The singer Kelela seemed to emerge fully formed in 2013 with Cut 4 Me, an artful debut mixtape that emphasized atmosphere over groove: Vocals seeped and curled like smoke around off-kilter, bass-heavy beats. But since then, this rising star has kept a low profile, appearing on songs with Bok Bok, Kindness and Future Brown, but holding off on releasing a fresh batch of solo material.
Today, Kelela returns with the Hallucinogen EP, which finds her expanding her roster of collaborators and pushing her songwriting into new areas. Recent single “Rewind” is unabashedly movement-compelling, with a thin, crispy beat that evokes Nineties classics like K.P. & Envy’s “Shorty Swing My Way” or “My Boo” by Ghost Town DJ’s. “All the Way Down,” on the other hand, merges the singer’s penchant for ambience with a heady bounce.
Rolling Stone caught up with Kelela to talk about her last two years, the new EP and the album she’s working on for 2016.
What have you been up to in the last couple years since Cut 4 Me?
There’s a few things I wanted to try out. I like to try out different methods to get to good songs. I wanted to make sure that if you were wondering why the mixtape was a mixtape, your question would be answered on the next release. I wanted to make sure that you when you heard the next release, you knew exactly why the other thing was a mixtape.
For me, that meant going in on songwriting. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to push all the way with. And by that, I mean doing whatever I do and then consulting someone who’s on a constant quest to find the most resonant melodies and lyrics. For the past couple of years, I’ve actually been working on the album, and out of that larger body of work, I was encouraged to create an EP. I pulled from the tracks that were meant for an album — essentially the ones that made the most sense together, centered around “A Message.” I knew the places I needed to focus: Songwriting was one, and the other was I wanted to consult someone who really makes pop music but isn’t just a songwriter — also a producer. And I had been with working with Ariel Rechtshaid.
Do you believe there’s a difference between an album and a mixtape?
Yes. There’s no hard line; it’s more about how many of these boxes did this project check. When I called Cut 4 Me a mixtape, I was thinking about a few elements: One is used instrumentals. The project is more centered around introducing you to an artist; it’s not meant to be seminal. It’s “hi,” “hello,” a thing that you first hear.
Being a mixtape also implies that it’s not about being refined. It’s not about going to try and make something that’s perfect; it’s more about keeping it moving and putting that shit out there. For an album, you won’t hear instrumentals that were on previous projects. For an album, you’re definitely going to hear bridges. Love me a bridge! With the mixtape, I just wanted to show you what the idea is and then keep it moving. I never meant to go all the way. This is the idea, you get it — it’s the verse; it’s the chorus; “bye bye.” With the album, I am going in. The EP is part of the same pursuit. I made “The Message” two songs into making the mixtape. But it’s not a thing where I put out everything at once. I felt like that would be a great “and then there was this.” So I held off, and I’m really glad — it feels very much like step two.
Did the mixtape serve to help introduce you to people you wanted to consult on songwriting?
I think what the mixtape did was say, “Hey, guys, I’m not playing.” That goes for songwriters and that goes for producers. On this EP, I have Arca; I have Asma Maroof [one half of Nguzunguzu], Nugget, Kingdom, Girl Unit, myself and Obey City. On top of all that, you have to sprinkle a bit of Ariel Rechtshaid. When it comes to production, a lot of the people that I’ve worked with have definitely focused on a sound. I have made it my business on this record to focus on resonance to balance out the individuality in the production, to bring them to [the] center. I am allowing someone to do their entire thing, and then I’m choosing the elements from that that I take.
So you’re doing some curating?
I’m curating a lot. It’s a lot of curatorial work. I’m not trying to show them what I think; it’s more like they’re doing what’s intuitive for them, and then there’s a lot of overlap.
Was it easy to transition into this new way of working?
It’s a gradient. There’s one song on the mixtape, “Floor Show,” where I consulted someone, Mocky. I remember asking him, “What do you think about this?” He was like, “Well, this part you have as your bridge is actually your chorus.” It wasn’t a hard transition; I had done a little bit of it before. Songwriters just started trickling into my life in a really beautiful way.
I think there’s probably three ways that people make records these days. One is when there’s a couture label context, where it’s all about the vision the artist has, and then you’re negotiating that with the label head. Then there’s a traditional indie model, which is also centered around the artist. Traditionally when we think of major-label models, we think of the way I’m doing the record right now. Taking a little bit from over here, a little bit over there, putting that together with this songwriter and adding a last sprinkle of somebody else.
With the other two [models], traditionally there’s not a lot of back-and-forth. It’s been a little bit tricky, because I’ve had to have a conversation with every producer and tell them I’m not simply taking a major-label model — “I want to do something creative, and I want to layer some of your work with other people’s, but I definitely want to bring it back around to you.” It’s not the type of game where you’re handing off stems and you may never hear that shit again until it’s on the radio. Trying to hybridize all those ways of working has been a huge chunk of the challenge. I want to have agency, but I also want their blessing. I think I hit a groove, and I finally know how it’s going to work — probably for the rest of my life.
Thank you. It feels good to know you’re probably not going to get to a banger by starting on piano. I need to know for myself: Could you just start with a chord and then add the drums and then make that thing happen? In actuality, most bangers are bangers before they have vocals on them. There’s certain things that I’ve learned that I had to find out experientially.
Speaking of bangers, let’s talk about “Rewind.”
I heard an Obey City track that had a bass line in it, and I was like, this bass line goes so hard — I have to put a major melody over it because it’s so good. And I know it’s a Miami-bass feel, and I kind of know where I want to go. So I got with Nugget, and I asked him to make me a Miami-bass sketch. We wrote most of the song together. I had the song and a skeleton of the track, and I gave it simultaneously to Kingdom and to Girl Unit and I gave them two different directives. I told Girl Unit to make it classically the thing that we know: “Give me, like, Miami bass on 1,000, and then at the end, give me your most basic trap outro.” Then I told Kingdom, “Can you do all the weird shit? Give me some palette.” I need to take it out of this context. It needs to sound like, “Who, where are we?” They both did their thing, and I blended their pieces together. It’s a process. I don’t want you to have to be a head to be into it. But if you are a head, I want you to be like, “Yesssss!” I want to check both boxes every time. And that’s what I’ve tried to take to one million on the album — make whatever’s resonating with you hit just as hard as a thing that’s subverting and throwing you off.
I always tell people, Carole King has to take this song to piano. That is the goal. She might be like, “I don’t know what’s going on in that production; I’m not really sure what’s going on the track. But that song. Goes. Hard.” I want her to go to her piano and be like, “What are the chords, and how does the melody go?” [I want] somebody who does that to be like, “That’s how you fucking do it.”