Last February, Kelly Lee Owens was laying down tracks with the musician Daniel Avery in a tiny studio in London. At the same moment, across town, her song “Arthur” was blasting over the runway at the Alexander McQueen Fall 2016 show. Just a week prior, McQueen’s in-house music curator John Gosling had asked Owens to license the song to include in a mix that would accompany the show, and the musician agreed, eagerly. But as it happened, there was no mix. Only “Arthur” played—in full, twice through—as models filed down the runway in ethereal capes embellished with moons, stars, and surrealist fairytale imagery.
That wasn't even the end of it: "Arthur" played in McQueen shops around the world for several months after. It was also the track caught the attention of Joakim Haugland, the founder of the Norwegian label Smalltown Supersound, which released Owens’s debut EP Oleic in October, and which will put out her first-ever full-length, Kelly Lee Owens, on Friday.
Owens’s music defies easy description, both in its vast range and complex array of sounds. While her Oleic EP established her straightforward dance prowess, her self-titled full-length employs bubbling synthesizers and natural samples layered with delicate vocals. It even incorporates strings—nearly unheard of in dance music. It’s an album of contradictions, subverting dance music and pop structures at once.
In that way, the 28-year-old electronic musician's sound was a fitting match for McQueen, the consummate subversive London label. Though she has never been a fashion aficionado, Owens was a big fan of the late designer’s work even before she connected with Gosling.
“More than anything, he wanted people to be slightly afraid of his women,” she said, citing a hybrid of masculine and feminine energies in her own work that echoes that of McQueen, as well as his protégée, the brand’s current creative director Sarah Burton. It's a dichotomy that suits her well: Owen's translucent vocals ride over dark, brooding synth tracks; onstage, she wears glittering dresses and silk kimonos over heavy black boots.
Owens grew up in a tiny town in north Wales, which didn't have a thriving club scene but is long on mysticism. Music, too, is in her roots. “It’s known as the land of song, and singing, performing, reciting poetry is so, so important in our history,” she said. “You’re in a choir whether or not you can sing.” Her grandmother, the church organist, missed just three Sunday services throughout her life—because she was giving birth. Her uncle collected vinyl and adored Kate Bush—two obsessions Owens has inherited. She started scribbling song lyrics on Post-it notes in primary school (“which I’ve still got, and I’ll never let anyone see") and recruited a childhood friend to sing backup during concerts performed for her grandmother in the garden.
Of course, just 45 minutes from her town, across the England border, was Manchester, a city famous for its pop-music history. Owens moved there at 18, finding odd jobs at festivals and clubs working the doors or manning the merch table. “I definitely was an indie little scenester when I was 18,” she said. She had latent musical aspirations, but lacked the confidence to go out on her own. “I’d do whatever I could to get involved,” she added.
Two years later, in 2009, she moved to London, starting with a stint at XL Recordings—the label of Radiohead, Adele, and the xx—before moving on to Pure Groove and Rough Trade East, two of the city’s most beloved record stores. Pure Groove was just around the block from the legendary nightclub Fabric, while Rough Trade East has a dedicated dance music counter and connections to the SchneidersLaden synthesizer manufacturers in Germany. It was natural, then, Owens felt drawn to dance music.
Then Daniel Avery, now one of Owens's closest collaborators, brought her in to sing vocals for a project he was working on. That went well, apparently, because soon after, she went back into the studio with Avery, accompanied by a few fixtures of the London dance scene, to record “Keep Walking,” now the penultimate track on Kelly Lee Owens. It was a watershed moment for Owens, who was only just gaining the confidence to put out her own material. "Especially as women, we put ourselves down,'" she said. "‘No, it’s not going to be good enough, I can’t do that, I’m not even going to start it, never mind try to finish something.'" (Owens intends to create an electronic music workshop for women, a safe space to make music.)
Last year, Owens decided to remix Jenny Hval’s “Kingsize,” which put her on the Pitchfork map and earned her a Best New Track designation. Searching for her first song to remix, she pressed play on Hval’s 2015 record, Apocalypse, Girl, at the suggestion of Joakim Haugland. As soon as she heard Hval murmur, “What is soft-dick rock?” on the first track, “Kingsize,” she knew she had what she needed to remix the perfect club track.
“She hadn’t been reworked, and I hadn’t remixed anyone else’s stuff,” Owens said. “There aren’t enough women remixing other women.” “Kingsize” inaugurated a creative partnership that led to “Anxi,” a standout collaborative track off the new album whose video premiered Monday, and which is Owens's first song collaboration with another woman. (By the time she started working on “Anxi,” Owens was sick of writing lyrics. She fired an unfinished track over to Hval, who returned it, completed, just a couple hours later.)
Owens’s album closes with “8,” a nearly 10-minute-long opus of crescendoing drones, with her voice dancing among them. As the outro of her debut effort, it’s a synthesis of everything that led up to it (and one of the last tracks she recorded). In the end, the whole thing comes back around to the mystical, celestial underpinnings that have acted as the scaffolding of her music since her early fascination with Kate Bush. “There’s the overview effect, looking down from space and viewing your place in the universe,” she said. Owens recommended listening to “8” in the dark, allowing the ambient tones to wash over you. “But sometimes, in order to have the real perspective, you have to go in as well.”