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Kelela: Vocal Disruption

Brendan Arnott talks with Fade To Mind singer Kelela about her physical and occasionally confrontational approach to vocal performance.

Kelela Mizanekristos fades in and out of focus onstage, bathed in blue light and immersed in a cloud of hazy smoke machine fog. Singing to a rapt crowd of nearly two thousand on a humid July night in Toronto, there are times when she seems to disappear into the haze, allowing the sound system’s rattling sub-bass to take precedence. But when she throws back her head and sings, her voice cuts through the humid night air like a knife. Powerful is an understatement – it’s all at once resonant, mesmerizing and euphoric, drawing eruptions of applause that match the boom of the speakers.

It’s been a gradual ascent for the Los Angeles-based performer, whose last several years have been marked by a diverse range of experiences – from performing alongside Total Freedom at screenings of Wu Tsang’s Wildness film to floating atop grimy tracks with effortless ease on NTS radio with Bok Bok, to collaborating with artists as diverse as Animals as Leaders, Teengirl Fantasy, and Kingdom. Kelela’s work on Kingdom’s “Bank Head” single this year was perhaps the move that made the dance community drop what they were doing and take notice: Possessing an arresting sense of longing, it’s the type of track that grips you in an ecstatic anxiety, raptly waiting for a release that never arrives.

However, sitting down with Mizanekristos backstage after her show, she speaks openly about her experiences playing to empty rooms, “using every shitty moment as an exercise” and recounting a story of playing a Pride festival with Nina Sky when half the audience turned their back on her to chat idly. “I got on my knees and basically started singing to the person’s back,” she tells me with a smile. “Everyone else in the room was wincing… but I’ll try to do something different to sort of fuck things up a little bit, it’s become my thing.”

Prior to meeting, Kelela had texted me a list of singers who had a great impact on her – names that might not ring out often in dance music circles: Joni Mitchell, Sarah Vaughn, Mariah Carey and D’Angelo. I’m struck by how many of Mizanekristos’ inspirations all have organic, free-flowing live instrumentation accompanying their voices. After all, while Kelela’s siren-esque vocals share the living, breathing intimacy of these performers, the same can’t be said for the backing tracks to her forthcoming Fade To Mind mixtape, which will feature productions from Jam City, Kingdom, Morri$, Nguzunguzu and more. While the uncompromising, spine-jacking functionality of the Club Constructions series and Jam City’s torrent of frenzied synth stabs are deeply moving, they’re a far cry from organic.

But Kelela’s vision for music is all about merging the rigid and free-flowing. “I made it a project for about three years to try and learn every standard that I liked” she explains, “by listening to Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald. Not like learning it in a… ‘proper context’, but by studying anyone who people raved about, doing female vocalist research in a very academic way, and getting friends to transcribe Betty Carter tunes that I was obsessed with.” Kelela insists that the ‘Kelela conservatory of music’ vibe “definitely comes from a place where I was responding to live instruments, to tracks with people doing things in the room. It is very different dealing in the fixed medium (of dance music), but I’m also obsessed with highly produced things. My dream is to have both those elements in the productions – Jam City plays piano and bass on the last track of the album, but re-contextualizes those instruments in a way that is simultaneously organic and constructed.” What does Mizanekristos want the finished product to sound like? “I want it to feel like home, I want to be resonant, and, I also want you to be physically, visibly fucked up by it.”

Kelela’s words seem resonant of something she expressed earlier onstage, asking the audience if they could feel the rattling thump of the sound system in their bodies. “Sub-bass is this really important thing” she states, expanding on that sentiment – “and I don’t mean just wobble. It can be arresting, you can feel it gripping and letting go of you and it’s like, (here, Kelela makes an impossible-to-transcribe sound of exasperated, stressed ecstasy). I don’t mind sounding quote/unquote “pretty” with that type of backing, but I also don’t mind singing hard and emoting hard with my voice.”

Kelela’s project seems to be about the friction of how different things are paired together, a topic that’s come up in many conversations she’s had with producers while selecting tracks for her forthcoming Fade To Mind release. One of the most liberating elements of the creative process seems to be the process of feeling around in the dark. “I relate so much to the Fade To Mind/Night Slugs sound in terms of ‘not knowing your instrument before you went at it’. I just started trying to sing hard maybe four, five years ago, so I tried to do it a lot in a short amount of time. What that means is… I have no knowledge of theory, I don’t know how to deconstruct chords, I can’t play a chordal instrument at all. So my learning process is all intuitive, and it felt like (here, Kelela grasps at handfuls of air, feeling around on nearby surfaces with both eyes closed). I have no other way to describe it than a physical picture of me reaching around, making sense of my context, stumbling through and identifying shapes and textures. I’ve had that conversation with Alex (Sushon, aka Bok Bok) recently, who also learned to do it that way, and I’ve discovered that almost all of Night Slugs and Fade To Mind have.”

When it comes to physical manifestations about music, I ask Kelela if there’s still pressure to present a certain image as a female vocalist, or if she’s found it difficult to deal with expectations about representation. “Yes… I kind of don’t mind if the music is taking off and then it’s like ‘hey, look at me, I wanna get cute and take photographs’ – if it’s supplementary, there’s a resistance to using my face, or using my body or my ‘image’ to catapult the music.” Speaking assertively, as if her experience has been repeated many times, Kelela admits “there’s a variation in terms of how people think your music should be represented, especially when it comes to vocalists. Producers can say ‘I’ll put some totally expressive graphic (on the cover of my release), but not my face’. But as soon as you sing a song, there are expectations about how you should represent yourself.  I understand that what I do is decidedly performative, but still…” Kelela reflectively mentions that she’s not calling any artists out through this assertion, but that “it’s hard for people to process vocalists outside of a certain aesthetic or image, especially with how I’m singing… weird black girls are a club that’s dying right now. It’s not cute to be weird nowadays – it’s cute to be indie, but, like, actually interrupting the space with a big, bubble garbage bag costume (a la Missy Elliot), it’s like, no, you may not.”

Shifting her weight on the couch, she continues, fully focused: “So it’s almost like I’m trying to get inside the template of pop expectations and then expand them, fuck them up, re-contextualize and poke at them. Every political struggle has to involve pressure from both the outside and inside, and because I love pop music – I love it and all the people I work with do too – I think we all want it to move forward, so we try to push for that. But I think there’s a way to get up in it that’s not the same way that everyone thinks they have to go through… so, this notion of paying dues, or whatever the fuck…” Here, her voice takes on an edge that I haven’t heard yet in our conversation – “I’m saying it vehemently because I don’t give a fuck about paying dues, I have never paid a due in my life – like, followed what people may consider the proper steps to success. I’ve worked hard on the music and hopefully I can avoid a lot of the unnecessary processes that some of my peers have had to go through.”

It’s exciting to reflect on the revolutionary pop potential nestled in Kelela’s words. Discussing influences, it becomes clear that some of Mizanekristos’ criticality in approaching music might come from her deep reverence for Tracy Chapman. “It was the first piece of music I ever had, in my Dad’s car, this cute hatchback situation, an 88 baby blue Pontiac Lamont.” she states, referencing Chapman’s self-titled debut. “There was a vibe in that car, and there were four tapes – and I know my Dad was being so deliberate, there was definitely a regiment; he was trying to instil something.” Just four years old at the time, Kelela memorized the entire album to the point where she could pause for the number of seconds in between tracks and begin the next song in the exact key relative to others.

“This record is in my blood” she continues, “and when I learned how to read, my first reading material was the lyrics inside that tape. I was reading this tiny, really faint font in italics, I remember it was italicized throughout the whole thing – and I remember reading “don’t you know you better run, run, run, run, run,” and those were totally words that I could read at the time, and I was like “OH MY GOD” – it was that moment when it clicks. And then on top of that there was another phase in my teens where I was began being blown away by the meaning produced in those lyrics.”

Chapman’s ambiguous portrayal of gender on the cover of her self-titled debut also had a lasting effect on Kelela, who spent much of her youth staring at the cover.  “What’s so beautiful is that I remember only being able to know that she was a she because her name was Tracy, but from the image, I wasn’t here or there” she states. “and what was so awesome was that I also didn’t give a fuck. I would just sit and look at it and wonder. She was such a visual interruption for a woman in pop music.”

I mention how interesting it is that Fade To Mind has also incorporated lots of queer voices into the dance music spectrum, making room for more discussion about spaces of inclusion, conflict, gender, sexuality and identity. Mizanekristos agrees, but only to a point. “It’s huge, but it’s not a ‘gay thing’ per say. Personally, I don’t want to use one term as a central identifier, or try to create too much camaraderie around however I identify, unless it’s around abstract concepts, ideas of resonance and fucked-up-ness. Maybe my camaraderie is built on that.” Regardless of how one identifies (or chooses not to), it’s clear that Night Slugs and Fade To Mind have been actively disrupting a set of values about how club music should be structured.

Given her broad range of genre work, I inquire why Fade To Mind was the right fit for Kelela’s official debut. “They approached me about the idea of doing an entire mixtape, and one of the first reasons I was attracted to the idea is because, first of all, none of them work with vocalists that extensively. Kelela explains how this means that Fade To Mind had been “singing with their instruments” before her involvement, “There’s an A section, there’s a B section, and when the A section comes back, it’s more fucked up than it was last time – you are not bored. I’ve been dying to hear that kind of music, and when I did hear it for the first time it blew my mind.” Stepping in and matching that frantic energy was a goal for Kelela, whose appreciation for her peers shines through pretty clearly. “some of the producers I’m working with–like Kingdom and Girl Unit–have a lot of melodic elements in there, but other producers’ work – like Bok Bok’s – can get really dissonant and percussive…so our conversation about how to go forward always comes from that place of trying to be synergistic – 1+1 = 4 no matter what the pair.  I want to match that melody/dissonance, or alternately, try to bring it down to a simmer.”

In every Kelela track I’ve heard so far, one striking element is the synthesis that she brings to the productions, or perhaps the way that all producers involved have adapted their style and left room for her arresting vocals to breathe, wind, and unfurl. Mizanekristos concedes to the point – “respect and space for voices, that’s a trademark of all of them – I think that’s what’s striking about the whole catalogue, I had a moment when I started doing this, a realization of ‘oh my God, you’re asking me to sing over this – why hasn’t any bitch come through and done this?’ I feel like I discovered this secret – Kingdom worked with Shyvonne, and L-Vis worked with Javeon McCarthy before, but it’s so off in the distance as far as what they’re known for. To say “can you have it completely cater to me – make ME a track” – was such a beautiful thing because they all came the fuck through. I mean, I wanted to be blown away by the instrumentals before I even sang on them and at every first listen, I was so floored by everyone  – Like, I can’t believe they’re giving this to me – like, are you guys sure? Are you sure?”

There are points when speaking about music, Kelela’s emotions seem tough to put into words, and animated gestures take their place. Even as someone who often writes about music, I understand the difficulty, and mention the old phrase “talking about music is like dancing about architecture”. “It’s funny, because (Night Slugs and Fade To Mind) are also obsessed with creating a matching visual representation of their music” she responds. They’re always searching for the physical, visual manifestation of that sound.” Has Kelela found her own sound through the process? All signs point to yes: “I was searching so hard for it – my one big insecurity was that I was worried that I was just really good at imitating other people, because I have lots of different people I can channel. But when you try to channel somebody, as hard as you try, you’re still going to sound like them, but filtered through your lens, so I didn’t get that until this mix tape basically, I didn’t get that I had a sound, or that I sound like me, or I didn’t feel confident about that until this, and that’s what this project provided me with – a moment where I say “ohmygod, I sound like what I’ve been thinking about in the abstract” – I’m listening to Joni Mitchell, Destiny’s Child, Tracy Chapman, and D’Angelo’s Voodoo, and then when I turn around and look elsewhere, all those things flow through me, and make something else.”

One of her greatest hopes is that the music Kelela makes can impact others the way some of her most formative favourites affected her. “If I can cause a little anti-social behaviour, I’ll feel competent. If I cause too much of it, I’ll feel sad” she laughs. “But the high that music inflicts is actually a little problematic, if you think about it. With D’Angelo’s “Voodoo”, for example, when I would hear it, it would paralyse me in a way, so that I couldn’t do anything – it caught me at three points in my life like that, three “voodoo bouts” in total, where my shit’s fucked up by it, and I can’t talk to anybody about anything. I’d just want to go to my car or to my room and experience it. It’s anti-social and there’s no other word for it.  I know about the feeling of demotivation. It’s a very familiar feeling, so when I can’t be motivated by anything, and then there’re these records that are the only urgent things…”

She pauses, rolling a spliff on my notebook. “It feels womblike, it feels like I’m being saved, and it’s so important. There are only so many things that I can deconstruct; at the end of the day, it’s the fucking vibe that matters.”

Interview by Brendan Arnott
Kelela photos courtesy of Jason Rodgers and Christelle de Castro