Snacks and Chats s03 e05 - Chelsea Jade
Snacks and Chats is back with a one-off episode to end the year, with our favourite musician of 2018 - Chelsea Jade. We caught up with her not long after she released her album of clever pop bangers, Personal Best. She talks to us about how she almost quit being an artist when she moved to LA, learning not to torture herself and others when writing, overcoming the toxic nature of jealousy, and all the good tears she’s shed from working with a roomful of women engineers, producers and songwriters - and how nurturing and needed that kind of experience is for other women in the music industry.
An edited transcript of the interview is below:
I actually quit art school and moved to K-Road, in that order. I think the proximity to the two main venues I played at, which was Whammy Bar and The Wine Cellar, you literally only had to move your gear across one street. It was so deeply convenient.
When you’re playing by yourself, you know, it’s a concern. The most miserable time I ever had in music, was - my setup used to be a keyboard stand with a plank on the top, and then I’d have all my gear on the top. Like a midi keyboard and my laptop with Ableton running - most of that stuff fit in a little travel suitcase. But the plank was always a problem.
And I remember I went to CMJ in New York, and it was just, if depression can be conjured in a situation, it’s that situation. Where you’re alone. Nobody gives a shit about what you’re doing, and you’re physically being told, your body is being told by what you’re doing, that it sux. And then when you get there, no one really gives a shit. It’s all terrible.
It would be hard to make a city like New York, where something is happening all the time anyway, care about something like that.
I learnt something from that I guess. Why would you put yourself in a scenario … where there are so many competing events and you don’t have the edge in anyway? Especially when you’re by yourself. If you don’t have a publicist, or someone to get you on the good showcases. It’s like going swimming in the middle of the ocean and expecting to have a relaxing time.
Now, in terms of gigs, I play with a band. But that’s a reaction to playing alone. I don’t like it, it’s not fun, I like to have a little huddle before I go on stage, we say nice things to each other and you establish that there’s a team dynamic and nothing matters, I really like that.
Do you have an idea of how long it took you to realise that playing alone is not the way to go?
I decided to stop playing when I moved to Los Angeles. I actually thought I wasn’t gonna be an artist anymore, I thought I was just gonna be a songwriter for other people. I did that for a year, and all the songs I made, just actually made up my album.
The way that I wrote my songs, is that I would have sessions with friends and we would write a song in a day. Most of my album was written in a day. All of those people had music publishers, and they’d send the song to their publisher. And then their publisher would come to me and ask for a meeting … They’d always ask me in the meetings, ‘How much of what you’re doing is your artist project and how much is your writing thing? How do you split those two things?’ I’d always just be like, I just want to be a writer, I’m not really an artist. Then gradually the answer became, ‘It’s 50/50, one needs the other.’
Then I played my first show, which was only in November of last year, I think my first LA show, where I had put my dream band together. My friends had all helped me put it together, they were susceptible to anything I wanted to do, so I made all these secret harboured dreams come true, of like being in Destiny’s Child. We all learnt choreography. After that show I was like, I really fucking killed it. I was like, I’m a fucking artist, this is bullshit, I’m really selling myself short, and the best shit I do is for my artist project.
That’s interesting to me that you went over thinking that you didn’t want to be an artist anymore. Do you know why you got to that point?
I was just scared. I didn’t know how to do it there. Not knowing how to facilitate that whole thing, and the writing thing was accessible.
I arrogantly believe myself to be a very good lyricist, and I’ve never doubted that. Interestingly, the artist thing was questioned in my mind, but never the writing, I was convinced I was a good writer.
But you enjoy the collaboration in those writing rooms right? That’s something that you really enjoy?
For sure. You can do like, just writing with other writers and a producer. Or you can do it where you’re writing with an artist in the room, and a producer and maybe another writer. That’s my favourite scenario, because if it’s an artist that I believe in, which obviously I like to be in rooms with things I believe in, because no one gets paid, I like that. Because somebody has a strong idea of what they want, and all you’re doing is buying into them. And you’re just like, what is it gonna take? How can I help you be the thing you want to be? How can I help you say what you want to say in an effective way?
And I imagine the fear about helping them achieve that is not there in the same way, as it is with your own stuff. You’re a bit more removed from that and you can be more logical, maybe.
Totally, and you also don’t have to take responsibility for anything. I would examine every idea to make sure it’s good, and I can always say what I think about something someone has written, as we’re writing it. But at the end of the day, if they don’t want to do it, I don’t mind. They have final veto, I’m totally happy about that, I have no ego about that, and also, have all of my ideas. The more that I can give away, the more I’ll think of. It’s like exercising a muscle. Which is another thing I learnt, don’t hoard ideas.
When you’re talking about writing songs in one day, that’s for your own project you’re talking about?
I don’t know if I could do it now, I think you have to get into a rhythm of doing it all the time. Ben knows, I would be tortured writing songs before. He watched me torture myself and be so angry and I hated myself.
Is it because you were trying to do it all yourself?
I was trying to do it well, but what is that? You just don’t know until you’ve done it. Now I just feel like, just make a blueprint and you can always change it. It’s not life or death. If you keep working on your thing, your natural sense of taste, your taste level carries through all of your ideas. You write the way you write.
That’s similar to Personal Best, the song. Your best is always changing, shifting goal-posts, that sort of thing.
Totally. That song is actually based on a Barney song, I heard a song on Barney when I was a kid. We did it in primary school. “My hat it has three corners, three corners has my hat.” As you keep going, you drop out words. I produced this song myself, and then gathered two friends, because I don’t really produce by myself, it’s the only song on the record I produced for myself. I brought in two friends to give me hints, or tips or tricks, like what do you think we should do with this?
We tried to do a version where the words drop out, it was ridiculous. It was like, ‘They don’t have a visual aid, Chelsea.’ So we did weird stuff, some of stuff is still in there, me coughing, and shrieking and weird stuff, we did all of that, went for lunch and came back and was like, ‘this is bananas’. So we just pulled it back a little bit. It was really fun.
I read that the feedback you used to get when you were at art school was that your work was too refined. And how you used to think that was a compliment. And looking back now, you’re like, it’s cos I couldn’t progress, or move forward.
Mostly it was like, they’re telling you that you’re not doing work. Basically what they’re saying is, you’ve just put something up and nobody knows why. Nobody can see the work, there’s no process. Which means that there’s no concept, it’s not a strong piece of work if you can’t draw a line through your thought process. You’ve just done something, and thought that was fine.
My thing was that I just hated putting working versions of things up for criticism because I already knew what was wrong with them. I didn’t want to put them up for debate. But it’s not how art school works.
That’s why you dropped out.
Hang on, so you dropped out, and did you go back to the same art school?
No, I assumed a new identity.
And you were still like, nah, this is not for me.
Yeah. And then at the end of that Universal New Zealand gave me a little crumb of money to keep writing songs. I think I had started doing Chelsea Jade and then I went to New York and started writing Night Swimmer.
I love that song. It’s one of my favourites, ever.
I really think it’s a very good song, actually. I think that was a really interesting point. I was like, fuck this, with art school. My friend Justyn Pilbrow, who is a NZ producer, I’d met him once in New York, we were DMing and I was saying how miserable I was at art school. He was like, just leave. Just come to New York and we can make a record. I was like, alright.
I didn’t really know how to do music by myself, but Justyn didn’t let me get away with anything. He knew how my mind worked. I didn’t think in a linear musical way, but he said, OK how are you going to funnel that into music? How are you going to make songs? So he said, you should go out and buy a handheld recorder and just go around the city, and we’re not going to use samples that everyone is using, we’re going to use your samples. Then he’d set them up on a midi keyboard, and he’d leave the room for a couple hours. That’s how we made songs, with him forcing me to learn. That was the trip that I wrote Night Swimmer.
I had an art school way of thinking, I never divorced myself from that. I just tried to apply it to pop music. But I really think after Night Swimmer I was like, now I know how I want to sound, but how do I do that again? And it was really hard, and that’s when I started putting pressure on everything.
That’s such a great video. And I think you’ve consistently made the best videos in New Zealand. Do you direct your own videos?
I’ve only started admitting that I co-direct my videos. The concepts are always mine. That’s why I work with the same person every time, Alex Gandar. He’s never trying to force concepts and treatments on me, he always just asks what I want to do. And then when I say, ‘I want to hug a block of ice’, he’s like, ‘OK cool, so how are we going to do that?’ He’s never like, ‘ugh that’s so dumb’. He’s never above everything. And it works.
Do you choreograph all the dancing as well?
Yeah, the first dancing one was Low Brow. And I worked with a young dancer called Tori Manley because I hadn’t done dance classes or anything in a long time. We’d go to a school gymnasium, and she’d yell out, ‘Now act like you don’t have any bones!’ And working out how to use your body in different ways and think about it. The Life of the Party one, I called up comedian Chris Parker and worked on stuff for a bit. But then it changed when we got in the space.
Putting so much of your thought and original ideas into those videos, I imagine that must be a huge mental load. Like, another thing that you’re loading onto yourself.
I could not hand that off to anybody else. I think that would be dishonest for my project. But I also can’t do admin. I’m so bad at admin. I just spent the last week hanging out with a lot of cool women. One of the coolest women ever, Susan Rogers, who is Prince’s engineer, she was talking about how from her experience, what can be useful in terms of success in music and many artistic pursuits is these four different personalities. One is the artist, obviously. But in order to facilitate that work, you need nerds, engineers and producers, a support character that will facilitate the idea. Then you need a social entrepreneur who is going to crow about your work and sell it. Then you need the bully who is competitive and wants to make money. You need all those characters, and it could be embodied in one person, but that’s uncommon. I could probably do two of those things.
But that [video ideas/concepts] is something I’d never hand off. Because I’m good at it, why would I not do it?
You’re not insecure about your vision or bringing it to life.
It’s more like, I would be really insecure if I was participating in someone else’s idea and I couldn’t believe in it when it was finished. I’d rather be like, oh that wasn’t great, or I could have done that better, knowing that I can stand behind it, as opposed to just resenting someone else.
Going back to that quote from art school, about being too refined. How did you learn to un-refine yourself? Being able to let things out into the world without tinkering away forever.
My entry point was moving to LA. Having a few punishing sessions with close friends, where I would just beat myself up if I couldn’t write the next line, til like that really fracturing a working relationship. I had to be like, oh god, I have to figure this out. And then pretending that I was writing for someone else was the key. Not making everything have to reflect exactly how I thought I wanted to be seen. Instead it was just like, writing a song, like I like music, just write some.
Nobody wanted to write with me when I first moved to LA, it was really just exploiting my friendships and just begging for sessions with them. People like Leroy Clampitt who moved a little bit before me, he was toiling away in his room for a year, and then he got a Justin Bieber cut. He had a studio behind a vape store near Santa Monica. I would take an hour and a half bus ride, and write with him for a day. He was so generous. He would give me almost a session a week. And then I started working with Sam McCarthy more when I worked out how to not punish the person I was working with.
Before we started, you mentioned that you’d been crying all week.
Good tears, happy tears. I was crying because if someone had asked me even two months ago how many female producers I’d worked with, I would have said two. And I would have had to think about it. But now, I helped APRA put on this event kind of modelled after a regular songwriting camp, which are events that happen all the time where there are several writing rooms going with a producer in them. We did it at Roundhead and it was just all women, all women producers, all women songwriters, all women engineers. All women. The first time that I cried, I had to give a little opening speech, I just looked around the room and was like, fuck this good. Damn this feels good. I just couldn’t contain myself.
And then, at the end of the week, this is unheard of. We had a listening party of all the songs that had been made that week. Every single one a banger. Not a shit song in the bunch. It was amazing.
And then one of the artists who had been invited there had organised for everyone to write a big note to each of the international guests, including me, and gotten them a box of chocolates from Chocolate Boutique and gave a little speech about how each person had affected them.
It was like, holy shit, this is too much, it’s the best. I feel like that’s feminine energy. It’s so affecting and nurturing and needed. And it was so special. But half of the reason I wanted to put this on was selfish. I want to work with all these people and I want to be exposed to female producers. And now everyone at that camp can say they’ve worked with minimum five female producers.
What is it about a room full of women that makes you feel like that. Is it because it’s so rare?
It’s very rare. It’s also just, it’s almost an experiment, it’s so dominated by men. Walking into a room you see the back of a producer. Boy on a computer, and you are sitting at the back. You’re never in that zone, you know. But automatically, you feel in that zone when there’s another woman in the room, somehow. There’s a little understanding there, there’s less to navigate. There’s no ego, no fights, no anything. It was all just love, it was amazing. And skill. Fucking a lot of skill.
Do you want to talk much about what you were filming yesterday?
Sister Act 2 is my all time favourite film. So that, and I also used to have this horrible job in LA, I was so sad and hated every minute of it. It was running a rehearsal space and there were no women around ever. I used to watch St Joseph’s Māori Girls School Choir on youtube. Those two factors made me really want to make a choir video for a song. And I got Godfrey de Grut from the University of Auckland pop school to do a choral arrangement of one of the songs on my record. And then got the New Zealand Music Commission to recommend some choirs. I contacted St Mary’s in Freemans Bay, and they were super keen. They learnt the song in one rehearsal, I didn’t say anything, I just fucking cried.
But you were singing with them?
No. Because the concept of the video is, the song doesn’t lend itself to me singing it in this context. It’s more about them acting as my thought process and singing all of these ugly thoughts that I have back to me so I can hear them. I’m really just standing there while they sing my song to me.
It’s called Perfect Stranger. My face is never shown. The song is about jealousy.
I thought it was about another woman.
Yeah. Just thinking somebody that is unknown is better than you. And that somebody can see them as being more perfect because they can’t get close enough to see the flaws.
Everyone is perfect when they’re a stranger.
Totally. But also in terms of the video, jealousy is also the ugliest feeling I have ever experienced. The only reason I can write that song is because I’ve gained enough perspective to know how ugly it is, and how little I want to experience it. I feel like it’s an interesting thing, to be able to examine your thought processes, and how they really affect you and I guess that’s the point.
It’s kind of that thing, where, how do you deal with someone who is angry or being confrontational with you? You just don’t say anything and let them hear themselves talk. Anything you could say would just enforce and create more tension and friction. If you just let them rage, all they’re hearing is their own voice. I kind of feel that way about how I learned about not being jealous.
I’m so allergic to ever feeling that way again. It was so toxic for me. I let it run me, so often. It’s gross man. As soon as I actively decided to just be in love with every woman I met, god it got so much easier, and it felt so much better.
Was it rivalry between women type jealousy, or professional jealousy, or just jealousy in general?
It was so abstract. It was romantic jealousy. I was so insecure.
I think, take music for example. There’s so few women, that when there is a roomful of men and two women, of course they are going to be pitted against each other or naturally compared because there are so few of them. Which is probably why a room full of women feels so beautiful. Like the writing camp.
I won’t say who, but a couple of men came through during the week of this camp. They felt really uncomfortable. They were like, OK I get it, I get where this discomfort comes from, in the opposite scenario.
You were hanging onto your album for a year. Why did it take you a year?
I couldn’t afford to put it out. So my method, which was criticised by the New Zealand Herald…
That fucked me off. I read that review, I was real mad.
I was like, aren’t you supposed to act like no one has heard it and talk about the music? You were personally affronted by how I put it out.
I didn’t have the money to put it out. I can’t tell you how broke I’ve been over the past two years. It costs $250 to master a song, it costs $15 to upload it to a distribution network to get it out, those numbers, even $15 was too much. The way that I had planned to do it was, I would get one song mastered, put it out as a single, use the Spotify money to pay for the next one to get mastered. That’s how I was going to do it. Luckily, somebody came in and paid for my mastering. It was a generous benefactor.
I had always assumed you had album backing, but you are completely independent?
Yeah. I think, to be honest, it sounds arrogant but I’m just going to run with it. I feel like the product that I present looks actualised and that there’s money behind it, because I make it look expensive.
The other thing that made me think that was the placements you have in say somewhere like the FADER, I think oh, there must be a decent machine behind you to get stuff like that.
Six months ago, I didn’t have anyone. I didn’t have managers I didn’t have anyone. So every placement I got was me hustling, bothering people, emailing five times to get them. I only had the energy to get one premiere per thing. I was doing my own PR but I got good looks, I got NYLON, i-D, Vice, I got all of that shit by myself.
When I finally got managers, they were like, that’s insane that you did that.
It is. Because again, it’s such a mental load. When you talked about all the four different people you need, you’re being so many of those people, you’re being the bully, you’re being the person who needs to sing your praises, and you’re being the artist.
I know, and I don’t enjoy that. I don’t want to have to deal. It’s disrespectful to PR people to be doing that yourself. That is a full time job. But now I have PR, they got me the FADER, and I’m like, thank god for you. Because I can only get one at a time. I can do it, but I can only get one at a time.
My managers are very good, they go into bat for me. Like, you need to be on people’s backs and they’re doing that. They’re leaving me room to do the work of the artist.
I never doubted the quality of the work, and I feel good about that. I really just always knew, you can’t just do it all yourself. It’s a mechanism, it’s a game you have to play. It’s not even a game, it’s just, this is how it is. This is energy that you have to have. I shouldn’t say have to, for what I want to do, I need that.
And now you have management and people to be able to do that other stuff for you, and you’re album is out, what do you want to do now?
I want to put out another EP by the end of the year.
And then be like, see that, Herald?
I was like, what are you talking about? They were complaining that there were only six new songs. It’s like, OK, seven, because I literally just put one out a month ago to promote this record.
That’s the traditional roll out of an album right? The way you did it.
And especially now, that’s how you do it. No one puts out albums, you put out a thousand singles and you compile them. They’re basically compilations of singles. And who complains about every song being a single? They all bang. Also, he complained that the last song on the record wasn’t enough of a banger. It’s like, well what do you want then? Do you want all singles or do you want b-sides also? P.S, it is a banger.
I shouldn’t take it so personally, I just took this so personally because it’s my hometown paper and like, come on. This is a tough thing about New Zealand. Can’t you just support me for once?
Do you feel like you’ve been supported in general?
I don’t know if it’s a mental thing I put on myself, but I do feel hyper judged. I don’t know if it’s real, but I really want New Zealand’s approval. Like, really badly. But I’m just setting myself up for heartbreak. It’s too cool.