hen I sit down to talk with Kelela in July, there’s 6,000 miles between us—she’s in balmy Los Angeles, I’m in wintery Argentina—so we speak through our screens. In this case, though, breaking bread across the chasm-like gulf of physical distance by way of Skype feels fitting. Kelela’s sensuous electronic music is all about the interplay between soulfulness and technology, as her wistful, siren-like vocals float over surreally digitized soundscapes.
The singer’s forthcoming debut album, Take Me Apart, is a musical treatise on how passion sometimes gets in the way of life, with spacious tracks that illuminate the way we grow into, and around, the people we choose to love, like vines. The difficult work we have to do in leaving a relationship, or in making one work, is to disentangle ourselves and deconstruct the good and bad choices we’ve made along the way—we essentially have to take ourselves apart.
The record may be the 34-year-old’s first full-length, but it’s been a long time coming. A second-generation Ethiopian-American, Kelela was born in Washington, D.C. and raised in the suburbs of Gaithersburg, Maryland. She grew up on a diverse musical diet that included jazz icon Sarah Vaughan, Ethiopian singer Aster Aweke, and TLC. After aborted educational stints at Montgomery College and American University, where she studied sociology with interest in sustainable development in Africa, she relocated to Los Angeles in 2010.
In L.A., she flirted with jazz and prog metal before settling into a more idiosyncratic lane, teaming up with alternative club label Fade to Mind to release her startling 2013 mixtape, Cut 4 Me, which garnered co-signs from the likes of Björk and the Knowles sisters. She migrated to Warp Records for her 2015 EP follow-up, Hallucinogen, and continued to pair up with intrepid soundscapers like Arca and Clams Casino. More recently, she has popped up on albums by Gorillaz, Danny Brown, and Solange, while her winning, no-fucks stage persona has made her a perennial music festival favorite.
Kelela leans heavily on the “black girl pop” universe that Janet Jackson, working with producers Jam and Lewis, galvanized in the mid 1980s. Janet, in turn, paved a lane for lithe ’90s vocalists including Aaliyah and Kelis, who paired with adventurous Pro Tools wizards like Timbaland, the Neptunes, and Missy Elliott in order to redefine soulful pop as whimsical headphone psychedelia inspired as much by Jodeci’s mechanized R&B as UK trip-hop acts like Massive Attack and Portishead. It’s this weird world of breathy, compressed soprano vocals, turbulent beats, and warped synthesizers that remains Kelela’s happy place.