Pop artist Chelsea Jade on her new album and moving from Auckland to LA

by Lydia Jenkin / 13 April, 2017

Pop artist Chelsea Jade Metcalf.

Writing most of her songs in a windowless room in LA, ethereal art school dropout (and former Bucklands Beach resident) Chelsea Jade emerges from happy isolation with a new album that continues her lifelong love affair with pop music.

Chelsea Jade Metcalf is a natural-born performer, a girl who loved pop music from an early age but tried her hand at dancing, art and photography first. In 2006, during her last year at Macleans College in Bucklands Beach, she realised the thing she looked forward to most every week was working with her friends on Teacups, a folk-pop trio that busked at Botany Mall on Friday evenings and quickly won the hearts of indie kids everywhere. The band set Metcalf on a trajectory that took in Tokyo, New York and Los Angeles, and this week sees the release of the first single from her new album, Personal Best. Through all of this, she’s only learned to love pop more.

Metcalf’s singing voice is breathy and ethereal, but as soon as she cracks a joke, or gives a thoughtful response to a question about her music, you’ll discover a warm, smart, slightly bashful and goofy woman underneath. Born in Cape Town (she moved to New Zealand at age five with her family), Metcalf possesses a magnetic otherworldliness that simultaneously intimidates and draws people in. Her performances both confront and charm, her music meshing wily observations with dreamy textures.

After dropping out of art school (something she’s done twice), she stole away to New York for a time, and eventually made a name for herself in New Zealand as Watercolours, a solo dream-pop act that garnered plenty of critical acclaim, winning the New Zealand Music Awards Critic’s Choice Prize in 2012 and securing her an invitation to the international Red Bull Music Academy in Tokyo in 2014. It also meant she could count Lorde among her fans.

About a year ago, Metcalf decided to relocate across the Pacific, drop the Watercolours name, and see if she could make a go of things in Los Angeles. “The whir of the machine is the loudest in LA, and by machine I mean the music industry, and it’s the kind of environment of music that I have always had the most affinity for,” she says. “I’ve always been in love with pop music, and I guess there’s nowhere better than LA to explore, and to be enveloped by the pop music scene.”

This wasn’t some slavish pursuit of solo stardom, but an effort to combine her personal project with professional songwriting. “How it goes in LA is that the songwriting game is very much a route you can take, and by that I mean you can just write songs for other people,” she says. “You don’t have to be the performer necessarily, and it’s considered a career.”

Chelsea Jade Metcalf photographed at Orphans Kitchen.

The idea of writing songs for other people, or asking someone else to write a song for you or with you, is undeveloped in New Zealand: there’s often a sense that you have to be a songwriter, performer, and producer yourself if you’re going to be a legitimate artist here. But in the US, UK, and Europe, they’re much more enthusiastic about the idea of getting lots of different people involved.

That changed the way Metcalf thought about music. “I know most people don’t think of it this way, but it’s something I find really romantic, the idea of writing pop songs all the time with as many people as possible, and the idea of a song being a collective effort. I know when people see a whole bunch of credits on a song they think, ‘Why does it take so many people to write this one song? That’s stupid, and soulless!’ But I think it’s amazing, because it’s a completely egoless task.”

The notion of being able to admit when you’re stuck on an idea, and that someone else’s input could be valuable, really appealed to her.

Promotional imagery for her new single ‘Life of the Party’.

“You want to retain the energy and idea that you started with in the beginning, and create the best version of the song possible, and I feel like doing it that way lacks ego. Because it does slice up the songwriting royalties further and further of course, the more people you bring in, so it’s not really about money, everyone just wants to serve the work.”

This doesn’t mean she’s stopped writing songs for herself, but writing for other people has changed her approach to her own work. Since moving to Los Angeles, she’s recorded under her own first and middle names (Chelsea Jade), and has just released the brand-new track ‘Life Of The Party’ from Personal Best. It’s the most prolific she’s been in some time, and that all comes down to her new perspective.

“It used to take me months, or possibly even years to finish one song, but all of these new songs were written in a day [each],” she says. “So that probably says something about how my approach has changed. The other way I think about it is that when I was at art school, I basically found it really hard to be criticised about something that I already knew was wrong, or wasn’t perfect, so I wouldn’t put up a lot of work. The feedback that I often got was, ‘It’s too refined’. At the time I thought that was really a compliment. But now, with reflection, I realise what they actually meant was I wasn’t moving forward because I was being way too precious about what I was doing. Like I was getting stuck in one place. And I think since I moved to Los Angeles I’ve stopped being so precious, and started being productive.”

Metcalf was in Auckland recently for Songhubs, a week-long workshop that invites internationally renowned songwriters to work with 12 local songwriters, of which she was one.

Metcalf’s fallen in with an expat New Zealand muso crowd since moving to California, including Justyn Pilbrow (now of The Neighbourhood and formerly of Elemeno P, with whom she co-wrote a previous record), Sam McCarthy (ex-Kids of 88, now working as Boyboy), Leroy Clampitt (who works as a producer and co-writer under the name Big Taste), Maddie North (So Below), Alisa Xayalith (The Naked and Famous), and Lorde.

 “They’ve definitely helped me to loosen the reins a bit,” says Metcalf. “And I think everyone that I’ve encountered who lives in Los Angeles, they’re trying to pursue something. They’re really working, they’re on the hustle, and it’s a very energetic, proactive thing. No one is dragging their feet into the mines, they’re all really excited, and they all want to be there. Not to say that it’s some kind of utopia at all, but they all want to make pop music as much as you do.”

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