Cellist turned R&B rising star Kelsey Lu: ‘I’ve been strategically floating’

Kelsey Lu makes modernist R&B pop, informed by her classical cello training, a sculptural take on art-rock and hip-hop, and an incisive revival of the hidden history of black American culture. But recently the American vocalist and composer who has previously collaborated with the likes of Solange and Florence + the Machine has a new focus: studying the sounds of Australia's native fauna.

Raised in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is perhaps no surprise Kelsey Lu’s debut album is called Church.

"There's a lot of different birds I'm not familiar with," Lu says. "I've been going through their sounds and manipulating them to create something new. A bird call might come out as a low rumble, but people will still sense that it's there."

The 28-year-old's act of audio alchemy stems from her commission to provide a score for Austral Flora Ballet, a new work by her fellow Los Angeles resident, film and video artist Andrew Thomas Huang, that will illuminate the sails of the Sydney Opera House every evening during the Vivid Live music program – which Lu is also playing – as part of the Vivid Sydney arts festival.

"I couldn't say no to that," she says of the offer to work with Huang. "I had my album to finish at the same time, but I was like, 'I'll just have to figure it out'. I'd been wanting to collaborate with Andrew for a long time, but when it happened it felt cosmic. He didn't know that I was playing the festival when he asked me. I was like, 'I'm already going to be there'."

Her album, Blood, came out last month. Lu's debut long player is the successor to her breakthrough 2016 EP Church, and it emphasises her feel for dreamy, baroque beats and ethereal soundscapes; her cover of 10CC's I'm Not in Love is a slow-motion transmission from a parallel dimension. Her music sounds like it was drawn from deep within her creative sensibility, emerging without doubt or deviation, which is a reflection of its long gestation.

"I wouldn't say it was easy, but I wouldn't necessarily say it was hard," she says of making the record. "I just took my time with it, so it wasn't that I was holding on to the songs or constantly doing different things to the same one. But I was also preoccupied with the other things happening simultaneously. When I worked on the record I dedicated my time to it and allowed myself what I needed."

With a music teacher for a mother and a painter for a father, both of them Jehovah's Witnesses, Lu grew up in a North Carolina house divided between the secular and the spiritual. A multi-instrumentalist as a child before focusing on the cello as a teenager, Lu broke with her family to go to art school, the beginning of an odyssey that took her from one project and city to the next, with Church eventually being recorded live in a place of worship in New York.

"When I was younger I didn't have an idea of where I saw myself," Lu says. "I've been strategically floating, so wherever my music needed me to be felt right to me at the time. A lot of people around me have said [adopts Broadway accent], 'You're going to be a star, kid!' And I'm just like, 'Thank you'."

Lu's music has a free associative rhythm to it – airy at one moment, concise the next. She's the same way in conversation, cheerfully offering an outline of an answer before sidestepping into a specific illustration. Lu tells a long and amusing story about being in the audience at a Ghostface Killah gig and then meeting the Wu-Tang Clan rapper backstage, only to feel uncomfortable after a few minutes and deciding to leave.

Kelsey Lu: ‘I’ve been strategically floating, so wherever my music needed me to be felt right to me at the time.’

She says she was standing outside the Nashville venue with her friends when Ghostface reappeared and solemnly took her hands in his. "He said, 'There's something really special about you. I don't know what it is, but I do know I'll see you again under a different light'," Lu remembers.

They haven't met since, but that different light is already starting to shine brightly.

Kelsey Lu plays the Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House on Saturday June 1 (two performances) and Sunday June 2, and Howler, Brunswick on Thursday June 6. Andrew Thomas Huang’s Austral Flora Ballet screens on the Opera House sails every evening from Friday May 24 to Saturday June 15.

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