Cut 4 us
“It’s…” Kelela Mizanekristos sits in a Dalston café grappling with her next line. I’ve asked if she’s been surprised by the unanimous acclaim that her debut mixtape, ‘Cut 4 Me’, has received and she’s making absolutely sure she doesn’t leave herself open to misinterpretation. With a glint in her huge brown eyes she signals that she’s ready. “OK. I did my best work. It’s doing what I wanted to do, if you know what I mean. So it’s not an absolute, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe you like this.’”
While her unshakeable confidence means that success hasn’t come as a total shock, Kelela admits that the whole experience has been a little overwhelming. Having already passed her thirtieth birthday and eclipsed the likes of Cobain, Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison by a full three years, Mizanekristos was hurtling towards musical pensionership. The relief at simply getting the release out there is obvious. “I’ve had this dream my whole life and I haven’t actualised it until now so yes, it’s this immense gratefulness, this feeling of accomplishment. Beyond the reception, once I got it out and it was this body of work – that moment, you can’t really fuck with me now because that’s happened. It was this thing on the outside of me and if you listened to it you would know who I am. Everything on it is the most honest experience. And before anyone liked it I thought it was cute.” If, like me, you’re not accustomed to the parlance, ‘cute’ appears to mean very, very good indeed.
And what an entrance it has been. Early on Kelela declared that she wanted to “disrupt” the musical landscape rather than find an existing nook in which to fit. Since then she has teamed up with a host of producers from experimental electronic labels Night Slugs and Fade To Mind and by setting her vocals to the sparse, booming grime production of the likes of Bok Bok, Nguzunguzu, Girl Unit, and Kingdom, she has created a sound that you’ll struggle to draw parallels with. At once alluring and devastating, it’s a disorientating concoction. Fortunately, through multiple interviews, she’s managed to nail her description, and she assures me it’s a Loud And Quiet exclusive. “The vision is this Faith Evans vocal, but take out everything and put Faith Evans over this grime track and then we have exactly what I’m talking about. If I were to be very simple, that’s how I would put it.”
The sound is a synthesis of a kaleidoscopic range of influences, from straightforward ’90s soul and RnB (“The first voice I fell in love with was probably Whitney Houston.”) to the outer reaches of electronica. Even UK garage gets a mention and she’s not ashamed to admit to her excitement at discovering The Artful Dodger via Napster. “When Napster came out, I remember going over to my friend’s house and they said, ‘OK, tell me any song right now.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean?’” It gave satiety to an appetite for music that’s always been voracious. “When I first downloaded Napster with that black background and green text I would download all this music before going to sleep. I would just click on it all. Like the remix of ‘Say My Name’; I’d never heard the remix!” Kelela would wake up in the morning with a hard drive full of new experiences waiting to happen. “Sometimes even a partial file was mindblowing! That was my first experience of electronic music. So there was music me and my friends would listen to and then there we these alone-in-your-room tracks.”
The obsession with finding new sounds was born partially out of her status as an only child and a need to fill those empty hours. “I had a lot of cousins who felt like siblings but I also spent a lot of time by myself. There was a lot of Kelela time and that was spent with Erykah Badu and D’Angelo and Mariah.” The story is far from a sad one, however, and those adoptive siblings nourished her musical development. “That’s how I fell into a lot of music as a young adult. Stuck in my room or on my way to school. Driving in the morning, getting the most hyped before school. Listening to like…” The café is empty, but I doubt that it matters as she delivers a chorus of ‘Get on up and shake that booty!’ before collapsing back into the couch in shrieks of laughter. “These things all sort of happened by myself in cars and in my room.”
The daughter of Ethiopian immigrants to Rockville, Maryland, that dichotomous background was another factor that shaped her as an artist, “because of the experience of getting comfortable with being othered, getting comfortable with making the best of that,” she says. “That dual cultural experience; going home and it’s one way and then going to school and it’s another. Having to be in between cultures. There are so many things. Like, my mom didn’t have any grip of what sleepovers meant. She was like, ‘Why do you have to sleep over in their house though?’”