Kelela On Taking Herself Apart

Mar 15, 2018
Originally published on March 15, 2018 10:05 pm

Before she was painted alongside Duke Ellington in a Washington, D.C. mural, Kelela was the daughter of Ethiopian parents, growing up in the DMV suburbs. As a kid, she took violin lessons. She soon moved on to experimenting with punk and heavy metal as well as singing jazz. Eventually, she settled on her signature electronic R&B sound. All these genre influences can be heard on her debut album, 2017's Take Me Apart, a project that topped many of the year's best-of lists.

The title track is a traditional R&B love ballad with jazz scatting, laid over fuzzed-out synths and deep, bubbling beats. Kelela says she used her "jazz muscles" to write the song. "For that to be inserted into a club and electronic music context is one of the pillars of what I'm trying to do in the world," she says.

The singer says most of her inspiration in music has come from by women who took risks. She cites Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun and Lauryn Hill's MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 as two examples of artists committing themselves to vulnerability and saying what "no one is saying."

On "Altadena," the album's closing track, she recites a kind of mantra, a reminder of one's belonging in the world: "Nothing to be said or done / There's a place for everyone." Kelela says when she sings "Altadena" at shows, she sees the faces of fans fill with peace from being heard and seen — and that that kind of hope and healing is the best case scenario for her work as an artist. "Everyone looks like, 'Thank you so much for seeing me. I'm really out here trying,' " she says.

Kelela spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about the themes of Take Me Apart and remaining authentic in her emotional expression. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

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KELELA: (Singing) Afraid of falling knowing that I could never live without you...


Before Kelela became a full-time R&B artist, she was Kelela Mizanekristos, a kid growing up in the D.C. suburbs. Her parents emigrated from Ethiopia. And like a lot of suburban kids, Kelela took violin lessons. Her dad would not let her quit.

KELELA: He was like, you'd complain every year. He was like, I'd come to the concert and you're, like, the only one, like, who's fully swaying while you're playing. And he's like, you'd be closing your eyes and, like, clearly loving the parts and loving to play. He's like, so I just wouldn't allow you to quit.

SHAPIRO: Kelela went on to try punk, heavy metal and jazz before settling into her sound. We caught up with her this week at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin to talk about her latest album. It's a breakup record with songs about anger, loneliness and desire.


KELELA: (Singing) So you can take me apart. Waited up all night.

SHAPIRO: Kelela told me the other genres she's tried still color her songs, like the album's title track, "Take Me Apart."

KELELA: I wrote the bridge using my jazz muscles trying to think about what's going to feel really good and what's going to make you be like, ooh (ph), yeah.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

KELELA: You know, my friend Jessica Chambliss, who I worked with on vocal production and the background vocals specifically, when she heard the bridge she was just basically like, oh, we can go there, honey. Like, let's go there.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

KELELA: And she composed these parts that were like (scatting).


KELELA: (Singing) 'Cause we're talking late at night. Started a song, then I gave up, so I hope this comes out right. Don't say you're in love, baby. Don't say you're...

She made these parts that were just so exciting. And for that to be inserted into a club and sort of electronic music context is, like, one of the pillars of, like, what I'm trying to do in the world.


KELELA: (Singing) I wait up all night. Take me apart.

SHAPIRO: This is a really vulnerable song.

KELELA: Mm-hm (ph).

SHAPIRO: Was it difficult to write something that personal and intimate and just put it out there for the world to hear?

KELELA: At this point it's not. It's part of just this practice that was scary in the beginning and has now just kind of been normalized. Part of my normal life is being really committed to full disclosure because I know what happens when you go there. When you go there, other people are affected more.

SHAPIRO: Was there an artist who did that for you and made you feel like you could talk about and feel things that you had been taught it was not OK to discuss and to feel?

KELELA: I remember listening to "Mama's Gun," Erykah Badu's second record. It really had an effect on me how committed she was to expressing things that we all might be feeling and also that no one is saying.


ERYKAH BADU: (Singing) I got a little pot in my belly. And nowadays my figure ain't so fly.

KELELA: She was so vulnerable on that record. She talked about her body, just, like, what happens to your breasts, you know, when you get older. There are things that she was saying that felt really personal. I remember being really affected by that. Lauryn Hill's "Unplugged" was one of the most, like, personal records that also had such a huge effect on me.

SHAPIRO: Is there something that you think, like, that specifically is a risk I might not have taken were it not for those women?

KELELA: "Enough." "Enough" is a really good one when it comes to me going to a place that just doesn't feel glamorous or like I'm saving face.


KELELA: (Singing) Can't you see, love, that I'm standing by myself? Oh, you and I, we miss each other now. I'm so tired.

There's a sentiment that is shameless and just kind of like the lowest of the low.

SHAPIRO: Not pretending to be cool, not pretending to be confident.

KELELA: Yep. Yep.


KELELA: (Singing) Hoping that it wasn't just a waste of time. Said you wouldn't speak before you leave her behind. Said you'd leave her behind. Probably telling her the same damn thing at the same damn time.

The lyric that probably hits people the most - I remember when I was first recording it with an engineer. And I think I got to the end of the chorus. And after 20 takes he was like, oh, no, I just understood what you're saying. He was like, did you just say - did you just say, hold her hand?


KELELA: (Singing) Hold her hand.

And I was like, yeah. His response really just made me feel so much emotion because I hadn't felt that way. But the feeling is sort of embodied in the lyric.


KELELA: And it's one of just not trying to be cool.


KELELA: (Singing) Will you not ruin my heart?

SHAPIRO: I know that you write about personal with the goal of being universal. To me, the last song on this album, "Altadena," which refers to a place outside Los Angeles, sounds the most explicitly universal. Let's listen to a bit of this.


KELELA: (Singing) Wrote a thousand poems today. Still I got nothing to say except I'll never forget all it took. Nothing to be said or done. It's not just me...

SHAPIRO: Why did you decide to end the album with this?

KELELA: It just sounds like the ending.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

KELELA: It's just - yeah, it's my "Lion King" song. It's my Michael Jackson-Quincy Jones song. It sounds wondrous and hewing.

SHAPIRO: Totally.


KELELA: (Singing) Nothing to be said or done. It's not just me. It's everyone. Let me remind you. Let me remind you. Nothing to be said or done.

SHAPIRO: Well, the idea of ending with this reminder that there is a place for everyone...

KELELA: Mm-hm.

SHAPIRO: ...I don't know anybody who doesn't feel the need to be reminded of that every now and then.

KELELA: Yeah, it's a really good feeling to sing that lyric. Everyone looks uplifted. I love being a part of that feeling in other people.

SHAPIRO: Kelela, thank you so much for talking with us.

KELELA: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: Kelela Mizanekristos - her album is called "Take Me Apart." She performs as Kelela.


KELELA: (Singing) Let me remind you. Let me remind you. Nothing to be said or done. There's a place for everyone. Let me remind you. Let me... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.