There was a lot of buzz for Kelela’s 2013 mixtape “Cut 4 Me” and 2015’s EP “Hallucinogen,” the latter of which made three Billboard weekly charts. Just last fall, the R&B-electronica artist released her first studio album called “Take Me Apart.” The album has received critical praise for its technical precision and lyrical intimacy. The Harvard Crimson spoke with Kelela about her new album, R&B music, and her approach to songwriting and live performance.
The Harvard Crimson: “Take Me Apart” is about romantic experience, and all of the emotional and physical vulnerability that comes with it. What inspired you to base your debut album on this theme?
Kelela: I don’t know if that’s my process, really. It’s more like I’m living my life, and the way that I get through my experiences in order to feel better about them is by writing songs. I just write about what’s going on with me—and a lot of times, [what’s] going on in the forefront of our experience are interpersonal relationships. And a lot of times, those are romantic. It’s [more about] how I’m evolving as a person, in relationship to other people. That’s more how it feels inside me.
THC: Do you have a creative process that you follow when it comes to making your music?
K: I’m usually just listening to either chords or just sounds, and responding to them with melody. So it starts [out] being melodic, and then I go from there to start trying to fit lyric into the phrasing of my melody.
THC: You’ve cited Janet Jackson’s sound as a major influence for “Take Me Apart.” Could you tell me more about her influence on your artistry?
K: I think the intersection of really rich musicality, rich harmony, soulful melody… and also on the production side, there being a lot of weight in terms of the sound… [is] sort of that one-two punch that I think I find to be most inspiring. And then obviously, as a performer, she’s just incredible. But I think the music itself is where I fixated, as an artist.
THC: Many critics have described your music as “innovative” and “futuristic.” What is your reaction to “Take Me Apart” being viewed as a redefinition of R&B?
K: The subtext there is that I think that there’s some music that people think of as inherently innovative, inherently futuristic, inherently advanced, and inherently complex and layered. And usually that’s attributed to white people’s work. When it comes to black people’s work, [the work] is still valued, but it’s seen as intuitive, just sort of coming straight out of the person—more rudimentary and less complex, less intentional.
So the subtext any time [someone] puts “innovative” in front of R&B is that people think of R&B as basic. And I think that it’s essentially racist… so it’s one of those things that’s problematic. It doesn’t reflexively make me feel happy. But I also appreciate that people are appreciating it. I will just always be reflexively pointing to the tradition and [to the] people who came before me who have been innovating, who have been making [R&B] weird and cool and new and making it feel layered.
THC: What can concertgoers expect from your upcoming shows?
K: When it comes to these shows that are coming up, I’m always trying to innovate my own set and my own music. I’m trying to make new versions of my songs. I’m always trying to present people with something that they haven’t seen—even if you’ve gone to every single Kelela show, there’s an experience to be had at the next one that’s different from the last. I know I was just [there] in October or November, so for me, it’s really important that the people who come to every show have a reason to come to the next, and the next, and the next, because they’re constantly chasing an unknown experience. That’s something that I’m always trying to create.
Kelela is playing at the Royale in Boston on Feb. 26. “Take Me Apart” is out now via Warp Records.
—Staff writer Patricia M. Guzman can be reached at email@example.com.