IT’S been a quite a journey that’s led Kelly Lee Owens to the place where she is now, garnering critical praise from all quarters and Welsh queen-elect of that sweet spot where halcyon pop meshes into intelligent dance music with a deft touch. I really don’t think there is anyone else who has such nuance of craft out in this zone.
Kelly grew up in Flintshire, North Wales, and was blooded on the indie scene circa 2006-7. She took up a nursing post at Manchester’s famous Christie Hospital in her late teens; began moving in the behind-the-scenes circles of the music world, using her annual leave to help organise indie festivals. A move down to the Big Smoke led to a job in the sadly defunct Pure Groove record store and a side hustle playing bass in fuzzpop band The History of Apple Pie.
The big seachange came when she worked at Pure Groove. There she met dance music luminaries such as Daniel Avery and Errol Alkan; was introduced to the whys and wherefores of production software, opening the door to her realising a personal vision of music.
A brace of early 12”s led to her penning her name on the line for Oslo’s forward-thinking Smalltown Supersound imprint in 2016. Her self-titled debut was released in 2017; she tore up the big top at that year’s End of the Road festival down in Dorset with a magical set of the deepest bass and ethereal vocal bliss, like Julianna Barwick having a road to Damascus moment at the Hacienda. Tracks such as “S.O” and “Arthur” were clutched close to the cognoscenti’s hearts.
Three years on, in which she hasn’t exactly been lazy – I’ve just added her collaborative 12″ with Jon Hopkins, “Luminous Spaces” to my ‘Own-by-tomorrow-at-the-very-latest’ list – and it seems impossible that Inner Song can only be her second LP, such is the depth of the vision and the maturity she brings to the 45 minutes of songcraft she presents.
Proceedings open with “Arpeggi”, swiftly unfolding into one of those vast, sub-bass underpinned techno caverns she evokes so adeptly. The high tones seduce in filter sweep, a chattering krautrock pattern. There’s a shift: deep and high organ sounds usher in a Warp (Records)-space skeletal break that Autechre would have been proud of, circa Amber.
“On” opens with Kelly intoning: “Head and heart in unison, can’t go forward, can’t go forward / You can only love as easily as you see yourself / And you don’t see me, you don’t see me”. The synth motif ties things down while Kelly moves into classic 4AD dark beauty. This is another thing she does that’s an awful lot harder than it looks: intelligent vocal techno, a field too often marred by cheese and an absolute insistence to wring every last drop out of the anthemic possibilities. Have a listen to “On” on our YouTube embed, below.
Rein it back just a little and you get as track as deft as this: the vocal drops out and allows offworld tech textures to bring your body up and into the sorta club second room that’s filled with brilliant records you had no idea existed. The synths lift, distort, own your brain and the beat chatters back in to finish the job. Surrender.
“Melt” is all about 3am and the haze and meditative state of being deep inside the belly of the dancefloor beast. It’s a deep old-skool techno rush, Kelly’s voice present as a sprinkling of infinite-echo texture while a big ‘90-’91 era kick drum ushers you out into the middle of it all. Like all the best techno, it’s mysterious, suggestive. “Re-Wild” is glittering, ambient future pop. Sun sparkles as Kelly soars, and the way the slow, skeletal break blends suggests how Massive Attack might have developed had Liz Fraser joined full time off the back of “Angel”.
“Jeanette” is wrought from fine and trippy old-skool ambient synth mantras, pitch-bending and interweaving waay above the Berlin-style kick drum. “L.I.N.E.”, by contrast, slows it right down; Kelly’s breathy tones caress over an almost 80s’-pure pop melody, a la China Crisis. It occupies a brilliantly weird slot in the scheme of things, having those retro references but playing out as future pop of a high order.
At nearly eight minutes, “Corner Of My Sky” forms something of a peak on Inner Sky, but creatively as well as chronologically. Kelly’s way with a beautifully skeletal percussive-bleep framework and deep bass surges, at once muscle-flexing yet contemplatively stilling, provide a framework over which Welsh legend John Cale’s filtered voice declaims: “The rain, the rain, the rain, thank god the rain”. His voice is weathered and deep and wonderfully textural, in that warm and wondrous way Welsh voices are.
A deep synth motif rises up and over, taking the melody of Cale’s vocal mantra; he responds in Welsh, the two dancing in glorious counterplay. The track fades down through that bass surge and achromatic bells.
Kelly says: “I knew with this album I needed to connect with my roots and therefore having the Welsh language featured on the record felt very important to me.
“Once the music for the track was written and the sounds were formed, I sent the track straight to John and asked if he could perhaps delve into his Welsh heritage and tell the story of the land via spoken-word, poetry and song. What he sent back was nothing short of phenomenal.
“The arrangement was done during the mixing process and once I’d finished the track, I cried.”
It’s an absolute statement of the Welsh cultural rebirth of the last quarter-century: how it’s becoming a byword as a nation for interesting and creative, forward-thinking and often, frankly, trippy music.
For “Night” we swing back to an early Warp skeletal tech space, with Kelly’s voice drifting up and through, chanting. The bass will shiver right you through, live. Married with the bass drum propulsion, it’s a granite-hard and crisp base from which her vocal melody flows; and suddenly it breaks hard, everything gathering into a surge, those EQ needles flickering waay into the red as the bass distorts and growls, throws out static. It’s both fine ambient pop and deeply earthy rave techno. Cos Kelly can do that in a single song: marry both with that skill set of hers.
“Flow” is a grower: a mid-paced synth texture with an almost Japanese melodic feel that would cosy up at home on one of the Artificial Intelligence comps. It’s intentionally alien, drawing on a retro sonic palette.
Closer “Wake-Up” is no slow and understated departure; it’s a highlight of the future pop end of the album. When she soars, boy does she ever soar, up there on the thermals, as on the speaker-busting chorus here. It properly explodes. She leads you to the end in breathing “ Wake, up; wake up”.
Inner Music is an album that’s gonna repay a lot of investigation. There’s a lot of sound, a lot of texture, a lot of interplay between styles. Early rave, classic Warp, ambient chanteuserie, future pop melodicism, the darkest bass.
I’ve said this before: I think the only other artistes even coming close to this area of fusion and sonic luxury are Montreal’s Braids, who are sailing similar waters from an art-rock compass bearing. I think it’s a record that will grow with you through autumn to embed as a real pillar of the year’s finest and most sonically courageous.
Kelly Lee Owens’ Inner Music will be released by Smalltown Supersound on August 28th, and will be available on digital, CD and 2xLP. Order yours at the label’s Bandcamp, here.