Kelsey Lu Is Never Bored
The Cellist And Vocalist On Solitude, Sea Angels, And Learning To Say No
- Interview: Durga Chew-Bose
- Photography: June Canedo
Over the phone, Kelsey Lu sounds far away. Far, far away. Further, even, than the actual distance that separates us. Lu in Los Angeles. Me in Montreal. Lu on a porch. Me in a glass-enclosed boardroom. It’s the bad reception, I tell myself. It’s the echo of our phones. The strange and unfeeling, and sort of spoken awkwardness involved in phone interviews, right when they start—before they get going. The time difference, too; an added, more obvious distance. Her morning voice—easy, slowed, contemplative. Vine-like. As if she’s speaking to—in response to—a view. Trees, a blue sky.
While Lu’s tone is faint, it shouldn’t be mistaken for unconcerned. She seems elsewhere but still earthy. Quiet, but listening, Lu makes herself clear. The classically-trained cellist and vocalist speaks in images, flickers of feeling. She describes her debut album, which she’s currently completing, as being inspired by movement: driving, the ocean, water in general. Similar to the arrangements in her music and much like her single, “Shades of Blue”—a sleepy and celestial, sonic anodyne about heartbreak—Lu’s conversational manner is open. Explorative at its core.
Lu, who will soon join Blood Orange on tour, has collaborated with Solange, Florence Welch, OPN—to name a few—and has performed with Kelela at a no-runway Telfar show, or more recently, in the courtyard at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, live-scoring No Sesso’s Eden-like capsule collection.
Here, Lu considers the benefits of solitude, the sound of her cello, and YouTube spiraling.
What imagery do you feel is particularly sacred to you?
Everyday people. Mostly older people. When I lived in New York, I walked around and you could see more of it. But in LA, I live kind of far away from people.
Is that on purpose? The distance.
Yeah. I find that it’s good for me. I can concentrate. After being in New York for so long, I really was starving for space. I needed to feel like it was just me and the trees.
As someone who desires a level of separation to work, is there something you look for when collaborating?
It just has to feel right. A lot of the times I’ve collaborated, the project naturally comes my way. Without having to plan it, things fall into place. But I’ve found myself recently needing to plan more as I come closer to finishing my record. I’m feeling myself come out of this haze of self, and this selfish mindset of being in this whirlwind of my album. My driving force is to abstain from boredom. Boredom and depression. My new feeling is collaborating with people I wouldn’t necessarily expect to because I don’t want to be in my own bubble. I’m interested in exploring things I may have at one time been dismayed by, or that I turned away from, or even side-eyed.
Do you have an approach, then, for climbing out of this ‘haze of self’?
I’m pretty all of over the place. Kind of like my music. That’s how I operate, how my brain works—it’s pretty unorganized. How I consume information—it doesn’t fall in a linear system or pattern.
As you near 30, have you found the right balance for creating so much work while also still turning inwards? Reflecting?
I feel like I’m getting better at prioritizing my energy. Energy conservation is important when you’re making things and trying to connect with people, at least on the level that I am.
When it comes to your work, have you encountered interpretations of it that feel inaccurate? Misunderstandings?
The only misunderstandings I’ve had have been with men. Working with men, sometimes in the past. Them thinking that me being up to collaborate is an opening to my vagina, my pussy. You know what I’m saying?
What’s your artistic vetting process? How do you screen? Is there something you would definitely say no to?
I’m very open.
Where does that openness come from?
Ever since I was little, my dad has told me that we’d like be at the beach, and he says it would be me and twenty other people around me, and I would gather people together to play. I just have this natural drive towards people and gathering people together. I’m a herder.
Do you like to host? Do you consider yourself a good dinner host?
Yeah I do. I really love making people feel at home, and cozy, and welcomed. I love feeding people. I love making tea for people.
Are you the friend who is very much in tune with everyone in the room?
Definitely. I have empathic tendencies. I feel people’s energies very strongly and sometimes I take them on, which is why I feel the need to be alone and why I need my solitude when I’m working.
How have you made your house a home in LA?
I have a morning routine. I’m really fortunate where I live, there’s a lot of nature around and I have access to trails, to water. So I try to take advantage of that as much as I can. I have a porch, which I’m on right now. It helps me gather myself and get centered. Every morning, as soon as I get out of bed, I put on, The Unicorns in Paradise, this cassette tape by Laraaji. It helps me start my day on a super meditative note.
I have some more questions…looser, random?
Okay. How would you describe the sound of your cello?
Um…A really fat, old cicada tree. Like a really old wise tree that’s planted in the bottom of the ocean. And there’s all this sea life living within it, specifically sea angels. Do you know what sea angels are?
They’re basically sea slugs. They’re really, really, really small. But they look like little angels. It’s a type of pteropod. And well, that is the sound of my cello.
If you could invent any app, what would it be?
Wait, I feel like I was just talking about this! There probably already is a file organizing app. When you are creating a project in Logic, you create it, you save it, and then that project immediately goes into the app that’s on your device. And it organizes your project for you, somehow. By like date. I’m clearly talking about how I’m struggling with the organization of my own files.
Are you wishing someone could store your tangents? So you can more readily retrieve them?
I guess that’s it. Like an engineer. Or an intern in my pocket.
So basically you want an intern.
I guess that’s what I’m getting at. Last night I was working on a song. I had shot an impromptu video last weekend and there were all these clothes that hadn’t been used, that were leftover, and I was like these can’t go to waste, so I came up with this concept for a music video and then I hit up my friend and said come over, we’re gonna brainstorm. So I was making the music for it last night and I was on a YouTube spiral for hours trying to figure out how to do this thing that is so simple. And if I had an intern, I could be like, “So this is what I want to do.” But you know, the thing is, I really do love figuring this shit out by myself. I really like doing things myself. I feel power through that.
And sometimes YouTube spiraling feels really productive.
Yeah, for sure.
Has anyone recently given you advice that has unlocked something for you? That you hold close?
I was offered to go do a few shows with someone, and it would have been…it just would have been a dream. An amazing opportunity. I was really conflicted because I wanted to do it but I needed to conserve myself because I was working on stuff. And what I was working on was so personal, and there was so much planning, months of it, and I needed to keep working on it. I was talking to Mara Brock Akil—she’s incredible, and has so much love. And she was like, “One of the hardest things to do is to say no. When you say no, you give yourself room to be with yourself. To then have the ability to say yes, later.” She told me it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself and everyone else because then otherwise you’re running yourself thin, and you can’t give yourself to anyone. What I’m saying is just some of what she said, but in that moment, it was truly important for me to hear it. Saying no doesn’t close all opportunities. There’s power in saying no.
Durga Chew-Bose is the Deputy Editor at SSENSE.
- Interview: Durga Chew-Bose
- Photography: June Canedo
- Styling: Tess Herbert
- Hair: Illeisha Lusfsiano
- Makeup: Wanthy Rayos
- Photography Assistant: Rahim Fortune
- painting: June Canedo