A trailblazer, an environmental crusader and a passionate advocate for authenticism, Chela Wheatley is a performer who wears many hats, but never one that isn’t truly her own. An Australian who divides her time between Los Angeles and Melbourne, Chela, aka Chelsea Wheatley, is one of music’s most dynamic and evolving success stories. She remains fiercely independent release after release, with years of creative metamorphosis and self-realisation paving the way to help her conquer some of the music industry’s toughest lessons.
We met at one of LA’s largest flea markets on a sweltering Sunday morning. Chela was in the mood to find some treasures. Having recently touched down in LA after over six months in the studio in her hometown of Melbourne, Chela was on a short trip. Her plan was to sew some vital seeds for a brand new EP she’s been patiently crafting before returning home to close ACMI’s Bowie Late Nights series. Her last two singles, ‘Romanticise’ and ‘Handful Of Gold’ did well in the US and Europe, and after some absence from the live stage, fans are eager to hear what is coming next.
“One of the things that I wanted to concentrate on for the new material was making dance music that wasn’t all four to the floor. Using live-sounding drums and percussion and exploring what it is to make danceable music with those elements. That’s been a really fun adventure and I think all of the songs have a similar thread running through them, because of that rule.”
Chela developed the bug for production early on by learning programs like Ableton in her pre-teen years. It enabled her to experiment with electronic sounds that lead to tracks like ‘Romanticise’.
“I think it’s important to challenge yourself as an artist. Michael Jackson – his music was so danceable but it was all live drums and his stuff was a lot more funk and disco. I really wanted to work within that idea. I love a mixture of natural and unnatural, synthetic and live. Marrying those two and making the perfect combination is something that I constantly like to challenge myself with in production.”
With so much travel under her belt over the last few years, it’s no wonder that her ideas on music and the production process have morphed since her debut in 2012. Early comparisons to artists like Ladyhawke and Santigold at the beginning of her career could have easily pigeon-holed Chela into the tightly confined ‘electronic-pop’ space. But that wasn’t something Chela let take hold. Talking with her about her creative process as we weave our way through racks of vintage tees and leather boots, it’s clear there are many environmental factors behind each release.
“I’ve been through so many realisations over the past year, it’s been such a year of growth. A realisation in particular that I really needed to come to, was that I am actually the perfect producer for my EP. Because I write or co-write and produce all of my demos and songs, I’ve got such a strong sense of what my creative direction should be. I feel more and more that I can’t just hand that over to someone else.”
“I’m so glad I’ve been able to grow over the last two years and come to a realisation that makes me feel a lot more content to do what I’m doing. I feel that because I have a really strong sense of identity in my music and as a person, I feel so confident now to just follow my intuition. When you’re a bit younger, in music especially, you can be swayed to take on forms that are maybe a little less authentic. You look up to so many people and want to be a part of a certain movement. But I’m more sure than ever that it’s so much better to create your own world and not worry about trying to belong to another tribe.”
This motto rings true throughout Chela’s entire sense of self, like a personal modus operandi, as she applies her unique style to everything she touches. Armed with a strong dislike of the colours pink and purple, Chela also hates dresses and loves to push the boundaries of trends and fashion in general. In preparing for her shoot with Fashion Journal, I asked if there was a new look or theme on the cards, to coincide with the new material.
“Aesthetically, I just try and look the way I want to look. I think it’s important to not change it up too much. I don’t like it when people are trying too hard – I don’t think you can really connect to that. So for me, a lot of the time I will wear on stage what I was wearing that day shopping. I don’t want to look like I’m trying too hard and I don’t want to actually try too hard. The artists that I really love are the ones that are the most authentic. That’s the kind of artist I want to be too.
”On the topic of whether living in two very different cities has also had an impact on her newfound sound and musical perspective, Chela is upfront. She says it can be difficult to maintain a necessary balance of work and play while in Los Angeles. In a city so over-stimulating, it can be a very real distraction from writing and recording. But it’s also a thriving hub of other artists and successful musicians. Despite this being a huge draw for many Australian artists who head overseas to write, Chela is not so sure that working with musical idols is an ideal route – she’d rather pave her own way.
“Living in the states and having met a lot of the people I thought I wanted to collaborate with, I realised that maybe they’re the pioneers of trends that eventually end, or become popular or generic. All you can really do is admire those people for creating that for themselves. It’s been really cool for me to realise that, instead of trying to join in on something that’s being created and just create it for myself.”
As we continue to wander through the flea market, LA’s heatwave takes its toll. We buckle at the idea of scrummaging through the endless vintage wares. It reminds me of some of the environmental issues Chela has become increasingly passionate and vocal about. Now a vegan (and an amazing vegan cook), Chela is not solely consumed with her forthcoming EP release.
“I'm passionate about spreading awareness to create positive change and how artists and public figures can use their voices to help address the important issues happening in the current climate. I choose to be environmentally conscious because I want to do my bit to reduce our big ugly footprint on this Earth and in doing that I hope I can affect others and express my gratitude for being here. Global warming due to fossil fuels and industrial agriculture is an undeniable and immense problem facing us and our next generations – the list of issues goes on. The idea that ‘knowledge is king and passion is contagious’ is a tool I hope to use to help make a change, like many of my environmentalist heroes.”
Chela will be returning home from LA to perform the closing set at Bowie Late Nights at ACMI on October 30.
Interview by Tegan Butler.