Familiar as one of the Teacups’ trio and as an eye-catching, if shy, live backing vocalist to various break out acts including James Duncan and Punches, Chelsea Jade Metcalf effectively burst onto the scene as Watercolours by winning the first monthly round of the audience’s NZ On Air Wildcard grant (with the dreamily catchy Nightswimmer) back in June 2012. The timing was perfect, the momentum carrying her to the Critics Choice Award later that year. As she tells Max Oldfield, on the eve of her debut EP release, it’s not an award she felt altogether comfortable about.
Almost a year on from winning the NZ Music Awards’ much-touted Critics Choice Award, Chelsea Jade Metcalf, aka Watercolours, is set to release a six-track EP brimming with collaborative material between herself, Jeremy Toy (She’s So Rad) and James Duncan. The EP, named ‘Portals’, traverses some more challenging territory for Metcalf, with a stronger presence of bass and percussion shining through the familiar delicate and balanced Watercolours’ sound to create tunes that are bigger, bolder, and sonically deeper.
Despite the defined sound, and the accolades Metcalf has achieved, a simple Google search won’t turn up a hell of a lot about Watercolours, beyond a seldom updated Facebook profile and a Bandcamp page hosting two singles from ‘Portals’, as well as a remix EP titled ‘Over and Under’, featuring work from James Duncan, Boycrush, and Homebrew’s Haz’ Beats. The absence of online material, she says, is an effort to be more curatorial in a business where one is often called upon to defend one’s work.
“I kind of think about it like, only putting things up that I’ve been happy with for five minutes. I’m never going to put anything up that I’m not actualised about, y’know? I mean, what’s the point? You’re going to have to talk about it and defend it and stuff.
“It’s not about being precious; it’s not even remaining 100% confident. Even if, just for a minute, you feel like, ‘This is fucking great’, that’s enough reason to put it up. But if you never feel like that at all, why would you put yourself up for criticism?”
Notwithstanding, Watercolours will be releasing her new EP in late November. Recorded mostly by Ben Lawson at the old Red Bull studio in College Hill, Auckland (with the exception of the few tracks we’ve already heard) ‘Portals’ has been mixed by ex-Elemeno P member Justyn Pilbrow. Metcalf says that will help add uniformity to a project that was cobbled together from jam sessions and musical exploration, rather than concrete ideas.
“Jeremy [Toy] and I basically went into the recording room and both sat on the same drum kit and played for like 10 minutes, and then picked a section out of the expanse of what we’d just recorded and built things around it. And that’s basically how it worked.
“I had certain things that I wanted to do, and we’d just show each other things that we liked and describe things in really abstract or lateral ways. Like, ‘I like soft sounding bass’, ‘I like it to sound really round’.”
Incredibly, working with Toy and Lawson on ‘Portals’ is Metcalf’s first experience in a professional studio, having previously recorded in bedrooms and houses, mostly for fun. In fact the assertion that she’s a professional musician is perturbing to her, as, it would seem, are many facets of the music industry. The sentiment extends to the Critics Choice Awards; an award Metcalf doesn’t believe she deserved.
“I feel like that was a fluke,” she admits. “I don’t think I deserved it on the night, and I knew that at the time. I burst into tears when they said my name, and not because I was overjoyed (which I was), but because I felt like a bit of a fraud, because I think Beach Pigs fucking nailed it.
“I think I went about it by taking it on as a ‘project’, and I discarded everything that we’d been playing before, and I asked a lot of the people that were playing with me to learn new material. We went through a lot of rehearsal and maybe it built up to this thing that it wasn’t, that it shouldn’t ever be. So, on the night, it just didn’t feel right. It felt wrong.”
Watercolours is now a one-woman-show, “streamlined” into a process that affords Metcalf control over all elements of her sound, and benefits her, she believes, in the end. There is also an element of professional courtesy to the overall plan, in that she believes people need to be taken seriously as musicians, so if she can’t pay them, she shouldn’t ask.
Asked how she will recreate the songs on ‘Portals’, which sound bigger and more complex instrumentally than most she has released before, Metcalf is relaxed and confident, which is itself a departure from her somewhat awkward normality.
“I’ve already been playing those songs live. At one point I was playing with just me and a drummer, and the drummer was always amazing and proficient, but it wasn’t challenging to him at all and it made more sense to use just a drum loop and alter it myself. Obviously I’ve never been an audience member, but the songs are built up of a lot of electronic sounds, so even if I omit the earthier instrumentation, I still think that the songs translate in a live setting really well. I found it to be a welcome challenge.”
And challenges are something Metcalf will become accustomed to facing over the remainder of the year, with a trip to New York to work with Pilbrow on new Watercolours material accompanying the release of ‘Portals’ and a double A-side single with frequent collaborator Boycrush.
It’s a busy time for an artist who favours infrequent performances and a sparse online presence, but for NZ music fans it can only be a good thing.