“I’ve had several coffees, but they aren’t kicking in,” Kelly Lee Owens tells me over Skype from her apartment in London. She needn’t apologize: Judging by her giggly excitement when we start talking about her music, it seems like the coffees are doing their job.
After a fantastic vocal guest spot on U.K. producer Daniel Avery’s 2013 LP Drone Logic, Owens began to produce her own music, and soon she was posting a series of beautiful electronic singles to her SoundCloud account. Her sound, which is hard to pinpoint, takes cues from New Age music and trip-hop, all dramatic lush synth arrangements and strings that would make a good soundtrack to witnessing enclosed flower petals peel open in slow motion.
Owens is set to put out her debut EP, Oleic, this week, and a full-blown debut album sometime early next year. The EP strays from the wall-of-sound instrumentation of her earlier songs, like “Arthur” and “1 of 3,” settling instead on something harder. On the opener, “CBM,” she delivers a single message — “the colors, the beauty, the motion” — over hypnotizing, bass-aggressive techno. Elsewhere, on “Elliptic,” she doesn’t let her automation get too cool, diversifying her prickly and punchy tapestry of beats with synth washes that sound like an ocean wave crashing over the track, pulling sounds from the song in its wake.
The 27-year-old artist spoke with MTV News about how she started making music, reaching out to young women who want to produce, and dealing with her control-freak tendencies.
How did you start making music in the first place?
Kelly Lee Owens: I’m from North Wales originally. Wales is like the land of song — it’s rich in its history of singing and performing. I was in a choir growing up, and ended up in high school gravitating toward the music department, where all the weirdos seem to end up. I took up bass and drums a bit, but mainly my voice was my instrument.
I wound up moving to Manchester around age 18, and I met people who loved music and put on shows. I would be like, “How can I be involved? I’ll do merch for free, I’ll organize festivals.” I wanted to find out how they did it, because I didn’t have the confidence. Eventually I moved to London when I got offered a job at Pure Groove, which is this cool little record store where bands would play at lunchtime. I met Daniel Avery, who was the first person to ask me to do some vocals for him a bit more professionally. I was a bit nervous, but it went, obviously, very well, and people really liked it.
James Greenwood, who works as Ghost Culture, wound up becoming my best friend, and he was the one who gave me the ultimate confidence to write. He said, “I can engineer for you as you learn and progress with technology.” So technology became my friend. Logic is the thing that I write on. I realized I was a massive geek when it came to sound, and I realized I was probably a bit of a control freak as well — I just knew what I wanted and very much what I didn’t want. James was like, “I’m not going to have to produce this, because you already are.” And I was like, “Oh, is this what production is?”
Was that boost of confidence just due to getting approval from your peers or was it something else?
Owens: I think it definitely was that and also — maybe this is generalizing, but as women, sometimes we don’t begin things because we have such high expectations or standards of what we see as a final product that we don’t even begin. That was my problem: I’m not even gonna start this because it’s gonna be shit. But actually what it should be is: Are you pleasing yourself? That is all you have to do. It’s so simple. When you’re younger, you don’t know that — you’re like, “But there’s this whole industry, and I’ve got to sell stuff to be in it.” But no, you just have to be true to yourself and almost give yourself the freedom to fail.
There’s been a lot of conversation lately about the lack of women producers, especially in electronic music. Do you have a community in London right now where you’re connecting with other women about what they’re creating?
Owens: It’s becoming that, in a way. What’s ended up happening naturally is I have a female manager, female booking agent, female press agent, U.K. and U.S. I’ve got, for whatever reason, this energy around me that’s naturally happened. I’ve never felt just because I’m a woman I can’t do something. I just get on with it. In Wales there’s this strong work ethic — if you work hard, you’ll get it. You’re by yourself, you do it, you go for it and see what happens. It’s only now, when I am actually in it, that people are like, “A female producer!” And I’m like, “Yeah? And?” It’s just a bit odd, and you stop to realize, “Oh shit, this is still, for whatever ridiculous reason, quite rare.”
I was just gonna send out a tweet or something, and be like, “Any young female producers or writers that want to meet, talk, collaborate, this is my email address.” Because if someone were to have put that out there to me five years ago, maybe I would have made music sooner. I’m not saying that’s the only way. You don’t have to do everything when you’re 19 or 20, even though we put this pressure on ourselves to do everything when we’re young. It’s ridiculous. Actually, I’m glad I started when I was 25, 26, in a way. But I’m not on top of my game, I’m just beginning. But how wonderful if I can go on that journey with other young women. I’m really thinking about that now — how I can connect.
It sounds like you always wanted to work in the music industry, but did you have a clear goal of being a musician when you were younger, or were you always trying things out?
Owens: Definitely trying things out, because, like I said, I’m a doer. I have to just jump in, and then I will know I either like this or I completely hate it and never do it again. You’ve just got to go for it. I was working an actual job in Manchester at a cancer hospital — I was an auxiliary nurse, and I used to have 12 weeks of paid leave a year, which is a lot. And in between that, that’s when I was touring with bands, so I had a lot of time and freedom. I’m so interested in and fascinated by medicine. I don’t think you should limit yourself, like, “I am a producer, musician, and that is it.” No, I’m a human being and I’ve got several interests, believe it or not, and the same for music and genres. So I was just experimenting, because I wasn’t sure if I should do the nursing [and] trauma medicine. That’s another kind of thrill, in a way, like being onstage. You get adrenaline fixes.
I was paying my bills, but also I was inspired to live, because in a sense I was confronted with people’s deaths every day. I was only 19 and I was the youngest person that was working there. A lot of the patients would say, “What do you really want to do?” And I said, “Well, I kind of want to do music.” They were sitting there at the end [of their lives], saying, “Do not be me, do not be sitting there regretting the things you haven’t done.” And that was like, god, that was completely invaluable. As a 19-year-old, I was like “Oh my god, OK, I better go give it a try.”
You’re not super into genre labels, right?
Owens: No, and it’s funny because I’ve worked in, like, four record stores. It was my job to [respond to], “What does this sound like?” and I was just like, “Just go and listen. What does it sound like to you? That’s your own individual experience.” And I think that’s a wonderful thing. It’s almost like I don’t even want to limit myself or you in that experience.
What was the response from your music community in London when you started releasing your own work? Were people surprised?
Owens: I think I was more surprised by how there was any response to it, to be honest. People who knew me knew I always wanted to do it. I talked about it for a long time. Someone said to me, “Stop talking and start doing.” As soon as I stopped talking about it, I kind of disappeared for a little while, which I think a lot of people do when they’re in a creative bubble. I got advice from people I trusted. One of my friends, who’s a musician, said to not be too precious about it; just put it on SoundCloud.
You pressed your single “Lucid” yourself ...
Owens: Yes, because I am impatient. I was like, “I have a track, but I don’t really have it because it doesn’t physically exist.” So I thought, I’m not going to wait around until someone says it’s good enough to exist, I’m just gonna press it, because I work in a record store. I needed to hold it in my hands. I met a guy who worked at the vinyl factory, and he helped me out. Again, it’s about bridging a connection and just asking the questions and not being afraid to just go out and bloody do it anyway.
Now you’re on a label, a small one, and you have a publicist. I can tell that you liked to control every aspect of your work. How has adjusting to that been, as your career has become less DIY?
Owens: In a way it’s been quite hard to let go of the control. When my manager, Clarisse [Quinn], came in, it was hard initially to let someone manage the day-to-day stuff. I wanted to be CC’ed on every email ever, because I wanted to know what people were saying, exactly what they were thinking. I remember one time she sat me down and was like, “Kelly, we’re six months in — I’m just going to be honest, I feel like you’re managing me.” And I was really shocked; I was like, “What? Really? Me?” And she was like, “Yeah, you know, this can’t continue like this. You need space for yourself.” I was kind of offended at first, but she was completely right.
Signing the deal itself, my lawyer said it’s one of the most fair deals he’s ever worked on. And I’m proud of that. I want people to know that. I want other young women to know that I’ve got a very good licensing deal; I own my masters. The [profit] split is 50/50. We’ve really worked hard on that. It’s very important to me to not give too much away. So that’s why I’m starting in a place where that’s my foundation. There has to be longevity if you really want to do this. I’m not just after a quick hit, a quick fix. And I think the industry is figuring out slowly that that doesn’t work.