Kelsey Lu is used to making her own rules. After leaving her home in Charlotte, North Carolina, as a teenager, the singer-songwriter began touring with friends, eventually debuting in 2016 as a solo artist with the dreamy, cello-looped album Church. Listening to Lu’s music — with its hyperactive strings that coalesce, trance-like, into lush ballads — conjures an otherworldly feeling. Despite her singular approach to life and music, the 29-year-old has amassed a circle of collaborators that includes Solange, Florence Welch, Dev Hynes, and Skrillex — with whom she worked on the single “Due West.” They recently caught up to discuss authenticity and NSYNC.
SKRILLEX: This is so weird. I’ve never talked to you outside of FaceTime. Should we just start?
KELSEY LU: Yeah!
SKRILLEX: I know you moved out of your house when you were 18, and I left mine when I was 16. What does it take to make that leap of faith?
LU: I guess it’s a sense of survival — we act on instinct. When I left home, I was also leaving everything and everyone I knew in order to start a new life.
SKRILLEX: What happened at that moment?
LU: The place I grew up just wasn’t the place for me. My older sister was going to school for violin at the [University of] North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, and I secretly went there and sat outside this teacher’s office, and he was like, “Who are you?” And I was like, “This is my life story. This is why I’m here. This is why I have to go here.” I was crying and I played for him, and he was like, “I’d love to teach you.” So I guess that faith was based around the hope that music would be my catapult into a new life.
SKRILLEX: It was similar for me. When I was 15, I met this band online and I was just constantly messaging them hoping something would work out. I would send them guitar clips until I finally convinced them to let me come visit. So I saved up and got a one-way ticket to Georgia. I think as human beings, we’ve been on this planet so long that survival is in our DNA. David Lynch calls it the Art Life. Even if I had to stand outside in the cold and eat oatmeal, I was going to dedicate myself to art. Was it ever like that for you, where you thought, “I don’t care if I’m poor for the rest of my life, I’m going to make music”?
LU: I just knew that music was always in everything. When I dropped out of school, I started working at restaurants. Then I met Nappy Roots. They saw me when I opened for them with a guy I used to make music with. They were like, “We’re recording a record, come record with us.” So I was like, “Cool. I’ll do that.” I went on tour with them. I wasn’t making any money, but it didn’t matter. That wasn’t ever the goal of making music.
SKRILLEX: Especially when you’re younger, you’re like, “Fuck money. I just want to be happy.” In a way, music speaks more directly to young people than any other medium. What do you, in your work, want to say to those kids?
LU: There’s something that James Baldwin said about life being more important than art, because that’s what makes art important. When I look at kids and the culture, self-expression is at a high. At least that’s how it feels to me. I don’t know about you, but I feel like there is more freedom of expression than ever before. Maybe it has to do with social media. I’m feeling really inspired by that, and at the same time, I don’t want people to start getting wrapped up in how other people are doing their own thing. Kids can really start paying attention to the ways in which other people are successful or have gained notoriety: “Well, what are they doing to get to that point?” All of that’s just distraction. As long as you’re doing it from the heart, as long as you’re being as sincere as you can be, then that’s what shines through. That’s what’s undeniable.
SKRILLEX: I really like that quote, because life is more important than art. If you think about someone like R. Kelly, he’s made some of the best art in the world, but it doesn’t matter when you’ve led such a bad life. I think being a great artist is about leading your art with truth, and if your life is out of whack, then your art won’t be consistent. As a kid, I was attracted to artists who felt real. Aphex Twin wasn’t even putting himself out there, and still I was like, “Yo, this guy sits in his underwear making whatever the fuck he wants.” I also loved NSYNC and Backstreet Boys and their melodies, but in my peer group it was like, “Oh, that’s not real art. That’s fake.” As a pop artist, do you feel like there’s a certain responsibility to propose something new? What does your ideal vision of the future look like?
LU: I don’t think the future is that far away. But I’d love to play on Mars.
SKRILLEX: If someone were to play on Mars, it should be you.
LU: You and I should do a space tour.
SKRILLEX: What would music sound like on the moon?
LU: Well, what’s the setting? Are we just in a hub on the planet? Or would everyone be on a shuttle just revolving around the planet? Would everyone be in space suits?
SKRILLEX: If it were me, I’d make a glass dome. It would be a translucent dome that you could fog on demand and you could turn the gravity on and off. So when you enter the dome, you can’t really see the view and the gravity is normal. And then, all of a sudden during the performance, the shades open and you turn off the gravity, and—
LU: And it’s like the fizzy lifting drink from Willy Wonka! I also want to do an underwater concert. I don’t know if it’s in Japan, but someone has been coming up with the concept of an underwater city—because they’re thinking ahead to how cities are going to be underwater, because of global warming. I would love to play in a bubble in the middle of the ocean.
SKRILLEX: I like that.
LU: This isn’t futuristic, but I also have a dream of doing a school bus tour with all my friends.
SKRILLEX: A burlesque tour?
LU: A school bus tour!
LU: I’d like to do a school bus tour to really small towns and make it free for kids to come out — free for these kids in small towns who don’t know about smaller music cultures and haven’t been to performances before. Even though it’s not underwater, I think that’s a really important thing for the future.
SKRILLEX: I’d love to see the K-Lu School Bus of Homies.
LU: I think it’s important for kids to see something they’ve never seen before and get a taste of something outside of what’s served to them. And I think that creates a domino effect creatively, where kids start feeling inspired, like, “Whoa, this is what’s out!”
SKRILLEX: That’s why I fell in love with punk music. Those bands felt legendary to me. They would get in a van and a trailer and do tours across America to play in these small venues. They wouldn’t get booked in West Hollywood, so they’d play at the community center in East L.A. or in a church in Pasadena for about 200 people. Those concerts were the most inspiring moments of my life, so I’ve experienced the other side of what you’re saying.
SKRILLEX: Both you and I are avid collaborators — and, obviously, have collaborated on a song together. What do you look for in a collaborator?
LU: I think collaboration is about an energetic exchange. Even beyond listening to someone’s music, I’m listening to what they’ve done with other people.
SKRILLEX: How do these exchanges shape you as an artist?
LU: It’s about communication. I like working with other people and seeing what plug-ins they use. When we worked together, watching you manipulate soundwaves was so inspiring.
SKRILLEX: Aside from moon parties and magic school bus tours, is there anything you want to do that you haven’t done yet?
LU: I want to live in Nigeria.
Hair: Malcolm Robinson using Redken
Makeup: Emi Kaneko using Chanel at Bryant Artists
Production: Brandon Zagha
Photography Assistants: Eduardo Silva, Graham Dalton
Fashion Assistants: Dominic Dopico, Abi Arcinas
Makeup Assistant: Mical Klip
Manicure: Holly Falcone using La Prairie at Art Department
Production Assistant: Joaquin Castro
Post-Production: Rapid Eye and IMGN Studio