Kelly Lee Owens was on lockdown well before the rest of the Western world. Before quarantines began in Europe and the Americas in March, the producer/singer/songwriter had been holed up in a studio, mixing and mastering her full-length sophomore album Inner Song. Owens describes her approach to her spacious, dynamic techno as “obsessive”—she sculpts for “days on end” and put in 14-hour days during the album’s mixing. After months, she was ready to emerge.
“I was ready to do the other side of what I do, which is be out there and connect with people,” she told Jezebel in July via phone from London, where she’s lived for 11 years. And then: A global pandemic. It prompted Owens to delay the release of her album by about four months—originally announced for May 1, it finally dropped today. Lockdown also prompted Owens to pursue collaborative work like remixes and film scores. In the wake of the coronavirus, Owens, who turned 32 this week, was inspired to look inward and pause along with much of the world. “The first month or so I didn’t really do much,” she said. “It’s like checking in with that capitalistic mindset, the continually creating and producing something.”
Introspection was a familiar vantage point. Inner Song is about as personal and personable as techno pop comes. “Corner of the Sky” salutes Owens’s Welsh roots via a guest vocal from Velvet Underground founding member John Cale, who sings in English and Welsh. There’s an absolute banger, “Jeanette,” in which synths shimmer high and sub-bass rattles low, and in between is an expanse of open-hearted possibility. The song was named after her grandmother, who died last year, though she was still alive when Owens composed the instrumental track. “It’s one of those that kind of sounded like uplifting, uplifting, building, building, happy, and big,” Owens said. “And that was who she was: sunshine, open, energy.”
When Inner Song is icy, it’s intentionally so, and because it includes samples of glacial ice melt to comment on global warming, as on “Melt.”—“I found samples, just FYI,” Owens assured me. “I didn’t go to the Arctic. That would be kind of ridiculous.” But thematically, the album’s focus is on healing. Owens describes the first track, an electronic cover of Radiohead’s “Arpeggi” as a kind of reemergence. “For me, it was personally coming up from the depths of something difficult that I’d been through,” she said.
She declined to specify exactly what difficulty she encountered. “I can’t. It’s too much, too personal to go into the depths of it,” said the preternaturally chatty Owens, who nonetheless attempted to elucidate while maintaining her vagueness. She compared the traumatic experience in question to “a lot of the things women experience universally that are still ongoing in relationships.”
“I went through a lot of losses and the most painful one was the loss of self,” she said. “How one person can pull you so far away from yourself that you don’t recognize who is in that mirror anymore, and having to crawl back parts of yourself. That’s what the song ‘Rewild’ relates to. After all this stuff, putting the pieces back together again and re-wilding the spirit, which takes a lot of energy, and a lot of courage.”
While the first single, “On,” suggests determination after romantic estrangement (“Head and heart in unison, we can’t go forward/Can only love as deeply as you see yourself and you don’t see me,” Owens sings in her high and airy voice that cuts her spartan electronics with humanity), Owens said that referring to Inner Song as a “breakup record” doesn’t do it justice.
“This particular situation was so extreme and so difficult that it really forced this massive change,” she added. “There are just some situations in life that cause us to go in and do the work and this was one of them for me. But really what it led me to question was the relationship with myself, which is the most important relationship I will ever know.”
The results are alternately solemn and cheeky—“Night” is an example of the latter. Owens coos, “It feels so good to be alone” repeatedly before adding, “...with you,” almost like a punchline, as a kick drum puts into motion a polyrhythmic design that functions as a sonic trail. Owens said on the phone that the line in question could still refer to oneself. “‘Alone’ used to be two words: all one, which means whole,” she explained. “I’ve been looking into the use of language, and how it was literally used to cast spells.”
Owens views techno as her medium for transmuting pain, but writing lyrics and composing beats was just part of her healing process. She said she found solace in Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s Women Who Run with the Wolves, a Bible to her. She went through trauma release therapy, and also found freewriting as a useful tool—not just for the sake of purging emotion but as a foundation for song lyrics.
Owens said that, similarly, studio sessions can produce an avalanche of ideas. “It flows so fast. Sometimes it’s not easy to work with me,” she explained. She’s started taking notes to keep up with herself. And because she is not classically trained, she is guided by artist intuition to understand when a track is done, which songs require lyrics and which remain instrumental (the track always comes first and then is outfitted with Owens’s vocals), and how much space is the perfect amount for a song. Owens is a space enthusiast.
“I’m only going off this instinct thing, which is the only thing I have to work with,” she said. “It’s all about how I’m connecting to it, but what I hope for that is that it’s connected to the collective experience. Creating anything is about trusting yourself. You have to trust yourself. If you don’t like it, how the fuck can you expect anyone else to like it? If you don’t love it, what are you expecting from other people?”
That said, there is still room for calculation. “L.I.N.E.,” which stands for “Love Is Not Enough” and is so brooding and sinewy that it sounds like a lost track from the 1993 soundtrack of the erotic thriller Sliver, is a pointed critique at saccharine top 40 platitudes. “Love is not enough to stay/I’d rather be on my own,” Owens intones, so sweetly she might as well be singing a lullaby.
“‘L.I.N.E.’ is about using lyrics in the right way instead of this bullshit that’s prescribed in pop music about giving yourself away,” she explained. “‘No matter what you do, I’ll be here. I’ve got your back.’ Bullshit. Love is not enough. Just because you’re in love with someone doesn’t mean it’s enough to stay in a shitty, detrimental situation. I’d rather be on my own.”
Owens ends her album where another might begin: By telling her audience to, as the final track is titled, “Wake Up.” It just happens to coincide with an overall reevaluation that many are experiencing as a result of the life-upending consequences of the pandemic. “Never pausing to take it in/Always avoiding your sense of dread,” Owens observes in the song.
“I think we’ve been doing that for a long time: avoiding the pain,” she said. “In a sense, the pain that comes with the avoidance of pain is even deeper. A lot of us, I don’t think, were deeply, truly happy before all of this. Even if we’re doing the things we love, we realize there’s something fundamentally askew. And that’s of course with the climate, too. Something is off. We subconsciously know these things. I think only from that can come deeper and truer art. And of course all these social justice movements and Black Lives Matter, all this shit has been needing to be dealt with for such a long time but we’ve actually had the space to take it in and absorb the truth.”
And so, having delivered her album almost four months later than originally expected, Owens’s timing is impeccable. That’s an asset for public communication of any sort, but absolutely essential in techno.