On International Women’s Day, a showcase for those women who work in the world of electronic music…
International Women’s Day, which falls on 8th March each year, has become an opportunity to not only recognise the achievement of women throughout history, but to also raise awareness of issues such as gender equality, violence, women in science & technology and to promote the aspirations of girls and women worldwide.
On the basis that women have made a significant impact on the world of electronic music across decades, with people such as Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Bebe Barron, Wendy Carlos and Laurie Anderson being pioneers in their own distinct ways, we thought that we’d celebrate in our way with an International Women In Electronic Music Day.
It’s not always been an easy time for women in music and even today there are challenges and problems that have made the path difficult for some musicians. Lauren Maybery of Chvrches has spoken at length about the rise in misogyny, particularly in online commentary. Equally, Claire Boucher of Grimes fame has had to address issues within the world of music production (which ironically led to some misinformed writers to conclude that Boucher was flying a flag for militancy). It’s also something that Katie Stelmanis of Austra has addressed more recently.
To celebrate the contributions that women have made to electronic music, we thought it made sense to flag up some of the musicians, composers and singers that TEC has championed in the past. This selection is by no means definite and certainly isn’t designed to present a complete picture of women in electronic music, but is purely a sampling of the broad range of electronic music that women are active in.
If there’s one particular star on the electronic music scene that’s been on the ascendant in recent years, it’s New Zealand’s Princess Chelsea. Scoring a cult hit with the indie charms of ‘The Cigarette Duet’, her 2011 album Lil’ Golden Book also demonstrated a fine talent for wistful electronica and tales of growing up in Auckland.
Her 2015 album The Great Cybernetic Depression cranked the electronic elements up to ’11’ and showcased songs that had a much more raw and personal edge. There was also a concept album approach which La Chelsea herself described as: “it represents a personal and societal depression due to social change triggered by technology.”
The varied musical career of Hannah Peel has presented a musician and composer with a particular ability to craft evocative melodies and compelling lyrics. Her most recent release Awake But Always Dreaming was assembled from the singer’s own encounter with the debilitating effects of dementia in her own family.
‘All That Matters’ combined fine electronic pop elements with a sweeping, uplifting quality to it. Released as a single, the track employs a combination of synth hooks and strings measured against Peel’s haunting vocal.
Hailing from Greece, Marsheaux combine the ethereal vocal style of Sophie Sarigiannidou and Marianthi Melitsi with distinctive percussive rhythms and unashamedly electronic melodies. Their 2003 debut album E-Bay Queen and 2006 release Peekaboo demonstrated both an ability for original synthpop married with a smart choice of cover versions (such as The Lightning Seeds’ ‘Pure’ and New Order’s ‘Regret’).
Their most recent release was Ath.Lon although, arguably, it was their phenomenal 2009 album Lumineux Noir that set the bar. That album demonstrated a clear linear progression from their early material through to the bold, impulsive electronic masterpiece that few contemporaryacts have managed to emulate.
Originally from Greece, but now resident in LA, Kid Moxie is the musical moniker of Elena Charbila. Kid Moxie’s music is a blend of powerful beats, pop sweetness and haunting melodies. She’s collaborated with the likes of Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti and Clint Mansell and more recently released the excellent Perfect Shadow EP.
Susanne Sundfør’s musical career set a particularly high standard with the release of her 2015 album Ten Love Songs. The Norwegian musician’s glacial landscapes of electronic melancholy had a very particular personal touch and it’s small wonder that the album received critical acclaim.
Katie Stelmanis was another Canadian musician who made an impact in the world of electronic music on the back of several releases by Austra. From 2011’s Feel It Break through to the most recent album Future Politics, Stelmanis has brought to bear not only a stellar talent for tunes, but on the latest release a more pronounced commentary on politics.
The familiar bassy synth tones that Stelmanis has crafted as part of the classic Austra sound provide the foundations for ‘Utopia’. This rumination on the “collective depression”, that Stelmanis suggests is a result of city living, has strong hooks and melodies as some smart percussive frills keep the song moving along.
The phenomenal success of her previous album Visions clearly caused something of a dilemma for Claire Boucher. The album had, in many ways, been a gear change from her earlier work in opening up the often cryptic soundscapes that had been the trademark sound of Grimes previous.
But Art Angels delivered a much more commercial vehicle for Grimes that could have swayed fans had it not been for the quality of the material on the album. Grimes goes electropop for ‘Kill V. Maim’ with its harsh percussion and insistent bass beat, sounding as if Hooky had dropped by the studio for a session. Again, it’s a fine example of the natural evolution of the Grimes sound. “I’m only a man/do what I can” intones Boucher on one of the more memorable tracks on the album.
Marina And The Diamonds
Marina Diamandis has consistently produced top tunes under the guise of Marina And The Diamonds, but also manages to switch gear on every subsequent release. The intimate Froot was an example of the talent that the Welsh musician can bring to bear.
‘Forget’ was one of Froot’s hidden gems with catchy hooks and a euphoric chorus. It’s lyrical themes of regret and moving forward utilise Marina’s smart wordplay as she regrets the times spent chasing rabbits when “I was born to be the tortoise/I was born to walk alone”.
There’s a good combo of the ethereal with the more intense part of the electropop spectrum in dark pop chanteuse Polly Scattergood’s material. Her 2013 album Arrows received critical acclaim and Scattergood describes herself as a storyteller: “I write about emotions and moments, not all are biographical”.
French outfit Christine And The Queens managed to make an impact in 2016 via the subtle electropop touches of album Chaleur Humaine. Founder Héloïse Letissier, who has described Christine And The Queens’ sound as “freakpop”, managed to bring a Gallic charm to electronic music alongside visually arresting choreography for live shows. Huge in France, Christine And The Queens gained a broader audience through a 2015 US tour with Marina And The Diamonds.
2016 brought us the UK release of ‘Tilted’ whose oddly effective ‘reversed’ melodies and engaging beats helped pave the way for Chaleur Humaine. ‘Tilted’ represents an approach that slips easily into accessible commercial pop, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for a catalogue of work that features an intriguing talent at work.
Occasionally on percussion duties for Austra (and formerly part of TR/ST), Maya Postepski has also carved out her own singular electronic music path under the guise of Princess Century.
Dipping into “minimalist cosmic disco psychedelia” as well as the “weird Krauty EDM vibe” of recent material, there’s something oddly compelling about Postepski’s unique electronic explorations.
The trans-global duo of Lola Dutronic have been pushing out quality electronic music since 2004. From adaptations of 60s French pop through to musings on modern pop culture, the outfit’s finest moment to date is arguably their 2015 album Lost In Translation album.
One of the strongest components of Lola Dutronic is the sultry vocals of Germany-based singer Stephanie B – here working wonders on a sequel to one of their best songs.
The collaborative duo of Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory have charted an intriguing career arc following on from debut release Felt Mountain in 2000. It included dips into ‘folktronica’ evidenced on 2008’s Seventh Tree and the synth optimism of Head First in 2010. Meanwhile, 2013’s Tales of Us was considered by some outlets as a return to form (as the phrase goes).
Forthcoming album Silver Eye has been in development for some time and appears to be cast firmly in an electronic mold.
Better known as being part of electropop outfit Ladytron, Helen Marnie has been keen to pursue a solo path in recent years, which led to 2013’s Crystal World album.
Marnie’s distinctive vocal style leaps out from any tune that she puts her hand to. With the reveal of new song ‘Alphabet Block’, she also announced details of a follow-up to Crystal World in the shape of the forthcoming Strange Words And Weird Wars. The official stance on the album is “soul crushing synths are wonderfully accented by hook-laden choruses as Marnie boldly explores up-tempo electro dream-pop”. Which we certainly can’t argue with.
Originally hailing from Bejing, Fifi Rong’s beguiling music encompasses a broad range of influences, including electronica, dub and hip hop. It’s a sound that’s continued to captivate both the music press and fans alike since her 2013 debut ‘Over You’. Or as Fifi herself once put it: “It’s a very individual and intimate language that I speak, with unfiltered and naked feelings of my own, for those who want to join me and listen to something real.”
‘Future Never Comes’ gives her sultry vocals a cinematic soundscape. “’Future Never Comes’ is by far the most epic-sounding track I’ve made” says Fifi, “with a lyrical theme going back to my initial breakthrough of the fear for pursuing my dream and answering my calling. Making this track as a collaboration feels like taking a glorious vacation away from being immersed building my own island.”
Auckland’s finest delivers an electropop journey into space…
If there’s one particular star on the electronic music scene that’s been on the ascendant in recent years, it’s New Zealand’s Princess Chelsea. Scoring a cult hit with the indie charms of ‘The Cigarette Duet’, her 2011 album Lil’ Golden Book also demonstrated a fine talent for wistful electronica and tales of growing up in Auckland.
It’s taken a while for second album The Great Cybernetic Depression to arrive, but the wait has been more than worth it. As an album, it’s a very compact selection of songs which, more so than Lil’ Golden Book, take on a very raw and personal edge. There’s also a concept album approach which La Chelsea herself describes thus: “it represents a personal and societal depression due to social change triggered by technology.” So not your father’s electropop then.
Album opener ‘When The World Turns Grey’ delivers a melancholic reverie on life, love and relationships with its sombre piano tones. Meanwhile, ‘It’s All OK’ with its engaging melodies does some sleight of hand with its counterpoint topics of depression and anxiety. The vocal duties are shared by Joe Astle who (along with Jonathan Bree elsewhere on the album) adds a bassy delivery that’s a fine counterpoint for Chelsea’s airy vocals.
‘No Church On Sunday’, which was one of the earliest tracks up for consideration on the album (and was originally penned by Chelsea’s musician chum Jamie-Lee), holds forth on religion and loss of faith. There’s a fittingly hymnal quality to the song which is augmented by spacey percussion, guitars and choral effects.
Chelsea’s musical influences are quite broad and include classical composers such as Bach and Grieg up to the likes of Philip Glass and Kraftwerk. In crafting the latest album Chelsea has also had half an eye on retro synth sounds, yet manages to avoid the pitfalls of lesser talents by not being simply a xerox of the 80s synthpop establishment.
So the album steps forth with a musical palette that can dabble in the retro pastel colours of the 1980s, such as the warm melodies of ‘We Were Meant 2 B’ in all its ballad-esque glory, but can still sound contemporary. For many artists it’s a tough line to follow without ending up sounding like a pastiche, but that’s often why it’s so difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff in electronic music these days.
At the same time, Princess Chelsea retains a sense of humour and wit, expressed through some of her more pointed lyrical content. Songs like ‘Too Many People’ with its jaunty space synths is aimed directly at the world of social networking and the attention-seeking antics of the people that inhabit it. It’s a topic she previously visited on Lil’ Golden Book’s ‘Ice Reign’ (and Lola Dutronic have also dabbled in similar waters).
The widescreen pop appeal of ‘We Are Strangers’ presents one of the album’s strongest tunes. Its sepulchral wall of synth sound provides the foundations for a lyrical foray into the world of relationships. If Jonathan Bree’s heartfelt delivery of lines like “I would kill technology/Just to know you well” don’t raise the hairs on your neck, then nothing will.
Meanwhile, the self-reflection in tunes like ‘We Are Very Happy’ will strike a chord with anyone who’s been in love with the wrong person. The plucked string synths of the song again present an unsettling contrast to the content of the vocals.
‘We’re So Lost’ (which marked Princess Chelsea’s first single release in the post-Lil’ Golden Book period) has a glacial opening refrain backed with evocative electronic arpeggios. It’s again a perfect combo of reflective electropop and melancholic lyrics which appears to float in space itself (the sleeve design with Chelsea herself appearing to float in space seems entirely appropriate for the material within).
The wistful ‘All The Stars’ provides a perfect album closer with its icy melodies and use of space to reflect the themes of distance and loss. It builds into a jarring burst collage of musique concrète and sampled elements before finally twinkling away like the distant stars. There’s not much light there, but there’s enough to see by.
It’s been a busy few months for electronic music releases, but Princess Chelsea has delivered what is easily one of the best albums of the year. Despite this, it would have been easy to miss out on her particular charms if she had been judged (and judged she was by those with cloth ears) solely on the success of ‘The Cigarette Duet’.
The Great Cybernetic Depression delivers a solid collection of electronic tunes that trades on themes of lost love and regret (think of a more intimate take on Susanne Sundfør’s amazing Ten Love Songs album) and your life will be all the better for having it on your shelf.
Princess Chelsea produced one of the best sleeper albums of 2012 in the shape of Lil’ Golden Book whose fragmented slices of electronic charm and wistful tunes came as a refreshing change and demonstrated the versatility and range of modern day electronic music.
Following on from the release of Lil’ Golden Book, Princess Chelsea has embarked on a series of extensive live performances through Europe – including another date in London this year. Ably assisted by Lil Chief associates Pikachunes, Jamie-Lee Smith and Jonathan Bree, Chelsea’s performance at the Seabright Arms showed that her live shows have lost very little of the magic and allure of her previous London gig last year.
Despite some minor technical issues (due in part to some new vocal treatments that Chelsea had introduced to the show) the performance was flawless and also demonstrated the range of instruments that Chelsea can handle, switching effortlessly between synths to bass guitar to triangle as the occasion demanded.
Although the live show is still showcasing the Lil’ Golden Book album, there’s now room for snippets of new material including the percussive ‘No Church On Sunday’ (which was penned by Jamie-Lee) and ‘We’re So Lost’ which marks Princess Chelsea’s first single release in the post-Lil’ Golden Book period.
‘We’re So Lost’ has a glacial opening refrain backed with the electronic arpeggios that marked out earlier tunes such as ‘Machines Of Loving Grace’. Chelsea’s vocals give an evocative quality to the song and if your hairs aren’t standing up on the back of your neck while listening, then you must have the emotional response of a fired brick. The manga-esque sleeve art helps to sell a picture of loss and redemption.
The live show also gave us a real surprise in the shape of Princess Chelsea’s cover of Black Sabbath’s eponymous track. Giving the band the chance to rock out came across as indulgent — and also lots and lots of fun (particularly for Pikachunes hammering the skins with a huge grin on his face).
Not content with that as a finishing song, the crowd demanded more and Chelsea relented with her baroque electronica cover of White Town’s ‘Your Woman’.
Chelsea is currently continuing touring through Europe (including dates with Ghost Capsules), but is also working away at her second album which, judging by the icy strains of ‘We’re So Lost’, suggests that the superb Lil’ Golden Book may not have been a pure one-off wonder.
The subtle electronic charms of Princess Chelsea continues to win over new fans as she expands her sphere of influence introducing new listeners to the delights of the Lil’ Golden Book album.
Along the way, Princess Chelsea has also been working hard on a series of videos to showcase songs from the album. ‘The Cigarette Duet’ demonstrated that as well as a compelling tune, Chelsea could also put across a quirky and intriguing visual style. Subsequent videos, such as ‘Overseas’, provided a dreamlike atmosphere which was typically at odds with the matter-of-fact lyrics dealing with New Zealand ex-pats.
And now we have ‘Frack’ in which Princess Chelsea goes behind the restrictions of planet Earth itself with a trip into space. And faithful cat Winston is along for the ride!
A weary Princess Chelsea is woken from hyper sleep, gets herself dressed, applies a bit of lippy and enjoys a slice of toast for breakfast. From there, Chelsea is given a holographic Space Queen costume change while she delivers the song’s cryptic lyrics “We will be much further along you see. You can fight, but it will not save your life”.
Then it’s time to deliver the ominous message to the inhabitants of planet Kepler-22b by way of a super-large hologram of Princess Chelsea herself. With doom upon them, the alien race sends their bravest fighter pilots to take on Space Queen Chelsea’s skeleton fleet – while her Highness entertains herself with a magazine and cartoons. With the defending forces defeated, all that remains is for Chelsea to press the button and blow up the planet.
It’s a fun video that’s clearly had a lot of work put into it with its use of CGI and science fiction themes. It’s also a demonstration of how easily Chelsea’s material can be applied to almost any genre or concept. Whether or not the song and the video idea has been influenced by cult space opera Battlestar Galactica (“Frack” in the series is used as an expletive, plus the lyrics hint at some of the more philosophical themes in the series) is unclear, but that cryptic element lends the song part of its charm.
As a song, ‘Frack’ is a curious broody track that pulls in a moody chord sequence with a much brighter melodic theme. The song also displays Chelsea’s electronic influences, as she discussed in her earlier interview with the Electricity Club: “I’ve got a love of Kraftwerk and electronic music as well as a love of pop music. So just combining those three elements: classical, pop and electronic music I think, was for me, kind of the sound I eventually wanted to achieve which I think some of the later tracks on the album, like ‘Frack’ and ‘Goodnight Little Robot Child’, was the sound I was originally trying to go for, which I’d developed as I recorded”.
With Princess Chelsea now looking to the future beyond Lil’ Golden Book, we’re going to be intrigued to see if she develops the electronic theme further.
Lil’ Golden Book is out now on Lil’ Chief Records and is also available from most UK outlets as well as iTunes.
One of the surprising musical joys of 2012 was the album Lil’ Golden Book which introduced us to Princess Chelsea (aka Chelsea Nikkel). Hailing from New Zealand, Princess Chelsea comes from the Lil’ Chief stable of artists (that also brought us solo electronic artist Pikachunes) and her delightful collection of wistful electronica made a definite impression. Princess Chelsea enjoyed a high public profile of course due to the stylish melodic workings of single ‘The Cigarette Duet’ and its equally visually memorable video.
The Electricity Club were also in attendance at the Lil’ Chief showcase gig in London earlier this year at which Princess Chelsea wowed the audience with live renditions of the Lil’ Golden Book songs. Prior to the summer, we caught up with Princess Chelsea to chat about her music, her influences and her plans for the future…
Can you talk a little about your musical background prior to Princess Chelsea?
I learned classic piano privately as a child, through my teenage years. I pursued that up until I did all my grades. Then made the decision that I probably didn’t want to become a concert pianist. I learnt a few other instruments – drums and the guitar very briefly and the clarinet. I don’t think I was that good at any of those instruments but it was good to learn them because it helped me later on when I eventually started arranging, writing music for other instruments.
The first band that I was ever in where I wrote music was a punk band called TeenWolf which was in Auckland, New Zealand where I live. I was a teenager still – I was 18 – and it was with a friend of mine. My parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses so when I was a kid I was taken to their church, so I knew this friend from there. It just so happened that it was around this time we left the church and formed a band! (laughs) So it was kind of our way of getting involved in something else other than religion and leaving our old lives behind so that was a very special band for that reason. We never really had any great goals with it. We just got together and it was a very organic process of writing songs in a few hours. Just, I guess, the punk element.
TeenWolf sort of went from 2003 to 2006. Anyway, we got a reputation in Auckland for quite ridiculous live shows, although we never really recorded anything because at that stage we didn’t know how. Digital recording was still developing in the sense that not everyone had access to record cheaply like they do now. So we played a lot of live shows in New Zealand only and it was really great. We were a 3-piece. I played keyboards. People used to describe it as me playing baroque kind of keyboard lines and then it would be juxtaposed with this noisy, horrible guitar! (laughs) and my friend Brad was a frontman who used to scream a lot. People used to compare us a lot with The Pixies but, yeah (laughs) it was a fun band. But then it broke up and I joined The Brunettes, which was a Sub Pop band, with Jonathan who plays guitar in my band and drums and he also runs Lil’ Chief record in New Zealand. So I joined them and I was a member of their touring party, but I wasn’t a creative member of the band so I never wrote anything, I just played live. That was interesting for me to see what it took for a band from New Zealand to get overseas and the realities of being a touring indie musician that’s not quite on the cusp of making it! (laughs) So I was very prepared and had a very realistic view of what that entails. So that’s pretty much my musical history.
Then around that time I started experimenting with production and learning how to record music. When I recorded Lil’ Golden Book it was interesting because the process of recording the album was also the process of me learning how to produce music. Hopefully my next album will be different in the sense that it will be less naïve. I think the naivety of that album is really special, because it’s just all these ideas and things that I was very excited about trying because I was learning how to record them.
Lil’ Golden Book has that interesting idea of combining storybook imagery with the stories of you growing up in New Zealand. Plus the whole album is wrapped up in this storybook cover. Was that a deliberate artistic decision to do that from the beginning?
It was. I think lyrically the way I write is often narrative and I feel in some ways it’s me not wanting to reveal too much about myself, or at least directly to my audience so I find very comfortable telling stories lyrically and I thought that’s how I’d present the album. I very rarely sing from a first person point of view.
I think that’s one of the appeals of the album – a lot of the lyrics are very cryptic. You can almost put your own meanings to the songs.
Yeah, that’s how I felt comfortable doing it. I think my lyrical style will always be like that – quite cryptic – and I’d like to work on perhaps getting a little more personal with it, but I still like to, I guess, make it not too obvious to people because that’s what I think makes the album different.
Were there any bands or artists that had an influence on the album?
I’m very influenced by a lot of music, but as far as the idea of the album and how I was going to present it in the music, I wouldn’t say there was a specific one act that really influenced me. I mean I’m a big Beatles fan and as I was recording the album I was listening to a lot of 70’s prog music! (laughs). It’s funny because a lot of people recently asked me if I’d heard of The Residents and I hadn’t heard of them. But the other day I was looking at clips of them playing live and reading about their music and I was like “Wow! This is amazing!” (laughs) and I can see why people would have thought that I was influenced by them. But I think my main influences came from my classical background and then I’ve got a love of Kraftwerk and electronic music as well as a love of pop music. So just combining those three elements: classical, pop and electronic music I think, was for me, kind of the sound I eventually wanted to achieve which I think some of the later tracks on the album, like ‘Frack’ and ‘Goodnight Little Robot Child’, was the sound I was originally trying to go for, which I’d developed as I recorded. If that makes sense! (laughs)
Can you talk a little about the actual instruments that you use when you’re writing and recording?
Because I’m a keyboardist I’ll generally use a keyboard to start writing a song. Sometimes it’s a synth. I’ve got a really crappy old Roland E20 synth which was one of the first digital synthesisers which has got a lot of ridiculous sounding bells (laughs) and silly orchestral sounds on it that sound quite terrible but I quite like the sound of them. So that was the first keyboard that I ever had and that’s the one I used to play in TeenWolf. So I almost always begin a song using a synth or keyboard. The only one song on the album I didn’t begin with a keyboard was Too Fast To Live which I’d wrote on a guitar, which is very odd for me as I’m not very good with the guitar! (laughs). When I record I record digitally, usually I’ll use a combination of soundbanks or plug-ins on a programme like ProTools and a combination of organic instruments like a piano, glockenspiel and a guitar to map out a song and then I’ll go into a studio afterwards. So it’s like I’m composing as I’m recording with different instruments and then I’ll decide “I think I want some strings here to do this part”, go into a studio later on and get people to record over the top of that original mapped-out song. That’s why the album took so long, because I was continually putting layers and layers and layers and layers (laughs) of all these demos. But the original demos still sound, in some ways, similar to the finished album. It’s just the finished album is a lot richer, a lot more things added to it.
The New Zealand music scene appears to be enjoying a higher global profile. What are your thoughts on the success of New Zealand bands?
Well Lil’ Chief’s quite an interesting label as quite a few of its bands have done that, like The Ruby Suns and The Brunettes, two bands that eventually got a following in North America and signed with Sub Pop – and Lawrence Arabia who’s also on that album, he’s been quite successful in the UK, Europe and North America. But it’s quite hard for New Zealand bands to travel and get their albums distributed, because of the sheer expense of coming over here. And usually someone will not want to distribute you or put your music out over here unless you’ve first made that step to play live and build an audience.
That’s why Lil’ Chief’s quite an interesting label because it seems like the success of some of the earlier flagship artists has been really great for people like me. Because people who like the label and who are fans of it will keep an eye on it and it’s quite a niche label where it’s got a very good reputation for only putting out good albums! (laughs) So chances are if you like one of the albums on the label, at least you won’t hate the other albums on the label! (laughs)
New Zealand’s got a history of putting out interesting music with Flying Nun and the ’80s and ’90s. A lot of people had New Zealand on their radar because of that. I mean it wasn’t a label famed for its electronic music but people think they developed their own sound which they called the Dunedin sound in the 80’s! (laughs) So New Zealand’s kind of quite well respected I think and that actually helps so it helps me and other bands. There’s a sea of Brookland bands and bands from the UK trying to make it, but if you’re from New Zealand I think people are “OK – I might give that a listen”, which is quite good.
Obviously the reactions to ‘The Cigarette Duet’ were quite immense. What were your feelings on that?
It’s quite mixed for me actually. I’m happy and obviously it’s great but it’s very complex because I think it’s a great song and I sort of knew when I wrote it if any of my songs are going to get big, it’s probably this one that’s going to be successful and it has put a lot of people onto my music. But in some ways I think I worry, because we’re in the generation now with the internet and YouTube, people have very short attention spans and I worry that people won’t make that further step to investigate the album, and really understand what the album’s about. Which may be the case for a lot of people that have discovered that track. But then I think at least some of those people will discover that album, so that’s great. Generally I’m happy about it but it brings up some weird insecurities! (laughs)
I discovered ‘The Cigarette Duet’ video first and then checked out the sound samples from the album. It’s always the way where you listen to one track and you think it’s good, but then you wonder if the rest of the album is going to match up to that. I was really pleasantly surprised that the rest of the tracks from the album were just as good.
Well yeah I made a point of only putting like 10 or 11 really great songs on it because I didn’t want there to be filler on the album. It’s funny because ‘The Cigarette Duet’ is great but I wouldn’t say it’s indicative of necessarily the rest of the album at all. It’s almost like a wild card.
It’s almost got a very different sound to the rest of the album.
Yeah and some people think Princess Chelsea is a male/female duo because they’ve watched the YouTube clip and they’re like “Oh yeah this is pretty cool. They do ’60s pop” and I’m like “kind of, but not really!” (laughs). It’s sort of like a fun song in the middle of the album.
Have you seen all of the cover versions on YouTube?
Yeah! (laughs) I haven’t seen all of them, but every now and then someone will post one on my Facebook page. There’s some weird ones….
How many takes did you do of ‘The Cigarette Duet’ video in the end?
So many. It was at my parent’s house and we did a day of takes, so maybe about 20. And then I decided that I didn’t like my hair after watching it! (laughs). I’m not usually that vain, but I guess I was having a diva moment that day. So we did another day of takes with the pink wig on. Yeah, I think maybe 50 takes or so? So the deadpan, bored expressions by the end are so honest! (laughs)
What was the weather like when you were doing the video?
New Zealand’s got very mild weather. It’s never too cold or hot. It was one of those weird in-between days where it was kind of sunny but cold and it rained a bit as well. But it’s a great video and I wasn’t expecting it to do as well as it did because it’s quite budget. It didn’t cost anything to make.
The other videos are of course interesting in their own ways because they’re also quite odd, particularly ‘Ice Reign’ because it features you looking at a computer for pretty much the duration of the video. So you seem to like these long static shots.
Yeah I really like the long static shots. I think I need to move away from them a little because I think I’ve done that. But I like someone intently observing someone and then just watching the weird quirks of what they’re doing. I think around the time I made the album I went and saw Dean and Britta from Galaxie 500 play and they did the music for the 13… [13 Most Beautiful Women & 13 Most Beautiful Boys – Warhol’s Screen Test series of films] Andy Warhol basically filmed people statically. And I’d been watching heaps of those. Actually the ‘Ice Reign’ shoot I thought I want to do a really static video, because it was the first one I’d made. And then Lou Reed in one of the videos was drinking Coke and I thought it would be funny to reference that. Then I decided to incorporate the internet and the idea of staring at a computer to make it more modern, because the album has got themes of the internet and stuff running through it.
I thought the theme of ‘Ice Reign’ was getting caught up in arguments and debates online.
Yeah that’s exactly what it’s about! (laughs)
Yet it’s still quite cryptic that you’re not sure what it’s about. It is my favourite track from the album
Oh great. That was a very early one that I wrote. It was actually the first recording that I did.
You seem to steer clear of that traditional verse, chorus, middle eight construction. You also seem fond of very long intros as well. Was this a conscious decision to write songs in this way?
I guess. For instance there’s one traditional song on the album and that would be ‘Too Fast To Live’, which is a very traditional verse, chorus, middle eight – and that was the one song I wrote on a guitar. It was pretty much mapped out before I started recording it.
Whereas nearly all of the other songs on the album were almost experiments in recording. So that would certainly be why intros are very long because I’m sort of creating a sound as I record. I never really have any strict plan as to how I write and I’m quite happy to write verse, chorus, middle eight songs if it’s what comes to me, but I don’t like to have any rules I guess. But then again I’m not purposely breaking them either.
Was it difficult to adapt the songs to a live setting?
Yeah it was. I actually started rehearsing a band about two years ago and originally we had eight members, because we can with the songs, there’s so many parts to them and that proved to be too much work. We played one show and I really wasn’t happy with it because I didn’t feel like the band had good chemistry. After that I dropped it down to a 2-piece with backing tracks, which was me and Jamie Lee – the other girl that plays keyboards. We did a few shows like that and it felt OK, but then I didn’t like it because I felt it lacked the energy of a proper live band. So then we added Jonathan and played as a 3-piece for a while, he used to play exclusively drums, and it was getting there but it still wasn’t quite there and that’s when I decided I wanted to get rid of backing tracks and just play everything live. So in order to do that I jumped it up to a 4-piece again but I’m quite happy with the 4-piece now because we’re all very, very good friends and there’s a good chemistry between all four members. It doesn’t feel like we’re interpreting songs anymore. It feels like a band live to me. Because we had to work out for so many years how we’re going to interpret these songs, these songs have become everybody’s songs as opposed to me feeling like I’m playing with some hired guns.
I did notice that there did seem to be very good chemistry on stage. I was also intrigued by the way some members could easily switch between instruments for different songs.
Yeah the changing instruments, that kind of happened because Jonathan originally played drums for all the songs and then he moved onto the guitar. I mean it’s been something that The Brunettes used to do a lot actually, which was the band I used to play in. The choice for me was I could have six members in my band and for half the songs they’d be doing very little, except maybe playing some percussion. Or I could have four members and we could change around a lot. I feel like changing instruments is really great because if I move onto the bass guitar for a song it gives it a whole different energy, which is quite a break I think from me standing in front of the keyboards the whole time. I used to play the drums in a song as well but I stopped because I felt I wasn’t a very good drummer! (laughs)
What sort of keyboards do you use on stage?
The keyboards that we’re using at the moment, essentially are just MIDI controllers so they’re M-Audio Keyrig keyboards and they used to run off ProTools but now they run off a programme called Main Stage where basically we get soundbanks from all over the place. The most common one I use is an FM8 plug-in which basically emulates a Yamaha DX7 synth, but for us to travel with those extra synths would be unfortunately too difficult because they’re kind of unreliable and they’re very heavy and bulky. So instead of doing that we basically have the memory that those synths would use loaded up in a programme and then it’s triggered by these keyboards, essentially just controllers. But yeah a lot of my sounds are from a Yamaha DX7. I’ve got one back home but it breaks a lot so I can’t use it live unfortunately! (laughs).
What are your plans for the future? When can we expect to see the follow-up to Lil’ Golden Book?
I’m going home in July to record and I’m trying to finish recording by the end of the year. And some of my plans are to release an album early next year, probably in the States, Europe and the UK in March. That’s the plan anyway. So, as long as I work hard and write a good album, because I’m not going to put out a shit album! (laughs) then that’s what’s going to happen! I’ve been recording a lot of covers and I’ve got about seven that I’ve recorded in the last 6 to 8 months.
Any particular titles you can mention?
I did a cover of a band called Craft Spells which I actually put up for free download. They’re a synthpop band from California. I did a cover of a black metal band called Dark Throne, but I did it in an orchestral style. I’m doing a Kinks cover, a song called ‘I Go To Sleep’. I’ve done a Beatles cover and I’ve down a ‘White Town’ cover already.
The ‘White Town’ cover was a nice surprise in the live setlist
I just think it’s a really great song and I’ve always wanted to cover it. So I recorded a cover of it about 3 years ago. I’m not too fussed on the recording anymore. In some ways I’d like to re-record it. I think I won’t, I think I’ll just move on and I prefer playing it live now. I think it’s, as you say, interesting but people tend to like it.
The arrangement’s quite unusual compared to the original song
It’s very different but I think it highlights the strengths of the song as well. I prefer the original! (laughs) I think it’s important when you do a cover to put a different spin on it, but in a way that showcases how great the original is.
Do you listen to a lot of contemporary electropop artists?
To be honest I haven’t been listening to music for a couple of years! (laughs) I tend to listen to a lot of older electronic music like Jean-Michel Jarre, Kraftwerk. I don’t know a lot of obscure electronic artists, but I tend to listen to very obvious stuff which I enjoy. Very simplistic electronic music.
Are there any particular Kraftwerk songs or albums that stand out for you?
I like ‘Trans Europe Express’ a lot. I kind of like all of them but I think it’s my favourite. I’m not sure what changes for me. I’m a fan of a lot of ’70s music, bands similar to Pink Floyd where they used electronic music and they mixed it with pop music. I love Air because I feel they make some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard and it’s largely electronic. The album Talkie Walkie by Air is probably my favourite album I think.
The Electricity Club gives its grateful thanks to Chelsa Nikkel
The solo synth work of Pikachunes kicked off the action at what was essentially a Lil’ Chief record label showcase at the Monto Water Rats. Pikachunes’ DIY approach to electropop is intriguing not just for the tunes, but also for the fact that he’s ploughing his own particular path and demonstrating that artists don’t have to cleave to the template established by the more classic end of the synthpop spectrum.
There’s a global trend for this form of grassroots electronic music, from Grimes in Canada to Japan’s Sapphire Slows. Now, musicians can write and record whole albums in their bedroom studios thanks to the availability of technology that’s no longer out of the price range of budding artists. It’s also a refreshing sign that the next generation are stepping forward, rather than backwards.
So then to Pikachunes, whose bassy rhythmic compositions via his Akai MPK25 controller and laptop appear deceptively simple, but get the feet tapping and, as evidenced tonight, inspire more than a little dancing. Pikachunes’ lyrics weave angsty tales of kitchen sink dramas on New Zealand life with standout songs such as ‘Nervous’ (also available as a free download via the Lil’ Chief website) and ‘Metronome’.
For the arrival of Princess Chelsea, the stage gets busier with Jonathan Bree on drums, Jamie-Lee Smith on synth/xlyophone and Pikachunes taking up bass guitar duties.
Opener ‘Machines Of Loving Grace’ (also the opening track from the album Lil’ Golden Book) is a wonderfully evocative slice of electronica whose charm is effortlessly transported into the venue this evening. Chelsea Nikkel’s vocals are the key element of the material – and that’s clearly demonstrated in a live performance. There’s a very light, but pronounced delivery to her vocal style that gives a lot of her material a distinctive and unique edge.
In fact the material from the album doesn’t suffer from any live performance issues, especially as the team on stage appear to be quite flexible in their abilities: halfway through the set Pikachunes switches to drums while Jonathan Bree assumes guitar duties, particularly for his part in the captivating ‘Cigarette Duet’.
Meanwhile, Chelsea Nikkel proves to be just as adept by playing bass during the song. ‘The Cigarette Duet’ gets a good response from the crowd, which isn’t surprising as it’s almost become Princess Chelsea’s trademark tune (and special 7” vinyl copies were available to purchase from the merchandise stall!).
What was a surprise of the evening however was a cover version of White Town’s classic ‘Your Woman’. In the hands of Princess Chelsea this electropop classic becomes a slice of baroque electronica.
The live version of the wistful ‘Ice Reign’ incorporates recordings of New Zealand rainstorms, while closer ‘Goodnight Little Robot Child’ bookends ‘Machines Of Loving Grace’ nicely. Its nursery rhyme lilt has a charm that’s simple but effective.
What emerged tonight was a demonstration that Princess Chelsea is capable not only of crafting simple strong tunes, but can make them work in a live setting as well. There’s an interesting scene developing in New Zealand and we look forward to seeing what they deliver next.
Lil’ Golden Book is out now on Lil’ Chief Records.
New Zealand’s PRINCESS CHELSEA presents a magical and captivating brand of Electropop that’s guaranteed to charm even the most jaded listener.
Auckland-based musician and producer Chelsea Nikkel is a classically trained pianist whose pop roots stretch back to the likes of indie outfits Teen Wolf and The Brunettes. Her debut album Lil’ Golden Book was released on the Lil’ Chief Records label last year.
New Zealand does seem to have its own ‘bedroom pop’ scene at the moment (check out similar solo act Pikachunes for more lo-fi goodness) of which Princess Chelsea appears to be an essential segment. There’s a witty, sardonic humour to Chelsea’s lyrics for the album, which is essentially a collection of stories about growing up as a teenager in New Zealand.
There’s a certain naïve charm to Princess Chelsea, from the faux Disney illustration on the sleeve art to the curious nursery rhyme style of many of her songs. Her record label describes the album as “the soundtrack to an old Disney movie meets Kraftwerk fronted by Enya in a 60s production of Les Mis… set in space” and that probably sums it up better than anything!
This fairy tale approach to song writing is typified in tracks like ‘Ice Reign’ with its regimented beat, quirky melody and evocative vocals. ‘Goodnight Little Robot Child’ continues the theme with a wistful and yearning song that’s carried by a delicate melody creating a dreamlike atmosphere.
‘Machines Of Loving Grace’ has nods towards more classic synth tunes while crafting its own dreampop space. Similarly, ‘Frack’ treads a more familiar electronic path, again with its own particular style.
‘The Cigarette Duet’ though is a standout moment from the album. A long organ intro leads to a sudden change in gear as Chelsea enters into a deadpan duet with Jonathan Bree (of the afore-mentioned Brunettes) about the perils of smoking. It suggests the Electropop version of Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood!
If you like to explore the lo-fi end of Electropop then Princess Chelsea is a good place to start.
Lil’ Golden Book is out now on Lil’ Chief Records.