New Zealand has always had a 'sound'. For decades the country's been known for the 'Dunedin Sound', referring to bands like The Clean, The Chills, The Verlaines - jangly pop bands, essentially - who formed in the late '70s and early '80s, were released on Flying Nun Records, and went on to influence the international sound at the time, including people like Pavement and Stephen Malkmus.
Now, what with Lorde's international accomplishments, and brother-sister duo Broods not far behind, it seems New Zealand is getting recognised for an entirely new sound. It's electronic and its female-led but, much like the 'Dunedin Sound', it's also moody and intelligent; capturing the concerns of millennials, just like the 'Dunedin Sound' captured the concerns of youth who were alienated by worldwide Conservative governments.
Enter Chelsea Jade, formerly Watercolours. Her releases actually precede both Lorde's and Broods'; she has been quietly honing her sound, and aesthetic, in Auckland for over half a decade. A few issues ago (at the end of 2013) I caught up with Chelsea as she was preparing for the release her most recent EP, Portals (as Watercolours). Today, to celebrate the release of her first video under Chelsea Jade, for single 'Night Swimmer' (watch it, it's beautiful!), we thought we'd re-visit that interview, and all of the little quirks that make up Chelsea Jade the person, and Chelsea Jade the musical package.
Hey Chelsea, what are you up to?
I'm in Look Sharp [a discount store full of weird and wonderful junk in downtown Auckland].
That store rules!
I know! I’ve just found a million note pads that have things like "Urgent" and "Fragile" written on them in creepy neon font. You know that font that has blood dripping off of it? It’s in that font.
Haha cool. How are you anyway?
I’m good. I’m doing all that stuff you forget to do before you head overseas for a long time.
Yes, exciting that you're going overseas though!
Well it’s a month, so I guess it’s a long time. That’s a long time right?
Yeah, it’s longer than your average holiday, shorter than an O.E I guess. Are you going over there to travel or for music-related business?
I’m going over there to write some more stuff with Justyn Pilbrow. We wrote the song called ‘Night Swimmer’ together, the material of which will be on next year's release.
You often take these jaunts overseas to write, right?
Yes, whenever I get a slight cash injection I always inject it into the pockets of air hostesses.
What is it about these overseas locations that is more conducive to write for you?
I guess it’s that I don’t necessarily feel like I’m from New Zealand. I wasn’t born here and I grew up here without really attaching myself to New Zealand. That's not to say I don’t really adore New Zealand, but I don’t necessarily think that it’s where I’m from. So I figure if I stay nomadic I feel like it will keep the electricity around what I’m doing going, you know? And I also get restless.
Was there anything you wanted to achieve, or anything you were particularly inspired by, when you began writing Portals?
I feel like there’s this one prescription that I don’t feel like I’ve fulfilled yet, that I keep plugging away at that every time I go into the studio. I’m even embarrassed to divulge what it is, but there are specific sounds and approaches to what you put in between the sounds, that I haven’t quite got there with. In terms of content, I’ve always been into modifying concepts to fit something that I can identify with – like a broad concept. ‘Sliders’ a song that has just come out – I found out that there are people who claim that they have so much energy in their brains that they can turn off street lights as they walk past them. It's this paranormal phenomena that people claim to possess. So I related that to me and how I feel when I’m jealous. I’m quite a jealous person, I'll admit.
Is there any overarching theme across Portals, are the concepts unique to each song?
For my next one, I have a really good idea for an overarching concept but for this one I felt that sonically they were on par with each other - it wasn’t the lyrical content that brought them together.
The idea of portals was quite important for the whole EP though right?
Yeah, because I come from a fine art background - which sounds so fucking pretentious because I didn’t even graduate and I dropped out twice and I still feel like I approach my work in that art school way. Doing that means presenting content but not giving answers. Portal gives you something to look towards but doesn’t tell you what the songs have to be about. Portals is just a really beautiful concept which could easily relate to my penchant for traveling (having to transport or escape into something foreign or otherworldly).
There's also that idea of stepping into something that you’re unsure about right?
Yeah and I guess for the audience they’re stepping into my portal, because it’s the first release that I’ve put out, so hopefully it creates some kind of space for someone, somewhere.
Speaking of stepping into your world, you put a lot of effort into the visual way you present yourself. How important is the visual aspect of Watercolours to you?
It’s extremely important. The best way you can approach anything, including visuals, is that if you haven’t failed on your own terms then you haven’t failed. It's more important for me to attempt to do a big heavy concept on my own terms that might come out a little bit pokey, rather than get someone to do something grand that will never work because I’ll never align with it. I guess that’s why I take it into my own hands, and it's my instinct to have this one aesthetic that is quite minimal and clean, but perhaps not as straightforward as it seems.
Does that feed into the word portals as well? Keeping it clean and simple so people can read into the visual work?
Yeah totally, because I guess portals indicates a space and if you leave that space boring and blank but still inviting and intriguing then it gives other people room to exist within it. I’m specifically talking about my EP cover, which has a small image and small text with a lot of space surrounding them. How often in this time do you see such a barren space? Never, everything is spoken for.
Can you please talk us through the songs that appear on Portals?
'Last Night': We lugged a slab of wood into the studio at Red Bull and I took to it with my tap shoes, improvising to a click track until something worth repeating emerged. Just when I'm about to collapse into a heap of exhaustion, Jackson Hobbs (Sharpie Crows) picks up the slack with some beautiful drumming. The lyrics are as transparent as my writing goes – kind of that situational depression that has a finite time period, if you can accept that there is more to know than what is currently dragging you down. Also, break ups are awful. Also again, I'm not a psychiatrist.
'Sliders': I wrote the lyrics about my ever-present tugs of jealousy in the context of people who think their energy can turn off street lights. It was the first song we built during the Red Bull 'Prodigy' project and finished it over the first two days. Jeremy Toy and I both sat at the same drum kit and barreled down on our respective halves until Ben (Lawson) got bored of being alone in the control room (JUST KIDDING, BEN YOU ARE THE BEST!). Somehow the rest of the song erupted from that initial brainstorm. Jeremy's guitar playing is a triumph because he doesn't need you to know it's a guitar. It's the same as his production style in that it lacks ego but not style. I dig it.
This interview was originally published in our spring 2013 issue of Catalogue.
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