Kelly Lee Owens’ journey into electronic music started in the strangest of places: the male voice choirs of North Wales.
“I grew up in a working class village in Wales and choirs were part of everyday life,” explains Owens. “It’s almost like National Service; everybody has to join a choir. People talk about this idea of finding your voice and I think that’s what happened when I was listening to those choirs. Hard men, ex-miners in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s, singing with so much passion. Music had never hit me like that before. It made me want to explore my own voice. How could I express my emotions with this sound?
“The next step was Kate Bush,” she says, laughing. “I was at my Nana’s house, going through the books in my uncle’s teenage bedroom. I took one out of the bookshelf and there, stuck to his bedroom wall, was an old picture of Kate. I just thought, ‘Who is this mythical creature?’. Suddenly, I’d discovered another artist who uses her voice as an instrument. Yes, she sings lyrics, but the way she delivers them turns her voice into something supernatural.
“At the same time, I was playing in a few indie bands and listening to the Top 40, but there didn’t seem to be anything that captured the spirit of those choirs.”
That all changed after Owens made the move to London and managed to land a job at the now defunct Pure Groove record shop in Smithfield Market.
“By chance, I happened to be working with two guys called Daniel Avery and James Greenwood. They invited me into the studio and that was the first time I’d really listened to what you would call synth music. Up until that point, I’d always thought of synths and electronic music as being very cold and soulless. The exact opposite of those male voice choirs. What I heard was so beautiful. Just a computer and a copy of Logic creating something that was so full of soul and vivid emotion. This whole new world had opened up in front of me.”
With Avery and Greenwood as mentors/engineers, Owens released her debut EP in 2016, Oleic – she’d also collaborated with Avery on his acclaimed Drone Logic album. The techno touches of Oleic were still there on her self-titled 2017 debut album, but things had definitely slowed down by a few bpms. The album’s softer synths, stronger melodies and Owens’ dreamscape voice, placed it somewhere between the Cocteau Twins and Underworld’s gorgeous 8 Ball.
Collaborations with the likes of Björk and St. Vincent soon followed, not to mention an invite to write the official theme tune to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. No surprise, then, that this year’s album, LP.8, made the Top 30 in the UK albums sales chart and has been accompanied by a series of festival shows in Europe and Australia.
When that world of electronic music first opened up, what did you start listening to?
“Obviously, I was listening to quite a lot of techno, thanks to Dan, but I was never a techno supernerd. The strange thing is that I seemed to end up making club music without being much of a clubber. When I was working at Pure Groove in Smithfield Market, we were over the road from Fabric, so we used to get given free tickets. I went there and I had some amazing nights, but I never got obsessed by a particular genre.
“Working with electronic music actually made me go back and reassess some of the music I’d heard in the 90s: Chemical Brothers, Leftfield, Underworld, Prodigy, Aphex Twin; artists who created a different kind of sonic experience. Aphex’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92, that was a gateway album for me. It took me somewhere else! Oh, and I also need to mention New Order. Working class background, again. And they had a woman, Gillian Gilbert, on keyboards. That was seriously important; to see other women out there on the frontline. Showing us that electronic music wasn’t just a boys’ club.
“How lucky to have lived through such an amazing period for music. All these bands having number one albums and singles. This was mainstream music and it was fucking brilliant! My God, don’t you miss that? Don’t you miss hearing something that good in the Top 5?
“Yes, I fully accept that things were different back then. Labels were giving money to artists; you could still get a decent record deal. And if you sold a few copies, you would earn enough to make a living. Samplers and synths were becoming affordable. Musically, it felt like there was a lot of freedom.
“I can only hope that the music I make taps into that same collective vibe. That’s maybe where I have a connection with clubs. I understand the importance of the ‘moment’. A kick drum or a bassline or a melody that unites 2,000 people on a Saturday night. That’s why people go to clubs every week. It’s like going to church; a religious experience.”
You mentioned Logic, earlier. Is that what you work on?
“Yes, still with Logic. I’m not sure why. It’s probably that whole thing of being the first DAW you work with. For live work, it’s Ableton, but always Logic in the studio. I feel comfortable with it. Like I said earlier, I’m not a supernerd, so it took me quite a while to get my head around Logic. But needing a bit of help and guidance at the start is nothing to be ashamed of. Guitarists go to lessons and find stuff on YouTube, so what’s the problem with getting a few pointers when you’re first starting out with a DAW?
“James Greenwood was exactly what I needed. He kept it all very simple… just Logic, a laptop, an SH-09 and the Dark Time sequencer. Much as I love working on the laptop, there is something about a machine like Dark Time that I find truly inspiring. You can program whatever you want and it doesn’t matter if it’s correct or not. It’s as if analogue is designed to go wrong because you always make mistakes. You press this button or put the kick here instead of here. So much of my stuff has that. I wish you could get plugins to fuck up more than they do. I think we need more of that randomness in music!”
There is something about 16 buttons that still puts a smile on my face. What happens if I just press this one and these two and that one, then this one here and then puts hats here, here and here? Obviously, you can do mouse clicks just as easily…
“But is it as much fun? Can you still create chaos? Will that kick be ridiculously late? Are you interested in making perfect music? I’m not. What does that even mean? Perfect music. What is perfect? A lot of time in the studio seems to be spent reintroducing variation and accident. I suppose you might call it humanness. Nudging things forward, nudging them back, dipping the volumes, trying to keep the listener engaged.
“If the music goes nowhere, people will switch off. OK, I know what this song is doing, I don’t need to listen anymore. Analogue keeps things interesting. It rebels against stability.”
When it came to writing your own songs, what kind of sound were you after?
“I was listening to The Knife and Björk’s Vespertine album. I read somewhere that she spent two years recording micro-beats for that record… just found sounds and natural noises. That definitely impacted on my first album. I had a lot of stuff recorded on the iPhone.
“If you listen to the track, Bird, on it, there's the slowed down sound of a bird from a nature documentary, and a higher bird sound playing the hats. On the track, Arthur, there's a hailstorm. I found that whole process of marrying nature and machines so liberating.“
Is it fair to say there was more of a dancefloor theme to the first two albums compared with this year’s LP.8?
“Oh, definitely. Those first two albums were my attempt to explore club music. That idea of being in a space with all these other people… moving your body in a certain way.
“For LP. 8, I was working with [Norwegian producer] Lasse Marhaug and he is, fundamentally, a noise artist. When we first got in the studio, I was trying to hook up my synths and he said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t work with MIDI’. What? How do I use my synths? But it turned out to be such a refreshing way to work. Basically, I spent eight days improvising the songs on that album.”
“Making it up as we went along. We’d usually start with the Pulsar-23, which provided all the beats, recorded straight into the computer. It’s a little semi-modular thing and it’s incredible. It’s got all the EQ you need right there, so once you’ve got what you are after, you don’t need to do anything else in the computer apart from a bit of arranging.
“I’ll be honest, it did feel strange at first. Working so quickly. I’m so used to sitting down at the screen, programming beats, adjusting things just a tiny amount this way or that way. Part of me loves doing it and enjoys getting right down into the minutiae of the rhythm, but part of me fucking hates it! Suddenly, I’ve got this one box. We get a basic beat, let it run and that’s it. Working with Lasse changed my whole perspective.
“Most of the other synth noises on LP.8 came from the Korg Minilogue. I sat it on my lap, listened to the beats we’d got from the Pulsar, went through the presets and made up stuff as I went along. I like that bass sound, let’s try a bassline. Record it. This pad is nice. Record some of that. Then, I’d stand up and start breathing or chanting into the microphone. Record it. Pick up some strange percussion instrument and start smashing the hell out of it. Lasse had an old pump organ in the corner and, for the track, S.O (2), I was just playing random notes. I don’t read music and I’ve never been musically trained, so I was going with anything that sounded OK. Not worrying if that note went with that chord or whatever.
“It was a really freeform way to work. Get something down, then move on to the next song. Like I said, Lasse is a noise artist. The way he works is just ‘press record’. After a while, it felt like the songs were flowing out of me.
“Think about it. When you’re programming stuff into the computer, you are constantly assessing what it sounds like and whether this note needs to be changed. It’s a constant interruption because that’s how your brain works. But if you create a piece of music on an instrument and immediately record that, you are taking away your brain’s ability to doubt and question what it’s doing. Once it’s in the computer and you’ve moved on to the next bit of the song, that’s it… no more worrying if you’ve got the right hat sound. Timewise, it was a mindblower for me.”
“We did have a few bits of semi-digital stuff like the OTO Bim, Bam and Boum. We sort of played with them in the moment, as we were recording, or added little bits – and it wasn’t very much at all – later. In so many ways, it goes against everything I’ve ever done musically. Most of us work that way: here’s the basic idea, let’s make it better. Unfortunately, human beings tend to doubt themselves, so we get ourselves stuck in this endless cycle of, ‘Does this sound better than that? Is that technically correct?’. Maybe it is technically correct, but does it make the song sound any better? All of these questions that you start asking yourself.
“I remember talking to Bobby Gillespie about this and he was saying the same thing. He’s not a technically trained musician and, for a long time, he was worried that he didn’t have all the stuff you need to be in a band.”
He’s done alright for himself!
“Of course, he now knows that’s rubbish! What he does have is a deep connection with the music, and that’s what I was striving for with this album. It’s music that was built more from the heart than the head. I’ve heard stories of classically trained piano players that can’t actually improvise. If you sit them down and say, can you put a piano line over the top of this track, they’ll ask for the music. That’s crazy! It’s almost as if what’s been taught out of them is the ability to trust their own ears. To tap into your own ideas and explore what you’re interested in.
“When I was a kid, I used to tape the Top 40, then listen back to it in my bedroom… like we all did. But any songs that I liked, I would listen to them over and over, and I would make up my own harmonies and different basslines. I didn’t have anything to make those basslines on, but they still kept appearing in my imagination. ‘Forget the rules… just make music.’”
Kelly Lee Owens' LP.8 is out now.