If Kelly Lee Owens’s songs generally sit somewhere upwards of 130 beats-per-minute, I’d say that her words-spoken-per-minute rate sits at around double that. The Welsh-born, London-based producer, songwriter and vocalist apologetically prefaces our conversation with “I’m hungover”—it was her 32nd birthday the day before, which she celebrated quietly with friends ahead of a joint birthday/album release do later in the week—and, yet, still seems incapable speaking any slower than a million-miles-a-minute, often considering no less than five-to-ten ideas at any given time as she discusses the conceptual underpinning of her serene, striking second album Inner Song. Over the course of our video call, Owens, beaming in from her sun-drenched London apartment wearing a black halter top, chats as if she’s playing verbal connect the dots, deftly drawing lines between her music and the climate, the natural and the human, the mental and the physical.
Her first full-length since the release of her lauded self-titled debut album in 2017, Inner Song is a remarkable new step for Owens. Scrubbing away the darkness and dub influences of its predecessor, Inner Song finds the producer utilizing her melancholic take on ambient techno in order to consider the interconnectedness of all things, the hidden—or not so hidden—ties that connect humanity to nature and the earth. At the same time, it’s a personal, thoroughly internal record, one that grapples with the loss and eventual regaining of self in the wake of trauma, and all the attendant grief of that experience. The result is far from fragmented; instead, Inner Song exists by the law it preaches, working at every turn to show the tenuous but ever-present connections between all things, emotional and physical. The palette is, as on Kelly Lee Owens, icy blues and greys, colors that usually represent detachment but here seem to signal a bracing, invigorating immediacy, like a plunge headfirst into icy water.
Recorded between Daniel Avery’s studio in London and James Greenwood’s studio in Margate—where she recorded her vocals on the very microphone that George Michael used to record Faith, a fact that caused her father to “go wild”—Inner Song is the product of years of emotional work on Owens’ part. Around the time of her debut’s release, Owens found herself “a shell” of the person she once was, worn down by a “vampiric, toxic, abus[ive]” relationship. Looking to find herself anew, she sought healing in the form of visceral, unusual therapies, treatments that involved movement and sound, as well as self-reflection and emotional work. A few years on, she has rebuilt herself, redefined her own boundaries and done the “nitty gritty, dark, shitty work” to find herself again. “I'm cautious [now], and that can be deemed a negative thing,” she says, “But it’s just in the sense that I know myself, and know my worth.”
Rarely going into the details of the experiences that led to Inner Song—and understandably so—Owens nonetheless speaks with the clarity, intensity, and vigour of someone with a new lease on life. She is effusive and openhearted, prone to dropping sage idioms (“If your cup is half empty, you can't give;” “You don’t bleed on others”) and acknowledging the shortfalls of her knowledge base when she can’t answer something. Once a staunch advocate for representation of women on lineups, she has now, since the blooming of the Black Lives Matter movement, begun to consider the ways in which she can make electronic music, and the world in general, a safer and more accommodating place for Black and indigenous people. And although she may occasionally come across as quixotic — a natural hazard of daring to ideate a cleaner, kinder, more beautiful world — it’s hard not to take Owens seriously in her vision, perhaps because, despite having seen darkness, she has still found her way back to overwhelming, clarifying light.
The FADER: How has Black Lives Matter changed the way you think about techno, and the scene?
Kelly Lee Owens: It's funny, because I guess I've fallen into it, so I didn't really know, fully, the history of techno. Dance music, for me, is relatively new. And as a woman as well, you're kind of [marginalised in electronic music]. People started calling what I do techno, but it's not something I've grown up with or been part of for that long, and so it's just pushed me into watching documentaries and reading into the history of the genre, and fully fucking acknowledging the people who created this marvelous world that I now get to be a part of.
It’s come back to sharing the work that I do and having black perspectives on it. For example, the visuals for “Melt!” were done by Laneya Billingsley, she's a Black artist from San Francisco who's phenomenal. I had Coby Sey do a remix for “Melt!” He's the first and only person that's remixed stuff [from the album]. Having people of color have their take on my [music] is one thing. Then it's about just educating yourself and donating where you can. But even that sometimes feels hollow, right? It doesn't end there. It’s about continuing the conversations with my white friends.
I’m really interested in a line on the last track on Inner Song, “Wake Up”: “Always avoiding your sense of dread.” What does that mean for you? Do you think we have a problem with facing those kinds of feelings?
We definitely do. I think we are very good at avoiding our pain, which creates, therefore, more pain. And more layers of it, so the real feelings are pushed so far down, and are stored so deeply in our body that we distract ourselves more and more and more.
I've had to do therapy in the last few years — I've had to do trauma body release therapies, I've had to do so many different things to try to unlock, and undo, the knots, and actually deal with what is going on inside. Technology, especially our phones, is just very, "Oh my god, I'm feeling this feeling, it's not good — let me just swipe, let me just look at my screen and this will pass." It’s this distraction. Sonically, that’s what happens in [“Wake Up”]. There’s a moment where it's just the strings at the end, with this arpeggiated synth, and the synth is going so fast — that for me is that distraction.
We should all try to do the work if we can. That’s why I'm donating to Black Minds Matter — I've been trying to regularly donate, because trauma, generational trauma, is one thing, and then there's individual traumas that people go through and I feel like until that stuff is dealt with, it's very difficult to thrive. And we need people to thrive.
Why do you think it took you until now to get to that place of understanding what you need?
Because none of this stuff is taught in educational systems. There's no emotional education. You find that often from specific people in your life, good friends or people who come into your life, or mentors. I had to discover it for myself through books, other things. One of them was actually sound and healing. But, yeah, the support systems just aren't really there. I believe that that's for a reason — I feel when you're able to deal with your traumas in life, you can actually thrive, and I feel like this society, these systems, don't necessarily want you to thrive — they want you to stay in survival mode.
I think it's just something that has to, unfortunately, be self taught, because we've lost the art of storytelling. We've lost the art of community. And we've lost the art of interconnectedness with all things. There’s this individualism which, I think, has created a lot of loneliness and disconnection. And it's not about that. Let’s hope that we can now have more conversations, and there's more places that people feel like they can go to. People always need a place to be, and sometimes that place can be music.
It's interesting that you mention individualism as a phenomenon, because so much of the record focuses on the power or the beauty in being alone. How do you reconcile the negative aspects of individualism with the wholeness in being alone that you write about on the album?
Alone used to be two words — ‘all one’ — which means whole. It’s just been shifted around, it's been turned around [to have] a negative connotation. I feel that even if you're part of a community, to be able to be good with yourself is really important, so that you don't constantly try to fill your void with other people. You have to fill up your own spaces first, so that you're not sucking the life out of others, not taking too much from others.
I do feel it's a balance. I think we do all have a responsibility to deal with our own pain. First and foremost, you have to be the one that says, ‘I want to change this, I want to deal with this, I want to thrive.’ And then there's a community there for you, hopefully, and then you can integrate fully, by doing the work.
Language is so difficult, and I struggle to get it right sometimes. Doing the work puts all the onus and the responsibility on the individual once again, when this pain has often been created by systems. I'm trying to figure it all out myself. I know that I'm the only one at this moment that can deal with my own shit, and I have the resources to do that. So I'm trying my best so that I don't cause any pain to anyone else. That's the place that I'm at. I have had people to help me — that sense of community and interconnectedness. I feel I can connect deeper with people when I've connected more deeply with myself. It's hard, it's hard.
What does that process look like for you? Connecting with community, connecting with yourself.
When I was going through this stuff, I ended up connecting a lot with this sound healing community — gong sound baths, shamanic drumming, voicework. Again, though, it's really sticky because, as a white person, is that appropriation to join those spaces, even if they're led by indigenous people? It’s really hard to know. But it looked like, for me, just doing some research on sound's ability to unblock pain in your body — somatic [therapy] — that I think has been known and used for thousands of years. It's kind of been a remembrance for us now, because we've become so disconnected from ourselves, the planet, and the ability to be able to use sound as medicine. I think I talked about it, [around] the first album — [doctors] shattering cancer cells with specific resonant frequencies. Sound can be used in a very visceral way to actually help, to make people well.
The body trauma release therapy was huge for me. [It’s] movement of the body to release [trauma]. How the [therapist] described it was — if you're a zebra and you're being chased by a lion, the fight-or-flight response will kick in, and you'll run. If you get caught by the lion, the other part of the nervous system will come in, where it shuts down. If you were about to be eaten, you would feel less pain. If, somehow, that zebra escaped, though, it would find a quiet place and it would shake viscerally for 15 minutes, so that it didn't store the trauma in the body. So it would release all of the adrenaline and everything from the muscles. Humans obviously don't do that.
This therapy was a physical way to be able to release what [trauma release therapists] believe is trapped and stored emotions that haven't been able to be released. I was like, ‘Okay, I'll give it a go, little bit skeptical.’ And then the following week, I felt so low, really depressed, the most I’ve felt in my life. I was actually feeling the sadness. I was actually feeling the grief, and being brave, and connecting with those feelings. In that week, it just so happened that I had to write the lyrics for the album. So I sat in this room with all my notepads and [wrote]. But it allowed me to be really honest and raw and real about what I was feeling. I think that's why maybe some of the lyrics are more direct on this album than they have been before.
“I do feel interconnected to everything else, I don’t believe in the separation of anything. I think the separation of humanity and nature has been the biggest and greatest trickery of our existence.”
A lot of the record focuses on nature in quite an interesting way. Why did you want to grab at the hugeness of it all? It seems to focus on how consequential the world is beyond the human perspective.
I think the bigger perspective has always helped me. The collective experience is always something that I've tried to tap into. I do feel interconnected to everything else, I don't believe in the separation of anything. I think [the separation of humanity and nature has] been the greatest trickery of our existence. Well, it’s classic divide and conquer, hey? ‘Let's go beyond each other, let's go as far as nature, let's disconnect [indigenous peoples] from themselves, which is also the land, and everything.’ I'm trying to dismantle that [idea], also, which I feel is important, and connect to the collective experience — understanding that what I do affects you, what you do affects me, and affects nature. I'm talking about [nature] as a separate entity, but I do feel we are it.
These concepts of reconnecting with nature and slowing down one’s life might be seen by some as New Age-y. What grounds these ideas for you?
I hate that label, I fucking hate that shit. [That label is] another tool. It's another tool to make people out to be mad or have their ideas invalidated or say that it's not real. It's such bullshit. This is what's sad to me: all of this stuff, that's so basic, has been mocked for a long time. Maybe that's one of the trickeries in itself: making someone out to be a hippie, giving things bad names and bad labels so that people rubbish it. That’s one form of trickery in itself. I am a grounded person. All I'm saying is, I want people to be able to deal, to thrive, to not be in survival mode. To feel a sense of community and home. And if that's New Age-y and hippie and mocked in a bad way, so be it. That shit's real. Sorry, I've gotten a bit on my high horse here. People are just so quick to mock stuff, but I look at someone's life, whether it's, you know, [someone] working nine-to-five in a job that they hate, who is completely disconnected from themselves and other people. Surely that's not it. We're understanding that fundamentally that doesn't work.
You’ve been talking about [Clarissa Pinkola Estés's 1992 book] Women Who Run With the Wolves a lot as an inspiration, which is a book that’s very interested in the concept of a specifically feminine psyche. Did the book change how you felt about femininity?
Yeah, definitely. I don't feel I've been educated to know that, as a woman, there are all these different phases and moments that I'll perhaps experience that are valid, and that my anger is valid and my rage is valid. There are moments for rage. There’s one chapter where [Estés] talks about how rage can be creative, it can ignite fires, and fires can give life, right? Fires can warm you, you can cook food with fires — they can be amazing things that can keep you safe. But also, if left for too long, and if they're not contained to a degree, they can destroy. So it's about the idea of expressing rage or anger in moments where it's needed, but to not let it burn for so long that it destroys your inner worlds. She does it by storytelling. I think she calls it curandera. She’s a storyteller. The stories that she talks about are quite dark, they're really gritty, they're not pretty, but that kind of is a more fair representation of life. It prepares you for these moments of darkness — tells you that they're going to come, that it's okay, that this is how perhaps you can navigate yourself out of these things.
What she talks about are the cycles of life. Everything's cyclical — there's the life, there's the death, but there's the rebirth. And we always forget about the rebirth, even within relationships, life-death-rebirth cycles all the time. But we end things at the death period. We end things at that point thinking it can't be salvaged, that there can't be a rebirth. We focus so much and we fear so much the death of something, or the death of self. There's a death of self that I experienced. They call it [the] dark night of the soul, depending on which culture you're from. I fucking went through that and I had to rebirth myself and I do feel like it's a new phase in my life. But what comes with death is grief. So I was grieving for a loss of self that I had to experience, and was necessary.
Can you tell me a bit more about that?
I was in this particular relationship that took all of my energy away from me. It was kind of vampiric, it was toxic. It was abuse, it was a lot of very dark things. I kind of lost myself. I was a shell of myself. I was simultaneously trying to promote my first record and tour and do all these things. And there were other losses that came in, and I was just broken. I had no energy. I lost my voice three times in one year. I'd have weeks in bed where I couldn't move. The body's the last thing — it's like, ‘Okay, you're not gonna deal with this shit emotionally? I'm going to shut down.’ And that happened to me many times. That's why I had to ask myself those questions and go into therapy and all these other things like, ‘How did I end up here?’ And again: ‘Where do I want to be? How do I want to feel?’ This is not it. It took recovery — long, long, long periods of recovery that I'm only just coming out of. This is not this quick-fix thing, you know. I had to let go of what I now call an older version of me, that had no boundaries, that emotionally and romantically was unable to see certain things. I had to let her go. And I could also never get her back, because I was fundamentally changed by this situation. I saw life differently afterward. I had to accept myself as where I'm at now, and that was hard because I felt so different, and lots of innocence had been stripped away. But now there's this. They say that with scar tissue, when it heals over, it's got that tensile strength. That's what I feel I have now, and I feel stronger and more centered, in that sense, because I know myself better, because I've had to ask the hard questions.
I guess that brings up — the album is ostensibly a breakup album, but the rhetoric within it — like “So this is how it must go, now I am moving on,” or “Love is not enough to stay” — is very different from “You broke my heart,” or something. Why do you think you took that viewpoint?
It’s probably just too simplistic to call it a break-up record. The breakup was one element. The relationship triggered in me an awakening of self, an understanding that I needed to change myself — a responsibility for myself and my life and where it was going, and the work it takes to do that. Healing is dark and sticky and difficult and painful, but the pain of dealing with your shit is worth something. At least there’s a positive change that comes from the pain, rather than the pain of staying in the same place and repeating the same cycles. It was an acknowledgement of my life — where I'd been, where I was at, where I wanted to go, and my potential to thrive, rather than just survive.