Chelsea Jade’s much-anticipated debut record is out today – titled Personal Best, it’s the product of leaning into discomfort and embracing imperfection, a marked departure from some of her earlier creative work. What sparked the shift? The New Zealander attributes at least part of it to a move to LA, as well as a haircut – both things pulled back the curtain, and forced the artist to come out of hiding in different ways. Interestingly, the most logical avenue to really express this new-found (or at least newly exposed) personal truth was through pop tunes; the 11-track LP is as catchy as they come, brilliantly ensnaring the listener with killer hooks across the board.
I saw Chelsea Jade perform the songs live at Mercury lounge a week and a half ago, and after the fantastic gig (I’m a sucker for crowd work ‘n choreography, which was certainly not lacking during the set), I was able to catch up with her around the corner; we talked about the journey she’s had coming into her own, rejecting the idea of hero worship, embracing her inner weirdo and more, and it was a true delight. Internet-eavesdrop on our full conversation below, and be sure to grab a copy of Personal Best. (Trust me, you’re going to have it on heavy rotation. Personal best indeed.)
Brightest Young Things: So the last time I saw you was actually years ago at Webster Hall during CMJ, and funnily enough, neither of those things exist anymore! The project has obviously evolved a lot since then. Why have you chosen not to include some of your older songs on Spotify?
Chelsea Jade: I think I put myself through a development phase, with no real prompting from anybody else. I feel like I’m a very harsh critic of myself, because nobody was monitoring me at all. Essentially I shot out of the cannon and nobody was spotting me. I’ve always done everything by myself, I’m still independent, and so when you saw me last, I was probably still maneuvering through the mechanics of what I was capable of vs. what I wanted to be, still kind of figuring it out.
And to be honest, the reason that those songs aren’t on Spotify is just practical. Spotify wasn’t a big deal when those songs came out, and I’m not necessarily interested in looking back on them. I just want to look forwards. To backpeddle and alert the media about those songs feels unappealing; the stuff I’m making now is so much more cohesive with who I am.
BYT: Right. And tell me about this record that’s about to come out; when you were working on it, could you feel any noticable shifts from how you felt writing songs five or more years ago?
CJ: It was so much more fluid. I think the marker you can look at is when I decided to move to Los Angeles. (And also cutting my hair.) Those were the two big ones – I could feel a shift in how I wanted to behave vs. how I was behaving.
I think moving to a new place is inherently difficult. That’s just the nature of it. You’re bewildered, you don’t have the same anchors that you relied on before. For instance, I don’t have my parents’ house to go back to.
And I felt like my hair was a crutch. It was something that gave me comfort, because I’d had it my whole life. But then when I moved to LA, I was like, “No, I have to lean into being uncomfortable.” So I cut my hair off, and I felt that if everything about my life was deeply uncomfortable, then what was music going to be to me?
And music was a way to galvanize the good feelings. I created a network with music, working with other people. That’s how I created a really good feeling out of quite a lost feeling. Whereas in New Zealand, I was quite comfortable but deeply depressed and very self-reliant. I thought I had to be some kind of genius to do music, but I just don’t think that’s true. I think it’s a community effort.
But that’s what Personal Best is. Instead of meandering in the world, not having anything to hold onto, having other people judge you, it’s more like, “What am I doing?” You can measure yourself against yourself, but you can’t measure yourself against anybody else.
BYT: Tell me more about what New Zealand was like. What were you like growing up as a kid?
CJ: I was always terrified. I was an anxious child. I feel like if you ask my parents, they’ll tell you my hair used to fall out because I was so anxious. I was scared of everything and everyone.
BYT: Where do you think your affinity for creating music to put out into the world, and also to perform, comes from, then? Was there any sort of epiphany moment where you felt not only that you could do these things, but you wanted to do them in spite of the anxiety?
CJ: I think the reason I was anxious was because everything felt grating, and I think the way for everything to stop feeling grating is to allow myself to be myself. And that’s so fucking hard. Maybe I’m a bit weird. (I am a bit weird.) But I guess when you’re a kid you’re not really allowed to be weird?
When I moved to LA, I think that was a big “Aha!” moment. I was so angry, and I had to ask myself why. I’d be in a session, and I’d beat myself up because I couldn’t make the next line as good as the one that I’d just written. So I had to make space to just be strange and be bad at stuff, too. I don’t believe in the concept of “genius”; I love hearing about people’s flaws and the downsides of people’s success, because it’s impossible to exist with perfection. I hate hero worship. I’d rather tell the world that I got dumped by some hot guy, you know? And have them dance along with me because they know what that feels like. I’d rather have that, then to tell them I didn’t get dumped by that guy. You know what I mean?
BYT: Tell me more about that, because I was reading another interview where you were talking about being in art school, and being told that the work you were making was too sort of precious or perfect. How do you think those critiques shaped your current relationship to perfection and imperfection, especially with music-making?
CJ: At art school they’d always say things were too refined, and I’d take that as a compliment. And that’s not how they meant it. They meant that they couldn’t see why I was doing what I was doing – it wasn’t clear.
It’s like going from making abstract music to making pop music; if you want to make a good pop song that people can relate to, you’re going to have to dig deep and figure out what you’re actually saying. You can’t just buzz around with poetry, really. I feel like poetry is the beautiful cloak you put on this really good idea, but it can’t be the body in the cloak.
And I think I had to learn that the hard way. It isn’t all just flourish, it’s about the nitty-gritty. If you put things really plainly, it can be so confronting and so beautiful.
BYT: And pop music really is kind of this amazing vehicle to get a message across that way. It definitely seems like you embrace that now, but were you always so keen to explore pop music? I think it’s less stigmatized as a musical form in 2018, but definitely there is the residual (false) idea that all pop music falls into the bubble gum category.
There’s a lyric in “When I Grow Up” by Fever Ray that says, “I never liked a sad look from someone who wants to be loved by you,” and there’s no floral language in there. And when I learned that that’s what I was actually hearing in the music I liked, those direct statements, that felt like a switch going off for me.
BYT: Right. So when you’re actually sitting down to write lyrics (assuming that’s part of the process, although maybe it’s more spontaneous), what does that process tend to look like for you? Is there any sort of pattern or routine you try to follow, either intentionally or unintentionally?
CJ: I think the more I read, the better at writing I am. I also think that once you start reading, your antenna goes up in conversation. I feel like you suddenly have this little portal into minute moments that you might have disregarded before. There’s a book that I always bring up by Durga Chew-Bose, and it’s a collection of essays called Too Much and Not the Mood. There’s a line in there that says, “Secrets stumble out like small talk.”And when that little crack is opened from reading, you start to be so receptive to those things that your friends say, and just how clever everyone really is. I truly think everyone’s quite clever. The more unaware that somebody is, the less guarded they are. And how much safe space do you give to other people to give you those moments, you know? So that it isn’t just stumbling out like small talk.
BYT: And what sort of space do you give yourself to reflect on where you were vs. where you are? What does it feel like to look back at the path you’ve created?
I think maybe five years ago I’d reserve assessment for later, whereas I feel like now, it’s like a churning that’s constantly happening, but in a way that I feel super comfortable with. I don’t think that anything is the be-all, end-all; I think that everything is a step to something else. Which means that I have so much room to try different things, and I think that more-so than before, I trust my taste. I couldn’t even begin to deviate if I wanted to. My taste expands outward, but I don’t think it’s ever unexpected to me. If I look back at my trail of shit that I made, I can see, “Oh, okay, there’s a laser through this.” And I realize that I shouldn’t worry about anything, and should just do what I think is good. I think there’s a true north that’s inherent in me.