Before up-and-coming musician Kelsey Lu picks up the phone, I’m told by several articles — as well as the publicist connecting us — that she goes just by Lu. Neither are her real name.
Kelsey McJunkins grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina to parents who are also musically inclined; her mother a pianist, her father a percussionist. Part Nigerian, part African-American, Lu started her professional career in orchestras, and eventually as a cellist for Florence and The Machine. In addition to her solo career, Lu has played instruments and lent her vocals for a surplus of artists; she’s worked with Dev Hynes, Kelela, Tinie Tempah, and André 3000. And she’s hitting the road for a European tour in October. Of collaborating, Lu believes it’s a chance to share her art but learn about herself, as well.
Just off the heels of releasing her most vivid music video yet for ‘Shades of Blue,’ a song she wrote in the midst of deep financial, musical, and romantic strife, Lu is calling from her favorite place: her sanctuary-like home in Los Angeles, where she’s swallowed by the magic and solitude of nature. Actually, a lot of Lu’s music is reflective of a peace she’s found inside and out: It makes anything else sound like a bad idea. Her songs often feature earthy instruments on top of R&B downbeats, with breaks of silence or no vocals at all. During our call, she makes even introductory chatter feel meditative.
But Lu didn’t always have that freedom when it came to her style. She was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, and describes how her upbringing shaped how she views fashion today. “I feel like a lot of my ideas about style came from the restrictions of what I could and couldn’t wear — or what my dad would let me wear — that were put on me,” she says, citing one particular style she identified with: “spin-around” dresses (“when you spin around and they made the perfect circle around your body”). Because she was told she couldn’t wear certain things, like blue jeans or bodycon silhouettes, she paid more attention to those forbidden items. “I wanted to wear them more. It became a craving for something I couldn’t have, like as if I was told I was allergic to gluten — but in fashion — so I wanted all the bread.”
Molly Goddard Lillian Shirred Jacket, $1,350, available at Net-a-Porter; Molly Goddard Bevan Checked Tights, $90, available at Matches; Alexis Bittar earrings; Poppy Lissiman Morpheus Blue Mirror Sunglasses, $110, available at Poppy Lissiman.
Thrift stores were essential to Lu’s rebirth. “There was this vintage store that was within walking distance of our house that I’d go to every day and just play in for hours,” she remembers of the clothes she wasn’t allowed to wear (nor could afford). “There were rows and stacks of clothes, everything organized by color, and I’d try on so many different types of dresses and things. There was this one dress that I’d try on every time because I was obsessed with it. It was silk, a crazy paisley print, but it also had these geometric shapes on it. It had definitely been through some long nights; probably through the ’70s and ‘80s, maybe some cocaine residue somewhere. It partied hard. But I would try it on every day and just feel myself so hard. I loved it.” Eventually, the shop owner let her buy it for half-off. She’d wear it for her first-ever solo gig in New York, in 2016.
Lu notes that layering is essential to her personal style. But when I ask her about the opposite, about the freedom of shedding those layers, she has just as much to say. After moving out of her parents’ house in 2006 and leaving her religion behind, Lu began to strip. “We’re like onions, right?” she asks. “We have several layers within ourselves, including our pasts and the different lives that we’ve lived. I think all of that coexists within clothing. When you start to take those layers off, it gets really emotional.”
When it comes to crafting her onstage appearance, Lu has worn and collaborated with Super Yaya and WAFFLESNCREAM, both African designers, and she’s got her eyes set on the industry’s current headliners, like Pyer Moss, Recho Omondi, and more. “It’s obviously important for me to support designers of color,” she explains. “If it speaks to me and I can find an emotion that connects with it, then I’d love to wear it and be able to represent something that’s been muted and not been at the forefront of the industry. She adds that, as far as she knows, most wardrobes of iconic hip-hop and R&B artists were made by Black people — some not even technical designers.
Look 1: Surprising Health Benefits pants; Pechuga Vintage top; Luar earrings. Look 2: Maison The Faux top; Kenzo pants and boots; Jiwinaia Urlo White Pearl Earrings, $189.59, available at Jiwinaia; Jiwinaia necklace.
“It’s really exciting to see these brands on the come-up, making statements within the clothing and fabric that are clearly stating that right now, and for a long time, this has been an issue,” she continues.“ You’ve been raping our culture and we are here to take it back. There’s so much strength in that. Whatever I can do to support it — whether it’s performing with it on or getting my photo taken wearing it or put it up on Instagram — I’ll do it. Using my platform to continue to build their platforms for people of color is a really exciting thing; to feel like I can have some control or say in that.”
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