable energy [of a venue]. You can’t beat it, I think. But I do think that whatever base we need to connect in the meantime is good. I don’t think it’s a battle, one or the other: I think both can coexist. I think it’s important for things to be safe and feel good.
I see these DJs, who I won’t name, playing DJ sets with people and, yes, they got masks on, but they’re really squished together. I just wouldn’t personally feel comfortable about doing that right now. I wouldn’t want to get anyone sick and be responsible for that. But for me, I think it’s really about physical connection. I now understand that it’s the privilege of a lifetime to be able to play in a room full of people and for everyone to connect in that way. I think those moments genuinely change life.
You tweeted not long ago, “Big Brother theme tune is still absolutely banging.” I’ve actually never been a regular viewer of that show. So, your tweet made me go and find that song, and you’re right: It absolutely rips. Is making music for a movie or a show something you would like to do?
It’s funny you say that because actually, this time has allowed me to work with my publishing company to be able to explore that more. I had done some writing recently for a TV drama series, and it’s not like officially happening. Also, my music is being trailerized at the moment. They’re taking the music and doing things that I would never be so bold to do, but that’s kind of emboldening me.
Big Brother theme tune is still absolutely banging.
— Kelly Lee Owens (@kellyleeowens) June 24, 2020
I’m actually going to spend the next couple of months — September, October — kind of writing for films in that way and really exploring that kind of dramatic side to my sonics and my personality, I guess. So yeah, film is something I’ve always been interested in writing for, and I think it’s all about conveying emotion, right? Which is kind of all it’s about for me anyway. I think it’s an amazing thing that could be really interesting to do. Watch this space, I guess.
Inner Song is out 8/28 via Smalltown Supersound. Pre-order it here.