Life in flux has defined Kelsey Lu’s 20s — ever since the artist got her break touring with Southern rap crew Nappy Roots around 2011.
A singer and classically trained cellist, she’s gained steady traction in recent years for her ethereal and haunting twist on pop.
In 2016, she released “Church,” her debut six-song EP recorded live with her cello and a loop pedal at a church in Brooklyn. She’s collaborated with experimental video artist Kahlil Joseph on short films. She’s worked with Solange, Kelela and Dev Hynes of Blood Orange, further cementing herself as part of a new wave of genre-bending black artists. And, in April, she released her first full-length album, “Blood,” through Columbia Records, home to superstar acts including Beyoncé and Adele.
Sitting in her manager’s Highland Park bungalow, Lu, 30, described her whimsical, folk-soul sound, which, she says, requires a sense of openness and patience. “My music isn’t something that you hear all the time. It is something … that has taken time and thought and effort into making it,” she said. “That’s something that, in mainstream music, is lacking nowadays.”
But the shift is happening.
Since “Blood’s” release, Lu has been on a whirlwind tour, taking her to the experimental micro-city Arcosanti, Ariz., a Martha’s Vineyard art show, and overseas to the Sydney Opera House, among other places.
Lu wrote “Blood” over the course of a few years at spaces including the iconic EastWest Studios in Hollywood, and in the U.K. In that time frame, she also moved to Los Angeles — a city where, she said, she found her community.
“Blood” is Lu’s foray into bigger instrumentation and production. She calls it an ode to her home and her parents.
At the female-led festival Yola Día in L.A. on Aug. 18, Lu began her short and sultry set with “Blood’s” opening track “Rebel.” The song tells the story of her parents meeting in the 1960s. After playing the song’s rolling pizzicato intro, Lu began to sing — her cello and bow resting precariously in her left hand, while she gripped the microphone with her right:
“Then when you went to art school / Breaking hearts and all the rules / You met the man of your dreams / To society, he was unconventional / But you didn’t mind being outside.”
The song has a double meaning: As an interracial couple, Lu’s parents rebelled against the norms of society at the time, and Lu herself is something of a rebel — pushing back on the way she was raised and forging her own path.
Born Kelsey McJunkins, music saturated Lu’s childhood in Charlotte, N.C.
Her father, a portrait artist and musician, blasted jazz while playing congas in his studio. Her mother played piano and took Lu and her older sister to the Charlotte Symphony, where she grew fascinated by the cello.
She followed her older sister’s footsteps and began playing the violin at 5.
Lu recalled the exact moment she knew she had to try the cello, at 9 years old. She was in the middle of her violin lesson, but a cello was “propped against a window,” pulling her attention, Lu said, her soft voice occasionally rising into a full-bellied laugh.
“Just the moment I played it, I fell in love with it. Something about the way it just hit my body. The vibrations were so strong.”
Scarred by a karaoke session gone awry (it involved Jennifer Lopez’s 1999 hit “Waiting for Tonight”), Lu sang in secret while continuing her training in classical music. When she announced her plans to sing instead of playing cello for a high school talent show audition, her mother laughed.
But when she sang Etta James’ “At Last,” her mother began crying. “She was like, ‘I didn’t know you could sing.’ I was like, ‘Neither did I.’ ”
While Lu found solace in music, she also felt constrained by the strict boundaries and confines of the Jehovah’s Witness faith her parents enforced. At 18, she left home to attend the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem.
It was there that she found artistic freedom during late night sessions in empty practice rooms. “I started improvising over music that I liked,” she said. “And then I started collaborating with dancers and mixing music with other forms of art.”
Meeting like-minded art students continued to expand her worldview, but Lu also found the music conservatory setting stifling. After a year, she left school and began working at a restaurant, where she connected with local musicians.
“That was really what catapulted finding my own voice,” she said. While performing with a local rapper, she caught the attention of Nappy Roots, who invited her to tour with them for the next year and a half.
In between touring, she moved to New York in 2012, taking her cello, an iPhone and not much else. She began making songs on Garageband — her first, “Monster,” was created with empty wine bottles, cardboard ridges and the gentle meow of her sister’s kitten. She learned to use a loop pedal, a tool that gave her the power to layer her songs and perform live with her cello.
By the time Lu moved to L.A., she had honed her identity as an artist. And importantly, found that her “creative health” spiked in the city.
She attributes that to getting tuned into the black arts community and finding her tribe at places such as the alternative art space Underground Museum.
When Kahlil Joseph first met Lu at the Underground Museum, he “assumed she was a big star,” the artist said by phone, calling Lu both “raw and refined.” Pretty quickly, he could tell “there was a deep soul but also an original voice that was all her own,” he added.
Late last year, Lu organized one of her favorite performances to date, an intimate show in a home designed by the late Paul R. Williams, a prolific black architect favored by Hollywood elite. Performing songs from the not-yet-released “Blood,” she was backed by all-black string players, including her older sister.
Being immersed in black art is important to her because it’s personal.
“Lifting up and showing just how diverse we are as people, especially in things like the arts and culture, where we’ve been either muted or we’ve been stripped and stolen,” she said. “So for me, it’s important to highlight the beauty and bomb-ness that exists.”