Kelsey Lu on the medicinal sound bath of their 432 project, attuned to the universal frequency of 432Hz.
This feature was originally published in Fact’s A/W 2020 issue, which is available to buy here.
Before calling Lu via FaceTime, I find myself humming along to the bridge from ‘Why Knock For You’ on Lu’s 2019 debut album Blood. On the track they swoon, “I can’t breathe in there / I need some air / I can’t breathe in there / I need some air” with a sweet, enchanting melancholy. For Lu, a journey towards breathing and fresh air remains an urgent priority.
Kelsey Lu, who prefers to be called Lu, was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, sometime between “198something and 199something,” alongside their elder sister Jessica. Both Lu and Jessica were born to a Black father and a white mother, both musicians. A child of the 1960s, their father, Jerry McJunkins, whose artwork illustrates one of the covers of this issue of Fact, and their mother, Ann McJunkins, met as Jerry was pursuing fellowship as part of the Jehovah’s Witness faith. In a recent testimony, Jessica writes that their father, “simply transferred his devotion to civil rights movements and organisations (along with the organic inclination to rebellion against the status quo), to the infrastructure of the Witnesses.” The faith and dedication of their father would later influence their mother, who was formerly agnostic, to subscribe to the traditions and morals of the faith. For both children, this meant that their childhood was broadly shaped and influenced by the traditionally conservative faith.
In a 2014 interview with the platform StyleLikeU, which invites guests to disrobe as they share their truths, Lu explains the extreme limitations of coming of age within the Jehovah’s Witness church. “My only time outside of [church and field service] was to have lessons with the violin or the cello,” they explain in the video. Modesty and pure devotion were the only acceptable modus in their childhood home where they often felt that they were under constant surveillance. Over the course of the seven-minute video, Lu opened up about escaping their upbringing and finding freedom in music. As each truth was revealed, Lu would remove a necklace then a piece of fabric. Revisiting this video, I am reminded why healing is so essential to Lu’s practice. That video, not unlike many stories recounting Lu’s story, unearths a trauma that still impacts both Lu and their sister Jessica. By the end of the video and so many interviews with Lu, their life and past traumas are laid bare for public consumption.
In planning the series of questions for the conversation, I texted Lu several times to reschedule. At first, it was to make sure that the timing worked for them, but later it became a dance of preparedness. How, as a writer and friend, do you show up to tell someone’s story in a more generative way? How do you acknowledge someone’s past without mining for the pain to be the foundation for their story? Soon, there was no more time to spare. After some seemingly cosmic tech failures, I found Lu via FaceTime basking in the fall light of London’s Hyde Park after they’d visited a Cao Fei exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery. Lu’s hair was in a freestyle plaited braid and they wore an oversized black t-shirt. In my anxiety, I delved directly into questions almost clinically before Lu asked that we slowed down. It was clear that we needed to take some time to breathe together.
Kimberly Drew: Perhaps the best place to begin this interview is asking where you want this piece to begin. Where do you feel comfortable?
Kelsey Lu: To be honest, I’m struggling with feeling comfortable. It’s a discomforting time, and so, with that in mind, I want to talk about the work of 432. I’m attempting to translate it into the shoot that Campbell and I have been working on.
KD: What are some of the things that you’ve been talking about in terms of how to manifest it visually?
KL: We’ve been talking about occupying negative space. Black space, black being the result of absence, or an absorption of complete white. How to reoccupy that space, how to feel the warmth of the sun. As a viewer looking at a still image, how can you encapsulate all that in an image? The sunrise or the sunset. For me it was really important for it to be shot by Campbell, because we both grew up Jehovah’s Witnesses. That and he’s just such a good storyteller within the images that he creates.
When Campbell and I first met, we both talked about how much willow trees have meant to us. And I always had a really, I don’t know, strong connection with willow trees, because they move unlike any other tree. They have this defiance with gravity, there’s something very wise and spiritual about them, and so that feeling of weightlessness is going to be incorporated in some way.
KD: I’ve been thinking so much about how to reclaim, especially within the concept of light that blackness is an active force of absorption and retention. It is so much more full. It’s not really the absence of colour, but this dynamic and covert exercise. How can we work to move away from the false binary of light and dark? It’s also interesting that you mention the willow tree as well, because it’s such a misunderstood symbol. While it may seem sad it’s actually a very generative tree. It symbolised fertility and growth.
KL: I feel like I’m doing a lot of nature travel. Nature has always been a source of inspiration and grounding for me, and the words that I hold through, and the metaphors that nature provides, and how that relates to what I’m talking about. I can push against the wind that came, watching these trees bend over and not snap.
It makes me think about my dad being a Black man from the South and experiencing the things that he experienced, and not breaking and not snapping. And I think about inviting him to be another narrator of the story, of illustrating a photo of the story that I’m trying to tell through the imagery that we’re creating.
KD: Yes, your dad is illustrating you for this piece. Why did you want to work with your dad for this?
KL: When I first wanted to do this and I asked Campbell if he’d do it, instinctually, the idea of it being an illustration came to mind because I was kind of like, “I don’t want to just do a photoshoot,” where it’s just cool lighting, I’m wearing cool clothes, and my hair looks cool, and I’ve got some makeup on. And then I thought of illustration and then I thought, “What if it was my dad’s illustration?” My dad did this illustration of me with this oil pastel portrait of me as a little girl. And there’s mountains in the background, I’m surrounded by nature. In that moment, I was like, “That could be the cover.” And then I was like, “No, it needs to be something new.” And I just like the thought of him doing a new portrait of me now, especially after so many years of our relationship going through all that it’s gone through, and that as being another source of healing. For me, I just want it to be a source of healing. Imagining how sound and frequency of sound can heal us of wounds that are deeper than we can physically see.
KD: This may be a simple question, but I wonder if you could talk about your journey to healing. Why do you feel it’s important to share this journey with others?
KL: I mean, I guess that would just be frequency. I guess I’m trying to figure that out through this. Because there are people that experiment with sound frequencies and healing the devastating impacts of mental disorders.
KD: I’m so curious about all those things because I’ve had such difficult times seeking healing through sound. So much comes up for me in sound. And I think a lot about sonic cues related to trauma, like the sirens of being in New York through COVID, or the sound of gunshots, or weeks and weeks in New York of fireworks. So there has to be the other side of that coin in sound for healing and finding those frequencies, whether it’s 40 hertz or what I think is accomplished through your project 432. I love that project because it is a direct challenge to the way that music is taught, but also what its healing potential can be.
KL: In 432, I’ll say it’s like Hydroharmonia, which was something that was a coping mechanism. Imagining a new world of processing music. When I was making Hydroharmonia, I was also coming off of being on a major label and really thinking what that even means for me. How that could have seeped into my subconscious of thinking of releasing things, the pressure of releasing things. Also in processing the privilege of my location, where I was at in the world while everything was going on, how I had access to nature, how I had access to the vastness of sky, to be able to observe ritualistically the sunrise and the sunset every day, and how that affected me. And knowing that that was really healing for me, so wanting desperately to be able to channel that into music, to share that with other people, for other people to be able to experience that. Hydroharmonia became a way of sharing and the healing that I am able to directly experience through nature. And 432 was another tool to forge and re-imagine what healing can feel like.
You can heal alone, but then you’re just… you are healing yourself, which is important, but then if you’re not sharing in it, and you’re just hoarding it. We’re conduits of energy. It’s a language that goes beyond language. It’s a common language, but it’s also something that goes beyond the ability to hear or see. Silence can be so loud. And the time of now, when we need people to speak up, to advocate… some silence is just so loud.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Campbell Addy at CLM
PHOTO ASSISTANTS: Pierre Lequeux, Meshach Roberts
STYLIST: Ai Kamoshita at Concrete Rep.
STYLING ASSISTANT: Hannah Hetherington
2ND STYLING ASSISTANTS: Sophie Yoon, Anna Kupchenko
HAIR: Isaac Poleon at Future Rep using Fudge Professional
MAKEUP: Bea Sweet at JAQ Management using MAC Cosmetics
PRODUCTION: Gabi Besevic-Simpson at CLM
ON-SET PRODUCTION: Teodora Budimir at April Productions
ON-SET PA: Freya Lamont
POST-PRODUCTION: Lisa Langdon-Banks at Post-Apollo
This feature was originally published in Fact’s A/W 2020 issue, which is available to buy here.
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