How Chelsea Jade Wrote the Soundtrack for Having Social Anxiety, But Going to the Party Anyway

Interviews. Posted 10 months ago

Emma Gleason

Image: Chelsea Jade.

With her angular blonde bob and rotation of shirts and turtlenecks, Chelsea Jade weaves a vision of refined practicality with her melodic, dreamy vocals and sparse, buoyant beats. Her new single ‘Life of the Party’ has been her most successful release to date, with over 300,000 plays on Spotify. Although not entirely unexpected, or something she is preoccupied with, the response is a source of pride and fascination. “I try to keep expectation at bay, yet find myself drawn into my little iPhone screen when I wake up – looking at the numbers. If I were not the sole occupant of my little empire, I wouldn’t concern myself with such things but, as it happens, I’m also my own PR person and manager so I must wear all hats at once. It would be accurate to say that I’m extremely touched that people are hanging out with the song.”

The song itself features the lyrical prowess and dry humour that Chelsea brings to both her music and conversational interactions, pulling on metaphors and idioms, embracing double-meanings and wordplay. ‘Life of the Party’ explores social interactions and our place within them, territory that stems from her relocation to Los Angeles from Auckland last year. “When you dispense with all of the comfort of close friendships, a landscape you’ve learned to negotiate and fallen in love with, a social climate that you know how to navigate – you’re left with just yourself, for better or for worse. The song is about confronting that. I’m an introvert but that doesn’t stop me from being a brat sometimes. It’s about conversations with your own racing brain and how you’re going to behave based on what you’re learning.”

Birthed from the self-reflection and discovery of an unfamiliar city, the song was shaped in that metropolis of motorways and sun by Chelsea and a close circle of creatives. “Leroy ‘Big Taste’ Clampitt and I spent a lot of days tucked behind a vape store near Santa Monica, riding our brainwaves and the sweet fumes coming through the walls to make a whole lot of work. I feel so warm when I think of making this song and all the others – partly because there are several Avril Lavigne platinum seller plaques on the walls outside his door, and partly because I have learned so much about how to approach songwriting in that little room. Leroy is a very open book and very deftly worked with me to let my ideas breathe and elevate them at the same time. When it came time to mix it, I called upon my incredible friends Justyn Pilbrow and Sam McCarthy to sculpt it into where it sits now. The mix process is really transformative. The way that Justyn does it really coaxes out the best angles in any given song. Sam’s ears are very much like mine, so he often hears the same minutiae as my taste and can push the vibe in the right direction.”

Young New Zealanders typically decamp to New York, so the influence and exploration of Los Angeles in her work is refreshing point of difference for both the listener and the artist herself. Chelsea is reflective of this shift across the globe, and how it compares to Auckland. “Despite the teeming population of LA and the physical isolation of New Zealand, I feel the inverse of each! There is no running into acquaintances in LA for me, whereas New Zealand is so interconnected, person to person. The removal of the familiar has been really difficult in this incredibly illuminating way. I have this weird, uncomfortable luxury of seeing myself at arms length. I think it’s promoted a confidence in me to try and be better in many ways, professionally and personally.”

Distance naturally breeds longing, and Chelsea admits to missing the local music scene. “Sometimes I just want to teleport back just to be immersed in some of the things that are happening there. Bands like The Beths, Merk and Fazerdaze are orchestrating such a beautiful scene. There’s definitely a pang now and again of wanting to be involved with all of that and see it happen up close.”

Image: Chelsea Jade.

This interconnected, claustrophobically small city (Auckland is home to around two million people, but it feels a lot smaller than that) is where her music career began, evolving through a handful of incarnations, names and collaborations – like the fantastic song ‘Secrets’ with Boycrush – before settling into its current state. I’ve followed Chelsea’s music career for the past ten years, and have seen her play everywhere from music festivals to friend’s flats, bringing to both a disarming combination of assured elegance and charmingly awkward banter.

In fact, I first encountered Chelsea in our high school art room. We both spent our teenage years in the same pleasantly dull suburb in Auckland’s east, at a school where the top rugby team was lauded if not successful, and the narrow parameters of social acceptance made for navigating the waters of adolescent politics a fraught experience. This background, for both myself and Chelsea, drove action and reaction. “I think it’s useful to see how far I’ve come with my own view of myself. I was so self-loathing in that scenario! I was so angry. I think it would have taken a lot of strength to see through my own hostility toward myself in that resistant environment. I just didn’t have that strength yet. If I had known that it was truly temporary, it might have alleviated some of the pressure. I think instead I spent a lot of time subsequently continuing to push myself away. Now, moving to LA has really shown me what I’m made of, by virtue of how difficult it is here. I’m proud of myself for committing to what I know is important to me, without regard for how I felt in that small town.”

Social dynamics and personal reflection have always been threads in Chelsea’s music; with her new single ‘Life of the Party’ she acknowledges social anxiety and the awkwardness of interacting, exploring both subtexts through video with a highly abstracted party scene of shifting spaces and parameters. “For the ‘Life of the Party’ video, I had been on set with Boyboy for his ‘Vices’ video and I had seen a panel on wheels being rolled around to divide the space. The room we were in was just enormous and I thought it was such a perfect analogy for social anxiety, having this meek manner of separation in this lofty space. The idea of trying to create distance and hide out in this very human way was kind of funny. I liked how malleable a simple set of panels could make a singular space too.”

Chelsea works closely with video director Alex Gandar to realise her distinctive, carefully considered visuals. “We go very deep on planning and brainstorming before we get anybody else involved. Usually I’ll have a reference point that I can’t let go of. I’ll bring it to Alex and we’ll follow every subsequent thought to the bitter end of its lifespan.” The video features Chelsea and three others, something of a departure for her. “I wanted to invite other people into a video. I’ve been alone in almost all of my others and given the premise was based around a very abstracted party scene, it was the perfect time to do that. The people in this video each have such a specific energy about them. They are all so receptive to detail in their own ways. These are the people I want to spend time with. Endlessly interesting and interested. I also knew they would ‘get it’. The video is about not taking yourself too seriously even when your feelings are very important and valid.”

All four subjects take part in a synchronised dance, comprised of simplistic motions that are at once familiar, awkward, humorous and refined. “New Zealand comedian Chris Parker and I spent and afternoon together just messing around trying to cobble something together. We prioritized ease without compromising absurdity. I just wanted it to have an air of humour, really. The fact that you can do this dance while eating a popsicle is perfect. Nothing too extravagant. Capital ‘L’ on Lackadaisical.” It resonated with people so much that Chelsea has since released a ‘meme breakdown’ of each dance move, outlining the inspiration behind it. It’s a canny decision, and one that reflects not just her dry sense of humour, but her natural talent at communicating with her fanbase and marketing her music and image with thoughtful consideration – adeptly navigating the digital world whilst simultaneously satirising and critiquing the facades we create for ourselves within it.

The subtle shifts in presentation and aesthetics are visible in each new release, and I’d always wondered how much of this was planned and how much was simply a natural evolution. “Since I’m the primary source of all of these aspects – which is both a limitation and an activation – the structure or planning comes into play purely to ensure I’m spending my time effectively. Otherwise, the aesthetic is pretty incidentally cohesive I think. It’s just what I like, working within the boundaries of what I have access to. I just shot a video myself that I feel really proud of. It’s a single shot and it just documents a state change over the course of a song. The way I came to it was just spending time in the space I filmed it in, and letting the environment promote a thought process. I was drawn in by an aesthetic element, a swath of fabric but then a concept led the way. I’ll be excited when it comes time to release that.”

Image: Chelsea Jade.

The video for ‘Life of the Party’ features a uniform of monochrome outfits in navy and forest green, a decision that initially seems in contradiction with it’s title and subject matter (there’s not a sequin in sight) but in fact serves to reinforce the message of individuality and shared experience. “I always want clothing to have a sense of utility so there can be a zoom on the detail of the overall concept. It’s important to me that garments play the role of a support mechanism, to lift but not to distract. I try to keep it very simple and clean.” A spare aesthetic and sense of timelessness are part of Chelsea’s visual signatures, whether it’s in videos and press shots, or her own Instagram platform.

This separation of self and artist, or rather lack of, are what makes Chelsea so intriguing to me. She’s genuine yet sarcastic, elegant yet slapstick, genuine yet satirical – a person of duality who understands that all of this (and more) can co-exist. She also rejects the tortured artist concept, and sees music as a combination of hard work and dedication. “My favourite lesson is that nobody is pure magic and you should never expect yourself to be. I find this very helpful! It’s so energizing knowing you can work toward being better at something! It eliminates having to be a tortured artist, waiting for the moment the muse hits. I prefer a mentality of buckling down and working with a fervour for the process, rather than loathing yourself for not being adequate and then romancing the end result.” This work ethic and unromanticised view of her craft forms her routine and approach to creating music. “I’m all in on regular practice. I also never wait until the time is right because there will always be something that feels uncomfortable when you start something from scratch. Usually a songwriting session is scheduled in advance. Meanwhile, I spend a lot of time formulating ideas outside of a studio setting. Doing daily vocal practice, brainstorming and collecting ideas. Reading, listening, researching. Then, when once a session arrives, all of these ideas galvanize into a song by the end of the day. ‘Life of the Party’ was written and produced this way, from the lyrics to the melodies to the vocal take. I think that process can only become that way if you’re exercising the required muscles regularly and prioritizing their conditioning.”

With this approach, and a new album in the pipeline, Chelsea explains her approach for the near future. “My plan is to learn more so I continue to be confronted with how little I know. I want to keep writing songs endlessly, for myself and for others.” She describes finding happiness in her work as instinctual. “I feel like my satisfaction with work comes down to how clearly I’ve been able to communicate and how excited whoever I’m working with is. If a co-conspirator in song making is feeling as energized as me in the moment of building it, we’re doing a solid job of illuminating a feeling, I think. I never want to labour the true objective out of something.”

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