“I made what is now Corner of My Sky, which was entitled Mushroom for a while … I’ll just leave that there,” laughs Kelly Lee Owens, whose name translates as ‘warrior’ in Gaelic. Her masterful second album Inner Song, spanning dream-pop and techno, is definitely magic.
“I just knew that I needed John Cale’s voice, that’s what had to happen,” she continues. The legendary musician was drawn to lay down a vocal exploring his Welsh heritage; a poetry of the land channelled through distant memory. To have Cale singing in Welsh on Corner of My Sky is special. Not only for Owens, who grew up in Rhuddlan, Flintshire, but because Cale, from Garnant, the Amman Valley is so associated with New York, having moved to the US in the early 60s to complete his classical training, guided by Aaron Copeland.
Owens first met Cale in London several years ago, when she was featuring on one of his own songs. His deeply commanding voice still retains its Welsh cadence: impressively so. While on the page, he aligns to the American school of spelling – ‘or’ over ‘our’ in humour, colour, and whatever else.
Sitting front and centre through life’s sharp turns, there is the sense that both figures truly embrace what is in front of them: Cale has famously. For years as a teenager Owens was a nurse, first at a nursing home then at a cancer hospital in Manchester, a city she was drawn to exclusively for its gigs.
“I didn’t like the way that education was presented to me,” Owens says. “My first love is music but your career adviser says, ‘That’s nice, but what else do you want to do?’ I quit my studies and, me being practical, crossed the road from my high school, to a nursing home. I thought, ‘If I’m going to do nursing I need to know if I can deal with death.’ I was holding people’s hands and talking them through their death. It would be very intuitive as to what I felt I needed to do to allow that person to feel safe and that they were not alone.”
Buoyed by those around her to ultimately follow her passion, she threw herself in at the deep end and moved to London, interning at XL Records and working at record shops including Pure Groove. It was meeting fellow staffer Daniel Avery – and being in the studio with him – that had her open the throttle on her own artist-producer career. Her expression came pouring out.
Inner Song, mastered direct to vinyl, is a sesquialbum, or a triple-sided LP because Owens was determined to keep her recordings’ space and punch. She even remarks that, zoomed in, vinyl grooves resemble the Grand Canyon: it doesn’t get more huge and elemental than that. No wonder Björk called for a remix (released in 2018). Through Owens’ songwriting, she unleashes her spirit; overwhelming, shifting humanity behind these flashing machines.
Cale, through his rigour and imagination, is a very special musician. Unparalleled and always moving forward, he continues to take listeners somewhere captivating. While along the way creating gorgeously musical classics like Paris 1919 and Vintage Violence. Founding, with Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground, he would create a sonic watershed that took the world – and rock music – years to catch up. By that time of course, he was onto something else.
The Corner of My Sky video features a cosmic toaster that ejects bread to another dimension (with Port Talbot actor Michael Sheen getting the red mist over it). But its perfect juncture is when Owens, on a beach wearing scarlet (Cristóbal) Balenciaga couture from the 1950s, sings along with Cale. Wistful and spontaneous, it’s a fleeting moment beyond the wax.
John Cale: Hi Kelly – congrats on your new album! Hope you’re keeping well and safe these days. I recall you said you were in a rather ‘down’ period emotionally where you began to doubt yourself creatively. What would you say was most influential in pulling you out of your fog?
Kelly Lee Owens: Diolch yn fawr! I think the most influential thing was reading Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. This book was a beautiful companion for me, that spoke gently yet directly via storytelling and poetic understandings of self – the most important perspective being that in life and all relationships, yes, there is death, but how about re-birth too? What happens after the period of darkness? Clarissa informed me of how to re-wild my spirit, therefore my life, therefore my creativity and therefore my heart.
JC: This is your second album: how did the process compare to the first? Did you feel pressure to compete with yourself?
KLO: It’s interesting you mentioned competition with self, as yes that’s perhaps the only interest I had this time round. I was determined not to bow down to the pressure of the ‘difficult second album’ mental torture! Having seen a lot of friends go through this I knew the best thing I could do for myself and the fans of my music was to be true to myself, to make the music in an honest and real way, honouring what needed to be said and made instead of bowing down to what I think others might want me to make. Whilst of course stepping up the production and the quality of songwriting (I hope). But as always, I can only be where I am: each album is a surprise to me, revealing itself slowly and that’s what I love about making music, it keeps on blooming.
JC: Being a Welsh musician, there are a host of historical predispositions. Have you ever thought of working your pieces through a choral setting?
KLO: I absolutely have! In fact, in December last year I did a show in London with the London Contemporary Voice Choir. The whole show was acoustic (apart from my vocal delays and feedback from midi keyboard). We arranged my tracks into parts for the choir to sing, including all the synth melodies, string arrangements and most of the percussion, it was amazing. I’ve always wanted to work with a Welsh male voice choir; have them hum bass lines and other parts of tracks and build and record something from there, with my voice on top, maybe even [making] an entire album like that. Perhaps you could help me? [Laughs].
What do you still want to explore creatively, that you don’t feel you’ve been able to before?
JC: The Welsh language. My understanding of its humour is much easier for me to understand now than when I grew up. Strangely, I can approach the language in a barrel roll fashion by blindly opening a dictionary and firing away as the words trip out.
I think new technologies always provide surprises that upset the creative applecart and although you may not always know your destination, if you realise that the journey is often more important than the destination … Being lost is a form of rewarding discrimination.
KLO: What does Cymru mean to you and would you ever consider moving back? Are there any particular Welsh myths that you love or connect to?
JC: The further away Wales appears in my memory, the more complicated its images and demands become on my understanding of my past. Present circumstances make travel impossible so any kind of movement through the Welsh countryside must wait for a while, but if I ever tracked down the location of the story of [Welsh outlaw] Twm Siôn Cati, I would happily wander through its imaginative curiosity.
Is there one single place in the world you feel most inspired?
KLO: One? Ah, that’s hard … I guess predictably in Snowdonia. There’s nothing like feeling small and humbled by mountains/nature yet simultaneously feeling completely connected to everything. I like the rawness of nature in Wales, I find beauty and inspiration in its ruggedness and harshness in places. And as you so rightly pointed out in Corner Of My Sky, I love the rain: ‘thank God, the rain!’
What has been your most satisfying collaboration so far? How was it working with Nick Drake? His albums are some of my favourite pieces of music.
JC: Nick was a satisfying combination, I think mainly because at the time I was into my paranoia rock phase and Nick, being such a gentle soul, his elegiac style forced me to reconnoitre another side to my arranging. It pushed me back into a more melodic quieter style of playing, something I’d abandoned by that time.
To me, collaborating was a way of influence: oft-times coming from an opposing force was a satisfying way of growing your developing creativity. Some are less fraught than others but most have been satisfying in their own way. Our recent collab had an unexpected ease about it, as familiar as it was new.
JC: What do you see as the limitations of electronic music?
KLO: Good question. In one way, maybe naively, I see electronic music as limitless. Working with electronic music is always a collaboration in my eyes, and as long as a human is operating at the other end it is still organic in a way. Perhaps that won’t always be the case (and isn’t now even) but that’s what excites me. It is something that’s given me the freedom to express myself, having not learned how to read or write music. What I am interested in is combining electronic sounds with sounds of nature and more traditional instruments such as strings … and then there’s the voice, which is ancient potency, filled with human essence and magic. Perhaps there is a limit in terms of not being fully satisfied with electronic sounds alone?
JC: In this new normal, one of the things I miss most is performing live. There’s nothing to fill that void of the connection with the audience on the night. Have you considered a way to connect with your audience by other means?
KLO: I miss it too, there’s nothing like it. I think that’s one thing we’ve realised during this time: we need each other. We need to share spaces and come together, connection is everything. In terms of finding new ways of connecting, I’ve DJ’d inside the game Minecraft which was a trip! I also had three album listening parties with fans on Zoom, everyone dancing in their bedrooms or living rooms; it felt like a beautiful way to connect to people and experience the album together. I’m also looking at a streamed live performance, but would want to make sure it sounds perfect and looks beautiful.
Is there anything you regret in life or feel you should have done differently?
JC: Of course. Many, many things I’d have done differently. Many, many solutions … many, many inconveniences that I avoided, knowing it would be an infuriating source of resolution in the future. My regrets are nevertheless still few.
KLO: What’s one of your all-time favourite LPs?
JC: It changes daily; so many favourites throughout a lifetime. I guess it would be the very first LP given to me by my uncle while he was working at the Cardiff BBC studios: Michael Rabin performing the solo Violin Caprices by Paganini. A maddeningly inspiring work that made an annoying presence in my late teens – and drove my mam spare. That record pushed me into adapting a violin piece to transcribe for a viola … *see notes about regrets*. [Laughs].
KLO: What’s your greatest fear?
JC: The upcoming US election. Full-stop.
Kelly Lee Owens’ new album Inner Song is out now via Smalltown Supersound.