There’s a reckoning at the core of Kelly Lee Owens’ second album, ‘Inner Song’. Having experienced “a lot of losses” since Welsh London-based singer, producer and songwriter’s self-titled 2017 debut, this is a personal journey of gradual healing – but not just for the wellbeing of herself, but listeners too. “I needed to be as raw, real and truthful as possible,” she considers, seeing herself as a “vessel” for “feelings, expressions and ideas. Because the more I can be honest, the more someone can relate to it and take what they need.”
Opener ‘Arpeggi’, an instrumental Radiohead cover, reflects being “brought back to the surface from that darker place; it’s me rising up from this sort of underworld – a rebirth,” Owens says. ‘Jeanette’, meanwhile, is an uplifting homage to her late nan; “she was my biggest fan. There’s a video online of us dancing together onstage at my first ever show,” she remembers. “And the track is her: the energy, hope, bubbly personality. She had this laugh that was like nothing else; I always see her as this sunshine with a heart of gold”.
For Owens, though, the biggest loss was “the loss of self. It was hard to reckon with and took a lot of energy from me,” she says. “When you’re going through those dark, gritty times, you’re focused on surviving. You can’t thrive if you’re just focused on trying to get through the next day. had to do the work, go to therapy, to help me understand how I’d ended up in this space. Just to go in and undo the knots.” It’s important to make clear that it’s an ongoing process; “it’s not like ‘yeah, I’m fixed now’. We do the best we can, but let’s go in and deal with our own pain”
Channelling this range of emotions into her new music was something that came naturally, so much so that the album’s instrumentals were completed in just 35 days. “I was in this whole other space. It was like a blur,” she recalls of the sessions this past winter in her home of North Wales. “The floodgates just opened. I was really ready, and allowed the ideas to flow and be fully formed”.
Perhaps more than any other artist in the electronic scene, Owens is unafraid to leave room between the beats for contemplation. “People struggle with space in things, they think you have to fill it up,” she considers. “I’m the opposite, always asking ‘how can we create more space”, which freaks people out.” But it’s in these spaces that she believes the listener “gets to integrate and process what’s being said or felt.
“I’m definitely not afraid of leaning into the cracks emotionally,” Owens says, citing an unexpected response from her male listeners. “A lot of men send me messages saying ‘I cried listening to this’ or ‘this made me connect to my emotions’. That is phenomenal,” she enthuses, “to hold space in that way, especially with men, who have been so forced to forget their feelings,” noting that suicide remains a top killer of men in the UK.
It’s particularly fitting, then, that she chooses the word “strength” when asked what she hopes ‘Inner Song’ will give people. Deeper still, she wants them to “not be afraid to be alone,” pointing out that ‘alone’ used to be two words: “all one – meaning ‘whole’. That’s what this time has shown us: being whole within the self is the greatest of all strengths and, that, however painful things can be at times, expressing that pain is healing.”
Her love and concern for the environment shines through across ‘Inner Song’, too. ‘Melt!’, a climate crisis call-to-action, is her way of “letting nature speak for itself”, while the moving strings on optimistic closer ‘Wake-Up’ personify the earth crying out beneath synths that represent “the distractions of modern technology. I could hear the earth’s sorrow,” she reflects. “It made me cry”.
“I believe sound can have a real transformative effect on the body and psyche”
Subtly questioning the state of the world is an ethos that’ll likely resonate given the the effects of the global pandemic over the past few months. As a former nurse in an auxiliary cancer ward before her solo music career took flight (following a stint in the indie band The History Of Apple Pie), Owens gave serious thought to joining her friends fighting COVID-19 on the NHS frontline.
Owens says she has found it “frustrating” to see how NHS workers have been treated during the pandemic. “As many people do, I really feel we’ve been let down by the Government.” She’s not afraid to speak up on her former colleagues’ behalf, either. “They weren’t protected. The Government knew about this for a long time; the UK was actually one of the last countries to accept the virus was here and that something needed to be done.”
And she takes issue with the tabloid media’s portrayal of NHS nurses and doctors as “heroes”. “That’s what they have been branded as, but it’s actually the mentality of sending people to war where, as long as you call them a hero, you’re justified in doing that. Nurses and doctors died. They were being sent off to… it sounds dramatic, but risk their lives. They’re some of the most compassionate people in the world, so of course they’re going to turn up to the job.” But, she says, it’s disheartening that their sacrifice has gone largely unrecognised. “When it comes to actually paying them, it’s like ‘oh no, you’re not actually that much of a hero”.
“Even without this pandemic, I didn’t feel like I was doing enough and that comes from a background of helping people that really need help,” she says, having dedicated a playlist to care workers.
She hopes the playlist “provides a sonic space for them to connect, unwind, feel held in, feel safe and know that one person is thinking about them and hoping and wishing that they find peace and can relax”. But, humble as ever, Owens is quick to play down its positive impact. “It’s only a small thing, but I think a lot of stress is semantic and we store it in our body. And I believe sound can have a real transformative effect on the body and psyche. I really think music has the power to do that.”
Kelly Lee Owens’ new album ‘Inner Song’ is out now