Watercolours' life a pop dream
Writer, singer, dancer, photographer, musician. Reformed sleepwalker. Big Apple obsessive. Enigmatic blogger. Art school refugee. Stern romantic. Night swimmer. Unironic wearer of capes.
What a remarkable woman Chelsea Jade Metcalf is. On the phone, I find her unexpectedly thoughtful, articulate and funny, then a publicist emails through her photograph and I discover she is also beautiful. Others have noticed this, too, and to the above list of talents we must also add "model".
But today, we have convened to discuss Metcalf's musical alter-ego, Watercolours. Her "proper debut EP", Portals, has just been released, the follow-up to an earlier remix collection. She's also on the bill to play at Auckland's upcoming Laneways Festival, and fits that event's brand perfectly in that her music has an art-damaged underground pop aesthetic and sounds very much like an independent release, even though it's on giant global label Universal Music.
Portals is a pearler of a record. Made in collaboration with former Elemeno P guitarist Justyn Pilbrow, SJD/Dimmer alumnus James Duncan and She's So Rad producer Jeremy Toy, the Watercolours sound is a thrilling compound of hefty drums, swirling electronic sounds, sampled field recordings and a voice that's on the right side of ethereal, by which I mean a distant hovering thing, otherworldly and indistinct, though thankfully a million miles from the foggy New Age whisperings of Enya.
"These songs grew out of Red Bull's Prodigy project," says Metcalf.
"Basically, they team up an established musician like Jeremy with an upstart girl like myself to see what they come up with.
"The idea is that you both go into the studio with no preconceptions and try things together that you might perhaps not have tried individually. Jeremy and I knew each other beforehand, so we didn't have any social strangeness to deal with - we just went in there and started to make these beautiful things together."
Beautiful, yes, but there are dark shadows as well as glistening surfaces. Portals displays little of the cute whimsy of Metcalf's previous work with Auckland folk-pop trio Teacups. Her solo songs are woven around prominent percussion, mostly from Sharpie Crows' drummer, Jackson Hobbs, and field recordings she made herself - New York street sounds, tap shoes clattering off a wooden floor, the PA at a Kyoto train station - overlaid with textural electronic sounds and a complex Wall Of Chelsea jigsaw of vocal harmonies.
"The EP feels like a cohesive set of songs with a reason to be grouped together. They're melancholic and dreamy at the same time.
"What I always wanted Watercolours to sound like is summed up by the song Under, which starts out slow, then there's this bit where it punches you in the gut a little bit more.
"It's a kind of dream-pop sound, I guess, but with some bite to it. It's like someone is gripping your face in their hands, rather than just softly stroking it."
The song she mentions really is like this. Despite the slow beat and swooning loops, there's a palpable tension to it; you feel you're being held a little too tightly, rather than massaged with warm sound.
This is a trick she pulls off again and again in these songs - a sweet and sour see-saw; a protracted negotiation between discomfort and beauty, buoyancy and heft.
"Really, the first thing I think about when I'm making a song is the beats, and I like to make the beat out of something interesting.
"Maybe it's because I did tap dancing when I was younger, but I love the sound of shoes when you walk, and colloquial everyday rhythms you hear in the city, like when you pass a construction site.
"I record sounds like that all the time, without any expectations that they might end up in my music. I just like to harvest unusual sounds, or I make them myself. Like the opening track, Last Night. To make that beat I went in with my tap shoes and tried various rhythms until I almost collapsed.
"Once the beat was right, it started to build up from there. Every one of my songs is like that - it's more like gradually piecing together a building than a classic songwriting scenario."
Lyrics come last, she says, but matter most.
"Everything else feels like an accident compared to how much I concentrate my attention on the lyrics, even though they are deliberately not very explicit. There's a lot of emotional ambiguity there, which I think helps a listener engage with a song."
Several songs grew out of a recent writing trip to New York, a city she loves.
"I've always had fever dreams about New York. I've had my highest highs and my lowest lows there. I love the feeling of being dwarfed by this huge machine of a city, and excited by its boundless possibilities. I spent a week there with a portable recorder, wandering the streets, recording a lot of strange and wonderful things."
As befits a sound she refers to as "dream pop", other songs were informed by Metcalf's difficulty getting a decent night's kip.
"I have a lot of sleep dysfunctions. I used to sleepwalk all the time as a kid. I'd wake up in the hallway with no idea how I got there. And I've also experienced sleep paralysis, where you wake up and can't move your body.
"It's terrifying, actually. But the kind of uneasy, unsafe feeling you get during these sleep disturbances has been useful, in a way, because these are feelings I want to get into my music. You can apply that feeling of jeopardy to a love song, for example."
One such unsafe love song is EP standout Pazzida, which Metcalf describes as "a pretty morbid song about a love that's not really reciprocated".
Anyone keen to get a clearer idea of the Watercolours aesthetic could do worse than check out the YouTube video for this track.
It is, as my nana might have said, arty as all get out. Sculptures are constructed from mismatched chairs then kicked over. White flowers are taped to a white wall. Light slants in from huge picture windows just so, projecting bold geometric shapes on a polished wooden floor during a tap dancing segment.
Assorted lovely garments are carefully colour-matched throughout, and you're left in no doubt that this woman cares deeply about fashion.
At one point Chelsea sings with her head draped across a wooden chair that's painted the exact same blue as her eyes, with a pile of folded sweatshirts balanced upon her right cheek.
A few moments later, a slender hand creeps in from the righthand side of the frame, squirreling its way up the arm of the most beautiful grey jersey you ever saw in your life.
"That's not actually my hand," she laughs.
"I guess you'd call it a stunt hand. Me and [director] Alex Gandar workshopped that video for three months, and some of the ideas are based on stuff I'd started doing at art school, which is why a lot of the visuals are sculptural, rather than having a straightforward narrative.
"A lot of that video's pretty funny, I think, which might surprise some people. Unless they see me play live, people probably assume I take myself way too seriously."
Metcalf has considerable live experience, having performed alongside international heavyweights such as Cat Power, Dirty Projectors, Bloc Party and Broken Social Scene. But even with their crunchy drums and surging updrafts of electronic sound, many of her new songs feel modest, compact, intimate. You have to wonder how they'll translate live on a festival stage.
"I think there's a strange divide going on when I play live because the songs themselves can be quite melancholy and pull you in one direction, then all the rubbish I talk in-between pulls you in another," Metcalf says.
"For the Laneway show, Watercolours will be a duo, with me singing and playing a keyboard and electronic drum pad setup and Jonathan Pearce from Artisan Guns playing some atmospheric guitar parts.
"It's always hard to anticipate how any crowd will respond. I supported Bloc Party earlier in the year and they put out absolutely insane levels of energy on stage but their audience were totally respectful of the songs I played as the support act.
"I had a couple of knuckleheads yelling inappropriate things at me, but you always get a bit of that. The way I look at it, I'm the one with the microphone, so it's pretty clear where the power lies."
Laneway Festival takes place at Auckland's Silo Park on Monday, January 27, 2014, see side for more information. Tickets available via www.ticketek.co.nz
Sunday Star Times