Meet Kelsey Lu, the disruptor of mainstream music

by Hayley Tai  /   February 19, 2020

Kelsey Lu isn’t interested in trends and avoids being typecast. The singer-cellist just wants to make her music heard

Nice to meet you, I’m Lu,” Kelsey Lu greets everyone as she enters the studio. The 30-year-old American musician radiates childlike naivete, taking down local food tips from the stylist on her iPhone, while he works on her long, pin-straight hair, complemented by flaming red bangs. One would expect a rising international star to be chaperoned by an entourage, or at least an assistant.

Leather dress, silver loop earrings, and Amazone silver and silk necklace, Hermes

Not in the case of this North Carolina native, who has in recent years collaborated with global acts such as American DJ-producer Skrillex, English indie rock band Florence and the Machine, and American singer-songwriter Solange.

It isn’t just about Lu’s talent as a trained cellist that has captured the music industry and fans around the world. It’s also her sense of individualism enveloped in her free-spirited style that makes her a breathtaking performer.

And she’s disrupting the status quo in mainstream music. Lu leads her own way with just her cello and a loop pedal – as she did with her 2016 debut EP Church. It was recorded in just one take in a Catholic church in Brooklyn. Last year, she co-produced her first full-length album Blood with Columbia Records.

The result: a record that belongs in an experimental space, exploring the territories of pop, R&B, electronica, blues and ambient, juxtaposed against the rise and fall of her cello bow and haunting vocals.

Blood marks the beginning of Lu’s bigger musical journey, travelling to South-east Asia last year for performances, including Wonderfruit festival in Pattaya, before landing a gig with music agency Collective Minds, at Kilo Lounge, in Singapore.

“I ate a pandan pancake and grilled squid at a beach in Pattaya,” she beams. “Tonight, I’m going to try the chilli crab you guys raved about!”

Once the shoot begins, she quickly morphs from girl-next-door to charismatic performer, commanding attention to her undulating poses. The arresting showpiece: Lu, herself.

Cotton one-shouldered peplum top, $350, Silvia Teh. Necklaces and rings (worn throughout), Lu’s own

Finding Her Sound

Born Kelsey McJunkins, Lu grew up in an artistic family in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her mother was an Afro-jazz singer, while dad played percussion and painted. Lu learnt to play the violin and piano at six.

She recalls: “I saw it (the cello) one day during violin class. I was about nine years old then and I thought, ‘Man, it’s so cool! I have to play it!’”

But chasing her passion has been a long and winding road, Lu reveals. Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, she had felt constricted by her upbringing.

“I got a scholarship at North Carolina School of the Arts and moved away from all that,” she says. “I never felt like I belonged, and the name ‘Kelsey’ never resonated with me. As a kid, I would introduce myself using another name. I settled with Lu, which became my stage name.”

In 2011, the musician dropped out of school when she developed another musical interest: the underground music culture of Winston-Salem (where her school was at). Lu wanted to experiment.

“I played the cello for underground hip-hop dancers. Then, I learnt to improvise with it,” she reveals. “I started playing around with beats, tapping on various objects I could find to create different sounds. I also recorded myself playing the cello over Radiohead’s tunes.”

At 22, Lu left for New York to tour with rap quartet Nappy Roots, which she grew up listening to.

“I still love classical music, but I realised I couldn’t go any further with it. I was inspired to do other forms of music that didn’t follow the rules of the classical world,” she says.

Cotton blazer and matching cargo shorts, Bottega Veneta. Leather boots, Louis Vuitton

Being Fearless

That tour sparked a series of bigger collaborations that inspired Lu creatively. She wound up relocating to the Big Apple with only her cello, iPhone and savings to pursue her dream.

She recalls: “I rented a small recording studio and edited on my iPhone’s Garageband application.”

Lu, who now lives in Los Angeles, credits her collaborators –like English producer Blood Orange (Dev Hynes) and American songwriter Patrick Wimberly – for her accomplishments today. Of her projects, she says: “In a way, I’ve been very lucky. I’ve not succumbed to the pressure of the music industry, I get to take my time.”

And she’s fiercely independent – an artiste who isn’t afraid of being who she is – even if it means sticking out from the pop music crowd.

Silk blouse, gold-tone earrings, and cotton knit gloves, Gucci

She relocated to the Big Apple with only her cello, iPhone and savings to pursue her dream.

– Kelsey Lu

Like her soundscapes, the music videos are dreamy, at times surreal existential dramas that take on a conceptual approach to music, fashion, poetry and art.

“We shouldn’t be told how we want to create music,” she adds. “A lot of my work stems from how I feel and what I see,” explains Lu, who gets much of her inspiration from art and films, such as Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings.

Velvet kimono top and matching pants, Balenciaga. Leather and acetate sunglasses, Louis Vuitton. Leather boots, Longchamp

She hopes to write soundtracks for films some day, and currently has her sights set on the anime art form. “I’ve been speaking with a few anime artists. I’m hoping I’ll be able to work on something this year,” she reveals.

“I strive to create music that sounds great no matter what time period you’re in. Bjork and Kate Bush inspire me to create a kind of sound that’s everlasting.”

This article was first published in Her World’s February issue.