Kelela Decodes Every Track From Her Hallucinogen EP

The L.A.-based artist reveals the inspiration behind each of the six songs on her new release.

Kelela has one hell of a cough, muting the phone when it momentarily consumes her but bounces back earnest and warm. "I haven't done so much chilling, you know?" she explains over the call from her L.A. base. "Spent the entire summer working in the studio and in the process of wrapping [up the] album." It's the message that fans of her 2013 mixtape, CUT4ME, have long been waiting for. "I'm so grateful for how patient people have been," she says with feeling, going on to explain that she's been "going in" on her songwriting and sonic palette, working hard to make something special (she's currently working on “20 candidates for album tracks” for her official debut full-length that will come “probably at the end of next spring.”) "I've always wanted it to be the case that, when you hear the next project, you completely understand why the mixtape was a mixtape."

To tide us over, she made Hallucinogen, an EP that hints at the formidable progress she's made. On the appropriately named "Rewind," she is carefree and confident, running vocal rings around the rolling beat. On "Gomenasai," her cadence is thrillingly angular, while on the EP's Arca-produced title track she lets her hair down, allowing first-take "gibberish" to cast its own language-less spell. Below, she tells the track-by-track story of how Hallucinogen came to be, from who she worked with to what inspired her.

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1. “A Message”

KELELA: "A Message" and "Hallucinogen," the title track, were born out of the same session with Arca. I did those sessions before the [CUT4ME] mixtape was finished. It was my choice to wait on sharing the Arca stuff, because I wanted to go all the way [with them]. "A Message" comes from that same period of my life [as the mixtape], where I was reflecting on a relationship that had just ended. The pursuit was always to take responsibility for how I participated in the relationship and to use the experience to create something completely new for myself. I would say that where I am right now is a direct result of looking inwards.

I wrote it with Arca and then took it to my friend Mocky who I collaborate with a lot; he's an amazing songwriter. He and I had a conversation about what was going on with me, and how I was feeling. It's been a really cool journey with this song. Most of the time I'm thinking about who's gonna help me evoke the most feelings. Alejandro definitely does that, for sure, and Mocky and I also have that rapport. We can talk about the hardest part of the hard thing to talk about. The taking responsibility part, or “how did the thing turn out this way?” He's somebody who's able to see beauty and greatness and amazing things in a seemingly sad context. That's how I want the collaborator's position to be.

2. "Gomenasai”

This came from a conversation I had with Asma Maroof from Nguzunguzu. She hit me and was like, “Girl, have you seen this documentary 20 Feet From Stardom?” I watched the film: it essentially tells the story of black women in popular music for the past 50 years. It's so crazy how nameless and faceless [they are]. I’d never processed how many white men in popular music used black women’s vocals. I never noticed [it’s] the back-up part that I'm singing [along to] in the song, or the part that's so recognizable. And all the dude is doing is yelling over it. It's this literal representation of how I can feel sometimes. The American psyche can't really process black women, especially without a major label behind them. Unless you're on a major label, you're not busting out the woodwork and making your mark in the indie world if you're a black girl.

Later on, I was in Miami for Art Basel and Asma was playing something—I ran up to the stage and I was like, “What is this track and why is it not already on my computer right now?” She was like, “I was gonna send it to you!” So I started working on the track last winter, over the Christmas break. Asma sampled a song from [20 Feet From Stardom], a song by [one of the film’s stars] Lisa Fischer called "How Can I Ease the Pain." It’s the sample that introduces the song and plays throughout.

I wrote most of it myself, and I also wrote a little part with Sam Dew. And then [producer] Ariel [Rechtshaid] helped bring it to another level. The song that I wrote is essentially a narrative of a woman being the dominant person is the bedroom, but also dealing with someone who doesn't necessarily represent what you think of as a bottom. So, an alpha male who is being dominated by a powerful woman. Essentially, it drives the point home of a powerful man who always wants to be dominated by a powerful woman. If you're really on it—if you're next-level, dude—you're really just trying to be taken over in that way.

3. "Rewind"

Essentially, it started with me hearing a bassline in an Obey City track. I didn't know where I was gonna take it, but it was a bassline I couldn't get off of. So brilliant. I knew that I needed to do some major leading melodies—I wanted to sound really pretty on this bassline. It started with this guy Nugget, I asked him to repurpose the bassline and create a Miami bass skeleton around it. We wrote the song together and, after, I had a very basic drum pattern and asked him to do a basic trap drop at the end. I took that skeleton and I asked Girl Unit to give me the most resonant Miami bass track in terms of power, and bring it into the trap outro at the end. Then I asked Kingdom to create a palette that was subverting what was “in,” more on the weird side, more representative of the universe that we're coming from. Then, I took both of their parts and blended it together and sprinkled a little bit of Ariel on top of that.

The story behind "Rewind," the song itself, is that I had just come back from Brazil. My friend was there with me, and we all went to this club one night. She met a girl that she was really interested in. She saw her earlier in the day, and they hung out before we went to the club in Sāo Paulo. In the middle of the club, I saw them hanging out, and we were all chilling. When I was done partying, I told her I was about to leave, and I said, “I'm about to go out, are you coming or no?” And she was like, “I'm gonna come.” Then as soon as we're about to walk out, she says, “I think...I'm going to stay and hang out with the girl. I didn't express my interest in an overt way. So I think I'm gonna go and do that.” And I was like, “Yes girl. You have to turn around and you have to go.” The next morning, I wake up and I'm so curious about her night. I knocked on her door and I was like, “So... how was it?!” She was like, “Girl, I went back in the club and I never saw her again.” And I was like, "What? Oh my god, no. That's so juicy though!” She was like, “I had the best time partying in that crazy club, but I could never find her. I looked everywhere.” And I was like, “Oh my god, what a good song.” So, that's where the song "Rewind" comes from: it's literally from my best friend's story and, yeah, it's really juicy.

4. "All The Way Down"

"All The Way Down" is an instrumental that comes from DJ Dahi. He produced that song, and I actually wrote with a few songwriters—one of them is Jess Glynn, she and I wrote the verses together. And then I wrote the next part of the song with Talay Riley, who is another English writer. Nugget also wrote on that as well. So the four of us are responsible for everything in the body of the song. Dahi and I linked up earlier this year, and he played me a version of the same instrumental that was potentially going to be on Tinashe's album, but didn't make it. Basically, I was like, “Yes, the chorus melody is so good. I need to call her right now and see if she's down to let me use that melody for the bridge!” And he called her! And she was like, “Sure!” She obviously had already released the album so she had no problem with sharing the melody.

I've just been into the idea of collaborating with other people who are also artists, even if they're not in the room. The freedom of women sharing creative work is really exciting for me. Also to experience that naturally—it wasn't an A&R [idea] or contrived. That's that song in terms of sound. [In terms of the lyrics], I was having the experience of dating someone who was younger than me. The song is about abandoning unnecessary rules and focusing on things that do matter when it comes to relationships.

5. "Hallucinogen"

Arca asked me to listen to a bunch of instrumentals and tell him which ones I liked to sing on. I had just started doing something that was new for me, which was improvising on tracks that I had never heard before. Essentially, not listening to it first. I asked him not to play me any of the tracks, just to give me the microphone and the headphones. And he was like, “But what if you don't like it?” I was like, “I'll still push my way through it! I'm gonna try for something. Lemme just go.” Then he pressed record, and I just went in. Completely off the dome, it's the original recording for the very first take. So that's why it's in gibberish. He added the delay afterwards—you can even hear him come in halfway through the track. He's like, “Wait, you have to stop. You have to stop, you have to stop. I can't. I can't. I can't. I need to breathe.” He's saying all this stuff and then we burst into laughter. And then I just kept going! So it sort of speaks to the delight in creating, the delight in the sort of pre-school, intuitive nature of how [songwriting] can go sometimes. In terms of sonics, it's very much like drunk sex. It sounds very disoriented [but] also so coherent. I'm in love with that representation, and also that I can do that: I think it's important to be able to let first takes live.

6. "The High"

"The High" is a song that comes from a jam that lasted for an hour and a half with a producer called Gifted & Blessed. [It was] before the mixtape, before anything—it was the first thing I ever did. It was when I first got a VoiceLive Touch, which is a piece of gear that allows you to manipulate your vocals by affecting them and looping and being able to do that simultaneously. For me, that was a really big revelation in how I could sing. It was my first time working with a piece of gear. [Gifted & Blessed] and I went in for a very long time and I went through every single preset that exists in this machinery. I hit upon a few settings that I really loved, one was called “The Kanye Lockdown,” which was the autotune. Another one was a two octave, pitched down vocal, which made me sound like a man, which I was also fascinated with, in terms of gender and how I sound so pretty all the time and where I could go with that.

I really wanted to share the track in an official way, so people can have it as part of the body of work. It's actually from the middle of the relationship that was ending in the mixtape. It's sort of about—I mean, it's obvious. It's about being enthralled. [The EP] is a cycle—starting on a somber note and going through all the phases of excitement and power and loss to come back around again. The last track to first track is very important to me. That shit has to be so right.


Kelela's Hallucinogen EP is out now via Cherry Coffee/Warp (order it here)
Kelela Decodes Every Track From Her Hallucinogen EP