For Kelis, cooking food and concocting records have never been that different — it’s all about finding the right collaborators and putting your own stamp on the final product. The 34-year-old singer’s mom was a chef, so the singer learned to cook at an early age, and growing up, when she needed recipe advice an expert was always a phone call away.
“Before I went to culinary school, just being a young adult, I would call her and say, ‘Hey Mom, how do you do this?'” she recalls from the kitchen of a house in Austin’s Clarksville neighborhood, her home for the duration of South by Southwest, a festival at which she is not only playing three gigs but also preparing and serving ribs, sliders and coleslaw from the side of a food truck. “She would tell and I’d try to master it the way she did it. And you know, it’s 15 years later and now I do it my way and she’ll be like, ‘No. You can’t even call it that because it’s just not that anymore. It’s good, but don’t call it that.'”
In part because it gave her the tools and confidence to draw her style away from that of her mother, Kelis now remembers the decision to attend cooking school as one of the best she has ever made, even hanging around after graduating to take alumni courses on topics like the art of sushi. And although her school, Le Cordon Bleu, reserved the type of soul food she specializes in for a globe-spanning “ethnic” unit, its curriculum still influenced the way she cooks the type of food she grew up eating.
“The idea is actually that it’s not so much about, like, ‘doing ribs’ because French-style cooking is sort of, if you let them tell it, they do it the right way, and whatever style you do you apply these methods to the cooking you want to do.”
As it turned out, food would become both a point of bonding between her and producer Dave Sitek and the title of the forthcoming LP of songs the two recorded together, a collection that syncopates and strips back the Crystal Waters/Robin S. electo-soul of 2010’s Flesh Tone until it’s as warm and casual as the recent collaborations between Solange Knowles and Dev Hynes.
“The way his house is set it up, it’s kind of like a commune. He has these massive dogs and these two Bengal cats, and there’s always some musicians staying there,” remembers Kelis, and so the record emerged out an atmosphere that the singer describes as “controlled fun,” free and spontaneous, but only because she her collaborators entered the studio with the skills and professionalism of a French chef.
With track names like “Jerk Ribs,” “Cobbler” and “Friday Fish Fry,” you’d think food was even on her mind when she was writing her lyrics. The answer, in fact, is much simpler: “Zef, who’s the engineer, was just there all the time, part of the family, so by the end of the night everyone is exhausted, and he’d put something in the computer – “Biscuits n’ Gravy” – just so I’d remember what it’s called. When it came time to change the titles, it just seemed like they were as good as any others.”
And in the middle of such open-ended sessions, how did Kelis know that she finally did have completed songs, not just demos that could be called anything at all? “In culinary school we’d ask our chef how do we know when it’s done, and his answer would always be – to the point that we’d ask him just to hear him say it – when it’s done.”