Kelela is Leaning All the Way into Her Vulnerability

Features. Interviews. Posted 8 months ago

Madeleine Woon


Image: Courtesy

Our first introduction to Kelela (full name: Kelela Mizanekristos) came via her explosive 2013 mixtape, Cut 4 Me. Since then, the Ethiopian-American artist has continued to enrich lives everywhere with emotive, dance-ready music that defies categorisation and encourages listeners to lean all the way in to their vulnerability. The latest in that line-up is her brilliant debut album, Take Me Apart — the super-hyped record that has been burning holes in our speakers since it dropped last month.

The futuristic R&B artist has a special fluency in heartbreak. The lyrics that weave through her 14-track record typify the heart-on-sleeve, soul-stirring honesty that’s inherent to R&B music, and coalesce with powerful, swirling soundscapes to take listeners on an emotional journey through time and space. Like the female R&B, neo-soul and jazz artists that came before her, Kelela pushes boundaries with ingenious, euphoric music that makes you want to dance your heartbreak and pain out in the club with your fam.

To celebrate her new album and forthcoming Australian tour, we called up one of the most important voices of our generation to talk through layered identities and the importance of both songwriting and her peers in navigating the more vulnerable chapters of her life.

How do you think your upbringing in Gaithersburg, Maryland helped to shape your worldview?
I mean, I always tell people when they ask that question, you know, that it’s layered. My experience growing up in a mixed neighbourhood has shaped my worldview. My black womanhood has also shaped that. The fact that my parents are Ethiopian immigrants has shaped that. Growing up around white people has shaped that. It’s hard to say how, exactly, except that I can say I have a complex and layered reality. All of those things, I guess, to create… the way I’m translating or conveying messages from one group to another. It’s like I’m a go-between, a liaison or some sort of translator. I feel it’s definitely affected how I make music and how I’m thinking about the world in general.

What led you to study sociology, and how do you think your studies have impacted your approach to making music?
Sociology for me was a way to dismantle and deconstruct all the different shit I have to deal with on a regular basis — as a black woman, as a career black woman, as a second generation Ethiopian American. All the things, or all the markers that really mean that I have to meet resistance on a daily basis.

Which women had the most profound impact on you growing up?
You know, there are so many, and I guess the reason why it’s hard to name even just a few is because I have different ones for different parts of myself. As a child, I really connected with Miriam Makeba and Tracy Chapman, and then I had other records that maybe didn’t make sense … Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston, and then Mariah Carey, and, you know, Faith Evans, Mary J. Blige, SWV, Mint Condition. And then I had my jazz influences. When I was younger it was Natalie Cole and Ella Fitzgerald, and as I got older it was Sarah Vaughn and Betty Carter…. Joni Mitchell. There’s just so many of them. I had my favourite, sort of, classically trained ones, and then jazz ones, and then folk ones, and then world music ones. As a child, I always listened to music. I had a lot of different influences growing up.

Congratulations on your new album, Take Me Apart. I really love that you’ve dedicated an entire record to working through the entire gamut of emotions that come with exiting a relationship and then entering a new one. How did you work with producers to ensure the sonic production side of things worked with the lyrics?
Thank you. I guess that a lot of the emotion [already] existed in the track a lot of times. So ‘Enough’ for example is a track that was giving so much emotion — it pretty much sounded the way that it does for the most part, in terms of, like, the power of the drums, and the feeling that it evoked. Arca made that, and then he played that to me, and I was basically only trying to enhance and sort of match that. I’m adding to the songs, for example a bridge that didn’t exist, and so I’m adding parts, but the tone had often already been set. I guess it’s not hard is what I’m trying to say. I think that everybody is ready to emote as well, you know? It’s not just like me emoting on the track, and then a producer working around that — it was definitely more symbiotic. I’m responding to the emotion that’s imbued in the track, and then I’m also telling [the producers] what I want to hear more of, or less of. On ‘Blue Light’, for example, it was different — I had a lot of people give me their take, and then I put it all together in a way that made sense to me. So, in that regard, I did have to do a lot of being like, “No, over here, it doesn’t go there, it’s really dynamic” Or, you know, “We don’t go off until the chorus”. There was some of that, but it’s not a one-way street. We were responding more and more to each other, to make sure that everything was synthesised.

I was watching the track-by-track breakdown that you did of Take Me Apart earlier, and it was so visceral and heart-wrenching watching you talk about Enough, and revisiting those emotions. Do you think it’s important for us to have tangible reminders of those more vulnerable times in our lives?
Yeah, I definitely think it’s important in retrospect, but I’m not really approaching it that way. I’m approaching it more from the place of just trying to feel better, and trying to heal myself through the process of writing. And I can say in retrospect that it is really important that I’m documenting that. I guess that’s also just my general M.O.: to put myself out there when I feel uncomfortable, and I think that, as an M.O., it’s something that I would like to put on blast to the world. I think that it’s a very important sentiment, albeit not one that I invented. It’s something that’s affected me, as a person, and I know it’s also something that works consistently, from personal experience at least. It’s provided me with a lot of release. I want to present that release as an option to other people.

Outside of writing music, what other ways do you help yourself try and navigate those vulnerable chapters of your life?
Mainly just checking in with my peers — my black woman, artist peers. They are the people who I basically spend a lot of time with, and I guess just check in with to compare notes. Comparing maps and tools with other women, which help with navigating those vulnerable periods, has been so incredibly helpful for me. Also, I like to have different mentors. You know, people to bounce ideas off of, to bounce life shit off of. I think it’s an important thing to have people who have more years of experience. There is something nice about being able to have a conversation with somebody who is like, “Yeah, it’s chill, that’s just what happens when you get to that area of your life, but just chill, it will be fine”. So those are the things that I get through conversations with the people I surround myself with, and then I guess just reading. Even though I don’t do enough of that…

Totally. I’m interested to know, heading into your thirties, if there are things that used to bother you growing up that now don’t?
Well, it’s easier and easier — it’s never easy, but it’s just less hard — to speak to power. And usually that means talking about whiteness to white people. That’s one of the things that has gotten more… it may prove to be more difficult in new ways as time passes, but it feels just easier to do that [now], and I guess through the process of interviews, and just sort of having to make that choice, it feels more comfortable every time. So that’s one thing. And then, just communicating confidently in general, especially when it comes to creative ideas. And that’s to men for the most part — white men [are] different from black men, of course — but still, that’s something I’m becoming more comfortable with.

I wanted to ask you what your experience working with Eckhaus Latta was like? They’re such an important brand in terms of authentically and genuinely championing diversity and representation…
It was a wonderful experience. It was great. It was really easy. I walked into the fitting, and essentially the thing that they wanted me to wear was the thing that I definitely should have worn, the thing that made most sense for me to wear. It fit perfectly. It was all so natural. They’re thinking about things that intersect with fashion. They’re not just thinking about fashion, they’re thinking about politics, and that really matters, you know. There are several brands that are operating in that same way. I have a lot of peers who are doing that, which is really cool, because they’re changing the landscape. My peer group… It’s really cool to just have a bunch of actual friends who are changing that forever, and creating so much of an impact, you know? It’s really cool, and I’m really excited about what’s to come.

Is there a particular type of listener you’re trying to connect with when you write your music?
There is and there isn’t. On the one hand I am clear about who it does resonate with, and then, you know, there’s also this goal I definitely have of wanting to enrol people who are not already enrolled. There is a way that I am trying to create for fresh eyes. So yeah, I don’t know. A particular type of personality is hard to say, because I don’t know all the people who it’s resonating with, but for the most part, the people who I’m trying to connect with the most are queer people and people of colour. There’s a sense there as well of an identity that they are connecting with, and taking, very personally. People are wanting to know it’s real or something — it’s almost like people want to get some reinforcement out in the world for taking on that approach. I don’t want to use the word personality. I’d probably just say that there is an ethic, a way of doing things, or a way of seeing the world that is more of a thread than a type of person.