Chelsea Jade: A Sense of Touch
Illustrations by Kay Wilson
If you ever converse with New Zealand’s Chelsea Jade over email, you too will discover her display name; ‘Grandma Popstar’. Belied by her soft waves of grey hair, it’s a light-hearted way for the artist who formerly released music under the name ‘Watercolours’ to identify herself. It’s certainly a less cliché way to describe her than an ‘old soul’, which might suggest that her lyrical wisdom and musical maturity is a product of being rooted too firmly in the past. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Since abandoning the ‘Watercolours’ moniker, Chelsea Jade has released just one EP, 2014’s ‘Beacons’. “I decided to stamp my own name on the work to see if it would feel different to present,” she explains. “I didn’t care for the mechanics of mystery at the time. There’s still a well in me for Watercolours though. We’ll see.”
It’s amusing to hear Chelsea denounce mystery, when it’s the very thing that makes her work so utterly beguiling. The hypnotic video to this year’s follow-up single ‘Low Brow’ is exactly the kind of thing your father would watch, only to be irritated that he “just doesn’t get it”. If you are someone who does “get it”, however, it gets you right back, sneaking under your skin without you even noticing. Weeks later, you’re looking back at it again and again and again, seeing something new every time.
“I particularly like how that one came out,” Chelsea says, of the ‘Low Brow’ video. “There’s a lot of space in the music, but I think shooting in these environments extends the feeling of me being swallowed by a mood,” she adds, as I ask her to elaborate on the stark, brutalist space she chose to shoot in. “I definitely want the vibe to be enveloping. I also like the ambiguity of those spaces. They’re more akin to being inside someone’s mind than being in the world at large.” Of course, I have to ask about the flailing inflatables the singer dances amongst, embracing them and spinning away as they lurch in and out of motion. “They seem so emotionally detached. I could change my emotions throughout the video and it would just be amplified by these breezy geezers who didn’t care at all. Apathy with energy!”
Whilst her backing dancers might have lacked any emotional involvement, Chelsea herself worked far harder in the creation of her surreal visual. “I actually asked Tori Manley, a choreographer and dancer, to help me build a physical language for it. I then took what she and I had worked on to deconstruct the movement. It was my first attempt at dancing through a video and the next day my body was just a cluster of deep aches attached to a head.”
This level of gruelling physicality and extensive research underpins all of Chelsea’s videos, and could all-too-easily go unexamined. The lead single from her ‘Beacons’ EP, ‘Night Swimmer’, is accompanied by footage of the singer curled up against a huge chunk of ice. “I came across the work of artist Zainab Hikmet and was totally mesmerised,” Chelsea says of the video’s inspiration. “She was making these ice columns that would alter according to the amount of body heat collecting in the room. To me, it read like an analogue of a lonely person struggling to deal with attention and that was a very beautiful concept. She kindly consulted on the video as a result.”
Chelsea’s distinctive aesthetic springs almost entirely from her own well of inspiration. “I’ve always been that catalyst for the core idea,” she explains. “Then Alex Gandar, the director for all of [the videos] has helped me massage them into reality. He’s very good at validating inklings with action and making things blossom. When I said I wanted to hug a large block of ice for an entire video he didn’t ask why, he just figured out how. In terms of shooting, I researched the logistics of prolonged skin-to-ice contact and it is fairly dangerous for your health! You can get burned up pretty quickly,” she adds. “I made sure I was never touching it directly for more than a few minutes at a time. It was definitely uncomfortable to shoot but I was so invested in the concept that it felt like strange fun.”
Touch is something of a theme in the art accompanying Chelsea’s music, with photos of hands adorning the cover art of several recent releases. “They are my hands, yes!” she responds, when I ask if she was involved in creating these images. “A sense of touch is so absent from new communication. Hands feel like a nice reminder of that first person sensation you can’t send through the internet,” she admits. The irony of this very conversation taking place online is not lost on us.
Chelsea’s most recent work is the single ‘Colour Sum’, which asks a lover to “send [her] through the spectrum.” I can’t help but ask, if ‘Colour Sum’ were a point on the spectrum, what colour would it be?
“It’s a gradient for me. This one in particular,” she explains, accompanying her answer with the following photograph.
“This is a book called ‘Conversations’ I collated out of messages between me (blue) and the person who is represented by the warmer colours, while we were separated by oceans. Only one copy exists and there’s a stern warning against anybody reading it but me or the other concerned party.”
The spectrum is not the only scientific concept Chelsea’s lyrics draw on; previous single ‘Low Brow’ contains the lyrics, “if I threw my atoms at you as a kiss”. “Science is so romantic to me,” Chelsea admits, when I point this out. “It’s got this air of eternal flux that really appeals. It treasures curiosity and diligence but also humility. It has to have that last factor in order to move forward, and I think that is also true of art. No-one knows everything. and actually no-one knows anything. The point is to always ask questions.”
Another beautiful line from ‘Low Brow’ is “I don’t go smaller than this.” I ask what this idea of smallness means to Chelsea. “In the situation I was writing about, I was trying so hard to adjust my personality to better accommodate the tastes of somebody else. It’s a truly impossible path that always leaves you one step behind. I definitely felt the smallest [in that moment] and have tried to move toward believing in my own instincts more. You have to recognise your value to be able to preserve it when it’s threatened.”
Every one of Chelsea’s songs, every video — even every answer to my questions — is a minute work of art. Cesar A. Cruz once famously said that “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”. You’d be hard-pressed to find another pop musician whose work fits that criteria so naturally and without affectation as Chelsea Jade does. So, what’s to come next?
“A friend asked me when I was going to ‘be a lion’ and put out an album,” Chelsea tells me. “She’s now given me a (rapidly approaching) deadline and a few pep talks so that’s what I’m working toward right now.”
Listen to ‘Colour Sum’ on Spotify below: