To celebrate the release of Chelsea Jade’s long-awaited debut album, Sam Brooks asks her everything about her (and other people’s) music.
It’s the rare unambiguously sunny morning in Auckland when Personal Best drops. I’m sitting outside a big building, waiting for an interview, long flowy coat on, big sunglasses on, and I’m listening to the album from start to finish.
One lyric from track nine (‘Over Sensitive’) stands out to me:
I want to make the most of you, boy
Just get yourself together because I don’t want to toy with you
It’s the perfect Chelsea Jade lyric – it’s one you can see her performing with a wide smile, knowing her audience is in on her specific joke, and knowing that smile comes after a whole lot of proud tears.
I listen to the track again, and lip-sync along to it – it’s already in my brain, because like the best Chelsea Jade lyrics, it was somewhere deep in any wounded millennial’s soul.
Chelsea and I have a coffee at the gentrification-as-artform cafe Between, located in the strange dead zone of K’Road that exists between the cemetery and Queen Street. It’s just one week after the Silver Scrolls – where ‘Life of the Party’ was a finalist. “It was good, I had an endorphin meltdown when Tiny Ruins played my songs. I was literally sobbing.”
We start off by talking about what music she’s listening to – there’s something about knowing what music artists are listening to that validates me and my music choices – and she’s listening to early-to-mid-00’s R&B, specifically namedropping Cherish’s ‘Do It To It’.
The conversation pivots to her work and her time in LA, largely spent in various producers’ studios, writing songs for herself and others, writing songs with others. “I feel like my two lives are being an artist and being a songwriter. The trajectory of me being a songwriter is that I want to help facilitate people to say what they want to say, and write the songs they want to write. But my artist project is totally ego based. I want to serve my project.”
It’s a hectic-sounding life – one spent in a lot of Uberpools, which is exactly what you think it is – and generating a shitton of material. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, according to her. “You could write 50 songs in a year, like a song a week, or 365 songs in a year, and maybe four of them are good. Well, that’s still four good songs. I don’t think you can get there without wading through the sludge pit.”
“The thing that sucks is when someone says, ‘Okay, so let’s write a hit.’ And the reason you say that is because of what you’ve heard, not because of what’s actually going on in your brain. You’re thinking about what the last hit was and how to relate what you’re doing with that, and I think it’s nearly impossible to get something good out of that. If you’re just differing your thoughts to try and match someone else’s, then I think it’s just gonna be mediocre.”
While the Uberpool life sounds terrifying to me, it appears to recharge Chelsea, who like me, cannot drive. “It’s an interesting thing in LA – there has to be so much intention behind meeting people, because there’s no pedestrian culture. You have to know where you’re going, and so there’s no incidental encounter, but the Uberpool app chips away at that a bit.
“The basis of songwriting is that you’re drawing from things that happen in your life, so things have to happen in your life. You can’t just bleed a stone dry, you gotta keep filling it up.”
The interview wraps up with us talking about Carly Rae Jepsen, the pop warrior who rules over a no-mans-land between mainstream and indie pop – “that’s the pop world I want to live in, in her pop world where she’s just unafraid” – and it lands on something that leaves my brain absolutely buzzing, to use that phrase for the first time in my life.
“There are so few female producers, and barring the politics of that, there’s a whole world we haven’t heard yet, and I find that very exciting, that there could be this whole sonic plane we haven’t tapped into yet. There are so many avenues that haven’t been touched.”
Our next interview is at the bar Little Easy, which feels like the nouveau-barely-riche spirit of the Viaduct setting itself up down the inaccessible bougie mid-point of Ponsonby Road. Two vodka-sodas, a dodgy phone recording and we’re talking about music again.
Again, what is she listening to? ‘Sticky’ by Raevyn Lenae. When she speaks about the song, she does so with huge enthusiasm for the technical things that make up pop music there – and she has the knowledge to back it up: “I love interesting vocal production – I don’t really care about anything else – and [Lenae] is basically doing what I am interested in. Which is not necessarily respecting the boundaries between the lead and the backing vocal, it’s making that a thing. It’s the perfect marriage of oblique thoughts and pop, which is the most interesting thing in the world y’ know?
“I think that’s what everyone tries to do: make original things that are still palatable, and I think that song nails it. It’s like a Minnie Riperton. It’s so good, and it’s weird because that song is kinda lo-fi sounding but somehow she makes it hi-fi.”
Conversation turns to her memories of Wondergarden. Everybody I talked to about the new year’s festival in Auckland’s Silo Park buzzed about Chelsea Jade’s set.
“When I got there I was actually super overwhelmed by the scale of it, and even just the factor of it being night time and that many people – there was like three thousand people, which is not usual for me. I haven’t really played much in the last three years, so it’s quite confronting to be like, “Second time with this show that I’ve made! In front of three thousand people! Here I go!”
Her live show is closer to performance art than any pop music I’ve seen. There’s choreography, and there’s a very clear visual design to it, which is something that my friends – pretentious theatre and dance-y types – have raved about. When she talks about her show, she namechecks Belgian dance legend Anna Theresa De Keersmaeker, from whom Beyonce famously cribbed for her ‘Countdown’ music video.
“Growing up, my parents really supported my want to dance, so I did a lot of dance classes. Then I kind of abandoned it when I was 16, and did music. So I think now it’s melding the dancing and the music into a show that’s… a gestural music show really. It’s that pop thing of being able to relate to a moment in a pop song, but applying that to a movement.”
As the conversation draws to a close – Little Easy is not really the best place for an interview, and I feel like we’d be more comfortable somewhere quieter, darker and less inclined towards craft beer – we return to the subject of new pop sounds we haven’t heard yet.
“I think maybe I’m reacting to what I grew up with – which was very talented women having to pander to other people, and maybe that was a bit condescending and alienating. I don’t think that’s necessarily true anymore. Like we’ve got Lorde and I feel like she’s the beacon of light. But that’s the school I want to be in, people feeling – I don’t wanna say empowered, but emboldened… not feeling admonished for listening to pop music, you know?
“So many of my songs have started becoming about women talking to other women. A lot of my songs are talking to love interests, but I’ve played three songs not about that – ones about how I want to relate to other women, and I feel so fucking good playing those songs. I hope people really heard that or will hear that, you know?”
“I really want girls and young women to like feel like they have someone on their side.”
When I finally get to see Chelsea live, it’s an unusual circumstance – a one-off performance in the middle of a fashion festival.
The picture: A rainy morning in downtown Auckland. A bare-bones stage set up on Commerce Street – on the strange cobblestoned pathway-streets that make up an ever-increasingly large part of the CBD.
The rain intensifies a bit, I see some friends – some of my cool friends – the kind of friends I’d usually run into at opening nights or at nice cafes, and I know that I’m in a place to be. Cool people like Chelsea Jade, because she is Cool Music, but also all people who like pop music like Chelsea Jade, because she is Very Good Pop Music.
Jade is a magnetic performer – the gestural choreography she talked about in her last interview is startlingly effective at creating a mood, and she’s got a crowd here that’s here for her to make that mood. They know all the songs – they know the choreography, and they’re waiting for the now iconic moments where Chelsea Jade comes into the crowd. It’s not the narcissism-driven crowd-surfing of a rock star, it’s an equalizing ‘we’re all in this together’ vibe.
She runs through her set list of mostly familiar songs, and one that was still to be released: ‘Laugh It Off’, which opens with a Des’ree-esque riff that sticks in my brain every time I listen to it. She finishes with ‘Life of the Party’, with the now famous and much-copied choreography. The crowd is as wild as you can get at 11 am on a rainy Saturday morning.
The show ends, she steps off stage, the crowd disperses apart from a group of fans near the stage who wait for her to come down, literally just onto the street, to take selfies.
In this scenario, it’s clear that her presence and performance as a pop artist does exactly what her music does – it equalizes. You feel like you’re in communion with her when you listen to her, in an almost-cultish way, and you equally feel like you’re in communion with the rest of the people there. It’s not the feeling you have when you go to a bigger concert, where there can be levels of fans raging from the casual radio listener to rabid merch hoarders, where the relationship between the artist and each individual audience member is as unique as snowflake.
Chelsea Jade creates a communion with her audience. And it’s why her songs hit as deep as they do, and stay in your gut as long as they do.
Our third and final interview is a Facebook chat a few days ago. When I say there are two days before the album comes out, she corrects me and says there are four days. She’s on the other side of the world, of course, and also I am entirely wrong.
Between our second interview and now, the video for ‘Laugh It Off’ has come out. It’s beautiful, haunting and has pushed her aesthetic into a place between Tori Amos’ mid-nineties work and the Instagram generation. In short, I love it.
How does she feel about the album’s impending release?
i’m oscillating on a raw nerve that could be perceived as anxiety or excitement depending on the minute
i feel the desperation of not knowing if I’ve done all i can to usher it into the world.
i don’t want it to be up to me to keep it anymore
the anticipation you mentioned makes me feel immense guilt
because it took so long
When I note, definitely being more of a dick that I intended to be about it, that she doesn’t owe anybody music, and not on anybody else’s schedule, she rightly corrects me:
i don’t owe anyone anything, it’s true. but people lay their head on your shoulder and you don’t want them to think you don’t want to hold them anymore
I ask her if the album feels final after this amount of time, and she sums up the album’s title – and the apparent thesis of the project – as succinctly as I can imagine.
i suppose finality has an air of apex about it, like this is as good as it’s going to get
which is the complete opposite of my mentality
“personal best” as a phrase is a moving target
you measure yourself against yourself always
but there’s no outside competition
if that makes sense
basically, there’s no way to ever land with making art and music
there’s always more to learn and say
i think there’s a romanticism there too
The closing album on the track is ‘Speedboat’. It’s an absolute 3 am stormer of a track – one you’d play to end a night before you go off into the night with whoever you want to go off with that night – your friends, your new beau, or the ex you ran into who you really shouldn’t go home with. Jade encompasses all these scenarios, and draws that anticipatory wistfulness from somewhere deep within.
And when the ripples trickle down
They want to carry me to where you are now
Like a voice that echoes out
Give ’em hell, give ’em hell, give ’em hell.
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I end up lip-syncing these lyrics easily on a second listen – Jade isn’t just one of our best lyricists but one of our best warrior-poets – and I remember a seemingly throwaway answer to a question about her writing process, and realise it applies just as much to being a listener of her music:
each song was like being invited into a friends lounge to talk about my feelings.
This piece (as well as a few of the songs on Chelsea Jade’s ‘Personal Best’) was made possible by NZ On Air and, like all of The Spinoff’s music content, by Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.