From busking on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade to releasing her second album, Beautiful and Strange, on Blue Elan Records (and still busking on Third Street Promenade for fun), Chelsea Williams has come a long way in a few years. We had some time to ask her about the making of her new album, some of the background to the songs on it, and what she does for fun.
Hey Chelsea, how’s your day going?
Top notch! I’m sitting in bed with my cat at the moment, so I can’t complain.
Tell us a bit about you, what do you do for fun?
I feel damn lucky to do what I love for a living and honestly, that’s what I do for fun a lot of the time. But, when I’m not playing music or snuggling with my cat I really enjoy cooking and baking. And more recently I’ve gotten pretty obsessed with making surreal art collages.
Your album, Beautiful and Strange, was just released on May 8th, what can you tell me about it in two sentences?
It’s one part Beautiful two parts Strange… I have a very visual brain and for me listening to this record conjures the image of a ballerina walking on her tippy toes on a tightrope in outer space.
How weird has it been not being able to promote or tour the record so far?
Incredibly weird. I had a whole string of gigs scheduled for April and May that were all cancelled and have yet to be rescheduled. It is certainly a strange time for everyone, but the loss of live music hit me pretty hard. I have however been having a great time live streaming. I’ve been delighted to get to play for people all over the world through live streams. People I never would have met and who never would have seen me play if not for streaming. So that’s a bright spot.
One of my favourites on the record is ‘Red Flag’, what can you tell me about that song?
I wrote ‘Red Flag’ many moons ago with the writer-producer powerhouses Toby Gad, Julian Bunetta and John Ryan. At the time I was just starting a new relationship. I was at the jumping off point and feeling all that nervous excitement that comes with new love. This song was the result of me gushing about my new crush in a room full of songwriters.
‘Dust’ is a really lovely song, what’s the story to it?
‘Dust’ sprang out of my passion for human equality and my frustration with how difficult it seems to attain. Growing up, I was taught that it was our diverse citizens and our ability/willingness to lend a helping hand to those in need that made America a great country. It’s frustrating when I see the opposite being preached by some in power. So this song developed out of that notion.
I read that you recorded that in your bathroom, in the dark?
Haha! I did. We recorded the vocals to ‘Dust’ on the hottest day of the year last summer. We had to turn the A/C off to keep the room quiet. And the overhead light in the bathroom was SO hot that I ended up turning it off. But even that wasn’t enough. With every take we did, it got hotter. I ended up removing a couple articles of clothing and by the end of it I was singing in a pitch-black bathroom in my skivvies. Pretty funny!
The title track’s got a whimsical, almost “Sgt Peppers” feel to it, what was the genesis of the song?
I wrote ‘Beautiful and Strange’ after a conversation with friends about the differences in people’s thought processes. Some people rely more on hard facts and evidence while others rely more on faith and belief. In recent times this has made for a very divisive political and social climate. But the overarching theme of the song is that, even with all of these different thought processes and beliefs flying around creating chaos and commotion there is a true beauty to it all. There’s this sort of dance that happens that I find mesmerizing.
How was the rest of the album recorded, more conventionally?
Most of the record was recorded in a pretty live setting. Drums (Gavin Salmon), Bass (Erik Kertes) and most of the vocals were recorded all together with Dave Way at his studio, Waystation. Guitars we did with John Schroeder at his place. Ross Garren (Producer/Arranger) did harmonica, keyboards and mellotron at home and at a couple of local studios (Blue Dream and Palomino Sound). Oh and we recorded the singing saw player (Danny Moynihan) in the closet of our master bedroom. And he didn’t shred one piece of clothing in there. Very impressive!
If you could choose one song to record a cover version of, what would it be, and what kind of treatment would you give it?
Actually, when the “stay at home” orders first went down, Ross (my husband and musical partner) and I were looking for a project and we ended up recording a version of ‘Sister Golden Hair’ by America. Gerry Beckley is an album mate and we were asked by the label head Kirk Pasich to record a cover for a tribute project he was working on. We slowed it down and gave it sort of a dreamy, spacey feel. That was a really fun project.
Of all the songs you’ve recorded so far, which is the one you think represents you best?
That’s a tough one. I guess if I had to pick one, it would be ‘Beautiful and Strange’. If my soul were a song it would be a waltz with bass harmonica and singing saw.
What’s the best and worst thing about living in LA?
My favorite things are the food, the music scene and the expansive nature of this city. I love that it’s more like 10 cities rolled into one. I guess my least favorite thing would be the traffic. And it’s also brimming with so much activity 24/7. There are times that I dream about moving out to the middle of nowhere.
Tell me about Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade where you cut your performing teeth.
I started playing Third Street Promenade when I was 19. Honestly, I was trying to make money with music so I could quit my telemarketing job. And by some miracle, it worked! I started playing out there for between 20-30 hours a week. Sold a bunch of CDs and met all kinds of eccentric amazing people. That’s actually where I met Blue Elan label head Kirk Pasich, who ended up signing me and now here I am releasing my second record with them.
And you still perform there when you can?
I had been performing there when I was in town up until the “stay at home” orders. It is such a great place to try out new material on an audience that has no reason to care that you’re there. If you can get a good response from that crowd you know you’re doing something right.
Gender and diversity are much discussed in the music industry, what’s your experience of being treated differently as a woman in your industry?
I am incredibly supportive of the gender equality movement. I have definitely had my own personal experiences with that and can say that it’s a big issue that absolutely needs to be addressed.
Have you noticed a difference at all in the last couple of years?
I love that women are stepping forward and sharing their experiences. I am amazed at their courage and I have definitely noticed a shift in perception. Hopefully that will lead to solid progress in pay equality and equality in treatment.
Give me a flavour of the kind of music you listen to in your spare time.
Everything! From The Pixies to Lizzo to Radiohead to Billie Eilish. From Sam Cook to Willie Nelson. From The Wood Brothers to Ratatat… I could go on all day.
If you could recommend one artist to hear this week, who would it be?
Courtney Barnett is my current obsession.
What’s your favorite cocktail?
The Penicillin – honey, fresh juiced ginger, lemon juice and scotch, garnished with candied ginger.
Finally, how do you take your coffee?
Plain old coffee with a splash of whole milk.