​Kelela Explores Emotional Intensity on Debut LP 'Take Me Apart'

The xx and Sampha collaborator discusses her new album and turning anger into beauty
​Kelela Explores Emotional Intensity on Debut LP 'Take Me Apart'
Photo: Dicko Chan
Even on a breakup song as harsh as "Frontline," Kelela's lyrical and vocal tones aren't angry per se. Sure, the fury is clearly there, but there's so much more to it.
"I want to soundtrack people's layered feelings," the 34-year-old, Maryland-raised, Ethiopian-descended R&B star says of her approach on Take Me Apart, her debut and one of the most hotly anticipated albums of the year. Kelela adds that one of the album's greatest strengths is how, on songs like opening track and lead single "Frontline," she explores emotions that "aren't so simple like 'I hate you' or 'I love you.' Even on my most angry song, I'm also still saying 'thank you for helping me to learn.' I've always wanted to give voice to that complexity in our experience."
Kelela says "Frontline," in particular, is about "leaving your lover initially; the first time you do so. Usually that time is filled with gusto and confidence. There's a way you come at it with a lot of energy. But it's also about leaving someone you are still in love with, and doing it because the pairing doesn't make sense, it's not correctable."
Equally nuanced is "Jupiter," which Kelela co-wrote with her friend Romy Madley Croft, of the Mercury Prize-winning band the xx (the instrumental comes courtesy of Gatekeeper's Aaron David Ross). And their pairing was as unconventional as their approach — the song began with the instrumental, over which Kelela sang gibberish to find the melody she was looking for. When Madley Croft heard it, she began suggesting lyrical themes or directions, and after talking it through together, it didn't take long for Kelela to arrive at the words she wanted.
"That's pretty much how every song of mine works — I start with gibberish and melody and phrasing. I speak it naturally first. And then I think about lyrics that fit into that," Kelela says, before adding that Madley Croft's process is much different. "She works on poetry. She writes, then figures out what the melody for those words are. It's really cool, she'll listen to me and say: 'I think you're saying this.' That's natural for her, and for me it's natural to have a melody, but not say anything. It's a total yin and yang situation."
Indeed, for Kelela, it's all about feeling, being empathic, being intuitive. And, in the way she absorbs a song's vibe before finding the lyrics and explores the nuances of both words and melody, Kelela hopes to reach fans that are equally in tune with their feelings, so that they can turn to her music when those emotions become too much to bear.
"It's one of the best parts of what I get to do," she says of the complex R&B she writes, and how it's appreciated by fans with equally nuanced romances, stresses and turmoil. "The most rewarding thing, for someone like me, is for someone else to find solace through my music."