UK techno maven Kelly Lee Owens' ascent has been incredible. Just a few years ago, she didn't even play an instrument; tomorrow (March 24), Smalltown Supersound will release her debut, self-titled album, a by-turns dazzling and haunting mixture of minimal techno, dream pop, thudding Krautrock and ambient drone. The transition might seem sudden to most, but as Owens tells Exclaim!, ideas for her first album have "been brewing for a long time." All she needed was a means to express it.
Originally from Wales, Owens moved to England in her late teens to start learning about the music industry. It was there, at London record store Pure Groove in 2009, that she befriended electronic musician and colleague Daniel Avery.
"Eventually, a few years in, Daniel started to make Drone Logic," she explains from Camden. "He knew I could sing, so he asked me to come to the studio one day. The first track we ever did together was 'Drone Logic.'"
The song, released in 2014, garnered attention from famed UK DJs Andrew Weatherall and Erol Alkan, the latter of whom suggested Owens and Avery write together. From there, Owens began picking up the skills that would open her creative floodgates.
"Working with Dan and James [Greenwood] of Ghost Culture engineering, I sort of saw the process of how things could be made without knowing how to play an instrument, which is not my background. I can sing, but I can't write music; technology freed me up and allowed me to write, to express myself. I started to understand production, how the analogue world worked. That got me excited. I felt confident enough to start writing and exploring my own ideas."
Very shortly, Owens began creating; she was a natural. She finished her first song, the gauzy, strings-laden "Lucid," in 2014; impatient to release it physically, Owens pressed it to vinyl herself, backing it with "Arthur," an aqueous, mesmeric song dedicated to iconic avant-garde musician Arthur Russell. Both feature on Kelly Lee Owens, an album that balances the obsessive production and dance grooves of electronic music (as on tracks like "CBM" and "Bird") with the songwriting and melodies of pop music ("Anxi," featuring Jenny Hval, and "Keep Walking").
You wouldn't know it, but that balance is new for Owens; just a few years ago, she didn't even like techno.
"I think, because I didn't understand the process… Learning the process, for me, was this thing that gained it that first respect, if not the absorption and loving the sounds themselves. But it was me coming from a background of, like, indie bands and that kind of music, and loving melody, perhaps, that I found techno a bit too cold, a bit distant. I couldn't find anything to latch onto," she explains.
"But then, it's just about timing; what I've learned from working in record stores is that there's a time for everything, for every genre and for every song. You can hear a song now that you perhaps don't connect with, and then in ten years' time, it'll be perfect for the moment; when you need it, it comes to you. I kind of feel that way about dance music in general; it was a slow burn that built an organic intake. I genuinely love, now, the sounds, and I'm addicted to the process."
Her love of melody, she reckons, is also a product of her homeland.
"I grew up in North Wales. Leaving there, I've kind of realized the impact that Wales has had upon me — and that's melody. It's a land of song, it's voices, it's connection to the Earth, your surroundings. I've realized that the geography of somewhere can very much affect who you are, what you absorb. Think about, for example, Manchester — you know, it's always grey, it's always raining, it's very industrial. You listen to Joy Division and you listen to the Smiths, and there's a certain mood. When I went to Iceland and I saw how huge the landscape was, and the mountains, it made sense to me to listen to Björk, to 'Joga,' you know? You could hear the strings to that reverberating off the side of the landscape when I was there. It made sense to me. So I think there's something in you that's subconscious, that seeps through."
Owens adds that "the fresh air and the sea and the coast" have all found a way into her music through her love of "subaqueous sounds.
"That's what I'm drawn to, and that's why Arthur Russell has come into the picture. With World of Echo, you know, he grew up on the coast near water; having a relationship with it somehow seeped into the sounds that I make."
Owens' natural curiosity and propensity for obsessiveness have guided her so far — to techno, to Russell, to production — and she's going to follow it moving forward, too. Ever ambitious, she's already considering new sounds she'd like to explore.
"I'd like to, for the next album perhaps, record male voice choirs from Wales, 'cause I'm kind of obsessed with frequencies, so I was thinking about maybe writing bass lines and having them hum bass lines or record them in some way to capture the haunting essence of Wales. Also, we have the Welsh triple harp, so fucking with that a little, putting that through some kind of odd effects, then incorporating that into my music."
For now, though, Kelly Lee Owens is a captivating debut that belies her relative newness to music production and demonstrates both self-assuredness and a seemingly in-born knack for arrangement.
"I'm very much a stickler for allowing space. I believe very much in space, sonically, and not using too many sounds or pieces of equipment for the sake of it.
"Like they say," laughs Owens, "it's the ear, not the gear."