• About A Band: Kelela

    The entirety of Kelela’s music career can be summed up in one lyric: “I’d do anything for the high.” The R&B singer’s been chasing it for the better part of 10 years. 

    “It’s basically being committed to the final payoff,” she tells us. “I want people to be like, ‘Ugh! I’m in my own world right now. Please don’t bother me. Do not disturb.’ I’ve definitely had that experience with music, so I think I’ve been trying to create it for other people.”

    On her EP closer “The High,” off of Hallucinogen, released in October, she croons the line over pulsating beats and hypnotic keys, every syllable sung with purpose, a sexy proclamation. It’s a package of production, lyricism and vocal delivery signature to Kelela, but one that she’s defined through pursuing various emotions, aesthetics, and sensations.

    The daughter of Ethiopian immigrants, Kelela Mizanekristos was raised just outside of Washington D.C., her first public performances jazz stylings at venues in the District. Jazz singing felt good, but it wasn’t great. She needed to write her own music. In 2008, she joined indie band Dizzy Spells, but found herself feeling more compelled and confident on tracks that were more synth-based as opposed to guitar. 

    Then she moved to California. 

    Upon arriving in Los Angeles in 2010, Kelela met and collaborated with electronic duo Teengirl Fantasy—and thus, through them, most notably connected with the producers behind club label Fade to Mind and its London affiliate Night Slugs. Producers from both sides of the Atlantic—L.A. production duo Nguzunguzu and U.K.’s Bok Bok and Girl Unit, among others—served as catalysts to her music, helping craft intricate and experimental accompaniment for Kelela’s velvety vocals. What resulted was Cut 4 Me, a mixtape of underground club workings and pop-R&B vocals, released on Fade to Mind in 2013. She found her niche.

    “After Dizzy Spells, I sort of stopped and was like, ‘I know it’s not any of this. But I don’t know what it is,’” she says. “So it took a few tries to figure out what it is for me. I am pretty stubborn—and maybe you could call it vain—but I’d always sort of promised myself that I wouldn’t make an appearance unless I was 100% confident about what that is, about what that looks like and what it feels like. It wasn’t until the mixtape that I actually did that.”

    In the meantime, Kelela’s been working on her full-length debut, which she hopes to have out by late spring. To whet palates, there was Hallucinogen: six sonically and lyrically dense tracks reverse-chronologically detailing the rise and fall of a relationship, which sees Kelela digging deeper into the production pool with credits courtesy of Arca and Boots.  

    Cut 4 Me and Hallucinogen push the boundaries between what R&B is—or was—and the next wave of contemporary musical experimentalism. Both the mixtape and the EP have their distinctions—Cut 4 Me is more club beat-heavy, while Hallucinogen is wrought with sensual slow jams—yet are each independently Kelela, her voice serving as an anchor to the many facets of her musicianship. 

    We spoke with the singer before tonight's Space 24 Twenty grand opening performance in Austin (which you can learn more about here). Read what she had to say about finding her sonic and physical niche as an insider-outsider. 
    Words by Allie Volpe

    How have you taken to fan reactions to the EP?
    I did put a lot into it and I was supposed to release it in May, but I held off because I wanted to make it better. It feels really good to get a good response because I put extra work in—the extra work, which was essentially switching out a song for “Rewind,” which seems to be a song that everybody’s responded to. It feels really good to have made that decision and that people are receptive to it.

    There seem to be so many detailed decisions that went into it as far as songwriting and production. How do you go about making those choices?
    On the production side, I’m not a conceptual artist; I’m not approaching it where “This project is going to sound exactly like this.” I sort of know it when I hear it. With this particular record, I put things together that I’d started a long time ago, actually. With “A Message,” the track is actually built from vocals of my own, just saying lines, and it’s been layered [like] a million times. That’s what you’re hearing. The process is different for each song. 

    So does it have more to do with the producer you’re working with or the vision that you had for the song?
    It’s about the vibe, the feeling I’m trying to convey. For “Rewind” for example, I work closely with a few different people to try to get out something that sounds simultaneously classic and also pushes your ears—makes you feel like there’s maybe some sort of unfamiliar thing there. I’m sort of always trying to tread that line between what is familiar and resident and what is going to challenge your ear. 

    That’s interesting from a listener standpoint. When you hear something that challenges you, you want to figure out more about it.
    It’s meant to be stimulating and not just purely relying on intuition and human instinct. Oftentimes, the most resident thing is something I’m not comfortable doing, simply because it should work. It’s almost like a crutch. Resonance is meant to not be something you try to do, it just strikes you. I think that it’s important to teeter-totter between that and something that’s actually quite stimulating, including challenges and makes you think or makes you wonder. 

    Did it take time to hone in on that?
    I think it was pretty natural to say, “I love these kinds of productions. I sing like this, I’d like to hear how it sounds when I sing like this.” By “like this” I mean with overt R&B styling. The vocal is coming from the space between R&B and all the other things that have influenced me, so taking this very familiar thing and pairing it with something that may be less familiar. I think I’ve always wanted to recontextualize my voice so that I can communicate with how outside and how inside I feel. I think I’d ultimately like for the people who feel inside-outside to find a safe space in that soundscape. 

    Does this come from a feeling of not belonging in your past?
    Growing up in suburban Maryland as a black girl, in a pretty mixed school, I think my social network was very much upper-middle class white girls. Growing up in that space and then also being second generation—both my parents being Ethiopian—so having black experience in the U.S. but also an experience where I’m black but I go home and nobody’s speaking English. I think that kind of experience is the inside and outside that I’ve not overtly or consciously thought to express, but over time I can see that’s what I’m trying to express. 

    How does that translate to the music?
    It’s less about a type of beat or type of sound, and maybe about every type of beat through my lens. Or every type of track, every bit of accompaniment, it’s still going to have all the feeling and all the layered-ness that comes from Kelela. Over time, I’d like to show the world that, rather than “This is the kind of track that she sings on.” I’d rather it be “She sings every kind of track. She sings on everything, it’s just going to be put through her lens and she’s going to sing something that comes from her world.” 

    So it’s safe to say your upbringing definitely influenced your music?
    It has everything to do with it, but maybe indirectly. It’s more in the sense that I think I’ve never wanted to feel totally inside or totally outside. I didn’t feel like I had a spot, but I felt that I had several spots in a lot of places. I was, during lunch, hopping around to different lunch tables. I think it’s a girl moving through the lunchroom on speed.

    Was there a point where you thought you’d throw in the towel?
    Yeah, I thought I was going to be an academic before this. Because this was the thing that I most naturally do every day, without being prompted or asked, it’s the thing that’s easiest thing for me to develop a practice around. I was in school for five-and-a-half years and I learned a whole lot and absorbed a lot of information, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t actually graduate. And it wasn’t because I can’t actually do the work, I think I was so distracted and obsessed—maybe I was too obsessed with music, too caught up in the stream. Before I even started making efforts, I think psychologically, I tried and quit several times before even doing anything. 

    It just sounds like you needed a trial and error period to figure out that feeling that you really wanted. 
    Exactly. I think I really wanted to find something that was honestly, layers. The way that other people sing, what they use for production, it can’t be that thing. I wasn’t really inclined to create that. It was just trying to look at the other elements that I know I’m in love with. 

    What were some songs or albums that made you feel so connected to it?
    Most viscerally and most everlasting: D’Angelo's Voodoo. There are a number of bouts that I’ve had with that record. There have been different times in my life where I’ve been listening to it—rather than listen to it one time, but I’m listening to the D’Angelo record now in my life—that’s probably been about four or five times and most of those times I’ve been in heartache and some sort of real rut. I think that’s an experience that I know I’d like to share. Mariah Carey's Butterfly is one of those records, and Mama’s Gun by Erykah Badu. They’re basically masterpiece records, just one to the next and it doesn’t stop. I think that’s one experience that I’ve been trying to focus on for this next record. 

    What else can you tell us about the album?
    Another thing is the use of interludes. They beg you to go to the next track, or you want to hear the track before so you can feel the vibe before the interlude. The more that I can do that on the first album, I think the more honest it will be because that’s what resonates with me as a listener.

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