Nick Mastrini covers ambient techno musician Kelly Lee Owens’ latest London gig at The Pickle Factory.
For the average student interested in music, pressing play on a track during the exam season can generally be attributed to one of two goals: fun or focus. Either you enjoy a song in the foreground, escaping revision by paying attention to its lyrics and beat, or you use the music in the background, as a weapon against silence and the noisy distraction. Often, focusing requires instrumental tracks, but these tracks can become tired, featuring walls of sound lacking rhythm or melody. Welsh artist Kelly Lee Owens’ self-titled debut album balances these concerns, creating an atmospheric sound without sacrificing energy and lyricism.
Many of Owens’ tracks could be described as ambient techno, a sub-genre often deridingly labelled as ‘intelligent dance music’, converting the dance-centric style of techno into a more relaxed listening experience. Certainly, her live set revels in the moments where layers of ambience give way to driven techno, as Owens moves from ethereal vocals to uninhibited head-banging.
But much of Owens’ appeal comes from her variety. ‘Lucid’ evokes the echoing vocals of early Grimes, while ‘Bird’ combines waves of strings with a xylophonic beat and a driving bassline, mixing instruments in the vein of late experimental musician Arthur Russell — a key influence, and the eponymous figure of her track ‘Arthur’. These songs are expertly structured: they know when to pause and escalate, always reaching a blissful peak.
A highlight in the live set is a cover of Aaliyah’s ‘More Than a Woman’, showcasing her ability with a more RnB style. It is a perfect song for Owens to cover, with Timbaland’s funky production and Aaliyah’s vocals each suiting her style as she converts the 90s track into a futuristic dream. The twangy, Space Invaders-like notes that overlay the original track’s drum beat feature across her live set, adding sharpness to spaciousness.
Owens’ onstage performance is remarkably assured: she either addresses the audience with gazes and twirling hands or appears locked into the music, her head tilted towards keys and pads, nodding away. The Pickle Factory stage is surrounded by large plants and bursts of colour up front. As she begins her set, it becomes clear that the still, desaturated image projected behind her is a video of a vast sea, slowly rippling under a haze. It’s a beautiful embodiment of her music, the contemplative meeting the vibrant and playful, especially when a boat emerges into the slow-motion film as she hits a high note. This film resembles the video for ‘Throwing Lines’, which Owens released the day after her London gig. It features two young Scandinavian men making their own music video for the same track, capturing the kind of hope above melancholy that might spur anyone to make an eccentric video in an isolated place.
Having grown up in north Wales, Owens moved to Manchester at the age of 18, and later London, to pursue music, and emerged with experience as an intern at XL Recordings and as a bassist in rock bands. After providing vocals for Daniel Avery’s ‘Drone Logic’, her solo work embodies this varied experience and multi-talented approach to production. The sound of Owens clearly travels far, from the frozen landscape of Norway to the heat of London Fashion Week, where ‘Arthur’ soundtracked the Alexander McQueen runway. ‘Keep Walking’ would have been a great fit too.
Kelly Lee Owens performed at The Pickle Factory on May 10th. She returns to London on October 19th, performing at Oslo. Tickets available here. Her self-titled album is out now.
Featured image courtesy of pitchfork.com