Kelela’s journey of finding herself through losing another

I’ve been following KELELA since she released her very first mixtape CUT 4 ME. Now she’s released her full-length debut album Take Me Apart, which I can only describe as a sonically lush opus that dissects the journey of a separation with somebody which then leads to a deeper discovery of the self. I always come to her when I feel some type of way about an ex-partner, when I’m missing nobody in particular, when I’m feelin’ myself despite somebody not feelin’ me.

As I have gone through my own tumultuous breakups, I have found comfort in the exploration of the profundity of breakups in music. Kelela does this skilfully, as she uses each song to talk about particulars feeling of different stages of separation. Kelela isn’t running, she faces these emotions head on and looks them directly in the eye, all while swooning in an angelic falsetto.

Having listened to Take Me Apart over and over, before speaking to her I felt like I already had a relationship with her because of how much of her feelings she has exposed. We talked about how singing about her broken relationships has healed her, her self-worth, creating a resonating space for black women, what it’s like to date her, and about her relationship with herself.

Michelle: Why do you think breakups have such a deep and profound impact on how we live our own lives?

Kelela: There’s a way breakups change us, and there’s a way that relationships can help us feel more ready to be open and ready for the beautiful experiences of joy and happiness. There’s a way that all of that can be erased by breakups or needing to put a relationship on pause and letting go.

There’s so much that the dominant culture around us makes it easy for us to fall in love. But it doesn’t really address or help us deal with when we are falling out of love or have to make a decision when we’re no longer sure about being in love. A decision that is meant to keep you safe and make sure the other person is safe too.

Absolutely! We need to talk about it! Going through my own breakups, I find that writing about it helps me the most. How did the process of writing these feelings down help you?

Each song says a different thing unlike any other song. Some of them I started off when I felt that way and I finished it when I don’t feel that way anymore, or when the feeling is no longer at the forefront. But it’s always going to be something that I can relate to. For example, I will feel the pain of a song like ‘Enough’ forever. These songs are all very in the moment.

How has your relationship with yourself grown?

Having to let go of someone despite being in love with them is one of the ways that I have been able to repair my relationship with myself. One of the biggest ways I have been able to access real feelings that comes before confidence is self-worth, and I feel like that this album deals with that. I think my confidence at this point is a direct result of being able to practice that on some level. Managing to perform that and making this album has made it easier for sure.

As a woman of colour myself, it’s been so refreshing to listen to an album that explores a woman of colour’s experience with romance. How have you felt with the reception of the album from people of colour, especially black and brown women?

It’s been really heartening, because I think that one of my fears for making the album is that it would just be embraced by the white electro scene. After sharing the album, a lot of people of colour in general, in queer spaces, and brown and black women in general, all of the people I have wanted to represent have been receptive to it. And people outside of that, and people who are situated outside of that, who are considered alt or goth, different ass motherfucking people, those are the people who also matter to me and that’s something that I’ve discovered also.

When it comes to writing, I write for black women so it’s empowering for them to sing. And for black women to listen to and think of themselves in that context. I want to provide a familiar context to black women because it’s really important for them to resonate with it.

The lines, “Nothing to be said or done, there’s a place for everyone,” from the last track Altadena really resonates. What did you mean to communicate when you wrote those lines?

The last track is meant to speak to the part of the grind when it hasn’t yet delivered. People can say that they did grind and they been grindin’, but no one articulates the wall that you hit before you even get started. And maybe the walls you hit when you don’t even know you started, in retrospect you will see that you did start at that point. But it’s the point where you feel like it’s not even going at all that I wanted to write about.

It’s highlighting the feelings that are beautiful in terms of determination and perseverance and pushing through. I wanted to provide a soundscape with an aspirational approach.

“Nothing to be said or done, it’s not just me it’s everyone / Nothing to be said or done there’s a place for everyone.”

That’s my way of not wanting to say, “Everything is going to be ok,” without pointing to why it sucks also and why it’s so hard. Also there’s a dryness to it, and shows how I’m actually very emotional. But, there’s also a lot you can say about not having all the emotions you feel when you might be feeling very emotional.

Have you ever felt afraid or hesitant about being as candid as you have been in your music?

When I first started, with the first mixtape, I felt like that. Writing what’s real and putting it out into the world. Soon after that, I realised that it was a very cathartic feeling about putting out more. I’ve got to experience that and now it’s not hard at all. It’s the best feeling in the world.

It’s difficult to write about people while you’re with them. So it requires a lot of thought about the people that come along in your journey, but I know that I have to do it. So that’s how I’m approaching it. I have a lot of empathy for anybody who is signing up to be with me, because it might really suck.

Because there will be an album about it and it will be fire.

Exactly! You might not think that you’re signing up for that, but you kind of are signing up for that. It’s not meant to be a trap, but that’s how I’m living my life and I’m expressing myself in that way.

Kelela‘s Take Me Apart is out now.

Words by Michelle Zhu

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