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Chelsea Wilson talks equality, politics and advice

Chelsea Wilson is a Melbourne singer, songwriter, radio broadcaster and DJ. We caught up for a chat with her ahead of the release of her second album, Chasing Gold on March 15.

With parents who weren’t into jazz and friends who moved toward the alt rock scene, how did you arrive upon jazz, funk and soul?
Neither of my parents liked jazz and were quite perturbed when I got into it as a teenager. It just kind of happened accidentally. We did this exercise in about year 9 at high school where you had to pick, at random, a CD from this box and listen to it and write a report about it and I picked one called The Ladies Sing Jazz. It was a compilation that had Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln and I was like, “Wow this is amazing.” The teacher didn’t even like jazz either, he was like, “Oh you got the worst CD in the box”. But I took it home to my parents and was like, “Have you listened to this, this shit’s amazing!”, you know. And mum was like, “That’s really daggy. That’s the kind of stuff my dad would listen to. That’s not cool at all.” But yeah, I just really fell in love with jazz. And I guess the soul music thing for me really took off when I moved to Melbourne and started working as the music manager at (announcer voice) PBS 106.7FM. We’ve got some amazing soul programs on PBS and I remembered, my dad’s a big blues man so he had a lot of blues records like Etta James and stuff, so I’d heard a little bit of it, but when I moved to Melbourne the soul really took over and I started writing my own solo music and it had more of a soul tip than a jazz one.

The influence of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan you just mentioned shine through pretty clearly in your music. What appealed you to their styles the first time you heard them and what aspects do you try to incorporate into your own music?
I guess there’s quite a few things that, you know, my relationship with jazz has changed a lot over the years. I’m still just as in love with the genre now as I was then. I don’t know, as a 15-year-old, exactly what it was back then but I think a number of things. One in particular is just the absolute exquisite vocal mastery that those vocalists have, I mean, they were the best. Sarah Vaughan’s vocal technique is just unparalleled, she’s classically trained, she’s got the most incredible vibrato. Hypnotic to listen to. Ella Fitzgerald; such a joyful sounding voice. Her music was so happy and exuberant, and her scatting was wild. I’d never heard anyone do that. It was like “Wow! This is amazing.” And Abbey Lincoln; her social justice issues coming though the music. Nina Simone said, “Artists should be reflective of the times”, and I found that really moving and it hit me more than the stuff on Triple J. I mean, you know. I loved bands like Regurgitator and all of those other bands, like of course, but the jazz was really something that I kept repeating again and again and again. It was really infectious. And I guess it sounds so elegant with the storytelling and it hearkens back to this other era and as this bored teenager, it took me to another place. I thought, that’s it. I wanna be a jazz singer.

We did record to tape and mix on an analogue desk which is quite frightening because you can’t go back and edit things.

In trying to unearth sounds from a generation gone while also applying your own style, do you find there’s a constant battle between polishing something too much and retaining a rough, raw quality?
I think a lot of artists doing music that has a retro throwback thing is a bit of a fine line and its up to you when you’re in the studio with the producer because a song can go in so many directions depending on the treatment you give it in the studio. You can just have a song, just guitar and vocals, just piano and vocals. It can turn into a house song, it can turn into an electronic thing, it could be a rock song depending on the angle you choose. For this album I worked with Ross McHenry, the bass player and producer, and he said to me that he wanted me to stop thinking about genres so much and just concentrate on the songs in their most raw and pure form. And he said, “Chels, I just want you to come with songs. It’s just you playing piano and singing the song and we can bring in the band from there and come up with other elements from there, but I don’t want you to have in your mind a really set idea of how you want it to sound. We know you’ve got these disco and soul influences and we can take that into account but let’s just focus on the songwriting”. I mean, I didn’t want the album to feel like it was recorded in 1978 and had been stuck in a vault since then, but it definitely does have a little bit of a vintage sound to it mainly because we did record to tape and mix on an analogue desk which is quite frightening because you can’t go back and edit things. So, there’s a lot of things that aren’t perfect about the record that could’ve been more perfect if you recorded it all through ProTools and edited it all. But it definitely is a balancing act. Ultimately, what we’re aiming for is the best representation or reflection of the songs that we can.

Your recent single releases “Real Love” and “Breaking Down” appear to build on themes established on your first record. How has your songwriting and autobiographical approach to writing changed over the last five years?
Well I guess things in my life have changed, so the narrative of some of those tracks is different. But there’s some other songs on the album that aren’t as about me. I’ve got a song on the album called “Nothing Can Come Between This Love Tonight” which I wrote about the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando a few years ago. That story just really broke my heart. I mean, there’s so many devastating headlines in the press all the time but that one particularly really got to me. People were just expressing themselves dancing to music, should be free in that sort of space to express themselves and be who they are and for them to experience that sort of violence just really hit me. So I just wrote that song for them. And there’s another one called “Take Back The Night” which was inspired by the reclaim the night rallies and also Jill Meagher. And I wrote that whilst I was living in Brunswick and my partner was really concerned about me walking home from the tram or walking to meet a friend. It made me really angry. So I guess this album, the lyrical thing, there’s still the love songs on the album with “Real Love” and “Breaking Down”, but this is the first time where my more political ideas have intersected with my music.

This is the first time where my more political ideas have intersected with my music.

I can imagine it being tough to avoid writing politically-charged music nowadays.
Yeah and I think it’s important, I mean, there’s so many love songs, and of course we’re all gonna keep singing about that because we have so many emotions, but love is such a huge emotion and it’s such a life-changing thing when you’re in that space and it happens to you. People are gonna keep writing about that forever. But I think as an artist, it’s an important tool to have to be able to contribute to that political narrative and shift that perspective… in a funky way.

You scored a spot at Glastonbury in 2015 following your debut release. Can you describe, to a regular punter, what playing that festival was like?
What Glastonbury is like is crazy, it’s muddy, it’s otherworldly, it’s disorganised, chaotic amazingness. It’s unlike any other festival I’ve ever been to. It’s massive, like, where the carpark was an hour and a half walk to where our camping site was. So, you drive from London for about six and a half hours because the traffic’s so insane and then you get there and you’re like, “I have no idea where I am.” But it was a great experience, we had fun and it was an amazing bucket list type of thing for me. It was my first performance in the UK, and I’ve played a fair bit overseas, but hadn’t played in the UK before, so it was a pretty amazing way to start over there.

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Back home, Melbourne’s night life continues to thrive, but expensive leases and liquor licensing have forced a Thursday night funk n soul staple to move venues. How do you feel about Cherry Bar having to shift locations?
Yeah, I’ve done a few shows there myself, the Women of Soul collective and that. It’s a bummer, but it’s not gonna stop the funk. They’ll find a new home and we’ll prevail. It’s just a huge shout out and thank you to them, James (Young) and their crew, who have been supporting soul and heaps of other styles of music for so long. And I’ve had so many great memories there, like Kylie Auldist shot her film clip in there and I’m in the clip, like, I’m an extra! But there’s new venues popping up all the time and we’ll keep going. And musicians find our own places; if we can’t play in the established places we take over new spaces. There are gigs going on in carparks and house parties and pool parties. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

If anyone wants to improve as a musician I tell ‘em to listen to more, stop listening to yourself, listen to other people.

As a presenter on Melbourne community radio (PBS), DJ, festival programmer, director of Women of Soul nights and board member for Music Victoria, how do you still find time for your own creative output as an artist? Do you feel it is enhanced or restricted by these commitments?
I feel like, definitely when I was working in radio and just being surrounded and hearing music all the time, it’s just conducive to your writing because you hear so many songs all the time. The more listening you do, I think the better artist you are. Like if anyone wants to improve as a musician I tell ‘em to listen to more, stop listening to yourself, listen to other people. Working, sometimes, in terms of my personal creative process, I just get really busy with the festival work that I do and the other producing work that I do and I’m also on the Board of Music Victoria and so I have to be really disciplined to make sure I still find the time for my own music. But I think everyone’s like that right? That whole work-life balance thing, I don’t have a work-life balance. It’s more like a work, work, where does the music come into it balance. So yeah, you’ve just really gotta be disciplined and take care of yourself.

Having served as Music & Interviews Coordinator at the station (PBS), do you have any tips or advice for musicians trying to break through?
Yeah, absolutely. I would say for anyone, no matter what level you’re at, go to gigs on your night off. Go and support other people, other musicians and be part of the community because they’ll also come to your gigs. Be part of the scene, be part of the community. In terms of working with local radio, local presenters, they’re largely volunteers who are so passionate. Like, they’re super fans. So, if they like your music, they’re gonna really shout it from the rooftops; they’re gonna tell all their mates, they’re gonna come to your gigs, they’re gonna play it on the radio. And you can develop those relationships. You don’t necessarily need to spend heaps of money on marketing or PR. You can send a copy of your CD or a download link to your broadcaster you like and say, “I would love to hear your thoughts on my record” and if they play it then you write back and say thank you. And then you hope that you build that personal relationship with the broadcaster and they can really help you out. And just be as professional as you can. If you’ve got a gig, be there on time. If you’re an instrumentalist and a singer hires you to play in their band, learn the part off the recording. Don’t just rock up and make up your own shit to their song. Learn the part, learn the lyrics, have good gear, read the worksheet properly. If it says wear a suit, wear a suit. Like it sounds really basic but I’ve had session musicians rock up stoned and 40 minutes late for soundcheck and not wear the outfit they’re supposed to be wearing and instead of playing the part they’re meant to be playing they’re riffin’ Eddie Van Halen solos over my song. And it’s like, “That’s a no”, you know? There’s heaps of work out there and heaps of opportunities. If you do the work and your nice, you gotta work hard, but there’s loads of opportunities out there.

I’ve had session musicians rock up stoned and 40 minutes late for soundcheck and not wear the outfit they’re supposed to be wearing and instead of playing the part they’re meant to be playing they’re riffin’ Eddie Van Halen solos over my song.

As a pivotal cog as an advocate for female representation and opportunities in music, what obstacles still need to be dealt with to overcome the imbalance within the industry?
Well we need a multi-prong attack. I’m all about the multi-prong. It’s not something that can be solved overnight, and the music industry isn’t the only industry where there are imbalances in terms of representations. It’s in a lot of other fields. But we need a multifaceted approach. There’s a lot of finger pointing at festivals around their line-ups and so on but it can be hard because most bands only have men in them and so you don’t have many options to choose from. If you had 100 bands that all had men in them and a hundred that all had women in them you could go, cool I’ll get 10 of each pool and I get an equal 50-50. But it doesn’t work that way. We need more women playing instruments in the first place and that starts from school, so we need to encourage girls to play music. We need more government policy and advocacy and encouragement for diversity. We need our radio stations, especially the big playlisted ones, to be playing more female artists. We need studios to hire women to work in them because most studios spaces are one of the most male dominated spaces of the recording studio. That means we’ve got just those men shaping the sound of what we listen to. We need male musicians to hire female musicians in their bands, and we need them to give them a chance. Sometimes a band will give a female musician a shot, but they’ll think that she’s a bit sub-par or she’s not that great. Maybe she hasn’t had that much experience cause no one’s booking her and then get rid of her, but it’s not a fair comparison. You’ve gotta give them a shot for the long haul. There’s a lot of elements there and I think we just try and chip away at it from all angles, but there’s definitely movement happening and its really positive that at least now it’s a conversation. You know, I’ve had some shocking experiences with sexual harassment at gigs and I’ve had a booking agent drop me from a roster in Japan for telling me that I was overweight. And you’ve just gotta keep going. We’ve gotta be really supportive of women in the industry. If they look like they’re quitting, keep encouraging them to stay in it. That’s hard. We need also, in the home life, we need partners of female musicians to make sure they’re also contributing to the home and family life because statistics say that even with both male and female couples working, it’s still the woman that’s still doing more work in the home. So, if a woman is working full time and also taking the lion share of the domestic duties, she doesn’t have much time to practice her act. So, we also need our non-muso crew to support the muso in the family.

I’ve had some shocking experiences with sexual harassment at gigs and I’ve had a booking agent drop me from a roster in Japan for telling me that I was overweight.

If you could collaborate with any artist, in any medium, past or present, who would it be and what would you ideally create?
So hard! I have like, um, I would love to work with Nile Rodgers, Chic. That’s some disco dreams come true right there. That would be amazing, love him. Look you could publish that answer, he could read it, you just never know. You’ll be the first to hear about it.