Kelela: An R&B Star Is Born?
Kelela, a quickly emerging, innovative R&B singer with roots in the Washington area is now based in Los Angeles. She's shown here in Austin, Texas, in March at the South By Southwest music festival. Illustrates MUSIC-KELELA (category e), by Chris Richards © 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Monday, April 14, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Erich Schlegel)
There are Japanese and Portuguese words that describe the interstitials of love, but for the rest of us, there is R&B.
Kelela — a petite, dreadlocked vocalist born in Washington and based in Los Angeles — understands that. Her futuristic love songs feel like high-def screen grabs of latent passion, micro-tonal desire and other in-the-middle emotions that the English language can’t quite articulate.
It’s the middle of March, in the middle of Texas, and Kelela’s in the middle of dinner. She’s here prepping for a handful of performances at the South by Southwest music festival and talking about the forthcoming debut album she has stowed away in her phone.
She flicks her thumb across the screen, rattling off the names of her collaborators: Bok Bok. Arca. Nguzunguzu. Evian Christ. Hudson Mohawke.
That is a formidable laundry list of producers from across the planet, all acclaimed for turning abstract dance music into vanguard pop. Last year, two of them — Arca and Mohawke — invited Kelela to tag along as they worked on a track for Kanye West’s snarling 2013 album, Yeezus.
“We were all in the studio listening ... and they were just messing with the a capella over and over,” Kelela says. “I still haven’t listened to Yeezus because I like that memory.”
If Yeezus expanded our collective notions about how a hip-hop album could feel, is it fair to hope Kelela might do the same for R&B?
Her songs are as familiar as they are alien, evoking a future we can almost see, articulating a lust we can almost feel. Almost. In the end, this is inventive, evasive music sung by a woman smart enough to know that the fulfillment of desire only extinguishes that desire.
“The approach is that you give it to them, but you don’t give it to them all the way,” the 30-year-old says. “I don’t want to scratch so that you don’t itch anymore.”
That tense, teasing energy pulses through Cut 4 Me, the stunning debut mix tape that Kelela released last October. It became one of the most acclaimed R&B recordings of 2013, winning praise from fans, critics and Beyonce. Its draw was Kelela’s impeccable phrasing — the result of a lifetime of deep listening.
She doesn’t remember having to search for that voice — but she struggled tremendously to find a place for it.
As a first-generation Ethiopian-American and an only child, she wandered from Julie Andrews singalongs to a spot in the school orchestra, to an adolescence mesmerized by R&B, to countless jazz open-mikes, to gigs at shabby rock venues, always feeling as if she didn’t belong.“I was in this really dark place of not being able to express myself,” she says. “But all that resistance informed how I approach the music I’m making now.”
It took her nearly three decades to find her place because that place was the future.
It starts in a Pontiac LeMans with her father, Mizanekristos Yohannes, and a pile of cassette tapes. Miriam Makeba. Harry Belafonte. Ella Fitzgerald. Aster Aweke. Sarah Vaughan. Kelela would learn to sing their every syllable.
“There was an intensity to the way she listened,” says Yohannes, who is now a development economist living in Washington and Addis Ababa. “She was indiscriminate in the way she would sing in different languages, and she had a capacity to memorize songs after just one or two listens.”
Kelela Mizanekristos was born in 1983 at George Washington University hospital in Washington. Her parents, both Ethiopian immigrants, never married, but lived in separate apartments in the same building until Kelela started kindergarten in the District.
“Mom wasn’t having it,” Kelela says of her mother’s decision to move her daughter to Gaithersburg, Md. “So she literally went as far as the Red Line (commuter train) would take her. The whiter you go, the better the school.”
At home, Kelela forged her own fantasy world, mimicking what she learned from VHS copies of The Sound of Music and a compilation of Rhythm Nation -era Janet Jackson videos. She’d put on impromptu plays with her cousin. She’d teach her aunts and uncles how to do the running man. She’d leap onto tables and belt Whitney Houston ballads, her eyes fixed on an imaginary stadium filled with adoring fans.
But she didn’t feel as free at school. She took up violin in the fourth grade, but couldn’t make those strings sound like TLC or Boyz II Men. At 13, she went through a phase of “trying to fit in with my white guy friends” that involved Green Day and a pink electric guitar, but she couldn’t escape the gravity of Mariah Carey and SWV.
“I felt quite far away from being able to create something like that,” Kelela says. “Popular music was this abstraction — an abstraction that I was relating to immensely but was ultimately far away.”
By the time she graduated from Magruder High School in Rockville, Md., in 2001, she felt as though she had missed her chance. “Prodigiousness is the only ticket,” she says. “It’s like: ‘If you don’t have it at 18, you might as well just give up. It’s done.’ ”
But throughout her 20s, she would pinball around town, finding encouragement in surprising places. At Montgomery College in Rockville, she’d get a shot of inspiration when her classmate, local rapper and producer Oddisee, would play beats for her in his car.
After transferring to American University — where she focused on international studies and sociology, but never earned her degree — she began singing jazz standards at HR-57 and Cafe Nema.
In 2008, she got a formative pep talk backstage at the Black Cat from Yukimi Nagano of the Swedish pop group Little Dragon. Soon after, she joined an indie band called Dizzy Spells and even tried singing prog-metal after meeting Animals As Leaders guitarist Tosin Abasi outside a Washington cafe where Kelela was trying to bum a couple dollars for a soy chaipuccino.
“She was like, ‘I’ll sing you a song in exchange,’ ” Abasi remembers. “I was thinking she was cute and I didn’t want her to sing because what if her voice sucked? I didn’t want her to ruin it.”
The two dated for a while and began writing songs, until Kelela learned how to record on her new laptop. The creative privacy gave her something she always craved: the freedom to make mistakes.
“That’s literally when I started writing my own music,” she says. “Being able to pursue it and mess up? I couldn’t get it with other people like that.”
Now she was more determined to get it than ever.
“She was super-driven and -inspired,” Abasi says. “Kelela believes that reality should answer to her, instead of the other way around.”
In late 2010, she migrated to Los Angeles and eventually made a fortuitous a-friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend connection with a team of producers behind the innovative dance label Fade to Mind and it’s sibling London imprint, Night Slugs. Everything finally clicked.
Alex Sushon, the London-based producer who co-founded Night Slugs and records as Bok Bok, says that collaborating with Kelela has helped give both labels — known for their high-gloss, icy-metallic aesthetic — a distinctly human touch.
“We don’t want to be making awkward music that pushes people away,” Sushon says. “We want to be making music that makes people feel a range of feelings and emotions. Just like real life, you can feel a number of things while essentially enjoying something on the surface. But it can be a trigger for more.”
As with Cut 4 Me, Kelela says the recording sessions for her new album have taken place in Los Angeles, London and across the digital plane. Fittingly, the music video for Bok Bok and Kelela’s squeaky new single, Melba’s Call, features an empty studio with the singer Skyped in on a video screen.
Meantime, Kelela says she’s hunkering down, fending off record labels until the album is complete. “I’m just trying to make it good,” she says. And by good, she means unbearably excellent. “I’m waiting for the moment when I’m jumping around the room because I can’t even deal with it.”
After so many years of placelessness, she has found her place.
“It’s so heartening,” she says. “I can cry almost instantly.”
Then she starts to. Eyes puddling up, her voice goes wobbly as she tries to describe her disbelief and her gratitude, a smooshed-together feeling she’d have no problem capturing in a song.
“I created this thing that was simply not there!” she says, bouncing her palm on the tabletop. “And it’s a shock. Still! I don’t think I’m going to be over it for a minute. ... But I feel so naturally ready to jump out and be on stage. I’m not some entitled 18-year-old who thinks this is how it’s always been. I’m really grateful to be doing this here on earth. And I’m so honored that anyone would think it’s tight.”