‘Well Princess it looks like depression is at least highly creative for you. Happiness sometimes is too distracting :)’ So reads one of the comments on Princess Chelsea‘s Facebook page. The comment seems – in a twisted, almost ironic way – to summarise the most recent phase of Chelsea Nikkel‘s life. It packages it neatly into 117 uneasy characters located in the middle of the comments section, beneath a link to an interview. In that interview Nikkel touches briefly on the surreal experiences her project has surrounded her with since the release of her first album in 2011, and her surreal sounding reaction (released to considerably more local fanfare) now, in 2015. Sam Carswell digs considerably deeper into ‘The Great Cybernetic Depression’.
Chelsea Nikkel is almost a physical embodiment of her music. Not in an obvious way, but talking to her you get the sense that the juxtaposition of the innocent and the severely dark play out in her head the same ways they do in song.
This is without a doubt the person behind the childlike voice that wrote and sang the lines, ‘It’s just a cigarette that I got from Jamie Lee / Well she’s gonna get a smack and I’m gonna give you three.’
Her black humour seems to act as a filter through which she views the world, illustrating what she sees in her writing. Thus, it was only natural that when her world started to turn grey, her writing became a palette of all the experiences that mixed to colour it. Experiences within and without the music industry as the systems unravelled before her eyes; experiences of paranoia, depression and anxiety. All of which happened whilst she was trying to manage tours and promote her music, booking shows and interviews –– not to mention actually working on the music itself. It felt to Nikkel like her life was falling apart –– and can still feel like that, even now.
“I pretty much hope I don’t get more successful, because I don’t think I’d be able to handle it… I’m not even dealing with minor success that well. I just don’t think I’ll have any friends left. I’ll turn into a real crazy person!”
She laughs it off, as so many creative people do, offering the classic retort: “It’s fine though, it’ll probably make really interesting music.”
With that in mind, it’s not difficult to see how Nikkel could create the album she has. ‘The Great Cybernetic Depression’ deals allegorically with her personal apocalypse in the context of wider society. “A social apocalypse…,” she terms it. What if it’s not her life that’s falling apart? What if it’s society that’s falling apart? What if, she elected, we set it 10 years in the future and give it synthesisers and stuff?
In removing the narrative enough from her life she is able to inspect and dissect every crack in society, and thus, herself. The album simultaneously deals with broad, societal problems, such as overpopulation and technological advancement, as well as the effect they have on the intimate and personal; the disconnection, the depression, the boredom.
“The song Too Many People is basically me feeling freaked out and agoraphobic, and not wanting to leave the house. But the song is also set in 2023, and about there being too many people in the world. And it references an event that happened 10 years ago –– I’m almost referencing an event that’s starting to happen now”.
That event is Nikkel’s forecast slow descent into madness, both for society and herself. She even gave it a name.
“The Great Cybernetic Depression [in the context of the album] is this thing that happens…… Me and (video director) Simon Ward put a year on it, 2023. It’s kind’a like a social apocalypse or something. Everyone’s disconnected from each other. I had a pretty weird, bad year in 2014. I was personally… not enjoying myself a lot. So I thought I’d present my feelings of, I guess, ‘being depressed’ as this event.”
The event becomes the central theme of the album as we’re lead through snapshots of Nikkel’s decomposing society. On Is It All Okay? and We Are Strangers we learn about characters who are trying to connect with each other in an environment built on disassociation. With Too Many People we learn of the overpopulation of the new world, and the boredom and narcissism of its inhabitants. The instrumental Winston Crying On The Bathroom Floor takes us to future childbirth, its uneasy reimagining fitting the subtle Nineteen Eighty-Four tribute in the title.
Finally, on closer All The Stars everything suddenly collides. The snapshots are dragged abruptly back during the climax – their musical and lyrical themes making sudden, jarring appearances – and you realise that you’re listening to Nikkel’s rendering of her apocalypse.
‘The sky went dark/And the Earth/it fell/But the stars/they were still shining bright’, she sings as the song begins to build layer upon layer of her cascading memories. Immediate memories, like 40 minutes of the preceding album, but also deeper memories of the years spent conceiving it. Tough memories.
“It’s a concept album, but the concept is also a metaphor for me having a real shit time,” she explains to me in a less-than-futuristic Kingsland café.
The building blocks of that ‘shit time’ can be loosely traced to 2011 –– the year her clever debut ‘Little Golden Book‘ album was released, as well as Princess Chelsea’s first international tour. She’s toured internationally every year since but it was the beginning of her unravelling.
“In 2013 I went on tour with Alt-J, and did another European tour. It was pretty difficult when I got back from that tour… I was coming back to NZ pretty fried. I spent pretty much the whole year in the backroom at the Ghetto [the infamous Lil’ Chief flat-turned-studio]; wrote the album and arranged it. She absorbed herself in her music, the process slowly eating away at her sanity.
“My music project is becoming an entity that I feel is starting to take on a life of its own, and I have to put a lot of my time into it –– it’s taking over my life. I haven’t had time in the last year, really, to be a particularly great friend to any of my friends, or spend a lot of time with my family. I’ve been completely immersed in this thing that’s all about myself. But I just have to… to get it done.”
By the end of 2013 she had four of the album’s tracks. Two of her own, plus two written by others. The first, No Church On Sunday –– a song written by her band’s former keys player Jamie Lee Smith (yeah, that one) –– describes the challenges of walking away from a religious upbringing, but also acts as an illustration of an ungodly society, gradually becoming godless.
The second, and the closest thing the new album has to a centrepiece, is a re-contextualisation of Voom’s (a Lil’ Chief labelmate act) song, We’re So Lost. Originally a song dealing in a crisis of personal identity, Nikkel – as she does with the whole album – makes the personal societal. ‘Can you see what we’re doing?/There’s so much we’re in danger of losing. / We’re so lost, / we’re in danger.’ The words seem to apply to their new context equally as well as the original.
“It’s funny, because that’s the first thing from the album I arranged and put together. The song, from the start I knew, was definitely going on the album. It pretty much sums up the whole identity of the album. The lyrical and thematic content, but also the arrangement of it – the synthesisers and stuff.”
The ‘synthesisers and stuff’ have, it seems, been equally key to the album as the lyrical and thematic content. In trying to look to the future Nikkel found herself being aesthetically inspired by those who had done the same in the past.
“People keep saying ‘retro-futuristic’ about this album, which is definitely true. I’m using a lot of Yamaha DX7 sounds, which was a pretty popular synthesiser in the ’80s, but very of-its-time-sounding. I feel like when the synthesiser came out, people were like, ‘Wow, that’s the sound of the future!’, and a lot of musicians, just because of the nature of the instrument, would naturally write songs about it. It inspired them to. They could hear it. So the theme of the album ties in with the sound of the instruments.”
Getting that sound proved an often laborious, painstaking task – one shared with longtime Princess Chelsea production collaborator, Jonathan Bree.
“My recording process is to pretty much demo up a song until it’s around 80% finished, which involves being a real weirdo and writing a melody line and listening to different synthesisers playing it, trying to find the right one… then Jonathan does all the drums. It took us about three months to polish them off. Three months of very intensive work. Like, ‘Is this kick drum too loud?’ ‘Let’s listen to it in the car, in the lounge, in the studio. Yes it is. Okay let’s change this kick drum. Alright, let’s listen to it again –– in the car, in the lounge, in the studio.’
“Okay next song. ‘Is this kick drum too loud?’ ’…You get to a point where it’s dangerous to work that intensively on something, but it’s just our process.”
She admits to being “a little scared” about letting others become involved the music creation process.
“There’s more dilution… That person, just by the nature of what they’re doing, is gonna have creative input, which is a scary thing to give to someone else. I think Jonathan’s the right person though.”
The album was mastered at The Lab where, using an A/B tool, they compared each track with a selection of classic ’80s power ballads, in search of the biggest sound they could get.
“We compared [the tracks] to Phil Collins, Sinead O’Connor‘s Nothing Compares 2 U, Madonna, Guns’n’Roses‘ November Rain, and A-Ha. Always A-Ha. I’ve got a new respect for A-Ha after recording this album. Just how they managed to make something so dense sound so huge.
“The less you have going on, the more dynamic space there is for things to sound big. It’s like trying to fit a bunch of things in a suitcase. The less things you have in that suitcase, the bigger those things can be.”
And so they toiled, arranging and re-arranging the suitcase until it fit perfectly.
“For Jonathan, every time we do an album, at the end he’s like, ‘I don’t know if I can do that again’,’ and I always hope that he gets over it.”
It might be a while before Nikkel finds the time to write another album. Lil’ Chief have partnered with Flying Nun for a worldwide release of ‘The Great Cybernetic Depression’ and days after completing her NZ release tour the live band, (in which Nikkel and Bree are augmented by Jonathan Pearce and Jackson Hobbs), left for a two month European tour. Many of the shows have sold out, more signs pointing to Princess Chelsea becoming an international success story. But sometimes it’s difficult for Nikkel to get excited about that
“It makes me feel weird. Part of the reason I’ve found the last couple of years quite challenging is navigating the music industry and coming to terms with ‘playing the industry game’, while trying to maintain my personal integrity.”
It is a tough thing to do, considering it’s an industry built on classifications and stereotypes.
“I feel like a lot of people almost want you to be adult contemporary, in order to take you seriously. I wonder if I’ll ever get a 5-star review, because I feel like to get one of those you have to present yourself as a ‘real, serious adult’. Whereas a lot of people don’t grasp the fact that you can present yourself in a variety of different ways, but still take on serious themes and be serious about music. Some people don’t get it. But the reason I do it is to make it more startling when people hear songs like this, presented in this context, instead of a more serious folk/guitar-band thing.
“The juxtaposition of the sound and the themes makes it more shocking. But some people don’t get that. They ask, ‘Why are you so childlike and girly?’ ‘You should really try to grow up and mature with your music and I might take you seriously’. I’m like, ‘I don’t think you get it.'”
The unfair dismissals have often come from within the industry, as well.
“Some journalists, without realising it, have the tendency to dismiss it just because there’s a female vocal sound. And certainly I’ve had that said to me – via an international radio DJ who’s meant to be a ‘tastemaker’. Which is just wrong.”
It shouldn’t be hard to see how these experiences can be stifling for young artists. It can make them feel like their expression is invalid or misunderstood. It dismisses years of hard work and it fosters cynicism about the music industry – even cynicism about success in general. Such feelings are what Chelsea Nikkel has been warring with internally for the past three years, and it’s still unclear which army will win. At times, it’s seemed uncertain to her whether she’s heading for a satisfying and healthy career, or gradually descending into her own Great Cybernetic Depression.
She has hope though. That’s the important thing. There’s hope in her friends and hope in her collaborators.
“My friend Brad Fafejta did the artwork. I’ve known him since I was four and he just got it. He took all the photos in 20 minutes… And Simon Ward’s videos. He’s someone I really love collaborating with, because he just gets it too.”
Most importantly, there’s hope through her writing. As we talk she mentions her admiration for the writing of Modern Lovers’ Jonathan Richman.
“His whole ethos was questioning societal change. I reference a few of his lyrics in a couple of songs, talking about the ‘old world’ and the ‘modern world’, just because I love Jonathan Richman so much and it’s quite similar, thematically.
She comes back to him at the end of our conversation.
“In ‘The Modern Lovers’ album he’s still grasping the idea that the world is moving forward, but in later albums he’s like, ‘’Ahh, I kind’a like the new world.’’
I can’t help but feel that ‘The Great Cybernetic Depression’ represents Nikkel’s Modern Lovers’ stage. The frustration, depression, anxiety and heartbreak of coming to terms with her new world, all on paper. It’s out there now. And it leaves the exciting parts of redefining and refocusing her life. Now comes growth. Now comes discovery.