“The Maximum Amount Of Emotion” Kelly Lee Owens Interviewed

Electronic artist on winning the Welsh Music Prize, and her ambitious FIFA composition...

Everything Kelly Lee Owens has accomplished in her life has been done out of devotion to music.

Whether that's working in record shops for the best part of a decade or her production work, the Welsh artist remains hopelessly, endlessly in love with sound.

Second album 'Inner Song' was granted across the board praise on its review, incorporating club tropes into her meditative electronic temperament.

A step forward from her debut it allowed Kelly Lee Owens the platform to reinforce her aesthetic, while still introducing startling new ideas.

Rewarded with the Welsh Music Prize, 'Inner Song' is followed by a bold new challenge – Kelly Lee Owens has crafted a piece of music for the FIFA Women's World Cup.

'Unity' is an expression of feminine power, while also seizing upon the challenge of crafting electronic music that so intimately reflects the physical moment of team sport.

Set to close 2021 with a trip to Australia – where she'll hopefully DJ, and enjoy some down-time – Kelly Lee Owens took time out to chat with Clash.

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You finished the year with two nights in London. How was it?

A real poignant, and slightly surreal moment in time for me, because I've lived here for 12 years now. We all have our little hopes and dreams about what we'll be able to achieve at some point, and to sell out two nights in a row, especially at this weird time just felt… it’s cheesy stuff but the cheesy stuff is there for a reason!

I couldn't have imagined that by just album number two I'd be able to get that many people together, and especially in this crazy time at the moment. So it was super special. And the way people responded, it was, I'm sure for most gigs at the moment, it feels really transcendental. It's trippy, just being in a room with that many people at once and being able to experience these things again. It feels very spiritual, at least for me.

And alongside that you crafted ‘Unity’, some official music for the FIFA Women's World Cup. How did that one come about?

Actually, my publishers put me forward for it. Usually with these things it’s quite a lengthy process, but they wanted me to do it from the get-go. I was like, wait, what, just me? And they're like, yeah, no, they just want you to do it and they believe in you and they love your music and they feel like your values align with their values. FIFA genuinely had these incredible values for women and the vision and the future of what they feel sport can be for women, this trajectory that's beyond football, more of a global movement for women.

I was sat right here, actually, having several very long meetings. I was involved from the very beginning and took on board every time what they were trying to aim for but at the same time was given, in a sense, like a lot of free rein just to be an artist and do what I could. So it was an incredible collaboration. Something with such a big organisation, I thought it would be a bit of a nightmare, but it was actually dream.

What's it like, as a composer, to respond to that kind of brief? Football as a game is so much about timing and the movement of the body and individuals corresponding together. Is it a nice thing to be able to explore that within the context of electronic music?

Actually, everything that you just mentioned, it reminds me of the music. That physicality, the movement of the body, and the timing and the pacing of things, and how people respond to that. It's ultimately trying to get the maximum amount of emotion and sometimes movement out of people so it felt quite similar in that sense. For me, it's exciting to be given this one very pure brief and put everything I have into making this thing perfect and totally right. It sounds like a lot of pressure, which it is, but also it's really exciting to just have this box and then you go within it and you just explore and add and add.

The main thing that got me was that they wanted it to be really big and really epic and euphoric. I kept thinking about ‘Luminous Spaces’ that I made with John Hopkins and that was kind of a reference for me in terms of feeling, somehow. It was trying to get something emotional, but also that makes you move the body. So I had lots of different references. But yeah, it's just fun to make something massive!

After the pandemic, and people just working in their rooms, and maybe focusing on their own feelings, it must be nice to just go out there.

Yeah and instead of being restricted – don't do too much of this and not too much of that – it was just like, go for it. And I'm like, right here we go, here’s a moment in time where I get to just put all the crescendos in and everything else that I actually love, I love big choruses. It's not something you can maybe always tell in my music, but it's something that really just came out of me that I was able to explore which felt great.

It's been a period for you of being able to tick off a lot of these long sought-after ambitions. You won the Welsh Music Prize as well… Congratulations!

Thank you so much! It was a total surprise. They told me that I was having a pre-ceremony interview, and every artist was. When I think about that, now, that's a bit weird but I was on tour, and I was just kind of going with it. And then Huw Stephens was just like, oh, and by the way, you've won the Welsh Music Prize, and it's 10,000 pounds! And it's just like: bam!

I just knew how my family would feel as patriotic Welsh people, what that means to them. And I thought that people in Wales who want to create music and want to make something of themselves they could hopefully see this and be inspired by it. Coming from a tiny village in Wales, working class background, zero financial help, worked 45 hours a week in a record store for 10 years, plus making music… and I was doing that up until three years ago. Things are possible.

This is sad, but there's a lot less opportunity in Wales, there's a lot of poverty, there's a lot of issues, of all kinds. In the youth sector, there's not that much to do. And there's not that much funding to help people, guide them, and steer them in the directions that they really would love to go and explore. So some of the money that I've won, I'd like to put back helping to create those platforms for people in Wales.

As an independent artist, to have £10,000 drop out of the heavens is quite something, isn’t it?

Oh my God, it is and especially after putting out an album. God, you know, putting out an album and moving house, all this stuff during a pandemic… the big stuff I ended up doing in 2020 meant I wasn't able to kind of capitalise on everything that I had invested. It was the most uninvested ever in my life, and as an independent artist it is your money as well as the label’s. Only this year have I been able to tour – and some of the tours have only broken even – so every penny of that really helps. But as I say, at the same time, it's important that I feel like I also give back as well.

Have you found yourself creatively moving beyond ‘Inner Song’? Are you already beginning to germinate thoughts on what you might do next?

There's already quite a lot that I've already created. I'm not the only artist to say, but at the beginning of the pandemic I had no desire to create. I honestly think I was grieving, you know, there's all this loss. And it's not just about my losses, but this collective loss. So it took me a while.

But yeah, I have been creating quite a bit of music actually, and stuff that kind of feels a little bit to the left of what I have done before, which is really, really exciting. I kind of feel like the doors are just opening, and opening up in places that I feel a bit kind of afraid of… but when you feel afraid, that's actually the place you should 100% go to. Most of my life and my career, I would say, is just throwing myself into something that I know barely anything about but I'm using my creativity and intuition to guide me. That's even down to the bones of writing music and producing it, as I can't read or write music. Everything I do is based off a feeling and an intuition and a deeper knowledge of what I feel is needed or is right for me in that moment.

There aren't a lot of female producers visible in music, whether that's working behind the scenes, or someone like yourself, who's up front. What can we do to even out that landscape?

That's true, isn't it? And the first thing I’d like to say to people like myself: just keep on going because you can't be what you can't see. We feel like things have progressed, but not enough, quite frankly. I think things like ‘Unity’ or me winning the Welsh Music Prize do change things and create ripples, some small ripples and some bigger ripples. So for me, it's just a case of keep doing it! Initially, I was getting my songs pressed onto vinyl, I was hand delivering them to record stores, I was doing it a very different way, but in a way that feels truly authentic. Yes it takes longer, and it’s playing the long game but really, that's the only game if it's really about the music and about the art.  

I think with most things, not giving up is 50% of it because think about the amount of time you could have given up on what you do. I could have been this close 1000 times, right? Half of it is that but of course, me publicly stating to whoever it is – whether it's promoters, whether it's festivals, whether it's corporations – to just say, keep opening the doors, for people who identify as women. It's just more important than ever, and we still have a lot of work to do, basically.

Do you find that with your work that you react against what you’ve done previously? Or is it a more natural, continual sense of evolution?

I've been thinking a lot about this recently because I think my first and second album, I was referencing Bjork, because she did ‘debut’ and ‘post’, which were one and the same thing in that she needed to get it out of her system in order to then go forward into whatever she did next. I feel like the first and the second, it's this beautiful continuation and growth of someone who's always wanted to do this, but is quite new to it. You can kind of hear and see the progressions in the sound, you know.

So whatever is next is going to be something quite different. I do like to keep people guessing and surprised, really, because I now know what people would expect from me – potentially – with the third album. So I absolutely will be going in the opposite direction to that. That's just because, even just from a personal creative perspective, taking that left road is just more exciting to me now. So yeah, I absolutely bounce off my own creations. I think that's what should keep any artist moving forward, really.

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'Inner Song' is out now.

Words: Robin Murray
Photo Credit: Sarah Stedeford

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