kelsey lu is the sampha and solange collaborator soundtracking our dreams

This year, Kelsey Lu is going to win your heart with her enchanting sonic creations. Beautiful inside and out, she never fails to find hope in the hate.

by Frankie Dunn
10 March 2017, 2:40pm

Kelsey wears suit and jumpsuit Céline.  

Coat The Row. T-shirt and jeans stylist's own.

Kelsey wears t-shirt stylist's own. 

Dungarees Acne Studios. Jumper Diane Von Furstenberg.

T-shirt and jeans stylist's own. Earring Balenciaga. Rings and bracelet (left hand and right middle finger) model's own. Ring (right hand index finger) Repossi. Shoes Converse. 

Kelsey Lu's life has changed a lot in the last 12 months. It is almost exactly a year ago since i-D last hung out with Lu, when she was living in New York and about to drop her debut EP, Church, a six-track delight recorded in one take live at Williamsburg's Holy Family Roman Catholic Church. The classically trained musician filled us in on the Blood Orange and Friends benefit concert she had just played at Harlem's Apollo Theater, which in a happy coincidence was raising money for the Opus 118 Harlem School of Music, where her older sister is a teacher.

Since then, Lu has played her majestically moving cello for Solange, Blood Orange, Lady Gaga, Kelela, and Father John Misty, opened for Florence and The Machine and Grimes at their Barclays Center shows, toured extensively with Sampha, and has succeeded in making classical music cool again. Watching Lu bathed in spotlight at Sampha's Corsica Studios show was to see a woman who is as much a part of the cello as the cello is part of her. The stunning black and white video for her single Dreams sees Lu slowly leading a horse through the desert, dancing abstractly to her textured strings, as they — looped live on the record — in turn dance around one another. Her music is a mournful and contemporary classical folk; her bow scrapes and echoes, sending listeners spiraling off in the direction of serious nostalgia.

It's not just the music industry who wants a piece of Lu, the fashion world has a major crush on her too. In summer of last year, she befriended London menswear designer Grace Wales Bonner and ended up making the soundtrack for her spring/summer 17 show. Going in-conversation for i-D at the time, the two discussed different aspects of their own identities as well as their creative collaboration. The collection was a study on black masculinity, so Lu sourced the works of the boundary-pushing Chevalier de Saint-Georges, one of the earliest recorded classical musicians of African descent. It was widely regarded as one of the best shows that season. Designers now deep under her spell, she has just been announced as the face of Kenzo's newly launched spring/summer 17 campaign shot by Jalan and Jibril alongside Jesse Williams and Tracee Ellis Ross. She also stars in the rather aptly titled accompanying short film, Music Is My Mistress, shot by Kahlil Joseph.

Towards the end of last year Lu made the move from New York to LA, partly due to finding herself there regularly for work, partly due to the breakdown of a relationship. "I've gone through a bit of a mental journey to get to here," she says. "I got my heart broken over the summer and it really sucked because the person was constantly around in one way or another. But I learned a lot through that — about myself and what I don't want in my life." Now settled in LA but still very much all over the place for shows, the 27-year-old's heart has healed through extensive music making. "I've grown in consciousness and awareness of who I am and where I come from," she reflects. "I'm still learning. I think I've grown as a musician too."

Although currently unnamed and incomplete, Lu promises that we'll have her debut album later this year. But how's it going? "Oh, it's going!" she laughs. While there will be definite similarities to Church, her minimalism is evolving into something bigger. "I'm playing more instruments and doing more production, collaborating a lot more. This album is about working with other people, which I had a hard time with in the beginning." Used to writing alone, she had to force herself out of her comfort zone and into sessions with other artists, reassuring herself that letting somebody else work on her music didn't mean she wasn't a good musician. "Now is a time of collaboration and collectiveness. Individuality is important, don't get me wrong, but with collective thinking and feeling, you're gonna reach people in a broader scope." Here's hoping the artists to whom she's leant her heavenly strings return the favor and lend her their vocals. "It'll be a little bit of everything: new collaborations, past collaborations, all of it." So, Sampha and Solange are in the bag? Lu laughs. "I don't know… that would be cool, wouldn't it? I can't tell you that," she says, laughing again. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

As well as surrounding herself with creative friends, family is especially important to Lu. The fact that she was raised in a family of devout Jehovah's Witnesses has already been widely discussed. Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, she ran away to music school at the age of 18 before eventually descending on New York with her cello. "I have so many feelings and questions about the way I was raised and religion, I wish I had known that… actually, if I had known more then it wouldn't have shaped me into what I am now." She decides, "I don't wanna change me too dramatically. I think the only thing I wish I had known back then is how to love myself more in my natural state." Today, she has a positive relationship with her family — particularly her sister, who plays violin. "We've gone through a lot of things together. We both had our own way of dealing with things and figuring things out."

Lu is happy these days, and under the influence of LA she feels a huge urge to be better to her body. She has a political battle to fight and she wants to be stronger for it. "There's a wave of revolution happening and I think we all need to be prepared for it, both mentally and physically." Talking of revolution, Lu has been protesting. She marched against the Muslim ban at LAX, and pounds the pavement regularly for Black Lives Matter. She's inspired by the negativity in the world; moved to show solidarity and use her platform; to speak up and speak out. "I've been blessed with my voice and I'm gonna use it," she attests. For the whole world, waking up each day to more insane tweets from @POTUS is distressing, but for a politically active young American woman of color? "It's awful," Lu says. "But it's motivating. A lot of people didn't have that sense of urgency before. I don't consider him a human being. I consider him an evil entity. He has no sense of humanity." And how do we defeat such negativity? "We've just got to keep on fighting. The more people that share memes about him, really it's just stoking the fire and giving him more power. How about you call your senators and actually do something? Take a small amount of time to say you're not okay with what's going on, that he shouldn't be in office. We need to stop this."

Lu draws strength from the youth who have been stirred to challenge dangerous politics. "They're much more on it because things are so out in the open and accessible now. There's something about their will to act that seems a lot stronger than the generations that came before them." Music reassures her too. And the people she surrounds herself with. "I look around at the friends that I have and the things that we're doing, the voices that we have, and how we're using them. That gives me hope."


Text Frankie Dunn
Photography Clara Balzary 
Styling Caroline Newell

Hair Tamara McNaughton at Streeters using Oribe. Makeup Lottie at Streeters using NARS Cosmetics. Photography assistance Robbie Corral. Styling assistance Philip Smith, Kat Lozhnikova.

Kelsey Lu
caroline newell
music interviews
clara balzary
the family values issue