From Soho to Venice and back again
Kelly Lee Owens arrived in Venice on a speed boat at sunset, wearing a fake fur coat and sunglasses. “DJs get treated the best,” she tells me at lunch the following day – a lunch laid on by Set Up: a site-specific program of music and performing arts that Kelly will close this evening, in an empty art gallery at the southern peninsular of the Grand Canal that dissects Venice in two with a backwards S.
“I’ve had an idea for the photos,” she says while we wait for our food, and describes her black velvet dress with wide sleeves and gold beading, and the bridges she could stand on – “if you’re up for something a bit dramatic? … Not that I want to tell you what to do… I mean, we can do whatever. Or try it and see how it goes?” I soon realise that this type of enthusiasm and consideration is typical of Owens. A little later in the day, when I ask her what time she’s on tonight, she says: “12:45, but seriously, you don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”
Like anyone who’s never seen Venice before, we spend the afternoon walking along the canals in awe and repeatedly calling the place ridiculous, because it is – a jewel of a city built in 400 AD in the middle of the sea, on an inverted forest of 10 million trees driven into the silt of the shallows. Venice doesn’t sound or look real, especially at night when it feels like an abandoned Hollywood studio lot. Every building looks too perfectly aged, with muted colours and fading paintwork made just so by a contrived Disneyland set designer. From whatever angle you look at the place it feels 2D, and like you could push it over.
As we go, Kelly eagerly tells me about her star sign. She’s a Virgo, which means she’s obsessed with details and precision, and that she’s modest, which stacks up when, as we duck down one narrow street, she insists that she’s not a top DJ, despite what tonight’s booking suggests. “The reason someone like Peggy [Gou] is so good, is because that’s what she’s doing all the time,” she says. “She’s brilliant – in record stores, finding music, every day. But that’s not what I want to be doing – I’m most interested in creating my own music.”
We attempt to cross the Grand Canal in a water taxi, fail, and end up on the same side we started.
At 5pm, as we walk to the venue for Kelly’s line-check, one of Venice’s 139 churches begins to toll. Up ahead with our photographer Jonangelo, she runs back, grabs her phone from her handbag and bolts back towards the clock tower, recording the bells in her voice memos with an outstretched arm. Her manager Clarisse tells me that she’s always doing things like this. “You never know,” says Kelly, “there might be a sample in that.”
When we get to the Punta della Dogana museum, housed in a low-slung 17th Century customs building, Kelly sizes it up as the festival organiser gives her a tour. “This is going to have a good sound,” she says of the main room, and she was right.
I note how modest her rider is compared to other artists with their own areas in the green room. Behind the screen with Kelly Lee Owens written on it is a couple of bottles of red wine and some kombucha. “It’s because my voice is so important to me,” she says. “Anyone can do all the twiddling and mixing, but my voice is what I want to connect with, and even though this is a DJ set, I’m going to try to open with [the Howie’s version of Björk’s] ‘All Is Full Of Love’ and sing on it, because you never see a DJ do that. I’ll never take my voice for granted.”
When the show rolls around, Kelly keeps her 60 minutes of techno punchy. She crunches one track to a pulp and watches the room blow up when she releases it. She’s almost out of the door when the stage manager runs after her to ask if she’ll do an encore. Her speedboat picks her up at 10am the following morning.