2020 Ambient #3: Kelly Lee Owens — Inner Song
I struggle to sleep most nights; I can’t remember the last time I slept soundly throughout the night. Opposite my flat is a pizza shop, the last stop for many people’s nights out. It’s a student-y area of Cardiff and a main road. At night I can hear the phone in the pizza shop calling out, the music playing from the speakers in a restaurant that’s just opened across the street, empty glass bottles cascading into a bin. Perhaps it’s ironic that all this commotion masks my tinnitus, gives me some sort of relief from the constant ringing in my ears. Over the pandemic there’s been a lot of nights where I’m sat up in bed or on the floor while my partner is asleep, fiddling with the dial on a little digital radio, often staying up to listen to the shipping forecast on BBC4. I’ve also really got into podcasts. Although I care about food and like to cook, I wouldn’t self-describe as a “foodie”, but James Acaster and Ed Gamble’s Off Menu podcast is particularly soothing (I recommend the episodes with Domnall Gleeson, Bob Mortimer and Louis Theroux). And as someone who loves to know the ins and out of a record’s context and production, I love Song Exploder, and regularly return to my favourite episodes.
I recently re-listened to Kelly Lee Owen’s episode on Song Exploder, where she talks about her song ‘On’. I’ve really struggled with a lack of sleep the past couple of weeks, which has made me feel irritable and on edge — not helped by the fact that I had just started a round of counselling with Mind, and general anxieties, so I was looking for something familiar and comforting. Kelly Lee Owen’s Inner Song was one of my favourite records from last year, combining club bangers, electronic grooves and pop. For me, it’s also just exciting to see a Welsh electronic musician receiving such well-deserved acclaim. But I hadn’t really thought about the journey Owens had been on, to reach a point where she could make such a spiritual and therapeutic record, until I listened back to this podcast episode.
When discussing ‘On’, Owens talked about grief and trauma she had experienced in the few years leading up to the recording of Inner Song. Owens says the day she started making ‘On’, Keith Flint from The Prodigy passed away. Having grown up listening to The Prodigy, and them being a major influence on her own art, she was hit hard by Flint’s passing. Flint’s death and the ending of a relationship — and the subsequent realisation of a loss of self that follows — was the emotional nucleus of the song. On the episode, Kelly says she believes trauma is stored in the body. Completing body trauma release sessions (Trauma Release Exercises — TRE) opened the floodgates, allowing Owens to feel a lot of grief and trauma she had been subconsciously suppressing. While being sad or depressed shouldn’t be glamourised or viewed as the only emotional state in which music can be created, ‘On’ — and Inner Song as a whole— was initially born out of that state.
‘On’ is an example of the experience of grief and overcoming it through movement. The first part of the track is melancholic, cautiously tender, with the refrain “So, this is how it must go, and now I’m moving on” repeating like a lullaby, creating a dreamlike, intimate space. Introduced by a klaxon, the track progresses to its dancier section — which, frankly, fucking slaps. The two sections of the song, from the insular, introspective first half to the club-ready groove symbolises the processing of grief: from talking and exploring grief internally, to then allowing yourself to process those feelings through movement. Most songs on Inner Song feature vintage analogue synths that are used to create what Owens describes as a ‘sonic hug’; a harmonious wall of sound on which her vocals float upon, anchored by tightly programmed drumbeats. ‘Arpeggi’ is a space-age, wordless reinvention of the classic Radiohead song ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’ from In Rainbows. It sounds like it could soundtrack a Star Trek episode. Some tracks are unashamedly dancefloor ready. The icy ethereality of Owen’s voice on the microhouse inspired track ‘Melt!’, seems to hover in the grooves between the loops and driving drumbeats, while ‘Night’, with the reverbing vocal refrain “It feels so good to be alone…with you”, celebrates finding a place where you feel comfortable and at peace with yourself, and wanting to share that with a loved one.
What makes this album a triumph is Owens’ capability to seamlessly blend the physical sensation with emotion. This is music that you feel in your bones and your heart, creating a remedial space. It’s also, simply, beautiful. I can’t help but tear up listening to Corner of My Sky. John Cale’s voice is the most standout moment on the album, adding an entirely unique texture not seen elsewhere on the record. Cale’s conjuring of the Welsh landscapes that both Cale and Owens call home is hypnotic. His voice is as rugged as the north Welsh mountains, his lyrics expressing appreciation for the beauty of rain, and fish in the creek, foxes in their lairs. All universal experiences, until Cale sings about “the, wheezing in their holes” — a departure from the idyllic quietude of nature, but shows that history and ancestry isn’t always pretty, but shouldn’t be shied away from.
Cale’s evocation of nature, the warmth and weather in his voice, coupled with Owens’ futuristic, airy synths is both natural and modern, ancient and contemporary. While I wouldn’t call myself a patriot or a nationalist, I feel a deep connection to Wales, and this song makes me think of the Wales of the past, and of it’s future. Wales has seen a period of great political unrest during the pandemic: the flourishing of Welsh Labour’s neoliberalism, the tension between Welsh Labour and the Tories. Welsh independence, for the first time in history, actually feels like an option, while a recognition — and acknowledgement — of Wales’ part in British imperialism is happening. Corner of My Sky is just one track on a record, and yet it is an infinite space in which to ponder past and future. But, that’s the whole record: looking to the past in order to move on, to heal. Further Reading: Kelly Lee Owens & John Cale talk about 'Corner of My Sky' for Two Story Melody:
https://twostorymelody.com/kelly-lee-owens-and-john-cale-tell-a-surreal-story-of-their-homeland-in-corner-of-my-sky/ The Welsh Way editors write about the flourishing of neoliberalism in Wales under Welsh Labour for Voice.Wales: https://www.voice.wales/neoliberalism-has-quietly-flourished-under-welsh-labour-its-time-to-break-the-silence-the-welsh-way-editors/
Nadine Smith reviews Inner Song for Pitchfork: https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/kelly-lee-owens-inner-song/