Graham Reid | | 13 min read
Chelsea Nikkel – aka Princess Chelsea – sits at the table in her flat-cum-studio space (the latter rightly referred to as "the Ghetto") with a second-pour coffee and admits she's tired.
She looks it.
And during the course of our digressive, always interesting and sometimes extremely candid hour-long conversation -- which traverses her excellent second album The Great Cybernetic Depression on the indie label Lil' Chief, the touring life, a bout of emotional decline, the public perception of her and so much more – her sentences sometimes ramble a little before she draws herself back with a laughs and says, “I don't know where I'm going with this”.
But she's allowed to be a bit worn out.
Today is her last day with her friendly 16-year old ginger cat Winston before he goes somewhere else while she does last minute packing, books accommodation in distant places and sorts out paperwork before she and the band fly out in two days.
There is sub-letting to be done on this place which has been almost like a halfway house for musicians on the always-interesting Lil Chief but also . . .
First stop on Princess Chelsea tour that might stretch for a couple of months: Istanbul.
She's excited by the prospect but agrees it's a bit mad, the other three bands on the bill are from Turkey.
Then they fly to Ankara, then eight shows in towns across the Czech Republic and Slovakia (“I don't even know how to pronounce the names”) and on to Germany and France, the four-piece band driving through Europe with their gear: bass guitar, another guitar, the interface for the digital stuff, two keyboards “and we hire the back line or get it supplied by the promoters”.
This is a lot of organising and in the three years since her impressive Lil Golden Book on Lil' Chief – which she runs with her partner, musical collaborator and former Brunette Jonathan Bree from this self-same careworn house in Kingsland – she has also been handling her own career as well as local Lil' Chief business.
“I've been self-managed for three years but it got a bit much, and doing Lil' Chief, so I was pretty burned out by the end of last year. So I just decided to take a step back [from the business] because it's not conducive to being an artist.”
Least of all an artist as singular as Princess Chelsea, a creation which engages a complete aesthetic incorporating specific album cover art, portrait presentation and of course video clips like the one by Simon Ward for Cigarette Duet (with Bree, off Lil Golden Book) which famously had 20 million hits on YouTube, something she finds faintly confusing. And she's quite sceptical about what it means and how the figure has been bandied about. It also hasn't translated into money.
“The 20 million YouTube thing sounds good and it's a good thing to print in a newspaper, the New Zealand press like it.
“Just because it gets 20 million views . . . a lot of those people aren't even music fans, just people on Reedit or something,” she laughs.
“I reckon it gets 25,000 views a day, but of that maybe 5000 people were actually interested in music and of that maybe 1000 like it. Then of that maybe 200 bother to look further and maybe 50 become fans.
“Okay 50 fans a day is pretty good, but as far as money is concerned . . . I wouldn't mind some. I think every young person in Auckland, and older people, are struggling to be able to survive in this city. I've got friends who have moved from New York and were flatting in Brooklyn and they say they can't afford the rent here. That's scary.
“We try to save and are thinking about trying to buy a house, we've been saving for seven years but I don't think that will happened.”
She is also realistic but happy about her place in the musical cosmos.
“I think I'll always be a cult artist who gets a bit of interest every now and again. I can't see myself getting real big, which is fine with me. I'm not going to be a huge pop star, it's not in my music, it's not in my skill set either.
“A successful indie artist would be the best I could do, I guess someone like Grimes. Your mum hasn't heard of Grimes, my mum hasn't . . I'll be someone who parents may not have heard of but their kids might read about on blogs.
“I would rather not be . . . there are bands that seem to blow up and everyone's interested in them for about three months and maybe have a genre like 'chillwave' or some bullshit thing that someone makes up. They are associated with that, and then people move on to the next thing. I think that can be quite damaging.
“With Jonathan and the Brunettes, they toured and worked a lot and got signed to SubPop. But they never quite got to where they should have gone to. But in some ways that preserved in my mind the memory of the band in a better way.
“I find things hard to manage even where it is now. I'm very tired. The last tour we did I found very, very hard.”
That was an enjoyable but demanding and expensive tour opening for Brit indie-darlings Alt-J. British venues and promoters don't respect artists in the same way as the Europeans, she says, so they were finding their own accommodation and being paid a pittance . . . and they lost $15000 “then got back to New Zealand and lost our jobs”.
“I pretty much had a nervous breakdown on tour in 2013, so I took a year off and recorded this [The Great Cybernetic Depression] album and have been terrified to get back on stage. But in saying that I think I am starting to feel like my own self again.
“I was more confident before but I feel now as we are about to leave on this tour that I can do it. In some ways doing things live outside your own hometown is easier because you don't know half the people in the audience, they aren't friends and family. So I find it easier to slip into a more confident version of myself.”
She admits she struggled at her Laneway appearance in January, she certainly looked uncomfortable.
“To be honest I was. People enjoyed it but I wasn't that happy. I didn't feel in control or honest but I just did the best I could that day.
“Princess Chelsea isn't like a girly character, it's almost like a cooler and more confident version of myself . I'm like a nerd. I didn't ever really think I'd be fronting a band and performing so I just have to switch into a slightly more confident character.
“But if I'm nervous or not feeling comfortable I almost over-perform because I feel I have to push myself, and I over-compensate. Then it comes across as not an honest performance. By the time I get back from Europe I would hope I'd be real comfortable on stage,” she laughs and refers to a post-overseas New Zealand tour as a “victory lap” because she will have got into the mode of performing.
Speaking with Nikkel is an enjoyable tour down some interesting musical by-ways. Although she says she came late to the Beatles --- Bree got her listening to them, she couldn't afford it but bought in the Beatles in mono vinyl box set – she has a deep well of knowledge (the shelf is stacked with everything from classical records to cheap pop, all looking like they been pulled from bargain bins) and doubtless time working in Marbecks allowed her to broaden her tastes even further.
In the course of an hour she knowledgeably mentions jazz composer Keith Jarrett, James Blake and Can, professes a great love for Sharon Van Etten (“although that's not a style I'd ever do”) and PJ Harvey's Let England Shake album (“Jonathan hates it, we had a big argument over that”), and music which seems to be on the periphery of pubic taste but isn't, like Alt-J, whom we agree on. Enjoyable but . . .
“Alt-J's music is quite weird, I find it quite weird. But the fact its connecting on such a massive scale is interesting and illustrates that maybe the average human being can connect with more than just straight up shitty pop music.
“It's not easy listening. Like Yes. They are a huge band but not easy, and even Pink Floyd. I really like Pink Floyd but their music is pretty weird yet most people have a Pink Floyd album in their collection and enjoy it.”
She likes Lana Del Ray's Ultraviolence but also finds people's reaction to her silly: “She's no more contrived than a band like Interpol that people take a lot more seriously. It's interesting because I think it highlights people's attitude towards women, like its okay for David Bowie but not okay for Lana Del Ray because 'she probably didn't write her music because she's real pretty'.”
And came from a wealthy family too.
“Yeah, but Bob Dylan from a middle class family, Gram Parsons from a very wealthy family, so it's all a bit silly. Just close your eyes and listen to the music, if it makes you feel good that's it.”
She tells of a regular customer in
Marbecks who only bought jazz and classical music. “He had good
taste and he loved Lana Del Ray.”
The customer was blind, she says.
The music which has most influenced her new album however comes from an even more unfashionable source, the innovative and melodic synthesiser music of the late Sixties and Seventies by people like Kitaro and Tomita (right).
“This is the kind of crap I love. I feel like synthesisers are used by bands in a pretty boring way, just fleshing out the sound of an indie rock band.
“But this,” she says pointing to battered vinyl copy of a Tomita album, “is completely different, it's using the synthesiser as a compositional tool really.
“Some people find this stuff terrible and cheesy but I love it. A lot of people think I'm being ironic. But people use that word incorrectly all the time, they wear 'ironic t-shirts. But that's not irony, that's sarcasm.
“They think I'm not being genuine and that I'm almost making fun of these artists. I was worried people might think I was taking the piss, like the neo-classical guitar stuff on the new album, or the almost Dad-ish guitar lines.
“Some people would be confused by that. I can't imagine a straight-out Lil Chief/Belle and Sebastian fan maybe being able to stomach some dueling guitars.
“I don't really like musicians referencing material in a way that makes fun of it. I was worried people would think I was.”
She talks about her creative process for the new album: locking herself in the shitty back room of the house, playing around keyboards with melodic lines and layering and layering synth lines (“I almost always do music first and lyrics second”) to create an aural bed which will inspire the lyrical content.
“I'm a little bit OCD to be honest, like I have to record things in threes. I have to do three takes of an idea, and Jonathan is, 'For fuck's sake . . .' “
Like Sheldon Cooper? Knock-knock, Penny; knock-knock Penny, knock-knock Penny . . .
“Yeah, I'm a little inclined that way but I think it helps make the music more personal because it's a bit more manic and the attention to detail is there.
“I like to work with Jonathan because usually I will arrange and record stuff in the back room and get it sounding pretty good, but my skill set ends there and I'm not particularly great at making a drum sound particularly good.
“So then he and I will work together and he will turn it into what it sounds like now. I have these cute nice synth demos and it turns it into this glorious ting. He's all the drums. People always think his main instrument is guitar because in the Brunettes he was the frontman guitarist. But he's been drumming since he was 12, like at the Gluepot in Goth bands.
“I guess synth sounds sort of futuristic and spacey, and there's a lot of musing on the future, and that's the lyrical content.”
There are some naked emotional songs on the album, notably We Are Very Happy, which she feels slightly uncomfortable putting out there.
“I'm not a huge depressive. That is not the happiest album but also I don't want to be some middle-class white girl complaining for 45 minutes on record. So it is packaged a different way or presented as a societal depression, just hiding stuff in a different context which is just less self-indulgent to a certain extent.
“You have those certain songs like We Are Very Happy which is straight-up personal songwriter and I think the arrangements help. Too Many People was just piano chords, almost like a Cat Power arrangement from her album You Are Free or something. Real simple and worked really well, but I wanted to change it up so it sounded almost happy but had these sad lyrics over the top, so it's a catchy song.
“In the long run that works better, but I think I might play some of the songs in their original way, which is a bit more adult-contemp, “laughs the woman who has worked in record shop.
“Not all of my lyrics are as clever as some of them. Like on my first album I thought Overseas had some pretty good lyrics but not every song was like that. I deliberately use plain language but sometimes people don't get it.
“I use it in conjunction with chords to give a simple sentence a different meaning. Like on We Are Very Happy I purposely -- on the word 'happy' – switch to a minor chord so it's a juxtaposition of the lyrics. That was the last song I wrote, which was a few months ago.
“I'm a little bit of chicken and hide a bit, and get scared about [writing about] personal things. I need to get over that, but I'm delving more into it, but it's a bit scary.
“That was taking elements of my experiences in real life and being honest about them in a way that's a it uncomfortable for me.”
She says with both albums she got to the point of having to stop listening to them after they'd been finished because she felt burned out after having listened to them so much on every different speaker in the house checking for their sound. Only later could she hear them and enjoy them.
“You analyse the songs so much they stop making sense, so I only just listened to this one last night and thought, 'Thank God, I like this a lot'.
“Same with the first one, I just couldn't listen to it, then I put it on and thought, “I love this album”. If I like it then I'm sweet. If someone doesn't like it I'd like to say I wouldn't care and for the most part I wouldn't, but it's also a bit of a worry . . . because everyone wants to be liked.”
She shakes her head when she says that after she made the album she forgot she'd have to explain it to people and she now feels uncomfortable with the press. When she was younger she was pleased to be in the newspaper (“I enjoyed that for six months”) but these days doesn't like the attention. Almost to the point of wanting her YouTube videos taken down.
I show her the cover of the Herald's entertainment section Time Out on which she appears with the tagline: “Stellar. How our Princess Chelsea is taking over the indie planet” in block capitals.
Does that make her feel uncomfortable, place a weight of expectation on her?
“That is big attention. And then every person that's ever known me will send me a text like 'I saw you in the paper' and my parents are like that too.”
So there is pressure and also misconceptions, the reality of those You Tube hits aside there's another which she finds as amusing as it is annoying.
“A lot of people assume I smoke a lot of weed and stuff, like they assume Connan Mockasin does drugs because of the psychedelic stuff . . . but neither of us do. I don't suit doing drugs.
“I find its interesting that people say, 'You must be on so many drugs, your music is so buzzy'. But I'm like, 'I don't do drugs, I'm just not boring'. If I smoke weed I fall asleep and that's not conducive to making music.”
Nor doing the business she needs to do right now. She is looking forward to touring although weary (“because I stay up all night e-mailing in Europe and then I stay up all day working”) and says she will be excited when she gets on the plane.
Touring might be hard but it is also about meeting people and seeing interesting things, like the churches and castles in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, maybe getting back to see the church made by monks out of the bones of the dead at Kutna Hora an hour out of Prague, getting to France for the first time . . .
“I think my music sounds a bit French, like Lil Golden Book has that ye-ye influence, especially the vocals being so girly.”
And confronting expectation: “Maybe 20 million people think I'm a hipster with a pink wing!”
“I'm gradually getting my mojo back from not playing, and then feeling comfortable and convincing and grand on stage. I'm imagining Istanbul and I hope it happens then,” she laughs.
There's also traveling with the two Jonathan's (Bree and Pearce, the latter formerly of Artisan Guns and numerous other bands and co-producer of Antoine Tonnon most recent album) and drummer Jackson Hobbs who shares her love of Can.
America isn't on the schedule at the moment but she wants to get there because . . .
“I'd like to take the band to Disneyland on the way back home. I've been . . . but I've got some grown men playing in my band who've never been."
And the weary Chelsea Nikkel laughs again.
“It's pretty silly, but I want to do it for them.”