Words by Tina Edwards

For critically acclaimed singer, cellist and producer Kelsey Lu, diving into the unknown is part of their nature.

A bold composer recognised for their off-kilter alternative sound, they’re behind the scores for two new pictures; feature film

Earth Mama and documentary Daughters, both premiering at Sundance Festival in 2023 and 2024 respectively. “The way I write has always been very visual”, says Lu. “Scoring was always a dream”. Lu's making the most of the good weather, sitting outdoors in their headphones and a bright purple jacket. They’re recording their next project in L.A. where it’s been raining for several days until today. 

“I started doing little things here and there [to picture] a few years ago; short films for friends and commercial work. Doing a feature film? I was like, “Ahhh, that'll be such a dream”, thinking that would be further down the line. Then last year I was in the midst of working on a sound installation for a festival in Sydney; I was making an eight-hour-long composition geared towards lucid dreaming…”

Of course, timings never happen as we plan them. Director Savannah Leaf called, wanting Lu to pen a track for the closing credits of her debut feature film. Earth Mama is about the struggle of a pregnant single mother with two children in foster care, featuring a well-received acting debut from rapper and musician, Tia Nomore. After Lu initially turned down the invitation due to time constraints, the offer was upgraded to the entire score.


The way I write has always been very visual. Scoring was always a dream

“It was one of those decisions in life where it’s like, “okay, this is being presented”. This is actually something that I'd been asking for, I’d manifested”, says Lu. Often smiling as they speak, they consider their words carefully, as if etching them into permanence. “I watched the film and within the first ten minutes, I just knew”. They accepted a four-week timeline and completed the score in three. “It was a matter of improvisation, understanding what my process is, and trusting my instincts deeply”.

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Kelsey Lu

Lu worked predominantly out of Figure 8 Recording, a cosy studio sitting at the crown of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. “It feels like a portal when you go in there; there's so many things to play with”, says Lu. “When I go in, I look around and think about what I'd like to use. What’s my base, my foundation?


Once I get to know the characters of the film, I assign the sounds to the characters.

Lu landed on a conventional piano and a Una Corda; a type of piano created by David Klavins in collaboration with composer Nils Frahm. “[It’s] not so much my cello which is surprising because it's the instrument that I've played the longest. Once I get to know the characters of the film, I assign the sounds to the characters. The cello comes after the base has been built”.

To help with their tight turnaround, Lu called in two jazz-adjacent musicians whose work she values deeply: harpist Brandee Younger and saxophonist Isaiah Barr. “I described the scenes without them seeing it; I love the magic that happens when you’re not looking at the page. That’s a lot of my process; it’s not about writing things out notationally—it’s about feeling and connecting with the characters in the story”.


I love the magic that happens when you’re not looking at the page.

Not soon after Lu completed the score for Earth Mama, Lu was working on their next composition for screen; Daughters. This time a documentary, co-directed by Natalie Rae and Angela Patton. We follow the experiences of four young girls who are preparing for a dance with their fathers, all of whom are imprisoned in Washington D.C. For most of the daughters, the dance provides their only opportunity to touch or hug their dads, some of whom are serving sentences up to twenty years long.

For both films, it was the emotional peaks that provided Lu with the greatest opportunities for growth. They reflect on Daughters: “There was one scene in particular that's the emotional climax—what you've been waiting for throughout the whole film when everybody has their tissues. I wanted to veer away from what documentaries can lean towards, mostly being piano or having a similar tone across the board. There’s something that I use to tie themes together… but I don’t want to give away all of my secrets…”, they smile.


The music is a supporting character. Scoring is an act of service.

Lu expresses that they had similar aspirations for Earth Mama. “I didn't want to use sounds that are obvious, that people would expect to hear in those moments. With composing, my biggest challenge—and joy—is not allowing the music to be the lead; it’s a supporting character. Scoring is an act of service. There’s so many people involved, so many things outside of yourself”.

With Lu's most recent album, Blood, coming out five years ago, fans are itching for the next release. “The reason I'm here in L.A. is that I'm finishing up my album”, says Lu. “Scoring has helped me to appreciate the process of this album even more; holistically but also sonically."


Earth Mama gave me the boost to go, 'it’s time for the album!'

"My last album came out in 2019; it's been a lot of time healing and life-ing and working on interesting projects like these two films, which are beautiful but also have such incredible intentions behind them. Earth Mama gave me the boost to go “It’s time for the album!” says Lu, laughing. 


There’s a sense of unity and togetherness in composition.

"It's such a collaborative experience. It goes outside of individualism in a way that feels really enriching and also, you’re constantly learning," Lu says. You're learning how to bend and how to stand firm... It’s going outside of yourself —and reaching for something greater”.

Earth Mama is available to watch digitally here.