When I first heard Kelly Lee Owens’ new album, Inner Song, I was an hour or so along the coast from Saint Asaph in north Wales, the city (the second-smallest in Britain) where she grew up. In stereotypically Welsh fashion, it was wet, and it was windy. As horizontal rain pelted the windows, I listened for how these wild, mercurial landscapes have found their way into Owens’ work.
“I remember reading something Björk said about Iceland,” Owens says over Zoom on a sweltering mid-heatwave day in London. “She would walk to school and she’d see these peaks and troughs in the land, and these would represent how she did the verse and the chorus.” For Owens, a chorus is a moment for uplift, for something big, and when she goes home to Wales, she sees those moments reflected in the topography around her. “I know I’m home when I see the land rising,” she says.
Inner Song has sweeping melodies, dramatic strings, and icy textures that mimic the rugged Welsh countryside, but there are four-to-the-floor club cuts too, and enough bass to necessitate pressing the record over three sides rather than two (Owens cares not for compressing frequencies down in order to fit them on vinyl. Bass takes up space, and she wants to honour the sound.) After 11 years in London, spending time in the studio with friends and collaborators like Daniel Avery, Jon Hopkins and James Greenwood (aka Ghost Culture), it’s no wonder that the beating heart of London’s dance music culture has seeped into her music.
“I’ve found that artists seem more open creatively,” Owens says about lockdown, a period she’s spent at home in London. “I think people’s egos have been stripped bare. We’re all in this together, it’s a more open, creative space.” But despite this unexpected positive, she had still just finished an album which needed releasing. After months spent in that creative headspace, just as Owens prepared to show Inner Song to the world, the world came grinding to a halt.
“It’s a long overdue relief,” she says of Inner Song’s deferred arrival. In the week of release, Owens will host a few intimate listening parties, and she’s looking forward to being able to connect with fans in a meaningful way. The release feels more poignant now, she explains: “I always think that music will find the people that need it, and perhaps now, in this time, people are more emotional, and more open than ever to receiving art.”
Owens has been open about the fact that Inner Song follows some of the most mentally gruelling years of her life. As the title suggests, she’s been working on her inner self by undoing the knots, going to therapy, and rebuilding things from the inside out. “One of the biggest losses I’d experienced was the loss of self,” she explains, “now I have new foundations, better boundaries, I feel stronger.” The album opens with a cover of Radiohead’s Arpeggi, and for Owens, the opening bars reflect past stickiness and darkness, before the arpeggios lift her up and into the light, “back towards the soil from the depths,” she says.
Inner Song reveals a poppier side to Kelly Lee Owens, and it also puts her lyrics in the spotlight in a way that 2017’s self-titled debut did not. Back then, her vocal was shrouded in echo and reverb, but now, “everything is on top,” she explains. “It’s an honest journey into my inner psyche.” L.I.N.E, which stands for Love Is Not Enough, is a shoegaze-leaning antidote to the school of pop music that tells you to fight for love, to stick by someone no matter what. “I don’t prescribe to that,” Owens explains, “if a situation is detrimental to your wellbeing, it’s not enough just to be in love with someone.” On album highlight Re-Wild, the track where you can most hear those undulating Welsh hills, the title has two meanings: rewilding the spirit, and rewilding the earth. “I don’t see any separation between myself and nature,” Owens explains, “it’s a moment of absolute liberation.”
Liberation shows itself in funny ways in these, dare we say it, Unprecedented Times. Some are liberating themselves from the confines of Covid-19 by going raving. It might be exciting, the return to a “true” underground energy, but for Owens the key is that these events are executed responsibly, and with consideration for the wider community. All the while music venues remain in peril, but Owens is positive: “All I know is that no matter how big or small, or whether it’s DIY or a professional space, we’ll never again take being together for granted.” And in the meantime, Owens comes back to music finding those who need it most. “That’s the thing about creative people,” she explains, “we find ways to connect. It’s a privilege of a lifetime, to do what we do.”
On the subject of privilege, Owens has been thinking a lot about how to use her own, as a white artist, in the most impactful way. “These structures have all been created by white men,” she says, “how do we dismantle and rebuild that? For me, I’m doing the homework, honouring the artists that created the music I play and am inspired by.”
Owens is focused too on giving her work back to people of colour for their own spin and perspective — she names visual artist Laneya Billingsley and producer Coby Sey as examples, both of whom she’s collaborated with on the track Melt! (on the visuals and a remix respectively). Her team currently comprises around 70% women, but she knows she needs to do better to diversify her team further. When we talk about an inclusion of diversity clauses in booking contracts, she thinks this is a positive step, and would like to see a similar contractual commitment to climate change too. “Challenge your teams, and hold people accountable,” she goes on. “Real accountability and real pledges, make people sign on the dot. We have to come together as a collective to ask for better.”
Owens often returns to the idea of togetherness, connection, and “leaning into the cracks,” which is her way of saying: embrace the darkness in order to find your light. When she was 18-years-old, Owens worked in a cancer hospital, and it’s the strength of the people she worked with that serves as a constant reminder of her own strength. “They gave me the courage to believe that no idea was too big,” she says. “It sounds cheesy, but it’s the real stuff. The best way to die well, is to live well.”