June 6, 2017

This story originally appeared in the Black Lagoon Volume 2.





Chelsea Jade Metcalf, formerly known as Watercolours, was once described as New Zealand’s accidental dream pop hero. Dream pop yes, but accidental no - a perfectionist in the truest sense. Now releasing music as Chelsea Jade, her music is still otherworldly and textured with shimmering vocals. But there’s a new maturity to her work; the pop is more pronounced, the lyrics are considered and cleverly crafted, and the production’s multiple layers add complexity, while sounding effortless. But she’s worked damn hard for it, fighting the good fight to refine her creative process, while also finding more joy in making music and easing up on the self-criticism.


Ren: I remember taking photos of you at the Critics Choice Awards in 2012, which you won. Things have changed a bit since then, like dropping the Watercolours moniker in 2014. What prompted that?


Chelsea: At the time, I really just felt like emerging from a mist of my own making. I also felt affection for my own name because it’s the way my father says it, always using the complete ‘Chelsea Jade’. He is very supportive of me and I think of it as a little tribute to him to use it. I have left a little room for Watercolours to exist in me and I sometimes think of where I could let it rumble as a project outside of the one under my own name.



With time comes experience, and always lots of learning. How have time and new experiences developed and influenced your songwriting?


If I use my imagination to re-inhabit the headspace I had while writing, and even thinking, the feelings are so foreign to me. I don’t feel a dark plunge anymore, just true energy. I think with time comes a resilience against self-flagellation - which often gets conflated with feeling deeply - but it’s actually just a distraction from actioning yourself and your work.



What about changes in a big picture sense? I imagine LA and exposure to a much bigger music machine has played a part?


The primary change is a lightness, like a halo around the activity of writing. My old self was furious with me for not being adequate. After a couple of months of hot tears, I stopped trying to please her and started to get to work with a clearer head. The thing I’ve been exposed to most here is myself.



Of all the people you’ve met and worked with over the last few years, who has influenced you the most?


When I worked with Sam McCarthy I had a glimpse into what writing could feel like. We worked very hard, but with a jubilance that I think you can hear in ‘Low Brow’.

I started to work with Leroy ‘Big Taste’ Clampitt while we were in NZ waiting for our US visas. It was a very intense time - I’d just finished a 10 day silent meditation retreat and he’d been working on a Justin Bieber song. I guess both of our heads were spinning, and he became very important to me.

The other vital person is Justyn Pilbrow, who I’ve worked with on everything. He’s mixed all of my music beautifully. Justyn has always championed me, and really facilitated me finding my voice as a musician.



Any unexpected pairings?


I didn’t know I would completely fall in love with Emily Warren. We got to write together for APRA’s Songhubs, and have continued doing sessions in LA. I was always allergic to having other opinions crowding me during topline writing, but she taught me that an effective co-writer can be there to support and drive your ideas, rather than dilute them.

So, the new music. Your  voice seems to be positioned front and centre a lot more, your vocals seem stronger, literally and figuratively.


I’ve been paying special attention to vocal training in the last year as a daily practice. I think it just reflects a muscle being toned. I’m singing quieter and more deliberately, but closer to your ear.




‘Life Of The Party’ is your latest single. How did this track come to life, with its striking pop sensibilities?


Leroy and I started meeting at a diner before sessions, behind a vape store in Westwood. I feel like the cosmetic sweetness that was always leaking through the wall has at least a sliver of something to do with the sound. Leroy has a big, bombastic approach and I’m often erring on the side of restraint. I think you can hear both dancing in ‘Life of the Party’. We made it in just a day. I went home feeling like my pop taste buds had been drenched and I wanted to make more like it.



The lyrics in ‘Life Of The Party’ are very sharp. And they’re placed at a distance, spread far enough from the pop feels that the track can be enjoyed purely as a toe-tapping jaunt. Are they personal, or just a vehicle for the song?


In my mind I think I’m going right to the spine on this one. I think maybe my imagination stretches just enough to express my experiences in an oblique manner, and I never pursue invention. In saying that, nothing is a perfect impression of truth, it’s all perspective. I have become more aware of writing from a place of personal responsibility and I hope this track is indicative of that. Chiding myself through a mind race before, after and during time spent in others company; social anxiety basically. A lot of these new songs are written to myself, in a kind of dual monologue.



‘High Beam’ [next in line for release] with its bubbling poppy production, is an alluring little gem. How did it come to fill this shape?


I don’t know if you can hear it clearly, but at the end I’ve littered it with a really busy and unhinged synthesizer part, interwoven with a dial-up connection sound. It helped me to push the feeling of missed communication, where one person’s hearing a fraction of what the other is saying, and the other is misunderstanding their response. The production was born in between swims and in’n’out animal fries at this very populated mansion in the Valley. Leroy and I had spent a day making it. Then I was hanging out with Justyn and Sam and we started playing with it, eventually resulting in the current production. I wanted it to be sparse and then surging, and I think it is.


In comparison, and looking back to some of your older tracks, the emotions used to feel closer to the surface. Like ‘Low Brow’, which starts so quietly, but then the momentum builds, creating a real sense of tension.


Yeah, I think ‘Low Brow’ marks the beginning of a little genesis story. It was the first time I had written with abandon and without vetting every minuscule line before moving on to the next, and I think it sounds less self conscious. I had never written so quickly before!



And ‘Low Brow’ was part of the 2015 EP, which was an emotive and curiously enjoyable body of work. How do you feel about that album now?


I’m always astounded by my past selves, considering how hard I was on all of them at the time. I had a lot of oblique ideas playing out on that record, and it still all makes sense to me.



So, looking to the future and the new album that’s in progress. Will it be a long player? And what are you enjoying most about making it?


A friend I have a lot of respect for asked me when I was going to “be a lion” and that’s what this is. It’s going be called Personal Best, with the ethos that you should only measure yourself against yourself, and that the concept of being your ‘best’ isn’t fixed. I’m enjoying that notion of being kinder to myself.




This story originally appeared in the Black Lagoon Volume 2.


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