It'd be pretty cool to make this big-ass girl band with HAIM and Grimes. I also love Caroline Polachek.
Anthem checked out Goldroom live at Rough Trade in New York City not long ago and realized Chela is the real story. Here’s her story. For this ongoing series of food and talk, we met up with Chela at Barcey’s Coffee in Brooklyn.
This show at Glasslands marked your first solo performance in New York City. Are you happy with how it turned out?
The audience seemed to love it, which is the most important thing. I was just disappointed because there was a lot of feedback from my vocal effects unit during the first four songs, and then we decided to take it out. Things like that plays on my mind a lot and I wasn’t able to enjoy those four songs. That was the only thing. It’s a big thing for me, but a small thing for everyone else.
I thought it was a great show. I didn’t realize you were having technical difficulties up there until you brought it to our attention.
Yeah, I’m very harsh on myself about everything. Did you catch the other bands?
I caught the tail end of My Midnight Heart.
She’s such a smokin’ babe. I was like, whoa, that’s a whole lotta’ woman! [Laughs] I never feel that way about myself, so I love seeing girls like that with their skirts and beautiful bodies. It’s like, oh yeah, that’s cool!
When it comes to supporting acts, do you usually have much say in the matter?
My booking agent gave me a very short list of people to choose from. I originally chose this other girl because I like my girl power, but she wasn’t available. Then I chose My Midnight Heart, not knowing that she was in a band that I played a song with at Coachella. They learned my song “Zero” and we performed that onstage. It was this very last minute, unexpected thing. When I went backstage last night I was like, it’s you! [Laughs] We gave each other a big hug and it was great to watch her perform.
So I didn’t know who you were until very recently when you performed with Goldroom at Rough Trade. I remember going, who is this girl? This is the story.
Aw, thank you. Working with Goldroom was basically the first time where I was a hired musician. It was great, but it’s also nice to get back to my songs that I wrote and feel so passionate about after not having played solo shows for two to three months. I’ve been having a lot of fun playing with Justin [Goings] who joined me for the festival run.
Justin is your drummer. You have bandmates back home as well, no?
I have a drummer, a keyboard player, and a guitar player in Victoria—but this is my home now! I was lucky to meet Justin through my management team because he’s in another band that they manage. They hooked me up with Justin just three days before South by Southwest where we played six shows in four days. That was very stressful because I wasn’t sure that it would work, but our first show turned out to be our best show. We feel the same energy in the songs and that’s something that goes unsaid, and it really seems to work for us.
How do you calm your nerves? Do you have any pre-show rituals?
I like to do my scales. I do some breathing exercises and stretches. Last night I was reading this graphic novel called Y: The Last Man and when it was time to leave the green room I’d forgotten that there was a gig. [Laughs] That’s the reason I do it. I don’t want to be sitting around worrying about the show. It relaxes me.
I made a beeline for your signature drink at Glasslands—Chela’s Crab Nip.
I didn’t get to try it! Was it good?
I usually don’t go for cocktails, but I enjoyed that. Was that your recipe?
It was. I actually don’t drink alcohol because I’m allergic. I worked in hospitality at a bar for three months when I was 19 and I was a big cocktail maker. All sorts of different groups of women would come in every Friday night and ask me for surprise cocktails. I would throw things together with kiwi and coconut… Although I couldn’t really drink any of it, I would sometimes sneak a taste with a straw like how bartenders do it. By the end of the night I was a little bit wasted.
What vices do you have?
I’m obsessed with food and drink. Ice cream is one of my favorite things in the world, but it’s not very good to have before a show if you’re going to sing. I’m obsessed with tea. I love sweets. I have to have dessert after every meal. If I have something savory, I’m immediately thinking, where’s that cookie, muffin, or ice cream?
There’s a crab on your hat. Why is this a running theme in your presentation?
The word “chela” when pronounced “keelah” means a crustacean claw. I got excited when I found this out because my best friend of all time and I’d had this joke that her hands are like a crab’s claw. This goes back to when we were 17 and I noticed that her hands had this natural pince. So it’s a tribute to her, but I’m also from a place where we used to catch a lot of crab. It’s not my spirit animal like I was saying last night, but I do love the crab.
How did you get into music in the first place?
My parents weren’t very musical, but my sister showed interest in music since the age of 3 or 4. My dad decided to give us private lessons for singing, dancing, piano, and guitar. So, it was mainly through my sister. When I was 15, we decided to move across the country to Melbourne and that’s when all the lessons stopped. We didn’t see it coming, but it was a very dark time in our lives. I guess that’s when I discovered punk and rock ‘n’ roll, which helped me through the trauma. I think punk-rock served its purpose—not that I don’t have it now—and I’m glad that it played such a big part in my life. Now I’m in a much more positive, content chapter of my life. Music is still therapy for the other things going on right now, but it just so happens that things aren’t quite so traumatic.
Is it challenging to write something upbeat when you yourself don’t feel that way?
I can’t help but write about things that are on my mind no matter how hard I try. A few weeks ago, I was feeling stressed and a little down missing home after moving to Los Angeles. I was telling myself to write a positive song—write a positive song—but I couldn’t. I find it hard to pretend. I have to be genuine and truthful about everything that’s going on in my life.
You moved out to Los Angeles last year. Was that an easy call to make?
That’s an interesting one because I had been planning on moving to the States for several years prior to actually doing it. The visa process is hard, you know? It’s difficult to actually get to stay here. I always thought about being in New York, my favorite city, but the truth is that my team is in L.A. I’ve got family in L.A. I have way more friends in L.A. It seems more like a cushion and a place to fall when you’re overwhelmed by missing family and friends back home. It does feel a lot less scarier than living somewhere like New York, which is a grind. New York can be very harsh and intense. I would like to make my way in New York one day, but for the time being, L.A. is definitely the perfect place to make the transition into this country.
Is there a rivalry between L.A. and New York for music these days?
There’s an interesting dialogue going on at the moment because the prices are going up so much in New York that it’s driving a lot of artists out and over to the other side. Just yesterday I had a meeting with a producer, Chris Zane, who said, “I’m a New Yorker through and through and a few years ago I wouldn’t have entertained the idea of moving to L.A. Ask me now, it’s different. All the rates are going up. Most of my friends have moved to L.A. They’re posting photos of their beautiful houses, backyards, and pools. And I want a piece of it!” [Laughs] It seems like this shift in the music scene is forcing L.A. to go through a golden era where artists are collaborating more. It’s sad because New York has been the main place to make music for so long, but it’s also exciting to change it up I guess.
Are you currently working on an album? How far along are you?
Well, I’m not pregnant. [Laughs] I’ve written down hundreds of ideas and I’m just continuing to write every day. I’m looking for the right producer. I was actually telling Chris Zane, the producer behind all of Passion Pit’s stuff, that this is the first time in my life where I felt like saying, “I want you to make my album.” I think he’s the one. A huge part to play in this is obviously the question of who’s going to fund it. That either comes from a record label, a publishing deal, I could find an investor… It’s not really my forte talking about this business stuff because I really quite hate it. I sort of pass all of that onto my managers. [Laughs] I think it poisons the creative process for me. I try to stay out of the business stuff and just hope for the best. I would definitely love to see my album coming out next year, but obviously, financially speaking, it’s unpredictable.
What artists do you admire? Who sort of floats to the top?
I love HAIM. I love Blood Orange. I love Grimes. For me, these are true artists because they write their own songs and play their own instruments. They even have a hand in their music videos, photography, graphic design—everything. These are the kinds of artists that I respect the most. I can enjoy a Rihanna song as much as the next person because her production is amazing, she looks amazing, and her voice is amazing, but when it comes to reaching my heart, it’s the artist who has really put their creative energy into everything that they do.
What two bands would you include in the formation of your supergroup?
That’s a great question! I’ve been asked this before and I was like, Prince and Michael Jackson! But they’d have to be the stars of the show and I’m a backing singer. [Laughs] It’d be pretty cool to make this big-ass girl band with HAIM and Grimes. I also love Caroline Polachek, who’s now Romona Lisa, and she’s brilliant. I love Sia Furler, too. I really respect that woman. Girls like that!
It doesn’t seem like a far-fetched idea.
Absolutely. It’s just so easy with the internet now. You can just email someone and collaborate on a song. It’s so easy now to get in touch with people. We’re all just one degree of separation. I think this is really important for up-and-coming artists especially. You have to remember that the world is totally your oyster.
Is social media something that you’ve learned to embrace or fear?
I’m a bit half and half. I’ve had Instagram for years before it got popular. When it got hugely popular, I was like, I better delete all those photos of my mom making me breakfast. [Laughs] I actually deleted all of those super personal stuff. But I love Instagram. I’m really not a person of many words and love to express what I’m feeling through song mostly. I feel like it’s necessary for an artist to have these different pages, especially at a stage where you’re trying to have people discover you. I think I’m going to get sick of Twitter. I’m not a big fan of tweeting, and I just connect it to my Instagram. It does get a bit much sometimes. I do like to put away the phone and the laptop for a couple of days and go to the beach. That’s when you get back to being a real human being. So it can get a bit overwhelming at times, but it’s a necessary factor in being a musician these days. I’ve emailed people before and sometimes they’ve gotten back to me. It’s a real thrill, you know? It’s beautiful. Being able to give that back to people is something I appreciate.
Tell me something that most people don’t know about you.
There’s a lot! [Laughs] I feel like I have so many secrets… I often find myself saying, don’t say it. I was born with two sets of teeth like a shark, so I had extra teeth removed when I was 7 years old. My sister never had medical problems, but I had asthma, eczema, and so many other medical things. My sister, who’s 3 years older than me, said before my surgery, “They’re going to cut open your mouth with a knife.” I still remember this so vividly. I remember going into the room and this woman said, “This is going to taste like strawberries.” She put the mask on me and I was like, oh, that’s nice. I was out. After that, I was eating ice cream with one set of teeth. I was happy!