Kelsey Lu: ‘The white male hetero-patriarchy is being deconstructed’

The cellist and singer, who has worked with everyone from Solange to Skrillex, on Oprah, activism and immersive sound baths

In times of crisis, we need to make some space for healing: a long bath, a cry, a nourishing meal. It’s important to put time aside for restoration, and multidisciplinary American artist Kelsey Lu’s latest project, Hydroharmonia, aims to provide exactly that – including the bath.

Born out of Lu’s time spent locked down in the Cayman Islands recently on an artist’s residency (“It’s unlike anything I had ever seen – the vastness of the sky!”), Hydroharmonia is an ongoing series of immersive music and visuals, with episodes one and three taking the form of “sound baths” – 20-minute streams are available on YouTube and Bandcamp – intended for a listener to sit with while meditating. The first video features beautiful footage of the sea, with the orange sun on the horizon. “The more you’re in tune with nature, the more you’re in tune with yourself, your spirit,” the 29-year-old explains. “You will find the people that are your community, that are vital for you to have in your life.”

The idea of healing through nature, both individually and collectively, is integral to understanding Kelsey Lu’s work. The artist, who uses they/them pronouns, is best known as a classically trained cellist and singer-songwriter who makes music that is broadly experimental yet full of vivid pop-leaning moments. Collaborators include Blood Orange, Solange, Sampha, Kelela and Florence + the Machine, demonstrating Lu’s ability to sit with both the cool art crowd and giant pop stars.

Kelsey Lu performing in California, 2018.
Kelsey Lu performing in California, 2018. Photograph: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Lu’s excellent debut album, last year’s Blood, sounded like Björk’s Utopia would have if the Icelandic artist had made space for some bangers. Blood has flourishes of classical, but also boasts swooning disco, lush pop, calming birdsong and gentle brushes of left-field electronics (Skrillex and Jamie xx feature). A standout on the record, Lu’s spellbinding cover of 10cc’s I’m Not in Love, helped secure Blood a spot on several end-of-2019 “best of” lists, while critics namechecked influences as varied as Lana Del Rey and Arthur Russell. More recently, Lu put out a remix EP of the record, Blood Transfusion, with reworks from house and techno aficionados. They are also the star of a comic book, Myristica (created by Terrell Villiers and Akia Dorsainvil of Masisi Studios), which features a cosmologically tinged superhero narrative.

All of this is to say that, yes, their artistry is cerebral – but it’s also full of glittery fantasy and breezy, danceable joy. This duality is reflected in Lu’s personality, too – they are measured and a little florid when they speak, but their sentences are peppered with animation and warm laughter as they talk about taking mushrooms, being guided by spirits and how what’s been getting them through lockdown is watching the sun rise and set.

We’re on a video call as they sit and, intermittently, get up to roam around the serene white Barbican apartment they’re staying in. After the Cayman Islands “my spirits told me not to go back to America”, they explain. Not wanting to return to the States right now seems an understandable decision, considering the effects of the pandemic coupled with the fallout from the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd. Lu has watched with some wariness the flood of activism that followed those protests, particularly from brands that might never previously have voiced solidarity.

“It’s kinda goofy,” they say, slowly, “to see the performativity. The white, cis, male hetero-patriarchy, it’s all being deconstructed right now. And there’s a panic to hurry up and do something about that, so through that there’s all these performances happening.”

Globally, conversations around abolition, rethinking justice systems and notions of equality have been sparked – but, Lu suggests, none of this means we shouldn’t be suspicious of how these changes might manifest. “There’s this arising happening, but also a scrambling,” they say. “‘Hurry up, we’ve got to get the Blacks in now so that we don’t look bad.’”

As a queer, Black woman, Lu’s own politics have always been clear – even when they were emerging back in 2016, they spoke very openly about the racism they experienced while modelling (something they did to support themselves after moving to New York once they were done with music school). During a particularly low period at that time, Lu recorded a hauntingly minimal performance in a Brooklyn church that would become their acclaimed debut EP, Church.

Retrospectively, they feel somewhat conflicted about it: “I have a hard time listening to Church now because I can hear the pain I was going through then.” While there’s something to be said for the rawness on that record, and how it resonated with listeners, it’s hard to discuss Lu’s work without talking about pain and catharsis.

Born in North Carolina as Kelsey McJunkins, Lu grew up in a strict, Jehovah’s Witness household, and although their parents were both musicians, they still felt guilty for not wanting to exist in the way that was expected of them. Among other issues, it meant repressing their bisexuality. It might ultimately be why their work now flits so seamlessly between solitary melancholy and an uplifting sense of escapism and fantasy. When they talk about their music videos, it’s telling that Lu says, “It’s a fun way to embody a character you wouldn’t normally be.”

For reasons that are initially unclear, Lu asks if I’ve ever listened to Oprah Winfrey’s SuperSoul Conversations podcast about spiritual and mental wellbeing. “There’s [an episode] with [Native American poet] Joy Harjo,” they explain, “She says when she was a baby she cried all the time. She felt like she knew she didn’t want to enter the world she was born into, that she knew she was going to go through trials and tribulations. I listened to that and thought about how my parents told me I would always cry so loudly as a baby.”

For Lu, it was an insight into how they too had been born into the wrong world, and was innately aware of it as a crying child. “[There’s a] resilience in surviving beyond a life that was carved for you to be muted in,” they say, “I like to think I was born at the age of 18. Music was my lifeboat from a world I didn’t want to be in.”

Kelsey Lu performing in Arcosanti, Arizona, 2018.
Kelsey Lu performing in Arcosanti, Arizona, 2018. Photograph: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

The story goes that, aged 18, Lu cut ties with their family and left home to study cello at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (they have since reconciled). It was a move they had been planning for a while, inspired, they suggest, in part by their older sister Jessica McJunkins, who loved classical music and was studying there. Teenage Lu skipped school to sneak on to the local university campus: “I staked out one of the cello teachers outside of his door and I was like” – they do a comically high-pitched impression of their teenage self – “‘You have to accept me, I have to study here, I have to go here!’” He asked them to play for him and was immediately keen to teach them, helping them to figure out the financial situation. “And that was my way out.”

Of course, going through such a stark lifestyle change while honing their craft had its setbacks. “Within the rigorous course of the conservatoire, I was also coming into a new life and experiencing a liberation that was very foreign to me,” they explain, “I didn’t set boundaries because I was taking everything in and was so excited about life, but then I felt really hurt by things and felt like I needed to go into isolation.” An education in classical music is, in many ways, rooted in white patriarchy. Lu would soon discover how it manifested even in seemingly trivial details about how music works. Odds are we’ve all heard instruments tuning up to middle A, but Lu explains there are numerous theories about why this is the universally agreed tuning note, and why it’s at a frequency of 440 hertz. It was a decision, Lu tells me, made by the International Organisation for Standardisation – “which, you know, was just a bunch of white people”.

This takes us back to Hydroharmonia. Through the project, Lu has been working with a different frequency instead. “Using 432 hertz is like a reclamation of sound frequencies,” they say. “Taking back the power. In my research, I’ve found that 432 is said to be mathematically consistent with the patterns of the universe – and there’s evidence of that being healing and therapeutic.” The basic idea is that 432 hertz is said to be softer for us to process, and has a positive impact on relaxation and health (though this is a much-disputed theory).

There is something more broadly therapeutic and healing to Lu’s work, too. Their latest project is intended as a restorative space specifically for black, indigenous and person of colour (BIPOC) communities, with proceeds from the third part of the series split between different charitable organisations, including a fellowship for previously incarcerated Black mothers and caregivers in the US, and the collective Black Trans Femmes in the Arts. “Unity comes in numbers, and I feel like it’s not the time for individualism,” Lu says. “My favourite times of creating or expressing myself were when I was working with others. Even when I was alone and going through my depression or my trauma, I would really cling to being around friends and having that exchange; feeling not alone in those moments. Maybe we aren’t from the same place, but we have a common goal in mind and that is strengthening and unifying.”

To have so much of the narrative around their work rooted in painful experiences can become draining. “It’s frustrating sometimes,” Lu nods, “When you think of people using a sad story or a place of pain as a jump-off point to find a good headline. But it is so much a part of my life and my work – I feel like it’s important to find the right space to talk about it. ‘Who do I think would benefit from hearing this?’ is something I’ve been thinking about more often.”

Lu is also always thinking about how best to push boundaries in their work, as evidenced by their upcoming projects. Artist Kevin Beasley, who recently refurbished an old cotton gin motor for a performance at the Whitney museum in New York, sent audio stems from the sound the machine produced out for a select few musicians to rework – including Lu. On the other hand, they have a single with Berlin-based DJ Boys Noize coming up. This is as well as continuing work on Hydroharmonia, with more music, visuals and compositions lined up. As they put it: “I exist within this realm to bring disruption, light and hope to folks that might not be able to see that they hold that power within themselves.”

In this overwhelming time, Kelsey Lu’s music is a gentle reminder that we all need to take a moment to pause, to cry and heal – and take that warm bath.

Hydroharmonia ep III is available on Bandcamp

Main picture taken in the Barbican Conservatory in London, which offers free entry with booking. Makeup by Michelle Leandra


Tara Joshi

The GuardianTramp

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