Kelela Crafts a New Brand of Alt R&B

Photo by Nate Walton

"R&B has always been looked down upon."

Singer Kelela Mizanekristos, 30, is relaxing at her home in LA after a long week packed with showcases at SXSW. Her debut mixtape Cut 4 Me - a startling conglomeration of esoteric electronica, poignant songwriting and lofty, melodic vocal lines - garnered praise last fall from critics and R&B purists alike.

"I've felt that from the white indie circuit," she continues. "Let's be so fucking real. But now everybody's admitting that they grew up with this music and have listened to it and been obsessed with it for their whole lives." 

The timing does, indeed, seem ripe for an artist like Kelela, who was raised on the airy, feminine voices of Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey and Aaliyah. R&B singers from that era have reached an almost canonical status recently, thanks to a fresh wave of '90s nostalgia flavoring today's hip-hop and Top 40. The only child of Ethiopian parents, Kelela grew up in Maryland before relocating to L.A. As a child, she would belt out the hits of Whitney Houston atop her family's coffee table, pretending the small square was a concert stage, her aunts, uncles and cousins a captive audience.

"My dad told me recently that I would stand on the table and then basically not make eye contact with anyone in the room," she recalls. "He was like, 'You were in a stadium. You were looking beyond... It was that eternal gaze.'"

While Kelela has only recently started headlining shows (she comes to the Echo April 1-2 with Fade to Mind label-mates Total Freedom and Nguzunguzu), her sound is better suited to an underground rave than a sold-out stadium tour -  more avant-garde than mainstream neo-soul.

"It's like the exact intersection of horrifying production but with really sweet R&B singing and vocals that's still rooted in songwriting," she says. "I'm not a traditionalist, but I also know that there are templates in place that facilitate growth in a really specific way."

If you strip away the glitchy club beats that shape the record, the 13 tracks off Cut 4 Me are beautifully crafted love songs, full of lyrical depth and a palpable sense of longing. And it's not hard to understand why: Kelela is, in her most natural state, an emotional force.

She gushes over performing with Solange Knowles and the casual friendship they've developed. ("She's a homegirl, someone that you can relate to.") She fights back tears when the conversation shifts to Yukimi Nagano, the lead singer of the band Little Dragon who encouraged her to pursue music before she had written so much as a single verse. ("Obviously I was touched, because I'm crying right now.") Even her recent tenure as a telemarketer was not a dead-end job, but a way to meet people she otherwise never would have come in contact with.

Her vibrancy comes through on record and the result is something sonically progressive, but also emotionally impactful.

"On the next project that's sort of what I'm exploring deeper, the songwriting and being really innovative with song form," she explains. "But I still want to make it something that's resonant."

Kelela performs with Total Freedom and Nguzunguzu at The Echo this Tuesday and Wednesday, April 1st and 2nd.

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