The debut album from Kelsy Karter, Missing Person is a thrilling introduction to a truly singular musical mind. Like all the most electrifying artists, the New Zealand-born singer/songwriter invites the audience into a beautifully strange world of her own making, a fantasia that’s equal parts rock-and-roll grit and wildly theatrical grandeur. Fueled by the mesmerizing vocal work first displayed on her breakthrough single “Harry”—a 2018 track that went viral after Karter turned up with a fake tattoo of Harry Styles blazoned across her face—Missing Person arrives as a stunning showcase for her intricate storytelling and uncompromising outlook on life, love, and self-liberation.
Despite the defiant spirit that shines through nearly every song on Missing Person, the album took shape from a period of tremendous pain and self-doubt for Karter, a time that included the death of a loved one and a devastating breakup. “I was so depressed and broke, and probably at the lowest point in my whole life,” says Karter. “For a while I sort of lost myself, which is why the album’s called Missing Person. But through the process of making the record I found myself as an artist and an individual—I stopped giving a fuck about what anyone else thinks, and finally felt completely okay with who I am.” Working in the UK and in her homebase of L.A. with producers like Zakk Cervini (Machine Gun Kelly, Poppy) and Chris Greatti (YUNGBLUD, blink-182), Karter set that transformation to a guitar-drenched sound steeped in elements of punk and Britpop and classic glam-rock, giving way to a sonic aesthetic both undeniably timeless and entirely of-the-moment.
On the fiercely anthemic single “Love Me or Hate Me,” Karter presents something of a mission statement for living according to your own rules. Co-written with The Struts’ Adam Slack and her longtime collaborator Michael Morgan, the track matches its fuzzed-out riffs and frenetic rhythms with a message especially close to Karter’s heart. “I wrote ‘Love Me or Hate Me’ at time when I was feeling like I wasn’t good enough, and the thing that pulled me through was my fans,” says Karter. “They made me believe in myself again, and so I wanted to write them a song to make them feel the way they made me feel: like I’m a bad-ass, and I can do anything.”
Although Missing Person fully embodies an unbridled boldness, Karter never holds back from revealing her deepest vulnerabilities. Built on a furiously pounding beat and hypnotically moody vocal performance, “Devil on My Shoulder” sheds light on her struggles with anxiety and shares her distinct approach to finding peace of mind. “With the state of the world right now, I think a lot of us are suffering from anxiety,” Karter notes. “The way I deal with it is I try to just ride the wave instead of fighting it. It’s a song about becoming mates with the voices in your head.” Meanwhile, “Stick to Your Guns” shifts from piano-laced reflection to full-tilt self-celebration as Karter recalls a particularly maddening moment from her recent past. “Because the ‘Harry’ stunt was so outlandish, there was this perception that I’d do anything for shock value,” she says. “I started getting ideas thrown at me to do things completely out of character, and it made me feel so uncomfortable and almost violated. I’ve never been one to exploit or sexualize myself for success, so I decided to write a song about standing up for what I believe in no matter what.”
Even as Karter opens up on her frustrations and inner demons, Missing Person maintains an effervescent energy that’s second nature for such a larger-than-life performer. Born into a family of jazz musicians, she first began exploring her own kinetic creativity by writing poetry as a child, then started crafting songs at age 16. “I was always such a musical kid, but I never wanted to be in the fucking school orchestra—I wanted to do theater and sneak out of the house and kiss boys,” says Karter, noting that her earliest musical experiences involved playing piano and “a very un-rebellious little instrument called the flute.” As she carved out her voice as a songwriter, Karter first mined inspiration from the soul legends she grew up on, and later tapped into the work of such formative artists as David Bowie and the Rolling Stones. “I wanted to be a singer because of people like James Brown and Sam Cooke, but I wanted to be an entertainer because of people like Bowie and Mick Jagger and Freddie Mercury,” she says. “I was a tomboy then, and seeing these men who had such beautiful voices and were so free with their sexuality was incredibly liberating.”
After cutting her teeth playing in dive bars around L.A. and at iconic New York City nightclub The Bitter End, Karter released songs independently all throughout 2019, toured the UK and the US as direct support for The Struts, and promptly landed a deal with BMG Recordings. With the arrival of the first two singles from Missing Person (“Devil on My Shoulder” and “Stick to Your Guns”), she further expanded her creative output by taking the helm as director on the brilliantly cinematic videos for both tracks. “I draw so much of my inspiration for film—the art of storytelling and the way people execute it visually has always been so fascinating to me,” she says. “In a way I feel like my music is a balance between the edginess of Quentin Tarantino and the delicateness of Wes Anderson: I’m definitely a tough girl, but I’ve also got a heart of complete mush.”
While the fantastically warped wonderland of Missing Person offers a much-needed escape from the everyday, Karter’s world-building serves an even greater purpose, providing a safe space for listeners to discover their own self-acceptance. “Making this album helped me to find comfort and freedom in who I am, and I want everyone who hears it to come away with that same feeling,” Karter says. “I want them to feel strong in their individuality, and to stop caring about what other people think. I hope it helps them to feel both totally vulnerable and completely invincible at the very same time.”