Jazz started to feel too restrictive, all that emphasis on the standards. By chance, she met Yukimi Nagano, the lead singer of the Swedish band Little Dragon, who inspired her to start writing her own songs. Kelela began spending time in Mount Pleasant, a D.C. neighborhood with a strong punk scene, and formed the indie soul-rock band Dizzy Spells with Tim George, a guitarist.
True inspiration came when she started to make music on her laptop: ripping a song she liked from Myspace, recording a verse over it and sending it back to producers in the hopes they could start working together. Eventually, she quit her job as a telemarketer and moved to Los Angeles to devote herself to music full-time.
One of her demos ended up in the hands of Teengirl Fantasy, the dance-electronic duo Nick Weiss and Logan Takahashi, and the three collaborated on the airy, percussive track “EFX.” From there, she met Ashland Mines, a D.J. and producer who performs under the name Total Freedom, who made a fateful introduction, connecting Kelela to producers from Fade to Mind and Night Slugs, two indie labels at the center of underground dance music.
The rocket ship took off: Their collaborations resulted in “Cut 4 Me,” a glitchy, moody mixtape that mashed up make-out jams, booty-shakers and crooned love songs, all flecked with enough grime and synths to build a new kind of R&B. Finally, at 30, Kelela had arrived. She picked up famous fans like Björk and Solange and fielded offers from major record labels, ultimately signing with the indie Warp because it offered the most artistic freedom.
Her next project, “Hallucinogen” from 2015, expanded her palette further, adding collaborations with DJ Dahi, a hip-hop producer, and Arca, an experimental artist and producer with a vast sense of what electronic music can be. Intensely personal, the roughly 20-minute EP featured the work of 12 producers alongside Kelela as she explored the wounds of romantic and existential heartbreak. “Take Me Apart,” her first full album, teamed her with Romy Madley Croft from the xx and the pop producer Ariel Rechtshaid alongside Night Slugs’ Jam City and Bok Bok, and others, as Kelela reveled in the space between the fringes and the mainstream.
“RAVEN” IS ONCE again a feat of elaborate collaboration, featuring contributions from 15 producers, including Yo van Lenz, LSDXOXO and Florian T M Zeisig. Maroof, who was also involved, said work in the studio evolved in layers: Kelela would tinker with an idea, Maroof would add to it, then additional producers like Bambii or Kaytranada would sprinkle more on top.