Kelsey Lu recorded her debut EP live in a Brooklyn church with a loop pedal and Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly co-producing. The music lingers and haunts, rich with sadness and unease.
Kelsey Lu remembers her first encounter with the cello. She knew she would take it home, if she stared hard enough, and if Sarah, her teacher, sensed her urgency (which she knew she would). Despite Lu’s 17-year mastery of the instrument, it’s as if that primal scene—the regal, mysterious, child-sized wooden figure lurking in the corner—continues to inform her skeletal, mournful take on folk. Her debut release, the solo-cello EP Church, has histrionic moments that betray her lofty patronage (support slots with Florence, collaborations with Dev Hynes) as well as displays of incredible composure. But there are ghosts in its shadows. The music is characterized by eerie moments like the closing passage of “Liar.” Just when the song might erupt, a balletic solo glides in, pirouettes, and collapses in the spotlight. When it leaves the stage, it’s as if a dark curtain is drawn, but for two more minutes, the cello groans and whispers. It’s magnificent enough to simply exist, knowing we’ll calmly submerge ourselves in its reverberations.
Church’s six songs comprise a minimal, intensely introspective suite, but one with an elevated sense of drama. For effect, Lu recorded the EP live—with help from a loop pedal and, on co-production, Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly—at a church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Given her upbringing, it’s a curious choice of venue. Raised strictly Jehovah’s Witness, she’d visit church only when attending non-believers’ funerals. For a religious tearaway like Lu, who fled her devout family at 18, the church can be nostalgic, a reminder of those early communal engagements. But it’s a strange place to be alone.
Alone is how Lu performs, and how you feel listening in. The key to the recording is its vast reservoir of space. Rather than intimacy, the ambience imposes austerity on the music. A complicated silence lurks behind the tunes, like a latent threat—church echoes, feedback groans, bow scrapes, sliding fingertips. The effect is jarring: You accept it to be part of the set, without quite managing to forget it’s there. It makes listening to Church a self-conscious experience. At times it’s as if, sitting front row for a small play, you’ve been pinned back by the gaze of an actor reciting a fierce monologue.
But Church, like a furtive Kranky gem, somehow hypnotizes through the tension, and Lu sings as beautifully as she plays. In sleepier passages, like the four-minute “Dreams” intro, her strings seem to mourn the silence they replace. The reverence with which she treats each note engenders a tone of quiet rapture. On “Liar,” as a patient, three-chord twang spills light across the cavern walls, her voice becomes interchangeable with her instrument. Vowels slide over her tongue, vibrating like strings against the bow.
Across the EP, the gravity of Lu’s voice and repetitive lyrics transform stark sentiments into rootless syllables that linger and haunt. “Everybody knows/The feelings that you feel/Aren’t real” is a cutting line on “Time,” perhaps addressing her mother, who banned secular friends, or the abusive ex who showed her New York before she showed him the door. But Lu’s elegant tone smoothes even the most razor-sharp jibes. In contrast, “I feel you in my dreams” is an utterance so mawkish it ought to disintegrate in air, yet in the world she creates, it’s the only kind of mantra that makes sense—impassioned yet passive, with a gentle power. It’s as if, self-trained to master engulfing forces, she has learnt to hold communion solo. Singing about heartbreak and overcoming, Lu taps into a state often reserved for spiritual musicians: that of being utterly alone without the fear of loneliness.