When something evades definition, it can provoke anxiety. Most people are put at ease by identifying, classifying, and filing everything they see and hear into nice little boxes, especially music. But L.A.-based singer Kelela is perfectly comfortable being ambiguous. Kelela (born Kelela Mizanekristos) released her debut mixtape Cut 4 Me on October 1 and it quickly became recognized as one of the most compelling entries into the heated realm of new R&B this year.
Lyrically, she strings together emotive phrases ranging from complete thoughts to nonsensical references. Her vocals are generous and tranquil at times, only to be retracted by complex progressions and challenging, textured production. She has her label mates at Fade To Mind to thank, in part, for brilliantly demarcating negative spaces in each of the thirteen songs for Kelela to fill. The way she occupies physical space has a similar quality. Impeccable posture, and a gentle, yet emphatic speaking voice command the attention of a room.
Since releasing her mixtape, Kelela has played a series of live performances (her performances at CMJ landed her in the New York Times) and she’s been working on her forthcoming album. In the meantime, she caught the attention of former Complex covergirl Solange who selected one of Kelela’s songs for her recent Saint Heron compilation, the first release from her new label, Saint Records.
With her name growing, we had Kelela swing by the Complex offices. She told us about the challenges of growing up in Gaithursburg, Maryland as the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants before joking about her visceral aversion to conscious rap. We also talked about love advice, the bars Cam’ron allegedly recorded for her, and her mission to bring back the interlude...
Listen to Kelela's "Go All Night"
What was it like growing up in Maryland as the daughter of two first-generation Ethiopian immigrants?
Most of my friends growing up were upper middle class white kids, so it was a different reality at home both culturally and linguistically. It created a lot of insecurities for me, but it also did a lot of amazing things that I didn't know were happening at the time. Some of that had to do with race, some had to do with class, and others had to do with my parents not being from the states. The older you get, the [happier] you are that they happened.
Were your parents musical?
Recently, my mom decided to start playing the flute. My mom is a billing assistant at a law firm. She has done the very same thing for last 35 years, she goes to work and has this very specific routine. So, it’s like this major departure for her. In that sense, I can definitely see that she’s talented. My dad waited tables my whole childhood. He decided to go back to school to get his Masters in a field totally different than what he was studying. I've seen both of them decide to do something and just do it as grown ass people. That definitely shaped how I was able to pursue music when I did.
What was going on in your life before music?
I was in school studying International Studies and Sociology. I was really into what was going on in school. I was affected by the ideas and engaged as a student, but not disciplined or motivated enough to do the work. That was a fear of mine for a while, that nothing was motivating. I felt really bad that my parents spent a lot of money on my schooling, but that wasn't going to make me do it. It caused some really dark feelings. My self-confidence was low because of that. Music has been a release.
I saw Little Dragon in 2009 after writing the lead singer, Yukimi Nagano, on Myspace. After the show she was like, 'I went to your page and I tried to find some of your music. Why isn't there music up there?' And, I was like, 'Oh, yes, about that.' [Laughs.] She told me to jam with my friends and not think about what I was doing.
What was the turning point when you started to sing?
Seeing somebody else do the thing that I’m dying to do. I saw Amel Larrieux in 2004 for the first time. That bitch sings for her life, it’s not normal how she brings it vocally. That urgency made me be like, I know I have that inside me and I have to pursue that as a medium of sharing and communicating. I started practicing, I got into jazz vocals, and I studied music that I liked.
Then, I saw Little Dragon in 2009 after writing the lead singer, Yukimi Nagano, on Myspace. I was like, “Hey, if you need background vocals or somebody dancing or a merch girl, I am all the way down.” After the show she was like, “I went to your page and I tried to find some of your music. Why isn't there music up there?” I was like, “Oh, yes, about that.” [Laughs.] She told me to jam with my friends and not think about what I was doing. I know it sounds obvious but it was all I needed. I wrote my first song two months later.
Those are the two moments that I would say that changed a lot for me. I love them. I love you. Wherever you are.
Tell me about the process of writing a song like, “Go All Night?”
That is a Morris track originally called “Fishy Riddim” that existed long before I came into the picture. I wrote a little verse and then I wrote a chorus. I wanted to bring the interlude back. Interludes are like a thing for me, especially ones that you want to keep going. They give it to you and take it right away.
I wanted to do a skit with somebody who didn't sound like a guy or girl. I wanted to have the moment like when you are crushing on someone, but you haven't made the move yet. That was what I wanted to do initially, but I didn't do it. There was a chance that a rapper who is very pertinent to the song was going to do some verses on it.
Are you talking about Cam'ron?
Yes, there was a potential for that. Apparently he has done verses.
Is hip-hop an influence for you?
Right now, I’m in demo land. I don't listen to a lot of music other than my own. I like smart rappers who aren't necessarily trying to be deeper than you, like Danny Brown. The ones I’m attracted to right now are thinking outside the terms of rap and hip-hop. Growing up Missy Elliot and Janet Jackson were definitely major references.
Now there’s an extended version of “Go All Night” on Solange’s Saint Heron compilation. How did you link up with her?
Her manager was at one of the first things I did in New York last November. She was like, “Would you be down to send me some music for a client?” I was like, “Girl, you only have two clients.”
Do you think she played the record for Jay and Beyonce?
Okay, this is something that actually freaks me out. That’s like a really scary thing.
You’re on Beyonce’s blog.
Beyonce has a blog?
Yes, it’s called BeyHive. Subscription only.
Really? It’s on there? I do this thing where I re-listen to the mixtape as somebody else. Like “Okay, now I’m Erykah Badu. Now I'm Missy.” Those are the people I was obsessed with growing up. It’s like singing in the mirror pretending you're someone else.
A lot of your music is about love and relationships. What’s the best love advice anyone gave you?
If the relationship isn't serving you, it’s not really worth it. Love for somebody is not all that’s required. It has to be making you better, it has to be making them better. If the interaction isn't making two people better, it’s not really worth it.
Your label Fade to Mind is underground whereas Solange is more mainstream. How do you navigate the space between underground and mass market?
You should be confused. The ambiguity is the most comfortable thing, the space between is where I want to live. I don't want to live in any house. It’s the most honest thing that I can do.
You perform in a lot of different spaces, warehouses, clubs, proper venues. You also performed at the Tate Modern in London. How do the experiences differ across the spectrum?
I sing differently if I'm focused on the sound. I sing differently if you are seeing me in addition to hearing me, I’m doing things with my body. It’s sort of three pronged. There are club nights when I’m just giving you a live soundtrack for your dancing. Then you have a proper venue, which is obviously the most conducive to performance. Finally you have a museum or art world gig. The Tate gig was the most grandiose, epic night. The kind of music that I do hasn't necessarily been included in the art world traditionally and it's really powerful. It’s not a contrived thing. I’m actually dying to get weird. I get to express myself differently in each of those spaces. I want you to not be able to digest it easily.
You have plans to release your debut album, can you tell me about it?
The album will include Fade To Mind and Night Slugs production, but it will also include outside production. The goal is to go further with the production and further with the song writing simultaneously. With Cut 4 Me, I was trying to make a mixtape, I was trying to get a vibe and move forward. Most of it happened over Dropbox at our leisure.
I would like to eliminate distance as a factor. The initial output has definitely happened both in person and over the Internet. But I want the end product to happen when everybody’s in the same room at the same time, everyone giving [input in things] that we're experts at.
I want a songwriter asking, “What’s the most resonant thing you can sing over that?" I’m trying to be honest and the most expressive I can be. I need someone saying, “Kelela, you can't do that," or "If you're going to change that form, you have bring the chorus back at the end or nobody will get it.” I want the producer to check me and say, “No, that’s too cheesy, I can't do that.” I have had that happen. Like, “Baby, these drums suck, you have to change these drums. You're not going out like that.” Then it becomes exactly what we want because there are a bunch of people going, “Wait.”