Cello wizard Kelsey Lu is heading back Down Under for Vivid LIVE. In this interview/"therapy session" she tells Anthony Carew about how she's hoping her phone will fare better this time around, and that there's not enough time to discuss her sex life.
The last time Kelsey Lu was in Australia, early in 2017, the 29-year-old American cellist/songwriter visited Taronga Zoo on a day off. There, things got real hairy. “I dropped my phone into an enclosure,” recounts Lu with a laugh. “I was taking a video, and it like fell over the side. I can’t remember the name of the animal, they were these gazelle-like creatures with giant horns, and they were jumping around, butting heads with each other. They were not friendly, and they were definitely not into me reaching in. It was this whole ordeal.”
Lu was eventually reunited with her phone, a highlight on a tour that found her performing at Sugar Mountain and under a James Turrell sculpture at Mona Foma. Her imminent Australian tour will find her playing across the harbour from Taronga Zoo at Sydney Opera House. Her Vivid LIVE visit follows the release of her long-awaited debut LP, Blood. “I’ve been pregnant for three years, making this album,” Lu says, “I’m so ready for it to pop out."
“Each song was thinking on a different point in time, over a course of a few years,” Lu says of Blood, which found her working with Rodaidh McDonald, Jamie xx, and Skrillex. “In the end, it felt like a story that played out in three acts. My favourite part, actually, was sequencing the album. I never knew how it was going to work, but, then, it made so much more sense to me when I could lay it all out on a timeline.”
Lu’s timeline dates back to when she was four, and she first picked up a violin. Born Kelsey McJunkins, she grew up in a strict Jehovah’s Witness household in North Carolina, with classical music at the centre of her life. After leaving behind her faith, and becoming disconnected from her family, she turned to music. She moved to New York, played on records by Wet, Here We Go Magic, Blood Orange, Solange and Lady Gaga, all the while fashioning her own idiosyncratic sound, where she sings over looped cello, in songs that feel both pop and avant-garde, ambient and soulful.
Where her 2016 EP Church was recorded live in a church, Blood is a glossy studio work. “When it comes to genre-defining, or categorisation, I’m very fluid. I’m genre-fluid. If someone thinks I’m one thing, then I could be that, but I can also be so many other things,” Lu says of her music. “It’s coming from me, it’s coming from a real place. There’s a large spectrum of sound, and it’s dense, in many ways, both lyrically and musically. I think that everyone can find something that they like, can grasp on an idea. And, then, in turn, get a sense of how my mind works. [The album] isn’t linear, it isn’t singular. It’s not one thing. It’s many moods.”
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Lu doesn’t write songs with any intent; instead, she intuitively feels them out. “It can feel more spiritual,” she offers. “I’m guiding myself, and listening to myself, and essentially playing a game with myself, where I’m creating melodies that become words, and only then figuring out what I’m actually trying to say; where I’m obviously articulating something, subconsciously, but I may not know what that is until I actually dig into it, and try to work that out.”
“When it comes to genre-defining, or categorisation, I’m very fluid. I’m genre-fluid."
She sees Blood as being about “home, the core of existence, sexuality, beauty, pain, heartache, the meaning of life”, but she works out what those themes are after the fact, often through interviews. “It’s like a therapy session,” she says, of promo conversations. “People are asking questions of me that I may not ask of myself. So, it allows me to reflect on things that I may not otherwise reflect on. At times, it can be enlightening. Other times, it can be monotonous, answering the same questions over and over.”
Is there anything, then, that she’s never been asked about in an interview? That maybe she wants to talk about? “No one’s ever asked me about my sex life,” she says, slyly. Well, um, does she want to talk about that? She laughs: “That’s ok. We haven’t enough time.”