360°Sound caught up with up-and-coming electro-pop singer-songwriter kelz (real name: Kelly Truong) the day after her March 17 set at Hotel Vegas in Austin, Texas. The Orange County, California native played three gigs during the recent SXSW festival.
Last year, kelz signed with Brooklyn-based indie label Bayonet Records and has since released three melodic, dreamy singles, “I Can’t Sleep,” “Guitar + Peaches,” and “Lover.” In classic DIY bedroom pop fashion, kelz wrote, produced, and played all the instruments on the songs.
When we saw her perform at Hotel Vegas, it was just her, a guitar, and some synths. The Vietnamese-American quickly got the crowd moving with her tasty guitar licks and danceable beats. kelz’s debut album, 5AM And I Can’t Sleep, drops May 6 on CD and cassette.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°: Is this your first time in Austin?
kelz: First time in Austin, first time at SXSW, a lot of firsts this whole trip. It’s been so amazing. I’m trying to see where each day takes me, especially with these shows. I’m a big solo traveler. I like exploring places.
It’s been so lovely. Everyone here is so warm and welcoming. For me, I’ve always had a lot of social anxiety on the aspect of performing live for people and seeing how they might react. But once I get started, I just see who’s there, and the vibes just make me feel so at ease, seeing people respond so well to what’s been happening.
You mentioned anxiety. I imagine when it’s just you on stage it probably is considerably more pressure than playing in a band.
For me, just transitioning to playing alone was a big thing. I was kind of stressed out before coming here. To be honest, I’ve never played an official show at a proper venue until SXSW. I think yesterday was probably my second official show ever. I played a few house shows back home. For those, I got to play with my friends helping me out in a band.
Coming to Texas, I had to figure out how I was going to play this alone. I want to create such a good, positive and energized performance for people. I want to articulate that from the audio to the live stage. It was a big learning process. I got to connect with myself more. I think I just learned how to be easier on myself, for sure. There is a lot of pressure being the only one. In the end, what I’m learning is it’s all going to be OK. I just start playing and it so feels so bliss, like this is where I need to be right now.
What led to your signing with Bayonet Records?
It’s an interesting story. For the past six or seven years, I’ve just been making music in my bedroom, producing on GarageBand and uploading high school songs all because I just wanted to make songs that let other people feel to and dance to.
I’m originally a guitar player. I started playing when I was 9. Over the years, I started to pick up the basics of other instruments like the piano and bass. I got to learn more about what sounds I like. There was a lot of experimenting. I started learning more about the language of music technology more, which is why my music started to lean more electronic.
In 2020 during the pandemic, with that time off being away from school I got to write more as I was experiencing all these things in my life. I was in my second or third year of college and I was starting to travel around a lot. I started to experience all this independent freedom.
But, of course, in life, things happen. I was experiencing a lot of heartbreak. My grandpa passed away very suddenly. From that point on, I had a really hard shift in my life where I didn’t really know what to do. How do I cope with my feelings in a healthy way? And so, with that, I started to drive away a lot. I would catch all these sunsets in California and be away as I was processing all these things in my life.
It got to the point where I was like, ‘Oh, I actually have a bunch of songs that could be an EP.’ There were all these demos and I just kind of pieced them together. Toward the end of 2020, I just had a moment where I decided to send these demos off to different labels to see if anyone was interested. Initially, I was just going to independently release these songs. I’m a big ‘what if?’ person. I wanted to see what would happen if I just started these emails.
One of the people I sent these demos to was Bayonet. A couple weeks later, I got an email reply from the label manager. Initially, they rejected me. They were saying these songs were great, but not what they were looking for right now. Literally, the next day, I got an email from [the label manager] again, saying, ‘We can’t get these songs out of our heads. We would love to get to know you.’
The next day, we were on a phone call with each other. We just stayed in contact ever since and eventually I signed to them. Now, we’re releasing this whole debut album. It went from EP to album. I never did think I would be playing at SXSW right now two years later.
Tell us a little about your songwriting process for your debut album.
This album is very melody-driven. Once I had a melody in mind, I would try my best to write that down and accompany it by either my guitar, my piano, or some type of beat. I would try to build a small loop from there. I’m very big on loops I’m creating. That’s the way my mind works when I make music.
I like to think that with my melodies and my words I’m seeing, it’s being complemented by the production. For me, less is better. I try to take a very minimal approach. One thing about this album is it was very, very simple. I just kind of layered it all together and piece it in a certain way where it heightened my voice but also my voice heightened the production. It goes hand in hand.
I like to work with analog synthesizers a lot. I love being hands-on as much as possible. It’s just so fun to have these toys around. One of the biggest sounds on the album was my little OP-1 synthesizer. I had it on stage when I played last night. It’s a tiny white keyboard, and it’s super powerful. It’s just so cute.
Although I do love learning more about electronic music every day, in the end, I always have my core roots in guitar. My guitar helps complement that melody-driven sound.
In the “Guitar + Peaches” video, you show off some Grimes and Snail Mail CDs. We’re into CDs here at 360°, are you?
I love CDs. I’m so glad someone actually pointed that out. One of the things I’ve joked with the label is that someday the CDs will be back. And like right now, we’re in a CD revival, right? It’s just so cool.
I think people, in the end, always want to have some type of physical connection with the music that they’re listening to. CDs are underrated. They’re cute little compact discs. I think people don’t realize that CD audio quality is superior to all the digital streaming services. I’m trying to find more CD shops in my area.
To pre-order/pre-save kelz’s debut album, 5AM and I Can’t Sleep, click here.