Chelsea Jade on Leaving New Zealand, Overcoming Ego and Embracing Pop
We spoke to the New Zealand singer about her new record, getting a deadline from Lorde, and marrying fine arts with pop music.
Chelsea Jade Metcalf is in her third musical incarnation.
Her first releases were with folk band Teacups, followed by a series of dream-pop singles under the moniker Watercolours, before that was shed too. Now, she performs and releases music under her own name: Chelsea Jade.
Today she released a new single, Life of the Party, off her upcoming album. You can listen below. It's the first in a series of sweet, wry pop songs, and a fully-fledged leap into the kind of euphoric pop that her previous, more reserved incarnations skirted around. On the cover she is crouched, almost foetal, on the ground. She seems vulnerable, but the pose is also funny. "I've had people tell me it looks like I'm about to take a shit," she says. She could also be poised–a runner at starting line, maybe, or hunched bird preparing for flight. Her new songs are all these things too: at times starkly vulnerable, at times ruthlessly self deprecating, propelling herself forward into something new.
The record - release date TBA - is called Personal Best, a phrase that she says is probably the most succinct explanation of the story she was looking to tell. We spoke to Chelsea over a fuzzy Skype call to LA. Behind her is a shelf of books painstakingly arranged in colour-spectrum order. It's been almost a year since she moved to LA to make this record.
VICE: Hi Chelsea. Maybe you could start by just telling me the broader vision you had for this record - where you wanted to take your music.
A really kind of succinct explanation for this record is encapsulated in what it's called, which is Personal Best. Just the concept of measuring yourself against yourself, and that being the ultimate gauge of where you are, rather than measuring against exterior things. The other thing about a personal best is that it's always shifting, it's not this altar to bow at or this Mecca you're journeying towards, it's this ever-shifting thing based on where your trajectory is taking you.
Was it an important part of process, making the move to LA?
For me, it took me extracting myself from the familiar of creating stuff in NZ to really understand what appealed to me. I felt like because I became to LA with nothing, and my old music is not available here, it's never been on Spotify or anything here. It's a very good opportunity to examine what I actually like. And what I really like is pop music. The reason I started listening to music in the first place was pop music. I remember my brother hiding under my bed to scare me, and the reason Id close my door was so I could lip sync to like, Mandy Moore's Candy. If I trace back what I like about music to then, I just love the euphoria of pop music, and I didn't know how to make it before. I didn't know how to make pop music.
"I was sending my songs to Lorde, and she was like, 'Mate, when are you going to be a lion and make an album?' And I was like I don't know, I don't know. And she said ok, you have three months.
This was your first full-length record. Was it a difficult project to kind of birth out into the world? How do you overcome the anxiety of putting something out?
Yeah, it is [the first LP]. I almost put out a record three years ago and freaked out. All it is is this shivering anxiety that's like squatting in my chest. Actually, I was feeling really untethered about it around 9 months ago: I'd just been making these songs, I had no real concept of it being a record. So I was sending my songs to Lorde, and she was like, 'Mate, when are you going to be a lion and make an album?' And I was like I don't know, I don't know. And she said ok, you have three months. In three months you have to have finished it. That's why I have a record. I feel like sometimes you need someone you respect to be like, "Ok, here's the deadline: you give me the stuff and I'll tell you what I think, and you can take it or leave it. But maybe we should just figure this out and get the ball rolling.
And who did you end up working on the album with?
The first single, Life of the Party was with who we call the Prince of Pirongia: Leeroy Clampitt, who goes by Big Taste. He moved to LA around the same time as me, but when he moved here he'd just produced a Justin Bieber single Company. It was pure luck that he already had me saddled as a friend before that, so was working with me. I lucked out. Boyboy, or Sam McCarthy is another [producer]. And another guy from Minnesota, who goes by Poopy Brad.
Poopy like shit. And then there's Justyn Pilbrow who's like an older brother, we've worked together for a long time. He worked on all my old songs.
"I had this whole mentality I had to unpack around what it is to make songs, and asking how much ego I was putting into that. And the answer to that question is: a fuck ton. It's all ego.
Some of the songs - Ride or Die especially is a real bop - and I wonder, do you feel like this record is a bit more of a step into a kind of unabashed embrace of pop? Has that ever been an uneasy relationship for you?
I really feel like I've always liked pop music, I just haven't had the tool kit to really do it. I haven't known how to approach it or whatever. When I first moved here, within a week I'd already had a meltdown - I was like, I've been here a week, I haven't finished an album yet, what am I doing? Why am I here. It's been a whole week, what's going on.
I had this whole mentality I had to unpack around what it is to make songs, and asking how much ego I was putting into that. And the answer to that question is: a fuckton. It's all ego.
And so to combat that I would set up sessions with my friends, which I hadn't really done before. And the sessions were purely to exercise the muscle of writing a song not for me. It was: what we're gonna do is sit in a room together and we're gonna write a song, and it's not going to about you, it's just an exercise in writing music. But then naturally, as with anything, you funnel your own experiences: those are the reserves you draw from to make anything, so in the end it's going to be about you. You just haven't self-flagellated to get there, you're just serving a song.
Did any of those songs end up on the record?
All of those songs. They all started as session songs, writing a song for writing a song. Say for the first three months of having the songs I thought I wouldn't mind if anybody sang this, I just wanted to make a song. But then after a few months I was like, actually, I couldn't bear for somebody else to sing this. You hear yourself, and you get perspective on yourself and who you are. I think in some ways it's a more honest investigation than [making songwriting] this exercise in showing people who you are. That's not authentic. What's a good analogy? I guess I'm trying to communicate that sometimes intention is less authentic than just doing something.
So maybe previously it was a little more agonised: like does every facet of this represent my brand, who I am as an artist, what I want to say, whereas this was a less pressured way of creating songs?
Yes. When I was at art school, I would constantly get the same feedback, which I took as a compliment when it wasn't a compliment. It was: your work is too refined. What you're putting up on the wall is too refined. I was like, 'what, that sounds great, why wouldn't I want it to be refined?' But actually what they meant was: it's too precious. We can't actually see anything about you, we can't tell what you're doing, because you're too precious and you're not just letting it happen. It's about not being precious. It's about making.
Can we bounce backwards to what you were saying about ego–I guess you need a certain amount of ego or just confidence, to put something out there. But do you see ego as an obstacle?
I definitely think of ego as an obstacle. Completely. I think I had a whole shit-tonne of ego previously, and I probably have it now, but I'm more conscious about it. If I use the pop world as a basis: when music fans see a list of people who worked on one song, say there are 20 names, the mentality is: why would it take that many people to write a song? But to me that's the most beautiful thing, because every time they added someone, the ego was halved. Their slice of the song was reduced. You keep bringing people on until the song is as good as it can be. It's about divorcing it from the ego and serving a separate thing, about serving the song. I feel like before when I was making stuff it was just like, self flagellation, because I was trying to feed my ego: like this is art, every step of the way must be perfection and must be coated in platinum.
Your background is in art school, so can you tell me about that transition from, I guess 'fine arts' to pop music? How has that marriage worked?
Like I was saying earlier, I'm kind of hyper-resistant to when people tell me what to do. And so I actually dropped out of art school not once, but twice. Looking back I feel like art school was this incredible resource, that I didn't mine enough. But even then, that's the tension I was struggling with: that I really fucking love pop music and the conversations I was having around my work at art school were not talking about this thing that I love, in the context I wanted to talk about it in. Maybe the art thing and being an artist has just helped me think laterally about pop music. The marriage is something I'm trying to work on - the marriage of high and low, and not betraying one for the other, but doing the two in tandem.
"I like the concept of falling out of the foetal position - like you're at already your lowest, most anxiety-ridden point, and maybe something knocks you over and it's just kind of funny.
It's interesting listening to the songs because they do have the euphoric pop thing, but they're not necessarily happy songs: there's a lot about longing, unsatisfying relationships, uneasy connections.
I think the record all the way through, it starts off with uncertainty about myself, and then it gets to a point of - oh, hold on, I'm actually kind of great and cool and you're kind of weird, and kind of suck. And then gets to another place of like, a lot of women are really cool.
Just finally, I wanted to ask you about the artwork, where you're sort of in foetal position. Why this image?
I kind of think it's funny. When I did a poll, I got some great feedback, like - oh it looks like you're taking a shit. But I also I like the concept of falling out of the foetal position - like you're at already your lowest, most anxiety-ridden point, and maybe something knocks you over and it's just kind of funny. And maybe it's a dual thing, like maybe you're being knocked out of something but also maybe it's turning into a start line crouch, something that's going to propel you to a better thing.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.