Kelsey Lu's laughter cracks like lightning -- wild and electric. Even when precariously perched atop my kitchen's radiator, she surrenders to the bursts not with her belly, but her entire body -- taming the hissing fixture with a howl of her own. Just like lightning, though, her laughter is over in a flash. She gazes out my window and her sentences roll on, thunder-slow.
This isn't merely how Lu speaks, it's how the classically-trained cellist communicates. Her recently released single, "Morning After Coffee," sees deep staccato plucks steadily ripple before her voice pierces their dance with dizzyingly high lilts. The three people I speak to about the Brooklyn-based musician in advance of our meeting -- which takes place in my apartment -- all use the same word to describe her: "special." One description, I realize later, was a little more prophetic: "free."
Lu -- who performs sans surname, McJunkins -- was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, where much of her childhood was spent outside, digging in the dirt. Her mom played piano; her dad, percussion. "He worked as a portrait artist," Lu tells me, "so he'd always be at home in his studio blasting jazz or Afro-Cuban music and playing bongos along with it." After her older sister picked up the violin, Kelsey started studying classical composition at six. Music and nature factored so centrally in her upbringing, but she mostly spent her time studying the Bible. Lu grew up a Jehovah's Witness.
Though she attended public school, she wasn't allowed to hang with kids outside the congregation after the bell. She didn't have cable, so she missed the MTV boom (likely a contributing factor in a few lols lyrical misunderstandings of chart-topping pop songs: "A classic one is: 'ev-rytime you go a-way, take a piece of meat with you.' I just imagined a slice of salami"). "My life completely revolved around my community," she explains. "Music was my escape."
On Senior Skip Day, Lu snuck from Charlotte to nearby Winston-Salem with the hopes of scoring an undergraduate place at North Carolina School of the Arts. She hadn't scheduled an audition, sent in an application, or even contacted the cello instructor before arriving. She just sat on the floor outside his office and waited. "I had reached a point where I had to get out of my house. I didn't want to become someone's wife or get pregnant at that stage in my life," she explains. Eventually, he showed up. And like only breathless 18-year-olds can, she convinced him to hear her play. She was admitted on scholarship and enrolled without telling her parents. "I left everything behind."
Though driven to succeed at her studies, Lu understandably found it difficult to stay focused on school while experiencing life outside the strict congregation for the first time. "Balancing everything changing -- it was hard," she admits, but also exciting. "I had a sense of true freedom, but I felt so much guilt about everything I was doing." She dropped out after a year and started working at a restaurant, where she met some local guys from an underground hip-hop group. She began to play cello with them, which lead to singing. "That's when I started discovering and exploring music outside of classical, and really writing my own stuff."
One night, the collaborators opened a North Carolina gig for Nappy Roots, the quartet behind some of the South's most intriguing hip-hop sounds. The Kentucky-bred crew invited her to play cello on their upcoming album, recorded over the course of five days at Organized Noize -- the legendary Atlanta imprint responsible for producing Outkast's tracks. (For the record, Lu does have a swoon-worthy Andre 3000 story: following the album's listening party, he offered to carry her cello to her Toyota Previa, "a mini van that looks like a dinosaur egg." Turns out, the rap legend isn't so hip to roadie life. "He was carrying it so wrong! It kept banging against the wall -- but I didn't care," she laughs). Lu toured on-and-off with Nappy Roots for a few years, living either on the road or on her beekeeper aunt's "80 acres of land in the middle of Georgia." Somewhere along the way, she made the move to New York.
"Morning After Coffee" is one of just two tracks uploaded to Lu's Soundcloud channel. That will soon change, though. The day after we meet, Lu is scheduled to mix her debut EP, a six-track effort recorded live -- in a church. "I was playing at a church here in Williamsburg every weekend for a couple of months as a prelude musician for this interactive theatrical play," Lu explains. "I've always wanted to play in a church because I just loved the way everything sounds in there. But for me, there's a bit of irony in it," says Lu. "The only time I went into a church growing up was for funerals." If someone in the congregation had a family member die who wasn't a Jehovah's Witness, the community would go to the church to mourn, give their condolences, or show their support. "Churches always seemed foreboding or forbidden." Lu says. "I'd only ever see people in mourning -- screaming and crying. To me, they're very emotional spaces."
But recording your debut EP live? Choice church acoustics aside, that's still a pretty bold move. "I really love my live shows," explains Lu. "There are things in them that I just couldn't capture when I recorded at studios -- just feeding off people's energy and giving it back. There's something so honest about it, and I think the world needs more vulnerability," she says. She invited a select group of friends to attend the church session; among them, Chairlift's Patrick Wimberly, who helped record it. Both he and Lu appear on Wet's just-released debut album, Don't You. Presently, Kelsey is on tour as the Brooklyn alt-pop trio's opening act.
Though Lu has performed alongside Kelela, Wemberly's Chairlift partner Caroline Polachek, and Okay-Kaya, we speak about only one more of her collaborators and only one more of her live outings: Devonté Hynes and his recent benefit concert at Harlem's historic Apollo Theater. The pair met working on music for a series of Derek Lam short films. After realizing they "ride along a very similar creative wavelength," the Blood Orange frontman asked if she'd be up to share the stage for his super sold-out shows benefiting Opus 118 Harlem School of Music, where -- seriously -- Lu's sister teaches. "As soon as I stepped on to that stage, I couldn't help but think about everyone who'd done it before, who touched that log!" she said, referring to the theater's famous wooden plank. When Solange Knowles joined Hynes to perform Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues" at the evening's first performance, Lu could feel the late soul singer's spirit present. Sure enough, when Hynes ran into a bodega on a walk around Harlem with Lu, Queens rapper Despot, and Kindness frontman Adam Bainbridge in the interim between the two shows, the foursome found that same Gaye song playing on the radio. "I'm telling you, he was there!" Lu whoops. But she wasn't laughing for long.
After that brief commune with the Motown legend, the crew saw Usher playing on TV in a nearby shop front window and decided to peak in. Lu then felt someone behind her staring, and not at the R&B superstar's Confessions. "I turned around and there was this woman -- Latina, maybe in her 40s -- just glaring at all of us and kind of shaking," Lu explains.
Though she meets me with her hair pulled back in a neat bun, Lu has worn it natural for the past nine years, and often lets it out in an afro. "She was just like, 'You fucking forget to comb your hair this morning?'" At first, Lu thought it was a joke -- maybe? -- so she offered up a smile. It wasn't: "She said, 'If you were my fucking daughter and you tried to walk out of my goddamned house like that, I'd beat your fucking ass.'" "She was so angry, so upset," Lu explains, "for never really being loved. She saw us -- a beautiful group of youth, a beautiful mix of people who are all so happy -- and she just couldn't take it. I felt so sad for her."
Walking back to the multicultural musical landmark -- where they'd join rapper Le1f, Polachek, and Nelly Furtado in performing songs like "Sandra's Smile," Hynes' moving ode to Sandra Bland -- the friends found the woman yelling again. When they walked past her that final time, Lu shouted far louder than her unbottle-able laughs: "I LOVE YOU. I LOVE YOU SO MUCH."
Text Emily Manning
Photography Eric Chakeen