Chelou is a bit of an enigma. The London artist has enjoyed his success from the shadows, creating a mysterious presence for himself by staying out of the spotlight in an age where it is increasingly rare to do so. His real name doesn’t come up in conversation. The sparse, cryptic quality of his sound only adds to the effect. His anonymity has helped to shape his success rather than impede it. Chelou’s persona is reflective of his cautiously optimistic attitude towards the rapidly changing world, and it carries through in his music.
“I don’t think the globalized world understands the impact of what it means that we’re all so connected constantly,” Chelou said, calling in from a garden in the heart of East London. Still, the Camden-raised artist recognizes the role of social media and technology in the music industry—and ultimately, his success.
“Now all of a sudden we’re influencers on social media platforms. When I was thinking of becoming a musician that was never even a thought because it didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago when I was picking up my first guitar,” he said. “But it’s cool because eventually you realize, wow, I’m actually more directly connected to 20,000 Instagram followers that I have than to any sort of label, media, corporation.”
Chelou does, in fact have such a following, one that sprung up in part due to the breakout success of single “Halfway to Nowhere” and its accompanying video. Laden with trippy visuals, the video has over 10 million views and has served as an entry point for many of Chelou’s fans. Musical styles abound on the track, creating an infectious concoction of lo-fi electro-blues.
Chelou followed up “Halfway to Nowhere” with a series of singles leading up to his debut LP, Out of Sight, last April. The album is a subdued collection of songs that exist within a strange and compelling soundscape. And although Chelou had to learn how to connect with others on social media, he’s had no trouble connecting with listeners. This ability to inspire lyrically while remaining vague and mysterious is one of his most striking qualities.
“I’ve always been trying to figure out how to write a love song without saying the word ‘love’ once,” Chelou said.
“Ships in the Wind” offers a perfect example of this as he sings, “Two ships in the wind/Heading in the wrong direction/There’s a prison waiting/ Buried under my conviction.” The ambiguity recalls Bon Iver and Beach House. These poetic musings are accompanied by organic production and balanced by some of Chelou’s vulnerable vocal takes.
The personal, understated “Sorry” comes right after the hectic and impassioned title track. Its production takes on the quality of a phone demo, a bold choice that provides raw passion.
“My manager was like, ‘You know that’s beautiful, do you want to record it on better quality?’” Chelou said. “And I told him ‘no’ because that was a moment that was once-in-a lifetime. It was one that I could never replicate.”
The track is not about anybody in particular and his lyrics remain abstract, referring to general truths rather than specific personal experiences.
“It’s probably about more than one person, it’s about that feeling,” he said. “I think the reason I kept that song so simple is that there’s more emotion coming from the tones of the guitar and the voice than the lyrics.”
Chelou is writing songs that resonate, but that doesn’t mean a personal story doesn’t run through the course of the album.
“There’s an inside story that you understand the more you listen. You realize that it’s my mom on the album cover, it’s my sister singing on this song and that song,” he said. “Family is everything, man.”
He said he doesn’t feel the need to broadcast his muses but is excited about listeners uncovering them.
“That stuff isn’t contrived,” Chelou said of his younger sister’s involvement. “It all comes through and it’s a golden opportunity to involve these people that I care about.”
Despite Chelou’s efforts to keep to himself, his fanbase grows with each release and live performance; even in places like Egypt, where he recently played.
“It can be hard to get away from headlines, fake news, and stereotypes that consume the world,” he said. “When you’re with someone and it’s just human to human, listening to great music in a beautiful country, you can’t help but think that this is what it’s all about.”
Follow writer Matthew Eaton at Twitter.com/MattnSoCal.