Kelis on Her Harlem Roots, Live Music & Being a Mom

In advance of her concert in Copenhagen Friday 6th of March, we had a cozy chat with Kelis, where we talk about her process around live music, life on the road and live recording.

Kelis is an already-legendary artist and performer armed with the juicy uptempo swag that traces back to her beginnings as a classically trained saxophonist and singer in the Girls Choir back in Harlem, NY. Her dynamic repertoire includes treasures of the human kind, from classic rump-shaking R&B sounds to the deep emotionality that moves your soul. In whatever capacity, Kelis brings medicine to the masses in her sultry-yet-groovy-styles, bringing with her to the stage a wealth of experience in the music industry and the contemporary righteousness of an effortless icon. You can catch Kelis performing up-close-and-personal on her international tour this Winter to Spring.

We spilled the virtual tea with Kelis this past month about the process of live performing, her favorite road rituals and a few of the lessons learned from her roots in Harlem.

How is the tour treating you? What’s been your favorite city to perform in so far?
Well, I haven’t started just yet. So far, it’s been mostly focused on tour promotion, planning for the show, choosing the set design, our song list, and choosing our band. All the cities that I am going to, I have been to before, so I will say I’m really looking forward to Budapest, Berlin, London, and of course, Copenhagen.

How would you describe your relationship with live performance?
I really love performing live. There really is nothing like it. When the audience is into it, the energy that you get back is like nothing else. I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s like second nature to me.

What is the most important thing to keep in mind when you’re on the road – are there any rituals or traditions you’ve picked up over the years?
A big tradition that I love is if I am in a walkable city, I love to go for a stroll. Living in LA for so many years, I haven’t been able to do that. Copenhagen is a great city to walk around in. As a chef, I’m always looking for new places to eat and find good food when I’m on the road. That’s definitely a big tradition for me.

So taking it back from – the now – for a second. How did you first become involved in music? Were you always drawn to this form of expression?
Always. Luckily, my mother was really attuned to each of her kids talents, so she pushed us into what we were best at. Growing up, I sang in the Girls Choir of Harlem, I went to Laguardia Perfoming Arts High School, which is the famous performing arts school in New York City and all kids were really encouraged to express. I think that definitely was big part of how I got signed to my first record deal so early at the age of seventeen.

What were the biggest any challenges or hurdles you faced when you first started your career? How did you champion those?
I think the biggest challenge back then was trying to communicate to other people that my music was for everyone. Labels have always tried to put my sound in a box and it’s never been a sound that can be put in a box, I’ve always been committed to my own voice and to doing what I wanted to do creatively. For me, I think sticking to that vision, regardless of what other people wanted has been best and it’s what has given me a true sense of peace.

Who are some of the influences musically from early on – maybe that you still listen to, to this day? Like childhood onward, I would say.
Chaka Khan, Roberta Flack, Alanis Moorisette, and Grace Jones — just to name a few.

What’s the most important quality in a recording artist in your experience?
Perseverance. Trusting your own voice and sticking to it.

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TOMORROW / Song Diaries: Good Stuff

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What was it like when “Kaleidoscope” dropped and you started gaining momentum, gaining attention in the music industry and beyond – was it like a shock for you??
I wouldn’t say it was shock. It was more of an adjustment to a new way of living. It felt good to be able to create professionally and share that work with the world, particularly other young women.

When you’re really in the zone, creative juices flowing – you’re in tune and everything – what does that look like for you?
The creative process comes in different ways for me. I am always creating, even when I’m not in album mode. I’m always writing and thinking of ideas for work — whether its music or food. My new life on my farm, really lends itself for creative inspiration because I have so much more time to think and I think that’s when some of your best stuff comes to you.

What is your favorite song to play for a live audience?
‘Acapella’ is always a good time and ‘Bounce’ is fun as it’s a crowd pleaser.

You’re a classically trained artist as a saxophone player as well as having sung in the Girls Choir in Harlem. What was the most valuable thing you learned from those years?
Being in the Girls Choir taught me so much about harmonies because that’s really important when you’re singing with other people. There was also a camaraderie that was present, that was great as well.

There have been so many epic or significant moments in music when it comes to female artists becoming Moms – from Lauryn to Beyonce to Patti Smith and beyond (to name a few). What has been your proudest moment as a Mom?
Seeing my boys develop their own personalities. Each one of them are so distinctly themselves and I do think that is something that they hopefully got from me.

How do you feel about the music industry when it comes to women these days – coming from someone who has a wealth of experience ?
I think in some ways how women are treated in terms of business has gotten better and I think in some ways there seems to be the same old problems. I think the good thing is there are more outlets to share your work, speak out if something isn’t right, and connect with other women via social media, we obviously didn’t have a lot of that when I first started out in 1999.

Who would you say has been your biggest role model, male or female that has inspired you in your lifetime?
100% my mother.

Finally, any parting advice to fellow artists, girls and women in particular – or just overall?
Never ever be afraid to be yourself. Even if its not the ‘cool’ thing to do. Always do what feels right to you and not what feels right to someone else. As long as you are honest with yourself first, especially in a world that so often tells us women and young girls not to trust ourselves, you’ll always be able to be at peace with your decisions.

Holla, thanks Kelis!

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