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December/January 2019

by Poppy Tohill

Chelsea Jade: Pilgrim’s Progress

by Poppy Tohill

Chelsea Jade: Pilgrim’s Progress

In recent years Los Angeles has firmly taken over as the de facto ex-pat home to world market-conscious Kiwi music professionals, not simply musicians but for music producers like Joel Little and Sam de Jong. Chelsea Jade Metcalf fits into the first category but has expanded her activities into the realm of song co-writing, with notable early success. It’s another unveiled layer of the artist Kiwi audiences have known variously as a backing vocalist, member of Teacups, as the award-winning Watercolours, circa 2012, and these days more simply as Chelsea Jade. It’s under that name that she recently delivered an album called ‘Personal Best’, released in Aotearoa’s 2018 winter, but largely un-promoted here ahead of her November three-centre tour. Poppy Tohill had a chat with Chelsea not long after the inspirational Songhubs Sphere event in Auckland.

Chelsea Jade Metcalf is a natural-born performer with an instinctively creative mind and notable eye and ear for art, dance and pop music.

This year has seen the LA-based songwriter and producer check off many impressive firsts, from penning a single (You Owe Me) for The Chainsmokers, which led to US chart success, to releasing her debut Chelsea Jade album ‘Personal Best’.

2012 winner of the Critics Choice Prize, a Red Bull Music Academy alumni and APRA Professional Development Award recipient, her potential for success has been well flagged, however, 2018 seems to have been a lift-off year. In September she curated the female-focused SongHubs Sphere camp held in Auckland. The 6-day event saw an array of extraordinary international guests work with local talent to create music on every level from production to engineering, composition and performance.

Attending APRA’s annual SongHubs writing camp just last year, a programme Chelsea explains as “…the optimal writing camp” sparked her idea for SongHubs Sphere – a similar event for women with an emphasis on production.

“To be honest, I don’t think there has ever been a time where the discussion around gender imbalance has not been prevalent for women,” she admits. “I don’t even know if I would say the conversation has gotten louder over time, it’s more that the current time we’re in has made it more attainable for events such as SongHubs Sphere to happen. There’s still so much work to be done, but I feel proud that I’m doing what I can.”

Her involvement included selecting the attendees, a learning curve in itself for the artist who admits never having been involved in that sort of capacity before.

“There were so many incredible applicants and it was very tough to narrow it down, but it’s a really unique scenario that taught me a lot about how I would approach this in the future.”

Just as important was her role in curating an exciting line up of international guests that included Susan Rogers (who has a PHD in music psychology and just so happened to be Prince’s engineer), Wendy Wang, Ebonie Smith and Laura Bettinson.

“There are so many minute moments that I will grip onto forever,” Chelsea’s face lights up in reflection. “I will never forget Susan Rogers expressing how special it was. Laura also mentioned that before now she’d never been to a listening party at the end of a writing camp where every song blew her away. The calibre was off the charts, and honestly, I’m just extremely pleased about the fact that everyone who attended can now say that they’ve worked with at least five female producers.

“I knew we were going to have session musicians available, but I will always remember opening the itinerary and seeing Bic Runga’s name next to the word ‘drums.’ In my mind, I wouldn’t have approached her because she’s so amazing, so why would she be involved? But she was there because she wanted to be.

“One element that it was great to have reinforced to me, was that it’s just a matter of asking. If you ask somebody and they say no, then that’s actually okay, you just move on. Another was, don’t be shy of being in control of your environment. For example, if you’re feeling uncomfortable in a session for any reason, you’re not obligated to stay and it’s okay to leave. Also, if you’re the artist in the room, then you’re the one who controls the conditions.”

A member of all-female trio Teacups (alongside The Beths’ Liz Stokes), it was as Watercolours that Chelsea Jade started forging a solo artist career, notably winning the first monthly round of The Audience’s NZ On Air Wildcard grant back in June 2012 with the dreamy Nightswimmer.

In October that year, she was named the winner of the since-discontinued Critics Choice Prize, later revealing to NZM that she didn’t think she deserved the accolade – saying Beach Pigs instead should have won on the night. Perhaps by now, she might reflect that the judges really hadn’t got it so wrong…
Three years ago Chelsea Jade decided to relocate across the Pacific to make a go of being a pop artist in Los Angeles.

“America is such a paradoxical place and the mystery of LA is everlasting,” she quips. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I knew that I was becoming too familiar and comfortable with Auckland, and too claustrophobic in NZ. I stopped performing for two years and thought I would just take some time to be a writer as opposed to an artist, and I struggled immensely but never regretted it.

“Music is such an unpredictable beast and no artist is the same, but I think everyone should examine what it is they want and how they are going to go about it, and if that means leaving NZ then, by all means, give it a try. But I don’t think that you have to leave NZ in order to be successful. I love NZ and I think some of the best music is being made here right now.”

Since that move to LA, Chelsea’s perspective has clearly evolved, including a newfound sense of confidence that reveals itself through not only her own creative personality but her lyrics and recent live performances.

“There’s such a high calibre in LA. If you’re going to put on a show it’s also going to cost you a lot of money so it has to be worth it, for everyone’s sake. My first show in two years was at the Echo Park showcase, Neon Gold and I just remember putting so much work into rehearsing everything from the vocals to the choreography.

“I don’t think my attitude in NZ was to take it that seriously,” she admits. “I used to think that you had to come out actualised, and if you’re not that good now then you never will be – but that’s not true, you just have to keep working at it.”

Describing the release of ‘Personal Best’, as “…being at the start line,” she says the debut album’s title “…encapsulates the athleticism of measuring yourself against yourself.” Chelsea now feels as though she can run full steam ahead, which she certainly has been doing.

“All of these songs were written when I was in conversation with myself about moving to Los Angeles, so the record in itself is about figuring out how to move past your own issues and self-confrontation. I’m not throwing anyone other than myself under the bus, which is fun. I’m quite comfortable with self-mockery and self-criticism, but I also think there’s a lot of life and joy that exists throughout the album too.”

The album’s title track, an intriguing intro that lures the listener in with its carefully orchestrated imperfections, is based on the children’s song My Hat Has Three Corners.

“Each time they repeatedly chant the lyrics, a word is dropped out, so I adopted a similar intention and dropped a word for a sound, such as a cough or a scream, so it still conveys that vibe of when you repeatedly chant something it almost becomes a mantra.”

Vocal production help was provided by LA artist Luna Shadows and she surprises with the confession that most songs on the record were written and recorded in a day.

“The way my creative process works is that nothing is done without me being present. I get a lot of energy from somebody else being in the room, but I will only work with people that I know and trust.”
With notable credit going to fellow LA-based Kiwi producers, Leroy Clampitt (Big Taste), Sam McCarthy (Boy Boy), Justyn Pilbrow and American visual artist, Brad Hale (Now Now).

The importance she places on visual communication is undeniable, with a live show that is closer to performance art than most. (This despite dropping out of art school on two different occasions, a circumstance that she puts down to not being mature enough.) “Music and visuals are one and the same to me, I cannot divorce them. The way that I even came to music was through dance, so one can’t exist without the other for me.”

While learning ballet it was the conversation between the pianist and the dancer that caught young Chelsea’s immediate attention.

“Watching a dancer move in conjunction with music as they each anticipate the next move is very romantic. I stopped dancing formally when I was 16, but I have always thought about music in terms of how it relates to my body.”

The move to California isn’t the only factor that changed her approach to her own artistry, as she set out on an exciting new journey of writing for others, which she describes as a service role.

“I’m no expert on this topic, there’s still so much for me to learn and I’m still figuring it out,” she admits with a humble smile. “But there’s so much that can be learnt from other people.”

Working on her own material she asserts absolute control, but describes her role in writing for others as ‘guiding them on their journey and getting them to where they want to be.’

“I think that reading is so vital, especially for me because I put so much importance on creative phrasing and lyrics in general. But songwriting for others has really helped me to learn that you shouldn’t hoard ideas, because the more you hoard for yourself, the less room you have to create.”

An ex-pat crowd of LA-based Kiwi musicians including Aaron Short (Space Above) Alisa Xayalith (The Naked & Famous), Maddie North (So Below) and Sam McCarthy make up the support group that Jade says has helped her through some of her darkest and toughest struggles there.

“I don’t know what I would have done without them, they’ve all got a lot going on, but they were always ready and waiting to give me a hand when I needed it – and I hope that I can bring that same quality to the table for them.

“I think I talk about struggle a lot on social media and I actually really like the platform,” she confesses. “I find it very difficult when I overhear older generations knocking it, because of course, it has its own problems, like anything, but when I was growing up I just had to accept the imagery that I was being shown, whereas now you can create your own value, which I believe is amazing.”

Now with booking agents in NZ and the US, and a brand new live show set up featuring dreamy backing vocalists and synchronised choreography, Chelsea is more than ready to hit the road and give it her personal best.

“I absolutely love to play and can honestly say that I believe the only way to get better at it is to tour, so I want to really knock it out of the park.”

With massive thanks to Amanda Ratcliffe for her photos. Find more of her work here.