"I don't want to talk like a press release, I want to be understood." Chelsea says at one point in our conversation. She fills the virtual conference room that we are in with such ease that it's impossible not to be enchanted by her passion. Losing the thread of some questions, rephrasing what she had just said in different eloquent ways, and taking little to no time before responding each of my questions, it's safe to say that Chelsea has a beautiful technicolor world of her own inside her restless mind.
Since the release of her full-length album Personal Best in 2018, the world has changed with all its glory and so has Chelsea. The quiet yet potent lyrics are still there with her new singles like Optimist and Good Taste but they open up a bigger space for honesty and introspection. The production style of Good Taste is mechanical and pulsating that accentuates the theme of desire and lust perfectly. She seems to be more comfortable in her own skin than ever singing "I don't care how I'm seeming /Just give me a taste."
I've had the chance to dive into the world of her witty lyrics and got to witness her creative visions outburst as she is talking about her music and what she wants to portray though her music after the long conversation we've had.
Illustration: Ana Felix
Janset: Your latest album was released in 2018 and since then we've experienced Covid, we've started talking about the metaverse and so much has changed. Did any of the recent events that we've experienced influence your upcoming album in any way?
Chelsea: I think there is an existential exhaustion across the board. For me, I felt that it was really the time to take stock of the threads that had been hanging around that needed to be tied up. In order to shake off the existential malaise I started towards Soft Spot and that required an excess of addressing organizational methodologies that I would have thought to be too rigid for my previous life. The pandemic just forced me to ask myself "What do I want to finish... before I die?" Slowing down had huge effect on my music and my life because I was on a rolling path where I wasn't holding the reins, I was just responding. The pandemic forced me to reconsider my intentions.
It's quite interesting to hear that because most people -myself included- had the mindset of "survival mode" and a "flight or fight" reflex during the pandemic. It seems like you've managed to stay more intentional.
My regular state is fight or flight, I'm a very anxious person. The pandemic just forced me to ask myself why that is.
You've just said that the pandemic made you think about what you wanted to finish before you die. What else did it push you to pursue except music?
I've gotten into animation which can be seen through the Optimist music video. You can tell that it's very rudimentary. I'd love to get more into it and paradoxically get off the computer. I also think I've got aspirations for theatre as a reaction to the pandemic. I think theatre has such an interesting level of decorum that live music doesn't participate in. The conversations that are happening now around having your phone up during concerts are so important because I feel really shy about the internet. I feel like theatre absolves you from all those obligations of the internet.
The first conversation starter statement I've read was Mitski's. What are your thoughts about what she is saying? How would being recorded during an entirety of your show make you feel?
It's so complicated. Previously I loved people having their phones out but ever since the pandemic I feel like I don't want to show off anymore. It's about communicating and now at a show I want to feel like I'm in the room. It makes me feel lonely when people have their phones out. I can say that because I really have nothing to lose. My reach is way more modest compared to Mitski's. I guess the question is; "What are you communicating when you have your phone out? Who is it for?" I totally respect Mitski for saying that. It'd be nice if an artist's wishes were respected because so much of the output is free. Asking for certain one thing in exchange is totally reasonable.
She has gotten that statement down after some serious backlash and artists are almost treated like zoo animals. "Do your little dance, sing your little songs, entertain me." You don't have much say on how people are going to react to your craft. It made me think of you saying "I want to be understood more than anything." Putting yourself out there the way that you're doing, do you ever feel a crippling anxiety about being misunderstood, especially under the light of these kinds of conflicts?
Of course! I think it takes a lot of refocusing and perspective altering to remain on a path. Your brain has to be moving constantly in order to accommodate the conflicting ideas that are being presented to you in this industry which is the Wild West.
Talking about the Wild West, you've taught yourself how the music industry operates as you wanted to be more conscious on what is going on. What was the most overwhelming thing about the process of self-learning without having much support?
It's the stuff that I'm not aware of that comes up that I have to learn quickly, that's what's really scary. There is so much to learn. At the same time, my experience has been pretty different. I've never felt necessarily involved in the industry. I've always been on the peripheral and participating in small ways. I'm often navigating things on my own like an outside observer.
You're signed to a label, you have a PR team and maybe starting up you didn't have any of those support systems. Do you still feel the same way?
Absolutely. Scale-wise my operation is so small and I'm still the boss of the office.
What was the most eye-opening thing you've learnt about the music industry that you've had a more naive perspective towards when you were starting out ?
That's a great question because it's so important to learn. Everyone should really learn the difference between the master royalties and the publishing royalties. When the Taylor Swift situation was very present in the news, I was hunting around for somebody to lay out the fundamental industry explanations about what it all means. I've seen misunderstandings between the terms and about where intellectual property falls in the music space. The more demystifying we do about the music industry, the more likely we are to be able to succeed in making the industry fair for everybody.
The more the general public understands about it, the more humanized the artists become. If we tie back to the "phone in concerts" conversation, the more you understand where artists are coming from, the more you will treat them as a friend you're concerned about. You wouldn't want any of your friends to have a bad time would you?
I think that this problem is very relevant to how catalogued the music industry is. It's the mentality of "If you're an artist, sing your songs and don't have opinions about anything else. If you're not in the PR team, don't have opinions on how you want to be perceived, don't go outside your lane." You should be able to hold the strings as you are in the core of it all.
Yeah, I would love the level of professionalism present in other industries to be reachable in music. Music is a strange space to be in. At some point, it's nice to be very direct. I want to be talked to like a professional, like a respected person. You don't need to keep anything from me because I'd like to think that I'm a very reasonable person. It's in everybody's best interest to be as forthcoming as possible. I don't want to talk like a press release, I want to be understood because I'm smart! Pop music is often smart and it's not talked about that way. There is a lot of emotional intelligence in pop music and technical expertise involved. It's often dismissed and I wonder if it has to do with the fact that women are the people that are often populating this space.
I'm really happy you brought it up because I wanted to talk to you about womanhood as it's an important part of your work. Your single "Good Taste" portrays female desire in a very forward way. It also makes me think of one of your previous songs "Colour Sum" thematically. Is the theme of female desire a vital part of your work?
Definitely. I'm in my early thirties and I feel more comfortable than ever talking about sex which is not in a way that is necessarily always flattering. Optimist is on a similar path to Good Taste but Good Taste is almost gratuitous. It's not desperate, it's just present in sex. Optimist speaks to a different version of sex where you're exploiting your own vulnerability for a short moment of comfort.
Talking about the intricacies of female desire is no longer a taboo subject yet we don't have a lot of female artists who are writing about it as openly. It's paradoxical because what is being said in songs seems to be very forward and honest yet on the other hand, it still filters so much of the intimacy and deepness that makes sex different for women. Thank you for making up space to have these conversations through your songs!
That you for bringing this up it really makes me feel understood. Space is a great word because it's physical space that we're talking about and somehow we talk about it in such abstracted and distanced ways. They are enjoyable to listen to but acknowledging the embarrassing and the emotional side is very important because sex is a very rich topic.
With that being said, your lyrics feel very personal. What kind of lyrics make you go; "Alright I've written a good song."
I can get very granular with it. Having a good line is important but the question is; "What is the next line?" That second line and the second action to me, is where you solidify your intention and the path that you're taking. I'm trying to get to a point where I'm not hiding in poeticism and the way of doing that is treating the next line as a foil. For example if a line is obtuse, the next one has to be direct. It could be repeating what the last line said but in a different way where you're doubling down on what you're trying to say.
You've said that being understood was the ultimate goal. So it makes sense to me that you're insisting on lines and repeating yourself in different ways. Your lines are pretty direct so I feel like you really want to be as open as possible. Maybe the fear of being misunderstood is your kryptonite as artist.
It's funny though because with Good Taste, it's obviously about oral sex. I was asked to write something about it and while writing the description I've felt a tinge of embarrassment. It's a really good exercise to think to yourself why you're embarrassed or where that anxiety is coming from.
So it's like self-therapy in a way?
What other themes or inspirations were prominent for your upcoming album?
I really like vocal piano jazz. I think Feist is top-tier everything for me, always. I still think about the "Let It Die" album constantly. There is an understated sensuality with that album. I've also seen The Squid and the Whale recently and there is a very successful identification of the human condition hidden in there. I feel the same way about Megan Stalter if I'm giving a modern reference. The only reason why internet should exist is because of how much material it's giving her. For this album I asked myself; "How can I incorporate the conversations that I'm actually having in my work?" I guess I'm trying to work towards being someone who could illustrate a scene instead of telling an entire story.
You used to do ballet when you were younger. Do you think that having done something so intertwined with visual perfection affected your fascination towards visuals and creating visually appealing music videos?
I've never thought about it that way which is remarkable because it's so true! I've quit ballet because when I was enjoying myself I was always doing the wrong things. I was certainly not going to be a professional dancer. Technically, that is not my strength. My strength is staring out to a point in the distance well. I think that continued through my work. It looks very clean but the character of it all is not clean. It's human and you can see who I am by the way I perform and move.
Stream Chelsea Jade's music here: