If you’re a musician, there’s probably nothing better than starting off the new decade with the release of new music. It can signal the beginning of a new era, as well as the closure of a previous chapter. For Chelsea Cutler, a 22-year-old singer-songwriter hailing from Westport, Connecticut, it’s a little bit of both. She’s just released her debut album titled, How To Be Human, on January 17th, after having previously put out a couple of EPs.
When I ask her about her feelings regarding the imminent release of her album, she tells me that it’s definitely a new experience – despite having put music out before. “It’s a much larger body of work, that took me a pretty long time to complete. It took a little over a year and a half, and honestly, for me, this is the first time I’m feeling so proud of a body of work. I’m so excited to put it out! But I’m also a bit overwhelmed which is a bit of a new feeling, it’s also my first experience working with a label so intensely.”
Indeed, aside from the larger body of work, a lot has changed about the way in which Cutler creates her music. While she started off as a college student who made music on the side, she’s now no longer a DIY artist but a major label artist instead. One element that she singled out, is the fact that she’s been forced to become “a much more versatile writer.” Elaborating, she says “I used to write pretty much only in my bedroom, and now I can basically write anywhere – on an airplane, in the tour bus. And honestly, it helps creatively to have that versatility.”
That versatility is also emblematic for the way in which the album came together. “The process was long, for sure. There are songs on the album that I wrote so long ago, there are songs I wrote some night before album was due. So I think it covers a long enough window of time to show a lot of growth and what I went through, which is important. And I wrote songs essentially all over the world – I wrote some in Europe, some in the States, I wrote songs in my bedroom. I think the versatility also stems from the diversity of environments that I was in, and that shows on the album.”
Similarly, when I ask her about the origin of the album, Cutler explains that the album concept was essentially born during one of her first experiences as a touring artist. “I got the idea for the album about a year and a half ago on the bus, when I was on the bus on Chicago. I literally was just thinking to myself “I don’t know how to be a person” and then just the overarching thought-process for the album followed after that.”
You might think it’s the removal from normal everyday life that made her reconsider what it even means to be human, but Cutler insists it’s actually just a testament to the phase of her life she’s in. She makes a good point when she tells me that your twenties is the first time in your life that you get to stand on your own two feet and decide in which direction you want to head – an exhilarating, yet scary position to be in.
“Naturally, your twenties are a difficult, transitional period of time. I think now in your early twenties, it’s kind of when for the first time you’re not in an institution. If you’re in school your whole life, your life is dictated by an institution and although not everyone will have the same experience of course, but generally speaking you’re dictated by school and where your parents live and stuff like that. When you get into the real world suddenly you get to decide and choose where you want to live and what you want to do, what kind of person you want to be. And so naturally, I wrote about my experiences with becoming an adult person and that just turned into the album.”
As a fellow 20-something-year-old, I can absolutely relate to the idea of wondering what it actually is that life expects you to do, and what you should expect from life in return. Any new phase of your life will include a lot of firsts, but your twenties definitely feel like a formative period in which you are given real agency – and promptly decide that after years of wanting it, maybe you don’t want that at all. As liberating as it can be, it also means you’re now no longer protected – you’re vulnerable and responsible for yourself.
So how do you then decide which songs best reflect all the different facets that together make up the (adult) human experience – especially when it’s your debut album? “Honestly, it wasn’t that difficult for me,” Chelsea starts. “We started out with the idea of having maybe 10 or 11 songs on the album, maximum 12. I ended up putting 16 on it. So when it did come to cutting songs, it was just about keeping the ones that felt natural to me and told the overall story the best, and cutting the ones that didn’t feel necessary.”
The songs she’s very sure of, are the ones that felt like they wrote themselves – ‘nj’ is a personal favourite of Chelsea, as well as lead single ‘Sad Tonight’. However, “What Would It Take was challenging, and hard to get right. Honestly, 99% of the time songs come pretty easily to me, and if they don’t come easily to me then I give up on them pretty quickly. Partially because I’m lazy, and partially because I feel like if it’s not coming quickly it’s forced and probably not the best idea to pursue the idea.”
One topic that features heavily on the album, is that of “impermanence”, as Cutler refers to it. When I ask her if there’s one song in particular that focuses on this, she thoughtfully responds that almost all of the songs relate to the notion in one way or another. “A huge learning curve for me growing up so far, has been to embrace the moment, and be at peace with and accept that life is transitional. For example, when you’re writing about heartbreak, you’re essentially writing about longing for something you no longer have. That’s where the acceptance comes in of everything changing.”
She pauses, “yeah, I don’t know. I guess a lot of the album revolves learning to navigate all sorts of new things, be it change or ambitions or anything like that.”
Despite the overarching similar message, there is a wide variety of sounds on How To Be Human, ranging from electro-pop (“How To Be Human”, “Sad Tonight”, “The Human Condition”), and those that are more acoustic-based, such as “Crazier Things”. When I ask her an admittedly difficult question on how she would define her own sound, she grins and tells me that I’m going to get a tough answer to a tough question. “I think all popular music is pop music, I think the idea of what is pop music or what is cool is whatever people are listening to. So if I have to put myself in a box, then I’d say pop music as it’s the least constricted box possible right now. There’s so much on the album in terms of influences. I’m happy to be releasing music at this time because it’s not that genres don’t exist anymore, but they’re not as important. It’s much easier to combine different strands of music. Post Malone can release a song like ‘Circles’ and ‘wow’, so it’s a great time to be an artist in this new age where that’s possible, you know?”
Luckily, Chelsea also has the freedom to define the sound on her album from start to end – as she’s not only written the songs but also produced the majority of the album herself. “Going into the album I just was very used to working alone. I have a very particular vision of how I want things to be, so it’s just easier for me to do it myself than let it be influenced by someone else.”
However, there’s also a strong feminist message behind her insistence on being involved. “The best way to encourage other women to go into production, and encourage people in the industry to get comfortable with the idea of women producers, is through visibility. It’s more important than just saying ‘hey girls, we should all go and produce’ – the best thing is to actually set an example and normalize it.”
Albeit it perhaps not for that reason, Chelsea also made her first foray into directing with the video for single “I Was In Heaven”. In it, Chelsea can be seen sitting by herself on a white bed in a white room scattered with meaningful objects, singing a fragile song about being left behind whilst all items are slowly removed from the space. “It was the first time I ever came up with a video concept in my life, which was pretty cool. I wanted to show how your life becomes so intertwined when you’re with someone, and then show the reverse of that.”
Throughout our conversation about her first LP, it dawns on me that this is someone who hasn’t yet realised just how talented they are – who is only aware of maybe half their potential. On the other hand, it’s very early in her career and her hesitance to jinx anything is big, yet understandable. For example, she doesn’t really want to linger too long on the idea that millions of people a month are listening to her music. “It’s daunting. I try not too think about it, and stay in this world and in my head where I write these songs for me. I try to stay immune that so many people are listening. I think if it would really hit me, I’d curl up into a ball and get scared and not write a song ever again. It’s really hard to truly conceptualize that millions are listening to your most vulnerable thoughts.”
“Crazier Things” is another one of those fragile songs that is so compelling and intricate in its writing that it almost makes you a little uncomfortable from how accurately it tells the story of a broken heart that’s somehow not yet ready to heal again. This form of intimate story-telling is what sets Chelsea apart, even though she ironically finds herself mostly listening to songwriters who use metaphors, rather than conversational lyrics. “Matty Healy from The 1975 is someone I find really inspiring and I look up to him so much in terms of his writing. He does sometimes write more literally, but he often uses more metaphors than I’d tend to go for. I find that being really specific in your writing can resonate really powerfully, even if it’s a specific street you’re talking about in Manhattan – I do think it can still work really well because they’ll relate it to something else instead that holds the same meaning to them.”
Not all the songs on the album are fragile ballads, though. Lead single “Sad Tonight” is an upbeat record that reminds me a bit of Justin Bieber and Bloodpop’s collaboration on “Friends”. The lyrics weave a story on allowing yourself the reprieve of distracting yourself from sadness through a good night out with friends. “I like the idea of being open to everything, and I love that I can put out a record like that and “I Was In Heaven” and it still makes sense that they’re coming from the same artist. I don’t really actively think about the direction I want to go in, because I think that’d be counterproductive. A record or album should define itself in terms of sound.”
As such, she doesn’t know yet which way her future music will sway, sonically or lyrically speaking. “I’m going to grow naturally as a person and as an artist, so whatever comes up as an adult in the future, is going to be the direction I will go in.”
But before she gets to that stage, she’ll first get on stage again – performing in both the US and Europe later this year, which she’s quite excited for. She’s in the middle of preparations for the stage production when we speak, which she calls “the coolest thing after the album’s out and you’re bored of it already.”
When I ask her about her involvement in this creative process, she grins. “This was the first time when for each song I immediately knew exactly how I want things to translate on stage. It’s funny we’re talking about this because I was just sitting on my kitchen floor creating color palettes to send to my production guy. Hopefully, it’ll be as cool as I imagine.”
Cutler’s also performing at Coachella this year, which of course requires a slightly different approach. “It’s going to be such an incredible moment, and if you do Coachella, you want to do it right. It’s a dream come true, I’ve never even been so it’s crazy the first time I’m going is because I’m performing.”
Of course, I can’t help but ask her who she’s most excited about seeing backstage or on stage this year. “I’m gonna try and see Frank Ocean, I’m sure everyone and their mother is excited to see Frank Ocean. Hopefully, we’ll get to hear some new music,” she adds cheekily.
As for the rest of 2020, she’s just excited for the unknown. “It’ll be my major release on a major label, and I have no idea how people are going to receive the album and react to it. I’m excited about the possibility of it doing really well, so I’m trying to keep an open mind.”
The same combination of ambition, humility, and uncertainty that I noted earlier pop up again when I press her on if she has any goals she’ll be setting for herself or things she’d love to achieve in the future. She’s hesitant at first to answer the question. “I do have a whiteboard in my room where I write down my year and 5-year goals. They’re just for me to know, though. I get kind of scared that if I put them out the world and I don’t achieve them, that’d be kind of embarrassing.”
One thing that probably won’t happen again in the near future, however, is another collaborative project like the one she did with Jeremy Zucker called brent. “I think it was a really special thing and it’d be hard to capture that again. It was such a beautiful week that we spent together writing, and the reaction was far stronger than anything we anticipated. It was a moment in time of, like, magic, that happened. Yeah, I don’t know if I’d do it again.”
I leave her with the question of whether or not she now feels like she has gotten a better grip on ‘how to be human’ throughout the course of the album. Sounding slightly relieved, she gives an affirmative answer. “I do, I truly do! The album gave me the opportunity to truly look introspectively at my self-growth, and think about the person I want to grow into. I think the biggest takeaway is that I need to be more present and in the moment. Honestly, I’m just stoked to put out the album, as it’s just so reflective of how much I’ve grown personally throughout the past one and a half year and all the time I spent on writing and producing and everything else regarding the album.”
Perhaps it’s only logical then, that moving forward Chelsea shines on her own now, telling us her story in an effortlessly captivating way.
Chelsea Cutler’s debut album ‘How To Be Human’ is out now.