On 1 October 2013, Kelela strode into the club music scene, escorted by the Night Slugs and Fade to Mind crew, with her debut mixtape, ‘Cut 4 Me’.
Here, she talks collaboration, organic versus electronic, sexism, self-representation – and future plans.
How does it feel to be a core element of a group of producers who will be looked back on as ever-important to dance music?
I’ve started and erased my answer to this question 100 times. This is more of a statement. Thank you. It feels great.
Tell us about the process of composition on ‘Cut 4 Me’.
I met Total Freedom first, during the process of writing the song I did with Teengirl Fantasy called ‘EFX’. That was the song he shared with Kingdom, Nguzu and Prince William. ‘Cut 4 Me’ was highly collaborative.
The process we went through differed for every track. ‘Bank Head’ and ‘Keep It Cool’ were pretty much composed alone in my room, while the melody for ‘Enemy’ happened during my first session with Nguzu. Asma and I completed the lyrics to that song together.
It was really natural and organic. We would just be hanging out and then it’d be like, “Wait… What’s the lyric to this part of this song?” and we’d make a game of it with four or five of us in the room at the same time.
“I had to cut for myself in order to actualise my dream.”
I used to be more methodical when writing melodies, but then started trying to exercise my intuition in a different way by just making up a song on the spot. It allowed me to get out things I would never compose in a deliberate fashion.
More pre-school, more resonant, more focused melodies. I only hear a track for the first time once, so I figured I’d go for that method and then try the other one if it doesn’t yield something I like.
In the past, you’ve done more organic stuff, like the ‘Behaving Badly’ track with Tosin Abasi. How does this compare to singing over sparser beats?
Not that different, actually. I began improvising songs in gibberish with Tosin on guitar. A lot of his guitar work is loop-based, so it could easily (well, maybe not that easily as his songs are always in odd metre) flip the song and make it a grime track.
The real difference for me was going from performing with people who play instruments to performing over a track that was composed at home on a computer.
That was probably one of the most terrifying transitions, because other people on stage playing instruments can compensate for your fuck-ups. With a fixed track, everything is quite audible and very little around me is improvised, which makes me feel like my vocals have to hit hard.
Performing with Total Freedom has allowed me to feel someone else’s presence over a fixed track, which has enhanced my experience on stage.
What does ‘Cut 4 Me’ mean?
The idea for the title of ‘Cut 4 Me’ came from Prince William. The majority of the mixtape is about a drawn-out breakup that (indirectly) propelled me to where I am and what I’m doing now.
The saying is pretty street, like “ride for me” or “die for me”. I would have cut 4 that person, and ironically, I had to cut – sever – for myself in order to actualise my dream. I remember Mike Q telling me he thought the title was related to the instrumentals, like a “song for me” to sing on. I think that literal interpretation sealed the deal for me.
Do you prefer singing in the studio or on stage?
I like both. There are ways I get to feel in a booth that I’m not looking to experience on stage and vice-versa. I’m not singing while looking into someone’s eyes while in a booth. My eyes are closed for the most part and I can be more nuanced in my vocal performance.
Also, the good measure of a show is nailing it better than the way you’ve heard it on the record, which means you’re doing it for the people who know it, but then you have to do more that takes it to new levels. In the booth, I try to be precise, but it’s also about making shit up and it not sounding so refined.
“I don’t have a game plan. I just try to be honest in how I represent myself.”
What’s your live set-up?
I play with a DJ on CDJs and have my vocals going from front of house to the mixer, so that delay is being controlled by the DJ who knows the songs. I get to have more of a live experience that way, because the DJ is doing slightly different things every time.
I just did my first hard-ticket show in London a few days ago and it was pretty magical. Not because I sounded the best, but because I was seeing my audience for the first time – a bunch of random people who are into the mixtape – rather than one group of people who know each other.
Do you feel settled in this sound, now? Can you tell us about your upcoming album?
Yes, it feels like home. The album will include work from producers inside and outside the Fade To Mind / Night Slugs camp.
My vision for the album isn’t going to depart in terms of sound too much; I’m going to focus more on the song writing for this one so that it’s on par with the production. That means working with songwriters to achieve a simultaneously resonant and challenging body of work.
How do you, and how will you, avoid over-sexualisation as a female singer? Does this concern you?
I don’t have a game plan. I just try to be honest in how I represent myself. Not saying there isn’t an interpretation out there that is fucked up, but all I have control over is me so I don’t get too bothered.
Also, I’ve heard of producers having a “nothing gets done before we bone” type rule. The people I work with are generally respectful and get those dynamics, so I don’t deal too intimately with “that guy.”
‘Cut 4 Me’ has actually been described as an androgynous piece of work…
I don’t necessarily interpret it in terms of gender. More hard/soft, rough/smooth. I guess it’s how I think it sounds most balanced – a lot of open space in the track. Not a lot of high end, so it’s basically lows and I’m in the empty mid space. I don’t like competing with any instruments, so I’ll have producers mute anything that’s competing when I first start working.
Is it in any way afrofuturist? I’m thinking like Grace Jones.
I think it makes sense in retrospect, but it wasn’t something that I was shooting for. So, I see how it could be categorised like that, but the pursuit was more just trying to sound like “future club music”.
Finally: what is your ultimate goal as a musician?
To express myself honestly and clearly and have it intersect with lots of money.