Breaking: Kelly Lee Owens
The Welsh producer first made waves working with Daniel Avery and Jenny Hval. Now it's her turn.
BACKSTORY: An erstwhile auxiliary nurse who moved to London to pursue her musical dreams at the encouragement of her patients
FROM: Born and raised in North Wales, spent two years in Manchester, and has now lived in London for eight years
YOU MIGHT KNOW HER FROM: Her beloved dance rework of Jenny Hval’s “Kingsize,” or her 2016 EP Oleic
NOW: Touring her self-titled debut album, out on Smalltown Supersound
“I’m a bit of a nerd,” says Kelly Lee Owens as she details the acidity of a prawn cracker. It’s not a random bit of conversation: the twenty-eight-year-old producer, vocalist, and all around self-starter is explaining how she built the song “Oleic,” the title track of her debut EP, from a sample of a prawn cracker melting. “This is embarrassing,” she smirks.
It needn’t be: Owens is one of the most naturally inquisitive, humbly intelligent people making music these days. Her works and their creation are entirely intuitive—“it’s all about what feels good, what feels right to me,” she says—a reflection of her curiosity and playfulness. “Elliptic,” Oleic’s final track, samples the sounds of beer dripping and bubbling. Through her music—which combines elements of deep house, techno, and ambient—she explores and synthesizes the world around her.
“It’s the process that’s the most exciting thing,” Owens says. Her journey into production has been wholly organic. During her time in London, she began working at the now-closed record store Pure Groove with producers Ghost Culture, Gold Panda, and Daniel Avery; the store’s location down the street from the nightclub Fabric meant she was surrounded by dance music. “I was quite confronted with [techno and production] in a way… I had no choice but to listen to this other world of music I hadn’t quite caught up with yet,” she says.
After lending vocals to and co-writing a track on Avery’s 2013 LP Drone Logic, she started toying around with electronic sounds. She didn’t even realize that she’d taught herself how to produce until Avery pointed out the strength of her work. She got a new gig at another record store—Rough Trade—and absorbed 12″ dance singles after seeing Björk head toward that section of the shop.
“It’s all about what feels good, what feels right to me.”
Her big break would come a few years later, with the help of a figure who’s literally worn Björk’s swan dress on stage: Jenny Hval. “She’s a poet. She’s an artist,” Owens says of the Norwegian experimentalist, whose nearly spoken word track “Kingsize” Owens reworked into a ferocious, critically revered banger in 2015. The chemistry between the two is real; Hval appears on Kelly Lee Owens highlight “Anxi.”—a natural pairing of two sound artists who use hushed swaths of synthetic melodies to support serene, angelic vocals. Like Hval, Owens is fascinated with immersive sounds and tends to keep to herself; she describes herself as an “introverted extrovert,” and notes, “I live in my head and my mind quite a lot.”
No wonder Kelly Lee Owens is so hypnotic: whether on haunting dream-pop songs like “Keep Walking” and “S.O” or on club tracks like “Evolution” and “C.B.M,” Owens’s works succeed at her goal of making them “something you can get lost in.” The tracks she describes as hybrids—“Lucid,” “Anxi.”—are among the album’s strongest, blending delicate vocals and dreary soundscapes with more pulsing—yet still grayscale—segments. There’s a novelty to her simultaneous brushes with ambient folk and scaled-back IDM that feels entirely hers, which is natural for someone who says she connects more with musicians’ strength of character (Arthur Russell’s constant music-making, for example) than with any one genre or sound.
“I’m not trying to please anyone else,” she insists. Nevertheless, she’s contagiously excited that her music is indeed pleasing folks all over. “This is really cheesy, but it’s always been a dream to do this,” she says. “No matter what happens, the fact that I’ve released even one album is something I will forever be proud of.” FL