Cellist Kelsey Lu Will Have You Under Her Spell
one pluck at a time
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!
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.
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
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
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.
Going back to your whole transition into coming here, what were you doing in between, before you started recording music and everything? What were you doing to get by?
Well, I worked at restaurants and I bartended. At one point—if you saw the
, you know I stripped—and then I also do jingles. I sing jingles sometimes. And then I started modeling before I moved here—I was here visiting off the tour and I had my cello with me, and my friend who did video work for some booking agency called me and he was like, ‘Are you in New York?’ and I happened to be here. He was like, ‘Do you have your cello? Levi’s is looking for a female ethnic cellist.’ I guess I fit into that category of person, of being. So I went to the casting and I got it, and it was this big commercial. I kind of rolled off of that with modeling freelance. I never dove all the way into it, maybe because I’m a stoner and I could never commit to putting a portfolio together?
How did you become a part of this little music and art community that’s happening here? You have Patrick Wimberly from Chairlift and then Dev Hynes ... I also know that you’ve done some stuff with Empress Of. How did those connections form?
When it comes down to it, it’s a pretty small world. People know each other. I met Patrick through Kyp Malone, who’s my creative partner. We started tracking my album a year ago here, and I was working with Patrick and with Miles Robinson. I met Lorely [Rodriguez] years ago through my friend Sam Owens, who’s from North Carolina—he’s a cool musician. I met her through him years ago when I first moved here, and I saw her sing with him a couple of times and then she was always around with either a guitar in hand or getting ready to work on something. The first time I met Dev was actually a couple of years ago when Kelela was touring with Solange, and he was playing with Solange. That’s when I first met him. I wonder if he actually remembers that? I guess just being around over time. We would see each other in places, and eventually it all came together.
Your latest video that you released is just gorgeous. When did you film all of that and where did it take place?
I filmed that in the beginning of fall. The leaves were starting to fall on the ground and I shot it upstate with the director, Leslie Satterfield. I remember when I was at this art-tea-music thing that a friend of mine does in Redhook. I played and Leslie was there, and she was immediately a fan and a friend. I checked out some of her things and we met and we talked and we were just bouncing things off of each other. We both have a keen love for nature and she has a good eye for catching that. We shot it upstate and it was a beautiful experience. I learned a lot—there’s so much that goes into making a video. It could be totally easy and breezy, but there’s also many elements to it and people involved. There were people there that I never met and they were just willing to come out and help. It was beautiful. I was in where I want to be—which is in nature—in the middle of the woods somewhere. I was in my element. I really connect to being there. Being from North Carolina, I was outside all the time. Growing up, I just loved digging in the dirt and it was just perfect. It was great.
It’s funny. I was so nervous about the first video. It’s the first thing that people see. I care about connecting—if somebody feels something, they
, you know—then I’ve accomplished something. It sounds like I have a big head, but if someone comes up to me after a show and says ‘I had goosebumps,’ I’m like ‘Yes! That’s what I want!’ I want people to feel. The song itself is about an old lover, and it’s something that I’d been just dragging out for so long. The day that we started filming, it was the night of a blood moon, and it was so intense. While I was standing there with Tin—who’s the other girl that’s there—in these very still, statue-esque poses, I’m thinking about what this song means to me because I’m having to sing it over and over and over, and hearing it over and over, and then just standing there in stillness and thinking about what it all means. That just erupted my insides and I just started crying, but also releasing at the same time. It was a beautiful experience for that. A part of the imagery in “Morning After Coffee" was from
, the Bergman film. I really love that film, but I also love the fact that it was me and another black girl. It really meant a lot to me that there were people of color in the video. It’s not just me—the end goal is that it’s for all of us, you know? There definitely needs to be more of us in the spotlight.
How does it feel to be able to release all of that, especially in front of a crowd? At the church, I felt so overwhelmed by all of it, but in a good way.
Yeah, it’s kind of like that. But of course it also depends on who’s there. That night was so special because there were people there that I really love and that are my family now. Feeling that is like there are mountains colliding inside of your belly and tectonic plates shifting. That’s how it feels. Then playing in front of a crowd in another place—and now I’m on tour again—we were in D.C. and it was sold out. I was getting ready to go on stage, and I’ve gotten so used to playing here and playing in places that I’m comfortable with and seeing faces that I’m familiar with, and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to play in a place that I’ve never been before, and I have no idea who these people are.’ This feeling of 'Oh fuck, are they gonna like it?' And then that’s not the question. That’s not the question. The question is: Are they going to connect? Are they going to feel? That’s what I thought. And I went on stage and it was great.
Sometimes I can feel a hate, I can feel it. I have this shield. Sometimes I pretend that I just have this shield around me and if anyone tries to shoot it’s just like ‘boing!’ And then it shoots back at them and they’re like ‘oh yeah.’ Or they’re not, and I just don’t care. But it feels good. Sometimes it’s too much. There was one time where I did a show at Baby’s All Right, and it was really great but it was also a little overwhelming. Afterwards I just didn’t really want to see anyone. Sometimes it feels that way. I’m just feel like I’ve given out a lot, because it is very personal, and when I was at the church there was one song specifically that’s about my grandmother, who died of Alzheimer’s. Usually I sing that song all the time, but in that moment I got a very clear picture of her and my grandfather and I just started crying. That happens sometimes. But that’s because of our feelings.
So now you’re working on the EP, correct? And you’re also working on an album? Could you tell me a little bit about those projects?
The EP, I’m mixing it right now. I started working on this album with Kyp Malone of TV On The Radio a couple of years ago, and we went upstate for 10 days and wrote. Just woke up and spent all day writing. We made some new stuff, went off the things I had already started, and we just wanted to start before coming in here and putting stuff down. Then we just started working on it in here, and then semi-finished tracking it this past summer. I’m so excited about it, and it’s a new sound for me—in a way it’s more polished, if you want to put it that way. There are more sounds, more instruments, and more textures. It’s just a wider plate. I care about it a lot; I didn’t want to just throw it out there. I also didn’t want to be misinterpreted. I feel like I hadn’t been able to introduce just me and my cello, just completely stripped down, and I wanted to give that a chance. So I thought doing this would be a nice introduction to how I perform live now. It’s really important for me, so I wanted to put the EP out and have people dip their toes in the water first before diving in. The album, I’m so excited about too. It’s gonna be so big.
What are you hoping to accomplish as an artist? We were talking about what you want people to get from your music, to feel something. Is that the end goal, or is there something else?
I can’t really say what an end goal is. I haven’t really set that for myself yet. I think I’m very much trying to live in the present of now and really just be here now and be really happy and excited for what’s going on. I have really amazing people around me that are supporting me and helping. That’s ultimately what I want. I want to be surrounded by people that I love and I can trust ultimately. Like you said, there’s a casual feeling around our relationships with other artists and people doing amazing things ‘cause we’re just people when it comes down to it. I don’t want to say what an end goal is, but for now, there’s so much that can be done. It’s a matter of taking on that responsibility. I can say what I would like to do, but words are spells.