Kelly Lee Owens
Interview published in No Budget Magazine
NATALIE CHUI meets UK singer and producer Kelly Lee Owens to discuss her “longer” route to music and why there’s something wrong about “Doing It Yourself”.
Kelly Lee Owens photographed in Sister Ray Records by Jeffrey Pangpuithipong for No Budget
"My name means warrior”, Kelly Lee Owens tells me thirty minutes into our conversation. It’s a strong statement but one that is telling of Owen’s character. It’s a bank holiday morning and she greets me with such a strong sense of self-awareness, its equivalent to the caffeine in the black coffee she’s sipping. We meet inside Hoi Polloi, a restaurant steps away Sister Ray, the accompanying record store to the Ace Hotel where she works two days a week. When she isn’t at Sister Ray, the indie-electronica singer and producer is busy in the studio, set to drop her debut album this September. With two singles out, and four festivals to play this summer, this is undoubtedly a busy period in her life.
Owens music has been making sound waves for her unconventional musical style in which she fuses synths, electronica and pop together. At first chord, her music is fearless and almost intimidating, but fuelled with raw emotion and power, something Owens has learned to gain over the past few years. Currently, she is signed to record label Not On Label, and has taken a very “modest route”. Experiences with “decent” record labels that were wishy-washy over signing her has made Owens realise the inauthenticity within the music industry. “When someone is so genuinely interested in what you do, there's this extra mile that they go and that is all that you can ask for.” Rather than sign a master rights deal, which is more typical, she’s signed a licensing deal, which allows her complete ownership over her master rights. Owens controls all her music, a rarity in an industry that is subjected as transparent. Her creative control over her music led to her being asked to curate the soundtrack for the Alexander McQueen AW’16 show in London, an homecoming for the brand. The soundtrack, a chilling homage to 80’s New York composer Arthur Russell, set the tone for the show and proved that Owens’ step back into focusing entirely over her music does indeed pay off.
Born in the humble coast of North Wales, Owens grew up in a tiny village where “everyone knows everyone else.” She was brought up in a family in which hard work was championed. “My mum never spoiled us, I don’t think she could afford to in a sense.” From a young age, Owens began working, starting as a waitress at fourteen. After meeting friends who were involved in the “2006/2007 indie scene”, Owens’ interest in music developed. “They would put on nights in Manchester and talk to me about the scene there. I was so intrigued by people just putting on shows of bands they wanted to see. They made it happen.” Initially starting out helping selling merchandise, Owens moved to Manchester after school and eventually came to London, where she gained work experience at XL Recordings and a job at Pure Groove, where she met Ghost Culture and Daniel Avery. Despite being in a choir back in Wales, which “immensely” helped her voice, Owens was still unsure of how to produce music. “I couldn't read music or anything like that,” she recalls. “So I guess it took me a long time to figure out and gain the confidence to get to the point where I would write anything."
For Owens, it’s the creative process that really reflects the sound she produces. “I do genuinely sample a lot of music on my iPhone,” she tells me when we first meet as we discuss my methodology of recording our interview on a Dictaphone. Technology and social media, though the subject of major critique in society for developing antisocial behaviour and glamourising staggering high prices, is something that Owens uses to her advantage. “Technology is your friend, it’s allowed people like me to put music on Soundcloud.”
Though she doesn’t receive an advance, her label finances all her recordings. Despite this, Owens is frank and acknowledges that lack of money, especially within London can be “bloody difficult”, yet there are still less limitations. “It’s a pool for meeting likeminded people.” London is a difficult place for an artist to work in, with rising rents and lack of governmental support for arts and culture, so it’s not an easy path, but as Owens comments “it never is though”. Even as we meet, Owens is clad in an outfit all directly bought from charity shops. “I've had two videos I’ve released, they might not be the best things I ever do but one of them is made from no money at all, second one was made from two hundred and fifty quid and we had so much fun,” she adds with a truthful nod.
Owens is refreshingly bold, but with reason. A lot of her pathway to music comes from Owens’ initiative to learn by herself and take the first step. She’s been branded as a “DIY” artist, a spirit in which she embodies but also holds some weariness to. "One thing I've realised is that there's something about "DIY” which is wrong, in a sense of the title,” She addresses, looking at me directly in the eye. “If it wasn't for other people, I wouldn’t be where I am. You're never by yourself and it’s about being open to other people, but of course, you are the driving force.” Building this network of people who can support her has become a big part of her career and her music. In the music industry, where success stories of singers rising to stardom overnight are often idealised and aspired, Owens is in contrast, slowing down the process. “I didn't rush anything even though I'm impatience in one sense, which is why I put out my two EP's myself. I'm not going to wait around for someone to tell me that my work isn't good enough. I feel it is and I'm going to put it out there.”