When we meet Kelly Lee Owens in a cosy green room, the singer, producer and songwriter’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed ahead of her first-ever show in Melbourne. A few hours after chatting to NME, she takes the stage solo, bringing hundreds of punters into a dreamlike ambient space before plunging them into pounding techno euphoria all within the space of an hour.
Noticeably absent from the set, though, are the hypnotic industrial sounds of her latest album ‘LP8’, released in April. Owens had told NME not to expect material from that record, which she wants to present live in intentional, “immersive” ways befitting how it was created: over eight days in the Norwegian capital of Oslo one wintry January, with only one other collaborator, the noise musician Lasse Marhaug.
‘LP.8’ sublimates Owens’ Welsh identity – take the ethereal song ‘Anadlu’, which means ‘breathe’ – and also reflects her deep ties with her family and forebears. The song ‘Olga’, for instance, is dedicated to the mother of Owens’ grandmother Jeanette, who also inspired the ‘LP.8’ cut ‘Nana’s Piano’, the artist’s “most vulnerable” song to date.
“What it allows for when you’re in a different space or country,” Owens tells NME, “is a greater sense of perspective and a wider reflective space.” After lots of upheaval in her life – her beloved Jeanette passing away, Owens moving house, and putting out previous record ‘Inner Song’ in the thick of the pandemic – she found everything coming to a standstill in snowy Oslo. “It just allowed me to tap into the things I was telling whilst – and this was my deepest intention – casting spells with hope for the future.”
Speaking to NME for the latest in our In Conversation series, she discussed the making of ‘LP.8’, what it was like to remix Sigrid, the enduring impact of Brexit on touring musicians and more. Here’s what we learned.
‘LP.8’ is supposed to challenge the listener
‘LP.8’ is not, strictly speaking, Kelly Lee Owens’ eighth LP – but the creative freedom she felt in the writing and recording process made it feel like the proverbial eighth album where a veteran artist takes a liberating left-turn in their career. “With everything that’s gone on the last few years, it was a time where we could just step into any place we wanted to as human beings, as artists in our imagination,” she says. “And I felt like I had a free pass – it was like: you have this time and there’s no expectations. You’ve just put out an album. So why don’t you go into a studio and see what you can create?”
This is how Owens remembers her time in Oslo: “It was minus 16 degrees. I felt like I was in a snow globe. I’d escaped London – the borders had closed in Norway. So I was kind of trapped there, but kind of happy about it.” For ‘LP.8’, she worked with just one other person: Lasse Marhaug, the Norwegian noise musician and a longtime artist on Owens’ label Smalltown Supersound. Every morning, before getting into the music, they would meet for coffee and a ritual: “talk for two hours and say, ‘What do you want the future to sound like?’ but also ‘What’s difficult now and how do we approach that?’”
‘LP.8’, Owens says, is supposed to challenge its listener: “This wasn’t about the listener being comfortable the whole time, or being held. I felt I did that with ‘Inner Song’. I was kind of holding people through their real, vulnerable moments. And this one, I’m holding space, I think, in a very different way. It’s a bit more raw.” That explains the decision to open the album with the pounding, percussive song ‘Release’. “Within the first minute you know if you’re going to continue on this journey, or if you’re not ready to step in.”
Throbbing Gristle and Enya were sonic references for ‘LP.8’
Owens and Marhaug had two shared references for ‘LP.8’: Throbbing Gristle and Enya. The former industrial pioneers and noise experimentalists were on heavy rotation for Owens when she worked in a record store. “I’m interested in textures in my productions, everything I’ve made is all about that,” she says. “I almost see the sound that I create – not in a way of synaesthesia – but as a texture, and I’m sewing things together in my mind.”
The Queen of New Age Enya, on the other hand, had much of Owens’ respect “as a Celtic icon” who “just does her thing – invites you into a world”. Owens describes ‘LP.8’ as a “sonic place to step into”, and Enya’s music feels much the same. “She also does sing in her native tongue, and I’m inspired by that as well – especially with Gaelic,” Owens adds. “That has definitely been a dying language, and Welsh was at one point, but isn’t now, fortunately. I felt a deep connection.”
Sigrid is an involved collaborator
Shortly after making ‘LP.8’, Owens got invited to remix the song ‘Mirror’ by Norwegian pop singer Sigrid. After inhabiting the austere sonic world of her album, she was happy to oblige: “What is great about creating is that you bounce off yourself, and so I was ready to just go full pop in that moment.”
On her remix Owens ups the bass and the BPM, injecting ‘Mirror’ with a dose of club euphoria. “The song was so incredible, so well-written. I have so much respect for Sigrid,” she says.
Sigrid was also very much involved in the remix process, sharing her thoughts and notes with Owens. “We just both vibed off each other – I love to remix other women. That needs to happen more often!”
Booking festivals has made touring Europe financially viable
Last year, Owens cancelled her ‘Inner Song’ headline tour of Europe, revealing she’d done so as a result of the coronavirus pandemic “plus the anxiety of dealing with individual countries in a post-Brexit touring world and the extra fees etc that come with that”. Later, she told NME she wanted to shed light on the structural pressures on independent artists: “Individual anxiety isn’t the thing that’s preventing me from touring, it’s a structural issue.”
When NME meets Owens in Melbourne for this interview, she’s about to kick off a summer tour across Europe and the UK – all of the dates not at headline shows but at festivals, which typically offer artists higher fees, she tells NME. That’s how she can afford to get on the road this summer. “Just being real! That actually makes it financially viable. Do my headlining shows at the moment? Would not, still.”
Owens emphasises that “it’s still such a tumultuous time for people”, especially emerging artists trying to build their careers. “Pretending everything’s great and amazing, and that I can afford anything – that’s not the case. I come from a working class background. Everything I’ve created, I’ve created myself… I’m very DIY, and there’s a very fragile ecosystem that’s in place with that stuff.”
Singing ‘Teardrop’ live with Massive Attack is top of her musical bucket list
If anyone from Massive Attack is reading this, do call Kelly Lee Owens next time you need a vocalist to sing ‘Teardrop’ live. “I will never take that back,” Owens declares when NME reminds her of a tweet she sent in May where she put this wish out into the world. “That is 100 per cent what I want to happen.”
She’s under no illusions about how monumental a task that is – but she’s clearly up for it. “Elizabeth Fraser [is] one of my favourite singers in the world. It’s obviously a big thing, a big task, but I would be up for at least trying. I would even audition! … I think it would be a beautiful moment and for me a big culmination. If Elizabeth isn’t free… you know who to call.”