Kelela is sitting on the corner of a couch in the basement of Ariel Rechtshaid’s studio in Echo Park. She’s eating a slice of quiche from Forage, an organic, counter-style restaurant 10 minutes down the hill on Sunset Boulevard. She hiked up the steep side street in acid wash jeans and a pair of Clarks to get here. She has just returned from a week-and-a-half long trip to London, where she completed the last song for her second release, an EP called Hallucinogen. “I am fun,” she offers, speaking both of the song and a less visible aspect of her personality. “I wanted to say that.”
Fork in hand, she explains the intention behind her bright, Miami bass song, “Rewind.” The song, which Zane Lowe premiered as a World Record on Beats 1 Radio in September, is notably lighter in tone and texture than her previous releases. “I wanted a song that would give you that feeling of...barbecue, summer, getting ready to go to the club with your girlfriends,” she says, “but still have it feel like Kelela.” The desire to pinpoint that feeling—a change in sound without losing herself—led her to seek out Rechtshaid’s expertise.
He is executive producing her Hallucinogen EP, on which “Rewind” is the third track of six. When he began working on the project, most of the songs were finished. Rechtshaid’s role, Kelela explains, is “supplemental and elevating.” She finished most of the songs on the EP well before he came into the picture. “Naturally I was sort of apprehensive just because there’s a way that certain producers can come in—and they’re known for a sound. But I wasn’t familiar with all of the things that an EP brought to the table, and with him it’s more about quality than it is about a particular kind of music. I really respect that.” Maintaining agency and control over her sound was important to Kelela, and Rechtshaid made that possible, while finding ways to make it more resonant with the casual listener, something he’s done already for Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX, HAIM, and Madonna.
“Ariel also comes from the experience of somebody who’s not mainstream as a starting point,” she says, “somebody who somehow crept their way into that world and is now treading that line constantly and is able to make things sound really big.” He will do the same with her debut album, tentatively set for release in spring 2016. The guts of the songs that make up both projects though, the EP and the LP, Kelela wrote with many of the producers who made her debut project one of the best releases of 2013.
Cut 4 Me seemed to come out of nowhere. Created with key players of the underground electronic scene like Kingdom, Jam City, Nguzunguzu, Girl Unit, P. Morris, and Bok Bok, the 11-track mixtape sent shockwaves through the music world. It earned rave reviews, landed on The Guardian’s 2013 list of best albums, and earned Pitchfork’s title of “Best New Music,” with an 8.3 review rating. An R&B veneer with futuristic club bones, Cut 4 Me fell somewhere between Janet Jackson and Aphex Twin. The project—a first release for the then-29-year-old—attracted fans as momentous as Beyoncé and Bjork, and fueled almost two full years of touring, festival performances, magazine covers, commercial castings (she appeared in a racy Calvin Klein ck one ad), and brand partnerships. Its follow-up, Hallucinogen, was intended to drop in May as the bridge to her first album, but she pushed it back to improve on the music.
“I definitely had to deal with feeling like I’m behind,” she admits. “At this juncture I feel really glad that I am the type of artist who takes my time to do things properly.” For Kelela, that process was highly experimental. The last year gave her the opportunity to pose and answer questions for herself like, “‘Can you start a banger without drums?’ It’s very unlikely—now I know this,” she says, “but I needed to try a few things out.” Often, that process begins in the studio with one of her underground collaborators. “Sometimes I’m telling a producer, ‘Let’s make our version of a Drake track, let’s make our version of a Noah (Shebib) track.’ I am assisting in the production—it’s coming from me in terms of ideas.”
For Kelela, making music is very much a reaction to the world around her. “It is very rare that I am just coming up with melodies off the top of my head. I usually am responding to something—it could be chains dragging on the floor—but I am usually responding to something.” A kind of musical reciprocity anchors the development of the song from an initial melody or theme into a complete song. That process of give and take figures both thematically—her lyrics deal with relationships, love, sex, and emotional exchange—and functionally. “For those of us who make music together, I think it’s important to realize that generosity on both sides is actually going to produce the biggest possibility.” As she says this, she spreads her hands apart as though she is physically clearing a space in the room. Her sophomore offering demonstrates just how true that assertion is for her.
Though Hallucinogen won’t be presented as a collaborative project with Fade to Mind—it is being released through Kelela’s own Warp Records imprint, Cherry Coffee—it is a group effort for all intents and purposes. The EP opens with the Arca-produced lovesick rumination “A Message,” initially released in March of this year with a striking video that saw Kelela chopping off her dreads like the cleansing of the leftovers from a bad relationship. “I’m quite scrutinous when it comes to who I put myself in the room with,” she says. The caliber of her collaborators speaks to her taste and writing chops, which she confidently assures me have improved a great deal. “It can definitely be a great experience writing by myself and sitting at my computer, but there’s this other one that I’ve been able to access—moments where you put something down and then you’re jumping around the room. I accessed it with Arca the first time we did ‘A Message.’” Arca, born Alejandro Ghersi, is the 25-year-old Venezuelan artist who produced four songs on Kanye West’s Yeezus, covered The Fader following the release of his 2014 album, Xen, and co-produced and co-wrote Bjork’s Vulnicura. He also produced Hallucinogen’s psychedelic title track.
Then, she gives us “All the Way Down.” In this song, Kelela laments about the way she subconsciously sabotaged a good relationship. DJ Dahi crafted the beat. The two first connected on “Want It” with Chicago rapper Tink for Yours Truly’s Songs From Scratch series. “There is this thing that I never want to let go of,” Kelela offers as she pulls out a package of rolling tobacco and begins to hand roll a cigarette. “No one does this alone. No one is making extraordinary things alone. They might be alone in their bedroom while they’re recording or writing, but they didn’t actually conjure that thing out of nothing—without influence—without assistance—without anything. I saw something—a quote about an artist—it was something that somebody had written about somebody not being influenced by anything, which is completely absurd. As though they’re so anomalous, they’re so by themselves, and that what is so extraordinary about them, is that they’re not influenced by anything. That is just the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
When Cut 4 Me dropped, Kelela was processing the end of a serious relationship. Its imprint on her writing is apparent, as much of the tape touches on her experience of feeling newly empowered to be alone, if in a conflicted way. “There were three songs that I wrote before the breakup—‘Guns and Synths,’ ‘Bank Head,’ and ‘Keep It Cool,’” she says. “They’re the only ones that are neutral or romantic, or there’s not really a darkness.”
“Vulnerability is my ticket. I will always choose to be vulnerable, in any way that I present anything.”
She’s since fallen in love again and credits that with helping her to understand her artistry in a broader way. “Vulnerability is my ticket. I will always choose to be vulnerable, in any way that I present anything…. The person I am with has helped me recognize that in myself. It’s not this source of shame anymore.” For Kelela, that means even an upbeat, happy song like “Rewind” still has to express some kind of tension. “I’m sitting next to you, I didn’t say anything, and oh my god I’m freaking out,” she illustrates. “Even when it’s elated, it’s still vulnerable,” she says. “Even when it’s a purely gratifying moment in the song, it has to sound earned, because I’m not really vibing with ‘Everything’s great!’ That’s not relatable for me. I can’t relate to a pure ‘riding down the PCH’ song. It’s more like, ‘I’m riding down the PCH but also wondering if I locked the side door.’ The real Kelela experience is like, ‘Everything’s amazing, got some fucked up bills, but whatever.’ That’s more the song.”
Her willingness to lay vulnerable parts of herself on the line also allows her to deal with sex and sexuality in an open, and honest way. For Kelela, music was a foundational tool for developing her own sexual literacy when she was growing up. “Those are the moments that made me feel more comfortable with myself, when I was digesting a lot of music and not really making music. I’ve always wanted to hit that feeling—of being safe and being challenged.”
Her expression of this comfort in her sexuality can be seen in her video for “Rewind,” which shares the vibe of the Herb Ritts-directed music video for Janet Jackson’s “Love Will Never Do (Without You).”
Watching the video for “Rewind,” directed by Eric K. Yeu, a London-based photographer best known for his work with Ratking, King Krule, and R&B newcomer Okay Kaya, you can’t help but notice parallels. The focused shots of Jackson’s bare midriff are mimicked in the “Rewind” video, but the power dynamic is between Kelela and the viewer, with the camera directly beneath her at times while she dances. “I really like going there—it’s so gratifying,” Kelela explains. Her goal is to make the conversation around sex both accessible and thought-provoking. The message is two-fold: “I think it’s ‘Love it’ and ‘be experiencing depth around sex outside of purely simple tropes.’ I’m really wanting to convey the complexity,” she says. “As a woman it oftentimes means that I am turning some trope on its head, or I’m getting to flip that thing.” Such is the case in Hallucinogen’s “Gomenasai,” a declarative claim to sexual domination layered over Ma Nguzu’s interpretation of a grime beat. The grime world, and the UK club scene in general would be an natural home for Kelela, a sexually confident, innovative pop singer with an attraction to early grime, jungle, and future club sounds.
For Kelela, London’s music scene has always been as a positive space—many of her close friends and collaborators live there, and her current partner is a Londoner. Seeing the music industry from the other side of the Atlantic has proven valuable to her strategy. “The UK market is quite quickly responsive. It operates in a different way because it’s small,” she explains, noting the vast difference in the U.S. music industry. “In the U.S. you’re not in the game if you don’t have a certain type of support.” Even as the rigid barriers between the underground and the mainstream music worlds start to crumble, it’s a relatively new phenomenon to see niche producers participating in global pop in a visible way.
“The big examples are Kanye’s record, Drake’s record—these are the first instances where you’re hearing our homies in that context, and I think that’s something that has allowed everybody to feel really hopeful about how much their music can circulate, how much their sound can circulate.” While mainstream pop’s palate might be growing more adventurous, the equation usually involves a big name vocalist or rapper elevating the profile of an obscure producer. Compared to Kanye and Drake, Kelela has a long way to go. The single name is a good start.
When I ask her if she wants to be a pop star, she drops her head and takes a deep breath before answering. “I am not playing. Girl, I am not playing. This isn’t me trying to be artsy. I am trying to communicate with as many fucking people as possible.” Currently, Kelela is in the process of negotiating a label deal that will give her the infrastructure to make as big of a splash as possible with her forthcoming album. Though her focus has remained sharply on mastering the album and promoting the Hallucinogen EP since our conversation, she traveled to New York in August to perform at Afropunk Fest.
I dial her a week after the festival to ask about the experience. It’s around 9 a.m. PST and “Rewind” is set to premiere on Apple Music in a few hours. She is en route home from LAX after flying back on the red eye from New York, and she is groggy but straightforward in her assessment of the experience.
“For me, Afropunk is a moment of solace. It’s a reassurance that I am ready and know what I need to do to come into my black womanhood, find language and create a space for myself in the context of what’s considered pop in general and electronic music. I’m seizing my power—whatever power I can—wielding it for good.”