Australian singer CHELSEA WILSON won plenty of plaudits with her 2015 long player, ‘I Hope You’ll Be Very Unhappy Without Me’. Despite the odd title, the set was voted “Best Soul/Funk Album Of The Year” at the Victoria Music Awards in the land down under! It’s taken a little while but busy Ms Wilson has just released the follow up –a concise 9 tracker ‘Chasing Gold’ which like its predecessor is winning great reviews…. even earning “album of the week” status on some top soul sites. So what better time to find out more about Chelsea….
I’m a vocalist, songwriter, DJ, event producer, festival director, board director and broadcaster from Melbourne Australia. I’m obsessed with music and have been writing and recording songs since I was 9 years old. I used to knock on the neighbours door as a kid with my ghetto blaster in one hand and money box in the other and ask if they would like to pay to see my ‘show’. I’ve always loved the stage, mum calls me a born ‘show girl’. Mum played classical piano when I was a kid and tried to teach me how to play but I was never disciplined enough to read the dots and become a classical player. I could play by ear much to mum’s frustration so she gave up trying to instruct me so I’m self taught. She put me in dance classes at my request but I always preferred my own moves and so I was always the rebel at the back of the room making up my routines! I studied contemporary music and audio engineering at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, so I’m not properly jazz trained. But my first love was jazz, I learned the great songbook on the road. After my study I completed six international residency gigs singing jazz standards in 5-star hotels – I did three six month stints in Japan, I worked in Thailand, Dubai and also spent some time at sea singing on a cruise ship. Some people feel embarrassed to talk about doing gigs like this but I’m not – singing 280 shows a year, six nights a week, four sets a night for a couple of years gave me my performance stripes, enabled me to learn stage craft plus I got to have some amazing adventures!
When I returned to Australia I went back to study and completed a Masters Degree of Arts and Entertainment Management and worked in music licensing for a bit while I started focusing on my own music. I then landed a fabulous role as Music Manager of iconic Melbourne station PBS106.7FM and started my own radio show Jazz Got Soul. While I was in this role I released my debut album “I Hope You’ll Be Very Unhappy Without Me”. The album was lauded #2 album of the year on ABC radio national and led to me performing at Glastonbury Festival and supporting Macy Gray on her Australian tour. I was then offered the position of Artistic Director of Stonnington Jazz Festival so I made the move to Festival directing after seven years in radio. I’ve now directed seven different festivals and next month my fourth jazz festival kicks off. I love the creative side of festival directing and producing new shows, it’s a different way for me to express ideas.
So what’s the music scene like in Australia?
The music scene in Australia is varied and diverse, it’s a huge country! I’m the deputy chair of Music Victoria which is the state peak body for contemporary music so I can talk all day about the scene in Melbourne in particular. We are known as the music capital of Australia and have a thriving scene of all genres, it’s actually really amazing. Our jazz, soul and funk culture is particularly strong with acts such as The Bamboos, Hiatus Kaiyote, Cookin on 3 burners, 30/70 Collective and others from Melbourne, not to mention our incredible DJ culture and selector talent such as Vince Peach, Miss Goldie, CC Disco and more. We have more live music venues per capita than London, New York and LA. We have some gorgeous recital halls, loads of bars and dedicated jazz clubs, touring acts coming through all the time and parties popping up in car parks, velodromes and museums. It’s very exciting. One thing that makes Melbourne so great is our community radio culture, we have very passionate radio fans that listen to local broadcasters and as a result our indie stores and artists are supported. Melbourne is always buzzing, I cannot keep up with all the bands I want to see, you need to make tough choices every weekend.
OK, so growing up there who were your musical heroes and influences?
Growing up I was exposed to a lot of music through my parents’ record collection and also via my mums Dad who used to slip me lots of cassettes he would copy for me from his records. I had one of those plastic cassette holders that had a handle at the top at I took it everywhere. I had Benny Goodman to Glen Miller to Janet Jackson, Kylie, C&C Music factory, Salt n Pepa, almost anything I could get on tape basically! Kylie was a huge influence on me, the Rhythm of Love era in particular was massive. As a teen though I accidentally discovered jazz and became obsessed with the great American voices such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Holiday, Sarah Vaughn. My grandmother was in love with Frank Sinatra so mum and I would listen to old blue eyes a fair bit too as it made us think of nana. When that Sinatra duets album came out I would sing all parts and imitate all the vocalists to get a laugh out of mum. I’ve always been doing impersonations, some good, most bad but I can’t help myself!
When did you decide to make music your career? And how would you describe your music… if we were to label your sound … what would it be?
I always knew I would work in music; I have no memory of not feeling like music was my purpose and role in life. There is not and will never be anything else for me, all I want to do is dance, sing, perform, make records and make radio. My first time on stage (I think I had just turned four) was exhilarating and I still remember it. I wore a blue leotard and blue eyeshadow and mum bought me a bag of crisps afterwards, it was a great day. When making my new album “Chasing Gold”, producer and bassist Ross McHenry said to me to stop thinking so much about genre and to focus on writing something undeniable, something uniquely me. So all the songs started … just me, vocals and piano. You can definitely hear rare groove, disco and jazz influences in my music, I love the disco aesthetic and the seventies sounds – I’m a sucker for Rhodes, a string section and warm tape records. I also love jazz harp and big backing vocals, blaxploitation guitars, breakbeats and slap bass! But a major focus for this project was on the lyrics and the melodies and to be creative something meaningful and my own sound. If I had to label it, I’d call it soul. It’s like late soul, early disco.
OK take us from there then to your first album… ‘I Hope You’ll Be Very Unhappy Without Me’… I believe it was self-funded – yet you got people like Lance Ferguson on board….
My debut album “I Hope You’ll Be Very Unhappy Without Me” was self funded yes. Who is going to fund an unknown singer from Australia to make a soul record? Ha! I am my own manager and label and making records on my own terms. I would love to join a stable of artists that I could tour and collaborate with but until the right fit comes up I’ll keep flying solo. I had some rough demos of my tracks that I sent to Lance Ferguson from the Bamboos and Jake Mason from Cookin on 3 Burners. They were rough demos but they could hear what I was trying to do and thankfully they came on board to play on the record. I’m proud of the album. Jake and I are good mates and have been working together for years now, his studio feels like home and he makes a great cuppa.
That was in 2015 – what’s gone on with Chelsea Wilson between then and your new LP (apart of course from working on that)…
Since IHYBVUWM things have been a whirlwind, it feels like a month ago that album came out ha! I played a lot after the record was released including my debut U.K. appearance at Glastonbury Festival, supported Macy Gray on her Aus tour and did shows at London Jazz Café and Paris Bizz Art. I also performed in Indonesia with the amazing guitarist Balawan which was incredible. I then produced the Women of Soul album featuring ten new songs from Australian soul artists such as May Johnston, Rita Satch and Stella Angelico and gigged that record solidly for nearly a year. I then took on the role of Artistic Director for Stonnington Jazz, became a board director for Music Victoria and was Music Programmer of Brunswick Festival for two years. Last year I produced a roller disco event featuring Renee Geyer, Kylie Auldist and myself for Melbourne Music Week which is one of our flagship festivals in Melbourne. I traveled to Edinburgh and Perth last year as an Aus music delegate to watch Scottish bands as part of showcase Scotland and in January this year I spoke on the Spotlight on Australian Jazz panel at NYC jazz congress at the Lincoln Centre. I also got married and co-produced (alongside my husband) two ceremonies in two countries (he’s a kiwi!). The Chasing Gold album came out in March and the Melbourne launch show was last week. I am now writing this article on a flight on my way to London to promote the album before heading to Germany for Jazzahead conference. I’m sorry it took so long for album #2 but I hope it’s been worth the wait! Girl has been busy haha!
The new set is ‘Chasing Gold’…. is this self-funded too and why that title
Chasing Gold is the title track of the album and I’ve loved playing with gold costuming – the LP and CD has the type in gold embossed foil it’s gorgeous! The actual song is quite funny if you listen to the lyrics you’ll get the story, it’s basically on the subject of money and greed in relationships. It’s inspired by a short-lived relationship that I ended when things turned nasty around money matters. I was very fortunate to receive some funding via Creative Victoria and Australia Council towards this project so huge thanks to them so it wasn’t completely self funded. We have some great grant programs at home and I’m grateful to have received the support.
…. And the enigmatic, pink cover – a bit Priscilla Queen of the Desert?
When the first album came out a lot of people were surprised to find out that I am Australian. So for “Chasing Gold” I wanted to feature the Australian landscape in my images and film clip so I chose the stunning Wilson Promontory national park for my location. I was inspired by super glamorous desert Vogue editorials from the seventies, Kylie’s rhythm of love shoot and Hiatus Kaiyote’s Nakkamurra film clip. I am a city girl but I grew up in the country so the Aussie bush is definitely in my DNA. I’ll take the Priscilla comment as a huge compliment; I love the art of drag and Aussie films – and that Priscilla bus scene is truly iconic. Some people have mentioned Mad Max to me also so perhaps the cover has a cinematic feel. I’m actually calling the cover shot ‘apocalyptic disco’ ha! I think it looks like a moon landing, my designer Hon did an amazing job with the colours.
The first single from the album was ‘Real Love’ – how did that do?
I’m thrilled ‘Real Love’ has had some airplay in the U.K on BBC, Deelite, Colourful Radio, Mi-Soul and Solar to name a few, it’s just wonderful! It’s a really special song for me which I wrote when I first met my love Jay (who is now my husband!). Jay also directed the film clip, it’s our first collaboration so we are stoked people are resonating with it. Thanks to all the DJ’s and lovers for the support.
Soul wise we loved the last three tunes…. ‘Breaking Down’ ‘Take Back The Night’ and finally the jazzy ‘I Won’t Choose You’ – they had a real soul vibe – tell us about them…
Breaking Down – this is s really personal song and a difficult one for me to perform as it is about my experience with domestic violence which I have survived as an adult and a child. I cried every take when I tried to record the vocals, the version on the album is the only take where I didn’t cry until the final chorus so we went with that version and I overdubbed the final chorus back in. It’s very raw! I think it’s important to share these stories and I hope that I can show that it is possible to have a happy and full life after experiencing family violence. I’m in a really good place now.
Take Back The Night – I co-wrote this one with my keys player Andy Boyle and my friend Audrey Powne. It’s inspired by the ‘reclaim the night’ rallies and in dedication for Jill Meagher who was abducted and murdered near our place when we were living in Brunswick. My partner didn’t want me walking home from the train or rehearsal studio by myself due to the attacks on women. It made me angry so this song emerged!
I Won’t Choose You – this is another co-write with Andy and shows his impeccable keys playing. This song was so much fun to record, the band and I did all the handclaps around a mic and we got the giggles with drummer Myele dancing about and pulling hilarious faces. I’ve never seen Andy laugh so hard! We call this the ‘driving off into the sunset at the end of the movie’ song, it’s got that feel good ‘I will Survive’ vibe to it.
You’re in the UK for promotion (I guess) what are your plans….
I’m in London for a few days to promo the record and visit family before heading to Jazzahead in Germany. I’m planning to come back in July for some shows so look out!
….. and in the longer term?
In the second half of the year I’ll be doing a bunch of shows at home for “Chasing Gold”. I’m also working on a podcast series and have a jazz record in the works. Next year I’ll be writing the follow up to Chasing Gold.
Your own label is House of Valerie… something about your grandmothers?
House of Valerie Joan is my boutique label, events and consulting business. Named after my late grandmothers Valerie Wilson and Joan Pearman – I like to think that they would dig having the imprint in their name! Joan was actually from Birmingham and was an artist, she painted, loved Frank Sinatra, dancing and the beach and moved to Melbourne with my Pop in the early sixties.
Finally – in just one sentence tell people who don’t know Chelsea Wilson why they should investigate ‘Chasing Gold’?
The Saturday night album you put on while getting ready to go out, disco with depth!!!