Ask most people if they were ever a stripper and you probably won’t get the best of responses. But then, singer Kelsey “Lu” McJunkins certainly isn’t most people. “It was so amazing,” she answers, while we bask in the last bit of sunlight outside the studio we’ve been holed up in all day. Her usually hushed tones turn clearer; the most animated she’s been for the duration of our conversation.
Grace... Space... Pace
Lily Walker unpacks the fascinating, raw story of singer Kelsey Lu, who soundtracked Grace Wales Bonner’s SS17 showcase this year.
“When I was in college, I’d left home and I was completely financially dependent on myself. I had to pay for really expensive school books and rent. I couldn’t get a regular job ‘cause I was in school all day, then practicing for hours, and my roommate at the time was doing it… And…” She stops as if to tell me a secret, bending down towards me despite the fact I clumsily tower over her petite frame. “It was really fun… It was just a feeling of empowerment, I loved picking out what I was gonna wear.”
So what, right? It’s 2016, stripping has been, er, stripped, of its negative connotations. Sure, but combine Lu’s previous career choice with her Jehovah’s Witness upbringing in North California and you’ll realise her path hasn’t exactly been conventional. Despite rejecting the lifestyle aged 18 when she headed to music college, religious themes have both accidentally and intentionally seeped into her music ever since. A classically trained cellist, Lu’s haunting debut EP “Church” is named after the building it was recorded in (in one take, I might add) — the Roman Catholic Church of Holy Family at home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
After performing as part of a production there with interactive theatre troupe Sleep No More, Lu was “getting used to the space and created a bond with it”. She tells me a night of fate and flashing confirmed her decision to record the EP there. “David Byrne was there one night. And I was so jetlagged; I’d stepped off a plane from Sweden and rushed over there. It was like: ‘David Byrne, OMG’. Then Darren Aronofsky was there, and my boob popped out. I went to bend down to pick up my cello and my boob fell completely out of my shirt… So it felt like I really had a very strong connection with that church.”
Angelically, she continues: “I’ve taken on my own meaning of spirituality and what that means to me. A church is a place of spirituality and otherworldliness, and my music is a bit of that. So it just made sense, and also, I’m definitely preaching.” If Lu is preaching, I am converted. I know every creak of the bow on her strings between full, rich notes on opener “Dreams”. A track that lingers for seven and a half minutes, the first four of which act as a warm up for the record, before her husky voice hollers out to the holy ghost she envisions. In private, I try and equal the pitch of the infallible highs and groaning lows on what was the first single, released in January, “Morning After Coffee”.
If she’s preaching, I ask, is she making her music for the listeners, or is it for herself? “I’m definitely doing it for myself, but I’m also doing it for everyone else, for people to connect to, to feel some type of healing,” her eyes widen, entrancingly framed by her signature electric blue eyebrows and lashes. “I feel like when I make music it’s very healing for me — and for me to be able to come out with my EP right now, when so much is happening in America, we need a bit of healing, you know?”
While we spoke in London, over in America signatures were being gathered for a petition on the White House’s website to deem the Black Lives Matter protestors as a terrorist organisation (one that has thankfully since been dismissed, but nevertheless collated over 140,000 signees). “It’s gotten to that point again,” Lu sighs. “This has happened before with the Black Panther movement… [People of colour] have to have our own communities because we’ve been split apart, and every time that we’ve tried to do that, people do everything in their power to split us apart again.The system wasn’t built for us.”
Her words ring true when you look at her previous collaborators. Lu orbits New York’s creative scene with the likes of Dev Hynes, a fellow advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement who penned the track “Sandra’s Smile” after Sandra Bland died in police custody last year. Lu contributed vocals to his third album as Blood Orange, Freetown Sound, a record that dealt with, amongst a myriad topics, Hynes’ parents’ heritage in Sierra Leone.