Cellist Kelsey Lu Will Have You Under Her Spell

one pluck at a time

Photographed by Emmanuel Olunkwa.

My interview with Kelsey Lu starts off by watching the music video for Zayn Malik's newly released single "Pillowtalk." We're sitting in Chairlift's studio in Brooklyn, laughing at the unimpressive visuals flashing on the computer screen in front of us, and making predictions about the even less entertaining plot line. For the past year, the cellist has been mixing her EP and tracking her debut album here with Patrick Wimberly of Chairlift. When we move over to the couch, Lu slips off her shoes to get more comfortable. She's a little tired because the night before, she performed at Bowery Ballroom—Lu is currently touring with Wet as the opening act.

During our time in the studio together, Lu openly discusses every detail of the journey of how she got to where she is today. Lu doesn't hide the fact that she was strictly raised as a Jehovah's Witness, or that she was once in an abusive relationship, or that she worked as a stripper and a weed dealer for a short period of time. Lu left her family's home in North Carolina when she was 18 years old, and she's been living on her own with her cello by her side ever since. Lu has endured so much in her 26 years of existence and yet she still maintains a positive outlook regarding everything around her. She's a grounded individual, a telling characteristic of earth signs.

One of her favorite memories from her childhood is driving with her sister and listening to Three 6 Mafia and Twista. "That was the only time I could listen to it because she wouldn’t let me borrow them, and she had to keep them secret from our parents," Lu says with a smile.

Read the results of our inspiring conversation in the interview, below!


A photo posted by Kelsey Lu McJunkins (@kelseylu69) on

Let's start at the beginning. What was your introduction to playing instruments?
My older sister played violin and I wanted to do everything that she did. So I started playing violin when I was six, then I switched to piano, then I switched back to violin. Then I really wanted to be in an orchestra, and that’s partially why I quit piano. My teacher was really mean. She made me cry and I slapped her hand... I was in my lesson with my teacher, Sarah Schlecta, and there was a cello propped up against the window. I just could not pay attention because I was looking at this big violin. I was like, ‘What’s this?’ even though I knew what it was. I really just wanted her to be like, ‘Would you like to take it home?’ which she did. I just fell in love with it. It's my main squeeze. I wanted to play everything, but I couldn’t. My mom was like, ‘You need to pick something and just stick with that.’
Was it more like a hobby for you, up until a certain point? Or did you always know that this was what you wanted to do?
Yeah, I felt like, 'This is what I wanna do. I wanna do this.' It was really the only thing outside of my religion that I felt, I don’t know, moved by. I was so involved in being a Jehovah’s Witness, and you’re supposed to dedicate your life to that. And so that comes first over everything. The only other thing was music, and so I was like, ‘Oh, I wanna do this.’ My dad was always like, ‘You’re gonna make it into the Bethel.’ The big goal for my life was to play for the Bethel Orchestra, which is like the Jehovah’s Witness headquarters, where everything happens. So I was like, ‘Yeah, I wanna do that!’ And as I got older, I started veering away from the religion. I knew I still wanted to do music, but it just happened to be my escape out of everything. I went to school for it at North Carolina School Yards. I went there on a total chance—it was senior skip day. Being a kid, you’re always like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna do this,' but you’re changing your mind all the time. But music was always … it seemed like, 'Oh yeah, obviously, even though I want to be a veterinarian, I’m still always gonna play music.' It wasn’t a question.
What is your favorite thing about your cello?
Its vibrations. Oh man! So hard! I’d say my end pin, which is like the stick that I pull out and then stab into the ground. I’ve been having fun playing around with it, too. Moving around and then stabbing it into the ground.
Have you ever named your cellos?
Mmhmm. It’s an ‘it’ right now. It started off as a girl and we did a sex change to a male, and then went back to being female which it is now. Non-gendered cello. Its name right now is Danke, which means ‘thank you.’ I’m not even really sure why I named it that. I think it needs a name change, because I feel weird about not knowing where its name came from. I don’t know why it’s named Danke. I mean, it means thank you, and I thank her—it—every day... Them, that’s right.

A photo posted by Kelsey Lu McJunkins (@kelseylu69) on

I remember I was so excited with my viola, when I got a bow with a different-colored hair. I had one with black hair, and I felt like such a badass in the orchestra. And I was always the only black kid in the orchestra and my mom was like ‘You’re a black viola player with a black bow.’ And I was like ‘Yeah I am.’ I felt so cool, but I was so lame. I mean it was cool, but it’s sad that that made me so excited.
No, I would’ve gotten so excited! I wanted a black cello. My cello teacher had a really dark, wooden, German cello, and it was just so beautiful. One of the most beautiful cellos I’ve ever seen. I played a $50,000 cello recently. Dev [Hynes] and I were at David Gage, in Chinatown, and there are rows and rows of cellos. I was helping him pick out a bow, and we were just trying out different cellos for fun. I tried out this $50,000 cello, and it literally looked like something that should’ve gone through Mordor or this enchanted forest and I had to battle a dragon to get this cello from a wizard. It was one of the most beautiful cellos—it is the most beautiful cello I’ve ever seen in my entire life. The depth of its sound, the vibrations were so strong it was just shaking my insides. The wood itself was just two slabs of thick wood, and you could see the carving marks that the cello-maker made. And it was so beautiful, and so old, like the 1600s or something.
How would you describe your musical ascetic now, with what you’re making?
What I’m making that people are going to hear soon is a mixture of what I like to call the genre of 'lutherial.' My friend gave me that title. She was like, ‘How would you describe your music?’ And I was like, ‘Uh, ethereal?’ And she was like, ‘You should call your album Lutherial, and I was like, ‘Ohhh my goddd.’ I’m into creating a genre of lutherial. It's a feeling of nostalgia of some kind. The songs that are coming out on this EP dig a lot into my past and also my relationship with that. One of the songs I wrote a couple of days before we recorded is about my relationship with my mom. But that’s another thing with songs. You could write them and you think it’s about one thing and then time goes on and it turns into something completely different. I think that’s really beautiful. It’s also up to everyone else’s interpretation; it can mean whatever you want it to. So it’s however you feel. For me, I feel a sense of nostalgia, pain ... but also, there’s a feeling of a new path.
You’ve been through so much already. I wanted to know, how old were you when you decided to leave home and embark on this whole journey?
I guess when I started feeling weird about things I was like 17. My sister is older than I am, and she was already going to college. When I started feeling weird about stuff was when she was disfellowshipped. I was like, ‘Hmm, I don’t know about this. This doesn’t feel right.’ So I think, in the back of my mind, I was trying to plan some escape. The night of my 18th birthday was when me and my mother got into a fight. My parents have been there, but our relationship is just complicated.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I had friends from college that had moved here so I would come and visit them sometimes. Growing up, I always knew that I wanted to live in New York. My family and I would visit here at least once a year to go visit Bethel, and just walking around I felt obsessed. I loved it. Just the feeling and the energy, and so many different people. I’d never seen anything like it before, and I was like, ‘Oh, I wanna live here.’ It just seemed so obvious. It was not even something that I even thought about—it was like, 'Yeah, of course, I’m just gonna move. Why would I wanna wait? But I don’t know, if I can...' It was definitely a funk period of saving money, and then I started touring with Nappy Roots. In that time, I was visiting a friend and then I met somebody who lived in Brooklyn. I was talking to them while I was on the road, started visiting them, and then we started dating. He was like, ‘Why don’t you just move in with me and then you can get on your feet and go and just live here?’ So that’s what I did. It wasn’t the best idea, but it got me here.
It didn’t end up very well with him—but I’m here now. It’s funny, I’ve lived here for four years on and off, but it’s definitely been in and out. The first year I was here, when I first moved to Brooklyn, I didn’t really experience New York. I was very much in his world, and then it ended up being an abusive relationship. When I left, I moved to Flatbush and then I immediately moved into another relationship that was the complete opposite of that, and very healing, but he lived in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was just really nice being home, having that feeling of being home. I was gone from New York a lot. I feel like this past year and a half, I’ve really been here. I’m feeling so much more like it’s my home, and also feeling the benefits of living in New York and trying to do what you love to do and trying to make that work. As big of a city as it is, it gets smaller and smaller.