Kelsey Lu, A Classically Trained Rule Breaker

Apr 30, 2019
Originally published on May 1, 2019 6:14 am

With a reverence for classics and an experimental spirit, Kelsey Lu is broadening the scope of how strings fit into contemporary pop. Lu's debut album, Blood, out now, is a mash-up of disco, R&B, pop and more that's rooted in her adoration of strings.

Like many creative kids, Lu was enrolled in violin lessons from a young age. But her interest shifted as soon as she saw a cello. "Watching cellists play, I was into the physicality of it of them wrapping their bodies around and like swaying with it," Lu says. "As soon as I laid it on to my chest and I started playing, I could actually feel the vibration. I just, I fell in love."

On Blood, the musician reflects on how far that love has carried her — from being the daughter of Jehovah's Witnesses in North Carolina to a magnetic collaborator of Solange and Blood Orange and living in LA. Though production on Blood veers into unexpected places courtesy of Skrillex, Jeff Kleinman, Rodaidh McDonald and more, the sound of cello is the heartbeat of the album. "Cello's my main squeeze," she says with a laugh.

Some songs on the album serve as love letters to the people and places Lu left behind during her journey. "Due West," the album's lead single, is a travel log of the musician's move to LA while "Rebel," Lu says, is inspired by learning who her parents were in their youth. "I was doing a lot of reflecting on home and my relationship with them and the life that your parents lived before they're your parents," she says.


Lu's parents met when they both attended art school at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C. Her father played in a jazz funk band but also sold drugs on the side and ended up getting caught. "My dad, he was trying to find another way of living other than the one that he was in," Lu says.

Turning to the Jehovah's Witness faith gave her father what he was looking for and Lu says her mother became a Jehovah's Witness too. But as Lu grew up in this heavily-religious household, she questioned and disagreed with the religion often. "I was making decisions in my life that went against everything that I was raised to believe," Lu says. "Specifically, religion."

At 18, to the discomfort of her parents, Lu left home to deepen her study of music. This move kick-started Lu on a path of self-discovery and self-assurance. Blood is the sonic memory map of that path.

"It's important to be able to have your own narrative and to be able to have your own variation of voices," Lu explains.

Lu spoke with NPR's Ailsa Chang about writing Blood and staying authentic. Listen to their conversation at the audio link.

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Musician Kelsey Lu remembers meeting her first cello. She was taking violin lessons at the time and couldn't stop looking over at the instrument propped up in the corner.

KELSEY LU: Watching cellists play - I was into the physicality of it; of them wrapping their bodies around and, like, swaying with it. As soon as I, like, laid it on to my chest and I started playing and I could feel - like, actually feel the vibration, I just - I fell in love.


CHANG: Lu was raised in North Carolina as a Jehovah's Witness. When she was 18, she broke with her religion and left home to study cello. On her debut album "Blood," she explores those decisions. She started by writing about the people she left behind - her parents - in the song "Rebel."

LU: A lot of my parents' life are going to reveal to me later on in my own life. And in the making of this record, I feel I was doing a lot of reflecting on home and on my relationship...

CHANG: Yeah.

LU: ...With them and the life that your parents lived before they're your parents.


LU: (Singing) Rebel was your middle name when you were younger.

CHANG: And what's the story about how your parents met?

LU: Well, they met in art school in Charlotte...


LU: (Singing) In the '60s, black boots, mini skirt, blonde curls. Then when you went to art school...

And my mom would go and see him play. He was in a jazz funk band called Fungus Blues. And she would go...

CHANG: Fungus Blues - I love it.

LU: Fungus Blues.


LU: And they fell in love. And, you know, my dad, he was trying to find another way of living other than the one that he was in.


LU: (Singing) Hustle was your middle name when you were a young man.

CHANG: What was it about his current way of living at the time that was dissatisfying?

LU: Well, he was in the band, but he was also selling drugs. And then he got caught for them. And he got a knock on the door. And they were Jehovah's Witnesses and...


LU: So he started studying with them. And then my mom, by osmosis, started studying with them too. And that's kind of how they moved over into that world.

CHANG: Oh. So faith kind of helped clean up your dad's life.

LU: Yeah, it did. And when I left, I was so angry at them because I didn't understand. And it wasn't until many years later for me to be able to see where they're coming from.


LU: (Singing) Times have really, really changed, changed.

CHANG: It feels like the song "Rebel" is a little bit about you, too.

LU: Yeah.

CHANG: Why did you feel like you had to physically leave your family?

LU: I was making decisions in my life that went against everything that I was raised to believe. And...

CHANG: Like what? What kind of decisions?

LU: Specifically religion - the religion that I was raised in. And I was disagreeing with it heavily. It was my whole world and everything that I was taught.

CHANG: Did they understand? Even though it was painful, did they understand why you had to make that decision to break away?

LU: I think that they're at peace with it now. And we're at peace with each other. But that took - you know, that took a lot of time.


CHANG: So we've already talked a bit about how the cello is this character in your life. And I want to talk about how it functions throughout this album. Let's listen to the song "Poor Fake."


LU: (Singing) Don't matter where you are, it'll catch right up to you. You can try to resist the feeling, set the canvas in my blues.

CHANG: So cello, you know, it isn't an instrument I think of playing a huge role in pop songs. But it does play a huge role in this song and throughout other songs on the album.

LU: Yeah, yeah.

CHANG: That was really deliberate.

LU: Yeah. Oh, for sure. I mean, well, cello is my main squeeze.

CHANG: Literally.


LU: Yeah, literally - quite literally. Yeah, man. It's like - it's usually my go-to in writing. And it's just naturally a - such a part of everything. And then in making that song "Disco," it's like, disco - what do you think of disco? Like, strings. Strings are all up in and around disco - heavy, heavy, heavy.


LU: (Vocalizing).

CHANG: What's this song about - "Poor Fake"?

LU: I think it's about kind of looking deeper into something that on the surface, seem so authentic and so real. But then as you get closer to it, you start to see what it's really made of.

CHANG: When I listen to you talk, I feel like the worst possible - the most hurtful insult someone could ever fling at you is, you're not authentic.

LU: And she falls to the ground, and she curls into a ball. And...


CHANG: What is it about authenticity that if it were lacking, it's mortally wounding for you?

LU: Yeah. I mean, if you're telling someone they're not authentic, then what are you saying? I guess you could say the opposite of authenticity is - I don't want to just say fake because there's another word.

CHANG: You're not being true to yourself.

LU: Yeah, not being true to yourself. I mean, that's scary. That's a scary thought because if you aren't being true to yourself, then you're being true to something and someone or somebody else's ideas of who you are or...

CHANG: Yeah.

LU: ...Who you should be. And that's frightening.


LU: (Singing) Worship the ground that you walked on below your pedestal.

CHANG: Kelsey Lu's debut album is called "Blood." Thank you very much for joining us.

LU: Thanks so much for having me.


LU: (Singing) I'll outgrow. Due west, I'm headed on this road. Due west, just cruise as far as I can go to California, California, California. Never looking back, goodbye. A list of all the reasons why I wear them through. I do it all for you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.