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August 2, 2018

Chelsea Lee’s New York state of mind

Helpmann Academy-awarded jazz singer Chelsea Lee is an artist moulded by the cities she inhabits - made from Adelaide and bound for New York.

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  • Pictures and words: Johnny von Einem

The air outside is brisk. Vardon Avenue is empty but for the lights spilling onto the bitumen from one or two venues dotted either side of the quiet backstreet – a typical midwinter scene in Adelaide’s East End on a Thursday night.


Find out more about Chelsea Lee at her website.

You can catch her at NOLA on Thursday, 23 August from 7:30pm.

CityMag slides open the door at NOLA and we’re greeted by the sound of weeknight revellers chatting and drinking, a chorus of heavy glass tumblers knocking on timber tabletops. Everyone here is valiant in the face of the inevitable Friday morning, the only line of defence pouring freely from the bar.

Our ears adjust to the room, and atop the hum sits the faint sound of jazz standards falling from the band room upstairs – Chelsea Lee and her quintet have begun.

Every seat upstairs is taken, and standing room is quickly evaporating. All eyes are on the stage and the collective body is still until the band stops and the audience spills polite applause.

The next tune is an original and Chelsea is confident and captivating on stage; her meandering vocals explore the vast instrumentation of her illustrious quintet, consisting of Luke White, Nick Pennington, Dylan Kuerschner and Angus Mason.

Despite performing in a bar named for a famous Louisiana city, for the crowd in attendance, the venue is a smoky New York City jazz club, or as close as you’ll get without extending beyond Adelaide’s mandated 20-minute commute.

This is truer than some of the crowd might be aware. Chelsea has not long returned from New York – a trip made off the back of her receiving The Helpmann Academy’s Mike Stewart Memorial Award last year – where she performed regularly, and at least once alongside bandmates Nick and Angus, who have both been supported by Helpmann in their fledgling careers.

To our surprise, Chelsea’s path to the stage was not as inevitable as it seems.

“I wasn’t really into music that much in my early life,” she says.

“I started singing lessons when I was in year 9, so I was about 14… It was just as a pleasure type of thing, and it was just pop, RnB-style stuff, tiny little influences of jazz from my teachers. But then out of high school I became more interested in the music side.”

After the requisite artists’ gap year, Chelsea enrolled at The University of Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium of Music, where she was properly introduced to jazz, the musical genre that has come to define her artistic life.

“It was just one of those instant loves. I was just like ‘Wow, it actually feels really natural to sing, and to play, and to just think and be expressive and experimental,’” she says.

“From then on I’ve been in love with jazz, and it’s been the only thing I like to do, really.”

Throughout her career at the Conservatorium, Chelsea explored the many styles within the genre, taking influence from every era, and has settled on a modern sound – classical, she says, does not suit her voice, technique, or the way she wants to express herself in composition.

Her first album, Midnight Cowboy, was recorded at Wizard Tone Studios and released in June this year; a “modern jazz with just a tiny hint of country, Bill Frisell, dark folky thing.” The album was written in late 2017, prior to this most recent and formative trip to NYC, and since then her sound has continued to evolve, shaped particularly amid the city of jazz giants.

“Because I was going to so many gigs and watching all my heroes play, they inspired me to really delve into deeper jazz harmony work. Just from listening to them, I started creating music that was still in my style, but more challenging myself to stretch out a little bit more,” she says.

“I loved playing the traditional jazz, and swing, and listening to Sarah Vaughan, and Nancy Wilson, and Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane – I love that stuff, I still love it now, but from the original writing point of view, I was just compelled to write something in the more non-functional harmony area, and try and work on making interesting sounds that were in my head.”

Compared to Adelaide, where the tops of our tallest buildings never feel far from reach, to wander the streets of Manhattan is to be swallowed like krill by a city that either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that you exist; it’s testament to Chelsea’s drive, talent, and desire to be an artist that she hustled onto stages and made the city notice her.

Our own music industry set her up to succeed under New York’s challenging conditions; if you want to operate in a small industry with very few venues offering regular paid gigs, you need to learn to convince bar owners and venue operators of your worth.

“Adelaide provides [an environment where] you have to be organised,” she says. “You have to push yourself. It’s just about learning how to do it yourself, really. While there are those connections, a lot of it is just, if you want it, you have to do it. We can’t help you, we can’t babysit you, we can’t hold your hand. It’s up to you.”

New York is the dream, as it is for artists the world over, and like many of her contemporaries, former tutors and mentors, she plans to make New York a second home, if only to continue to let the city’s jazz history soak into her work.

“I’m definitely going to move there next year. How I do that, I do not know, but if it’s meant to be, it’ll happen. That’s my philosophy on that,” she says.

“For me, the people I want to work with are all in that one city, they’re all in New York. They’re going to help me grow, they’re going to help me perfect my craft, they’re going to help open my mind to new sounds, and a different perception on how to create music.

“If you want to develop yourself and keep learning, you want to expand yourself into a different culture… I think that’s really important to immerse yourself in that scene.”

For now, she is of this city, bringing a New York stage to the small bars of Adelaide.

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