Kelsey Lu doesn’t care for your labels. Whether it’s through her music, her sexual identity, or even her own name (she prefers to go by “Lu” rather than “Kesley”), the 28-year-old vocalist and cellist is more interested in the in-between. “My identity is in fluidity,” she tells Billboard.
Fluid may be the best descriptor for the sound of Lu’s debut full-length album Blood. Floating in a nebulous space between R&B, indie and classical, the singer’s new record refuses to settle itself into a simple categorization, which is exactly what Lu intended.
“What drives me is finding the differences,” Lu says. “It's easy for us to get trapped into one state of being or being comfortable in one place, and while that's all fine, I think that it's important for us to explore things that we're not either totally comfortable with, or that we never even knew we’re comfortable with.”
But while the amorphous sound of Lu’s latest contribution is rooted in her own fluidity, its subject matter is certainly not — Blood operates as a confessional for Lu as she creates music from her life experience, specifically her upbringing in rural North Carolina.
Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness by her religious parents, Lu was constantly under scrutiny in regards to her faith, appearance and sexuality. But her safe haven was music, where she cultivated a deep love of the cello from a young age, processing her internal anxiety into art. Music also became her literal escape — Lu ran away from home at age 18 to attend music school and pursue a career in the arts.
Lu is careful about her word choice when describing why it’s important for her to process her more painful memories through music. “I don't want to say ‘vulnerability,’ because I think that ultimately turns into a trend word,” she says, searching for the best way to express herself. “Music was always my source. Going into music can be in search of healing… it's about finding something.”
It is for that reason that Lu isn’t afraid to sing candidly about her experiences throughout the album — while listeners may not be able to relate to the circumstances of her story, they can certainly relate to the emotions. “It comes to a word that we all can relate to, whether that’s pain or joy or something else,” she says. “You're connecting to those things and those feelings, not the experiences themselves. What I'm able to find lyrically is the feeling that I'm getting at."
Even the singer’s process doesn’t have a set procedure; sometimes she begins with lyrics, sometimes she begins with melody, and sometimes, she simply plays around with sounds. On the track “Why Knock For You,” Lu says that she had written a melody, but then decided she wanted to hear it in a completely different way.
“I decided to flip it in reverse, and I found that melody that I ended up liking the most,” she says with a laugh. “I said 'That's it. I'm not putting any words to it. This is living in an entity of its own.' And then I pushed myself to actually write some lyrics to it.”
But the star also uses her lyrics to play around with the idea of gender. On “Foreign Car,” Lu switches things up by objectifying a man, speaking of him as though he were a car she wants to drive. And on her cover of 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love,” Lu decides to keep the male identifiers in the song, as a male voice in the background sings the song’s “big boys don’t cry” hook. “I love taking a song written by a man having to do with love, and sexuality, and switching the perspective,” she says, giggling again.
Despite Blood’s sometimes-difficult subject matter, its thematic center lies in hope. On the album’s title track, Lu sings about how hope has persisted throughout history, especially when things looked particularly bleak. "I wanted to have a clear message of hope, because in the end, that's really everything that humanity has existed on,” she says. “While society will try to break down people's spirits and bodies, in the end, hope is always the thing that everything comes back around to.”