This article was originally written for the September 2016 issue of DIY
For most, leaving behind everything you’ve ever known to start a new life would be a monumental, even impossible, feat. For singer and cellist Kelsey Lu, it was something she simply had to do. Kelsey grew up Jehovah’s Witness but, on reaching her teens, “started questioning life and my place in it.” The aspiring musician then decided to take the plunge. “I left everything at the age of 18, and snuck off to my audition for North Carolina School of the Arts.”
Kelsey grew up in a creative household. Her mum played piano, her dad was in a jazz-funk band in the 60s and 70s, and her older sister studied violin. Wanting to emulate her sibling, Kelsey also took up the instrument, which led to a definitive encounter. “I went to one of my violin lessons and my teacher had this cello leaning up against the window outside of its case,” she says. “It wasn’t like I’d never seen a cello before, but in that moment it was calling my name.” For Kelsey, it was the feeling of intimacy that proved irresistible. “I loved the idea of playing something that was on your body,” she explains. “It was the contact that I got. It rested against my chest and the sound I got was so full, it filled my body.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Now 26, Kelsey’s artistry has seen her support Florence + the Machine, collaborate with Blood Orange and perform alongside Kelela. Even more evidence of her unbridled talent can be found on debut EP, ‘Church.’ It is, as Kelsey describes it, “Lutherial.” Recorded entirely live in a Brooklyn church (“a perfect space for voice and cello”) and co-produced by Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly, Kelsey’s vocals and luscious waves of cello are the sole components, accompanied only by cavernous silence, and the scrapes of bow against string.
This minimal approach means there’s an achingly raw sense of closeness. Despite singing on ‘Time’ that “Everybody knows / The feelings that you feel / Aren’t real,” it’s clear she speaks directly from the heart. Her songs are “written very much in the moment of whatever feeling I was having at that time.” Indeed, many of them have an improvisational quality. “There’s not a whole lot of planning,” she confirms. Closer ‘Liar’ wasn’t even originally intended to be on the EP. “I was listening to a lot of Alice Coltrane and that one just came out of nowhere, maybe a couple of days before recording,” she laughs. “It came from jamming on my emotions, my feelings. I’m really into capturing that moment of pure feeling.”
But Kelsey has been following her heart for years; she’s found beauty in the improvisational nature of life, which feeds into her work. “The things we feel the most or remember are those things that are unexpected, that we don’t plan on happening,” she says. “They just do.”