Name: Chelsea Nikkel aka Princess Chelsea
Occupation: Singer, songwriter, producer
Nationality: New Zealand
Recent release: Princess Chelsea's latest single "The Forest" is out via Lil' Chief. It's a harbinger of her upcoming full-length album Everything Is Going To Be Alright, slated for release on October 7th 2022.
Recommendations: The documentary Streetwise by Mary Ellen Mark and Mark Bell; Scott Mannion – You are the substance I can't live without. (Watch on Youtube here)
If you enjoyed this interview with Princess Chelsea and would like to find out more about her work, visit her on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and Soundcloud.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started playing classical piano when I was a kid, and my early passion were the composers I learnt to play – Mozart (who I still think is a total punk), Haydn, Bach and Beethoven.
I didn’t start writing music until I was in my late teens when I formed a band called Teen Wolf with my friends Brad and Vincent from West Auckland. We wrote collaboratively with no rules or experience, it was great.
I started writing my own music for the Princess Chelsea project at the same time as I learnt to engineer and produce music from when I was about 23. The Lil’ Golden Book album is essentially me learning to use Protools between 2007 and 2010. (laughs)
When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?
That’s not something I can tangibly describe. It’s nothing so obvious for me as a colour or shape – but there are certainly strong feelings involved.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
My writing style early on was heavily tied in with my learning to produce and engineer music. This provided challenges when I wanted to perform the music live as creating and writing it was a very insular process.
I didn’t know how to translate these complex arrangements I’d made in a live collaborative context and it took many years before I finally got it right. Learning how to collaborate with others in the studio and live while still retaining my vision but also not be too controlling has been my biggest challenge.
More recently I’ve been challenging myself to write more traditionally structured songs and put more effort into I guess the “art of song writing”. However I’ll still allow an arrangement to take off when it needs too and see what happens.
Finding the balance between the two song writing approaches and when those two approaches serve each other or the song best is a challenge.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
Well I try to just be the same as I was when I was a kid – I think that’s when we are maybe our most authentic selves. We grow up, we suffer, we might lose ourselves for a bit. When we are teens or young adults might buy into some bull shit and then get over that when we’re adults. But if you find yourself again who you were as a kid then I think youre golden.
My sister said she finds it funny that if I ever liked a song at any age I’ll love it forever and never change my mind about it which is very true. So in that way I still enjoy what could be considered ‘bad’ music I loved when I was a kid even if the cool indie 20 year old me may have pretended not to for a while. I don’t believe there should be such a thing as guilty pleasure music.
And I guess my music I make I’m often channelling the sounds of my childhood which was those big Spielberg kids films, or fantasy stuff like The Neverending Story which featured soundtracks full of the big synths of the 80s (DX7, D-50).
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
You must pure of heart when writing music. Don’t over think it or force it – it should happen naturally. You are channelling magic.
Everybody’s art is valid if it's authentic.
If you get on a stage and don’t give 110% you shouldn’t be on the stage. Those are basically the things I think about music and art. (laughs)
I wrote a song called “All I Need To Do”. It kind of sums up what I think about music. It deals with that feeling we might all get – self doubt, why am I doing this, am I good enough? It’s me reminding myself to just stay true and not to over think it.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
My attitude is really anything goes as long as it's authentic.
Authenticity is the number one thing for me – if you are steeped in tradition and that tradition means something to you and you are invested in what you’re doing then that will shine though. If you’re trying to be original and innovative for pure reasons and not over thinking it it’ll be exciting, if it’s for more cynical reasons or too planned then it will most likely suck.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
For me personally it was learning to engineer and produce music at home – that’s kind of defined my process and my entire output.
I think everyone should learn how to record themselves even if just for the purpose of demoing music – and I guess these days most people do because DAWs are so readily available and some of them are even free. (laughs)
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
Most musicians who are putting out music regularly and playing live will work a lot more than people realise. I’d say I work over 10 hours a day with small breaks to look at crap on my phone (current fav is laughing at one star google reviews of beautiful waterfalls or other natural phenomena) or go for a swim or walk. The work will either be admin, recording, rehearsing or making music videos but usually not all those things at the same time if possible.
I need to compartmentalise because it’s too much mental gymnastics to swap hats all day. I am mindful of making sure I rest these days as I over did it a few years back so will visit my parents, go to karaoke at the bowls club on Wednesdays and gamble on the pokies, and try to go fishing on the rocks for a day at least once a week. I think when people are self-employed and have weird schedules it can get easy to never take a break which is always bad.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
Ok so maybe the song “Growing Older” from my album Loneliest Girl was a song where I nailed that balance of collaboration, song-writing and improvisation. I sat down and wrote it in a more traditional setting at the piano, and it’s a real classic songwriter’s song because of that.
When I went to record it I didn’t add any bells and whistles I just recorded myself playing the piano and singing. Then I played bass and percussion and arranged it a small amount, but I knew I wanted noise guitar.
So I collaborated with my friend Vincent HL who is my favourite guitar player and who I play in a band called Hang Loose. I remember explaining to him that this guitar should sound a bit scared to grow old but kind of resigned to it by the end. He understands me and ‘shredded’ for a couple hours improvising and then afterwards I pieced it together.
That was maybe one of the only songs I’ve mixed too because it was so simply arranged. I think the end result is brilliant and the arrangement is super refined and a great balance of spontaneity, collaboration but also focus. It wouldn’t have been the same with a different guitar player and he wouldn’t have played the guitar like that on a different song.
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
I think collaboration is always best. However you need to bring out the best in each other when collaborating so its important to find the right people. It's also important to realise that collaboration is the art of giving as well as receiving back so you yourself must bring out the best in the people you’re working with. This is much much harder than it sounds – its like finding a soulmate or something.
A band like Big Thief to me has that in their live performance – not many bands do, it's really special. Or great songwriting partnerships I mean McCarteny Lennon springs to mind immediately as people who brought out the best in each other musically. There’s also great producer/ artist partnerships like PJ Harvey and John Parish.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
Essentially I make it for myself. The fact that other people listen to it and enjoy it, too, was not something I planned for.
I feel lucky because of that but it's always weird to navigate the music industry. I mean from the industry perspective the role of music is also to be a product. Not so say that everyone in the music industry only cares about that, but for an industry to exist and sustain itself there must be money.
However long before there was an industry, music’s role has always been expression and to pass on life experiences, culture, tradition, lessons but also new ideas in every society.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?
Music is how I and a lot of musicians work through those big topics and they're all there in my music whether covertly or overtly. The song “Growing Older” I talked about earlier very specifically deals with being scared to grow old but also settling into it and feeling ok about it.
Bob Dylan for me has been my go-to artist for learning about those big topics. I listened to him since I was a teenager and for some reason Blood on The Tracks is an album I put on when I’m having a real hard time and it always makes me feel understood. It makes sense 'cos he was having a real hard time around then, too.
How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
I think there is some type of magic or universal consciousness that exists in every atom and I think that is the same magic that we channel when making music or any form of authentic art. It's that feeling when your haird stands up, when you're in love, when your heart swells.
Maybe it's what people call god. I think that’s something very real and tangible and I don’t think science has figured it out or will. But it's up there in the stars, too.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Well for me it is quite different as I am not passionate or connected to making coffee. So I can channel nothing from it. But for somebody else it could be very similar. I think every human being has magic in them and it comes out in different ways.
Somebody who is truly passionate about making coffee and preparing it and experimenting with it might get as much out of that as I could writing a song.
I don’t think its correct to say music is better than other forms of creativity. Or that mundane tasks can't also be creative. I don’t see why the magic in humans couldn’t be channelled through making food or coffee in the same way music does.
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
Well yes of course, it’s a vehicle for channelling magic.