Kelly Lee Owens Can Be Your Escape

“I keep joking [about] crying in the club, but that might happen, and that would be fucking great. And then we can dance.” Photo: Rmv/Shutterstock

Kelly Lee Owens’s second album, Inner Song, centers around moments of release. That’s what all good electronic music does, building beats toward ecstatic drops that can light up a room. Owens earns her drops, pairing the synth and drum explosions with feelings in desperate need of exorcising. On “Re-Wild,” a title that refers to letting nature take over land that’s already been developed, she sings, “Free yourself with the truth / That’s already in you.” This music is like an emotional re-wilding process for Owens — less about discovering something new than letting what’s been suppressed come to the surface.

Owens broke out in 2017 with a self-titled album of confident, intimate, ethereal techno-pop. The 32-year-old Welsh producer and singer’s followup Inner Song comes more than three years later — originally intended for May 1, then pushed to August 28 so record stores could be open. (She came into electronic music by meeting producers Daniel Avery and James Greenwood, a.k.a. Ghost Culture, when she worked at a London record store.) The album continues the project she started in 2017, aided by a period of “inner solitude” to connect with the emotions she wanted to express on the record. Talking to Vulture about Inner Song, she’s reluctant to describe the specifics of what she went through, hoping listeners can instead experience their own cathartic process through her music without focusing too closely on hers. “It’s about when emotions arise, to not run away from them — to lean into those cracks a bit, go to those places, and release,” she says. “That’s been the healthiest thing I’ve been able to do for myself.”

The album is out in the world after months of delay. How does that feel?
Oh my gosh. I feel exhausted in the best way possible. It’s been super emotional the last few days — all the stuff that the album is about kind of came back up, which I think is a really normal response to a release of something out into the world. It feels kind of beautiful.

What did it do for you to have that three-year gap between the records?
It’s not about the amount of time it takes, but it is about the intention, and it is about the right timing and headspace to be able to create. At that point that I made [Inner Song], I was ready to say so much, and that’s because of living my life and experiencing things in a real way. Not just like, Oh, I have to make a second record. It’s like, Well, I’d like to, but what am I actually saying? What is needed now?

You’re talking about making this music for you. How do you know when a track is up to the standard you want it to be?
In a very literal sense, it’s when I can listen through to the track without wanting to change anything — which is not an easy place to get to for me, ‘cause I’m hyper-aware of so many details and minutiae. But it’s all about the literal flow of the track for me. Yes, it’s great to have the ideas, yes, it’s great to have the arrangement, but you can’t do that justice if you’re not willing to then sculpt the sound and the flow of the arrangement. Adding that extra tail of reverb, so it drifts into the next moment, is really important to me so it doesn’t disturb the idea that is trying to come through.

I have said before that the best way of being of service to others is by going into what it is that you feel is right and needed, and not trying to people-please from the offset. I kind of am trying to understand, and we all are really, what I’m here to do. And my journey is about being of service to others by connecting with myself first.

The lyrics on this album are so well-thought and intentional. When you’re working, does the songwriting come first?
I’ll have a new notepad every month or so ‘cause I’m just constantly jotting down my thoughts, my feelings, and my observations of the world. It’s a really good way for me to try to understand things a bit better in myself and in the world. When it comes to an album, I buy a big book, and it’s like all these fresh pages where I can pull in all of these ideas. The music is the first thing, it’s usually already been written and loosely arranged. The sound informs me of what needs to be said, so I’m trying to find the right words and message to match the music. It’s kind of like finding the pieces of the puzzle.

One of the places on the album where that interplay between the sound and the lyrics is at the forefront is on “Melt!” with these samples of ice skates and melting glaciers. How did you know that’s what needed to be added to the track?
Climate change was something I knew would make its way into the album in some sense, and I was really thinking about how I could do that in a way that wasn’t preachy. I knew I wanted to make a techno track and have a hard club moment in there. But I thought, Well, why can’t I let nature speak for itself? Nature being the first sounds to ever exist, that really excites me. What better way than to have melting glacial ice — to be like, This is the literal sound of destruction, and it’s beautiful, and it’s sad, but you can still create something from that. Maybe it was that sense of hope in me, of still wanting to create from that place.

You’ve also talked a bit about this idea of the sound of Wales, and that coming through the music. What is that sound?
Wales is known as “land of song.” Even the literal landscape — there’s mountains, there’s huge hills, there’s valleys, and these peaks and troughs, I think, even influence my voice. Like, I love a good chorus, [laughs] and I feel like that’s no coincidence. I think for anyone who’s left home, it’s an interesting relationship you have with the place that you’re from, and sometimes it takes space to understand its majesty and all the gifts it’s actually given you.

This is all happening through electronic music, which some people might see as a polar opposite to nature. How do you think about that relationship?
With synths, for example, it’s been made by humans. Humans are not separate to nature, we found another way to express ourselves, and therefore, so has nature. I’m always looking for the humanness in synths, when they go kind of wonky. There’s so much wonk in my album, where I’ve got the sequencer, and the MIDI notes going, and then all of a sudden, it just goes off, completely, in the wrong notes. And I’m always like, Yes, perfect, that’s amazing.

Have you thought about how it’s going to feel to eventually play this for audiences?
Yeah. It’s going to be amazing! [Laughs] It’s not really about me now, it’s about how others experience it and connect with it. I keep joking [about] crying in the club, but that might happen, and that would be fucking great. And then we can dance.

Kelly Lee Owens Can Be Your Escape