In the same year that their staple duet “Flare Guns” became RIAA certified gold, Quinn XCII and Chelsea Cutler are tying a melodic bow on 2020 with a new collaboration that showcases not only growth in vocal talent for each of the artists, but also the vibrant evolution of a strong musical partnership.
Though “Stay Next to Me” was born in quarantine, its message is anything but isolated. The track brings forth a sentiment of warmth and closeness that many have missed during a lonely year and, paired with the much-anticipated vocal chemistry of the artists, makes for an instant hit to add to their respective discographies.
The visual, directed by Blythe Thomas and also released today, is as nicely tailored to the message of connection as the song’s lyrics. It features a setting unfamiliar to 2020 with a young couple, portrayed by Kathryn Gallagher and Alec Gaston, meeting and, eventually, falling into the laughter-filled motions of their first date in a bar.
Quinn XCII and ayokay, a frequent collaborator, wrote “Stay Next to Me,” the first single from Quinn’s upcoming album Change of Scenery II, on a small creative retreat to Newport, RI; asking Cutler to join the mix was a no-brainer for him, and Cutler was ready to bring her talent to the track with practically no adjustments.
“There’s nothing that I could ever change about it,” Cutler told us when we spoke with the pair. “It was perfect.”
And it’s no surprise that Cutler would feel that way. The song navigates every intoxicating feeling that comes with closeness, particularly with someone new, showcasing those emotions with lyrics in the chorus like, “We should go somewhere/ You choose, I don’t care/ As long as you’re right here/ Stay next to me.”
It won’t be the duo’s last collaboration together — according to the artists, there is still much to come — but it may just be their most compelling entry thus far.
“We’re excited to put this out,” Quinn XCII said. “And hopefully, it kind of gives a glimmer of hope to this year and puts a cap on this year in a positive way.”
We caught up with the artists to talk creativity during quarantine, the evolution of their artistic partnership and close-knit friendship, and collaborating on a song that centers companionship while the world is six feet apart.
First of all, just how are you both? What have you been up to for the last couple of months?
Chelsea Cutler: I’m good. I finally just moved back into New York, which is really refreshing after being back home with my parents the last eight or nine months. I just love the city, so I’m really glad to be back.
Quinn XCII: I’ve been obviously working on music, just wrapping up the next album. Just finding ways to just stay active and creative. Recently, we did a little trip for Chelsea’s next project, and I got to work on that. So just finding ways to stay creative, help friends with their stuff, and also promote my stuff coming out and just trying to stay as sane as possible, I guess, for lack of a better term.
In recent months, you did drive-in shows. What was that new, very 2020 touring experience like?
C: Feels like so long ago. Time is such a warped concept right now.
Q: I was going to say it feels like forever ago. It was great; although there was only four shows we did, it was so refreshing just to get back on stage and be performing again and not doing it in a virtual sense. Actually seeing people physically, even though they were in or out of their cars, seeing people was just still such a nice thing to have for just that brief moment. I think we’re down, I mean, I assume we’re down to do more, we’re just waiting on more logistics to be figured out. But I know a lot of people were asking us to do more of those because, for the most part, they went pretty well. I was expecting it to be a lot more awkward than it was, but it actually turned out pretty cool. It was definitely a weird thing to do, though.
C: It was a very varied experience because I think there are some shows where there were so many cars that it was spread out so far, and you couldn’t really see everybody who’s there, which was a little weird. It was just so weird to be performing to people that you couldn’t necessarily engage with. But I remember there was one show that Mike and I did in Chicago, and you could literally see everybody dancing outside their cars, even with masks on. You just knew how much joy everyone was feeling, and you could just see everyone having the best time. That feeling is something that I had missed so badly these last few months. That felt so good because my favorite thing about tour and playing shows is having that shared energy with everyone in the room. And obviously, with the pandemic, there have been very few circumstances where we’ve been able to feel that.
You two are fortunate to have very vibrant fan bases, and you have worked on numerous projects with each other in the past. In what ways do you feel that your partnership has evolved over the years?
Q: I think, if anything, we’ve just become closer friends. And I think naturally that turns into better creations we make; the things that we do work on are becoming more seamless, and not only better, but easier to create, because I think she and I are just at a place where we can be vulnerable with each other. We’re not nervous to say the wrong thing. Fortunately, we’ve never really even had that issue before. But I just think with years of being friends, you can vent, you can cry, you can laugh, you can do whatever you want with that person and know it’s a safe place. I think, in music, that’s really important because you have to be your most vulnerable self if you want to make something really special, at least for the most part. I think we’ve gotten closer, and that’s translated to better music.
C: Totally, 100%. I think our relationship has instilled a lot of confidence in me, especially performing. Supporting Mike was my first tour, and I literally felt like a sponge that tour and I would just watch Mike every night without fail and just take as much as I could. And still, every show since that tour, all of our drive-in shows and any show that we’ve done over the last three years, I make a point to always watch Mike because I feel like there’s always so much to learn from him still. I just feel like he has instilled a lot of confidence in me just by being that role model for me. I think it’s made our relationship even better. Especially when we’re writing together, the confidence that I know he has in me as a musician. There’s less judgment and more confidence in our writing.
A great example is when we were writing a couple weeks ago. Mike kept coming up with concepts first for the song we were working on, and I was like, “Yo, dude, just give me five minutes to think for myself.” I would never have the confidence to be that assertive in a writing session with other people. But I think because our relationship is so close and I know that he trusts me and my intuition in writing, I could do stuff like that.
Q: It just expedites the sessions more. You’re right, I wouldn’t say that either to someone I just met like, “Leave me alone for two seconds. I can figure this out. I’ll come up with a good lyric or like a catchy melody or whatever.” And Chelsea was just like, “Shut up, just go over there and relax.” But that’s so nice, honestly, because a lot of times there is this weird gray area of how to be, what’s like studio etiquette and what you can say and what you shouldn’t say. And I think at this point, we just have no barriers with that and it just speeds things up so much better.
C: You get a better song, too. You can sit in the room with people that you don’t know that well and you’re kind of scared to give your feedback or to steer the ship because you don’t really know these people super well and you don’t want to come across as overbearing. So, honestly, everything that Mike and I have written together, especially in the most recent stuff, we’ve been doing stuff that feels honestly, exponentially better than stuff I could write with other people.
What was the spark that ignited the fire as far as you two wanting to work on another duet together?
Q: To rewind a bit, the spark for the album itself was ayokay, who is one of my best friends who I grew up with, we’ve done projects together in the past. The first project we ever put out was called Change of Scenery, and it was just six songs on an EP, and it was something that we made in his parents’ spare guest room in their closet. Really just not great conditions but, at the time, it’s all we needed. And it’s really still all we need. Because we realized years later that’s still some of our favorite music, so we wanted to make a point of getting out of LA for this next album, and strictly collaborating with each other on it and just going back to the basics of why we got into music in the first place and doing it because we love to do it.
So, his parents were nice enough, they have a vacation home in Newport, RI, and they let us record the entire album there. Just basically go there initially to try to find inspiration and get out of LA and just change the scenery up — no pun intended — and go there for guidance. What was initially supposed to be just an EP turned into an album very quickly, because we just found we were making a lot of stuff and we just didn’t want to stop the momentum.
We wrote “Stay Next to Me,” that was like the first song we wrote actually on the trip, and I think it wasn’t intended to be a duet or anything. But I think after listening to it, I naturally was just like, “I think Chelsea would sound great on this.” And for us to put out music now, our fans are super supportive, and we kind of have the same fan pool. So to just combine each other on this, on releases is always like a fun thing. And the concept of the song is a love story so it did make sense to get a female’s perspective on it. Very organically, it all came together and we actually went back recently to work on Chelsea’s stuff for her next project. We’re just trying to kind of recycle this Newport house that we have is like a source of inspiration. So, we can thank Alex’s parents for that.
C: I knew the second I heard; I knew that I had to be on it.
Q: I think Alex played it for you. I don’t actually think I sent it.
C: Yeah, he sent it to me. Alex sent me another song for me to work on for him, and I kept procrastinating and being like, “Yeah, I’ll get to it. I’ll get to it.” And he was like, “Alright, how about this one?” And he sent me “Stay Next to Me” and I think I cut it the next day; it was immediately.
How do you feel like “Stay Next to Me” reflects who you two are as an artistic partnership right now versus songs like “Flare Guns”?
Q: I think the song maybe reflects us in a way that we know how to be more, through years of songwriting, more direct with what we’re trying to say. I think a song like “Flare Guns,” for example, it’s this big metaphor of drunk calling someone and that’s really what the song’s about. But we didn’t call it “Drunk Phone Calls,” we called it “Flare Guns.”
I think over the years, at least for me, I’ve realized being direct can sometimes be more efficient and can just cut through. “Stay Next to Me” is very black and white; it’s quite literally just stay next to me. I think it’s funny with the time we’re in with social distancing, it’s kind of ironic that that’s what the song is called, but I kind of love that at the same time. I just think maybe we’ve learned as artists over the years how to dumb down pop songs more in a very precise and, and catchy way. I think that’s the hardest thing to do in pop music is take a very wide subject and say it with minimal words.
C: One reason I just really resonate with the song is that I’ve actually been in a really good place generally, and I haven’t really put out a lot of happy songs. I think my album was just kind of … I don’t want to say sad. Sad is so trendy right now. But it was just very contemplative, whereas I just really like a more happy song about being in love with someone and being infatuated and being present. That really resonates with me right now.
I was thinking about the social distancing situation while I was watching the video, too. Ah, to be in a club around people again.
C: Doesn’t it really make you so happy to see people in a bar even if it’s a video? The feeling I got watching was like, “I literally can’t wait to just be with my friends again.
Q: It’s very bittersweet to watch it but, you’re right, it leaves you hopeful like that. That time again is going to come soon.
As far as the video goes, where did the concept emerge from and how did you decide to place yourselves in it?
Q: I think I literally just listened to the song again and the picture is pretty well-painted. I was like, “Let’s just do exactly what I’m saying in the song.” I just wanted to create this setting [where] a guy stumbles into a bar, he has to charge his phone and falls in love with the bartender and they just instantly want to just stay next to each other. They just have this connection.
As far as us being the bar band, I just felt like it was important for us to be the narrators of the video and let two other people really tell the love story. I almost prefer that nowadays. When I’m in my videos being the background guy and just focusing my song on someone else or to other people or whatever, to really just get the point across more, I don’t think sometimes I can do that great with my performances. So in this case, we were able to cast some really awesome actors and I think they did a great job. Their on-screen chemistry I thought was really good.
What made this track the perfect introduction of what’s to come with Change of Scenery II?
Q: It’s not so much the message behind the song as more as it’s just the vibe; like Chelsea said, an uplifting sounding record that I think is really what the first EP kind of represents was just positivity. And even though that was only six songs, I just think all those songs were just feel-good. I think they were meant to be played in the summertime, just enjoying yourself. So for this one, there’s a little more depth to this album than the EP, but I just think this song really sets the tone for what we’re trying to get across in the album.
The album just features all of our friends that we work with. It’s just a cool way to kick off the campaign of releasing this music because I think doing it with Chelsea is super fitting and, like I said, the song just feels good. It’s like a warm hug during this shitty year we’re having, so I think it was a cool way to end 2020 and then hopefully going into next year, there’s going to be better things to come. It just felt natural to start with this one.
Chelsea, what can you tell us about your next project?
C: I’m feeling really excited about it. I feel like it has really started to come together in the last month and a half, honestly. I have this song and then my primary focus right now is with “Brent 2,” which we’ve kind of announced so I think I can talk about it. So that’s kind of where my primary focus is right now. I’m feeling really good about where my album is at, and once “Brent 2” is out, I can start thinking about how I’m going to roll out my album.