Princess Chelsea

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The Cult of Princess Chelsea

She’s toured across the world and won the 2023 Taite Music Prize. So why does it still feel like Princess Chelsea is underrated?

Princess Chelsea is nominated for Best Record and Best Single at the 2023 Panhead Rolling Stone Aotearoa Awards, which take place in Auckland this week. 

In 2012, before people really started going viral online, Princess Chelsea went viral.

Her song, “The Cigarette Duet”, a swirling back-and-forth between the artist and Jonathan Bree, arguing about the perils – or lack thereof – of smoking, exploded in popularity on YouTube, quickly drawing in millions of curious listeners. On the back of the song’s viral success, The Guardian featured Princess Chelsea as its ‘New Band of the Day’. Six years later, virality arrived again in the form of “I Love My Boyfriend”, a twinkling, almost syrupy slice of dream-pop that was primed for soundtracking TikTok clips, both serious and not. 

In a just world – a sane one – these two songs would have reaped sizeable financial dividends for their creator, but according to Chelsea Nikkel, the musician behind the Princess persona, the reality was much more miserly. “I’ve only started to get more income from streaming in the last couple of years,” she tells me. “I think it’s been a bit of a wild west situation with the switch over from physical to digital.”

We’re talking on a grey Auckland day in May, Chelsea bravely battling billowing winds on the ferry from Waiheke – where she’s called home for the last several years – to discuss her journey to winning the 2023 Taite Music Prize. I express incredulity at her previous revelation: the dire state of streaming is no secret, certainly, but surely a song that’s amassed over 80 million plays on Spotify alone, like “The Cigarette Duet” has, provides more than a paltry payout? “You’d be shocked about how little it did prior to the last couple of years,” Chelsea responds. A blast of wind interrupts her for a moment. “But it’s not right that only people who have had a big viral hit should be able to sustain a living through music. Like that’s not acceptable.”

A few weeks before our call, Princess Chelsea won the Taite Music Prize, New Zealand’s most coveted music award, for her fifth studio album, Everything Is Going to Be Alright. It was arguably a surprise win: the 2023 nominees list was particularly strong, featuring worthy winners everywhere you looked, from The Beths’ precise power-pop record to Fazerdaze’s powerful comeback EP. But as Taite judge Tony Stamp noted, Chelsea’s fifth album was composed of the best songs the musician had ever written. Chief among them was the glistening pop gem “Forever Is a Charm”, a clever and layered song with plentiful charm to provoke endless listens. “That’s my favourite one, I think,” Chelsea says when I confess to her that I perhaps played “Forever Is a Charm” an unhealthy amount in 2022. “It’s quite minimal and kind of weird. It’s got two different kinds of grooves going.”

No one was more surprised at the Taite win than Chelsea herself.

She wasn’t even in the country to collect her award in Auckland on the night, her band stepping up to the podium instead as she video called in from New York City. “I don’t usually go on holiday because I’m a really busy person, so it was pretty unusual for me,” she rushes to tell me. “I went with my sister.” The organisers called her on the day of the ceremony, purportedly to “discuss what would happen if you won.” “I was like, ‘Ok, sure,’ and then the call was actually them telling me that I’d won!’” she recalls. “That was a couple of hours before the ceremony. I really didn’t know. The speech maybe wouldn’t have been as good if I was there. At least I was half drunk.”

Chelsea’s surprise isn’t mere modesty. Since adopting the Princess Chelsea persona in 2011, she says, her music has been more widely embraced in Europe. “”Underrated” is maybe the wrong word, but I’ve kind of just flown under the radar for most of my career in New Zealand.” She adds that her reluctance to attend previous awards shows was likely an inhibiting factor. Are there any other reasons, I ask. She pauses. “I’m not too sure. There’s a certain size audience for my music, or there has been historically, that’s kind of niche. And so in a smaller country, the niche is smaller, and in bigger countries in Europe, my niche is bigger. Eastern European countries, in particular, have warmed to Chelsea’s art-pop, and after the US, Turkey is her top country on streaming platforms (she currently has her most monthly Spotify listeners in Istanbul, almost 21,000 of them). “And Mexico, too!” she shouts down the phone. “I just don’t know how.”

If Chelsea has felt underappreciated in New Zealand before, then 2023 has surely represented a sea change in her relationship as an artist with her home country. Following her Taite Music Prize win, she was nominated for Best Record and Best Single at the 2023 Panhead Rolling Stone Aotearoa Awards. And unlike other artists whose music has been embraced more abroad – DMA’S in the UK, Bush in the US, and, um, David Hasselhoff in Germany – Chelsea has never made any attempt to set up base along the Bosphorus or anywhere else in Europe. 

Auckland born and bred – “I’m from the Whammy Bar, Wine Cellar, K’ Rd scene,” she says – the musician has always tried to support her music community as much as she can. In February, she performed for one night only at one of her native venues, the Wine Cellar, with all proceeds going to the beloved St. Kevin’s Arcade spot, which has been struggling since the pandemic.

“Those venues are really important and I know they’re struggling,” Chelsea says. “I do worry because I think those sorts of spaces are really important for people to start out and try new ideas and form a silly band they don’t think is serious and then realise it’s really amazing. They wouldn’t have bothered to play a show if there wasn’t a space that encouraged that. There’s plenty of talent and they need a tangible physical space to foster a creative community.”

Chelsea’s band has gone through several iterations over the years, but the current ensemble might be the strongest yet.

Over the last couple of years, some excellent Auckland musicians have come together to back her up: Jasmine Balmer, Joshua Worthingon-Church, David Harris, Joe Kaptein, Kate Tindall, and Simeon Kavanagh-Vincent (who featured in Rolling Stone’s ‘Song You Need to Know’ series this year). Some, like Balmer (who releases her own music as Being.), are slightly younger than Chelsea, but a significant bond has blossomed. “Since she’s joined, I’ve become quite good friends with her,” she says of Balmer. “It’s kind of rare, I think, when you’re older, to make good friends because you’re set in your ways.”

Each year, the winner of the Taite Music Prize is given a cash reward of $12,500. I ask Chelsea what she plans to do with the money. “We’re going to the States in November as a band, and that’s really expensive, so I’ll probably just put it towards that. It’s actually the first time I’ve properly toured the States, so the costs are huge at the moment with petrol and everything going up.” (on the promotional poster for the debut North American tour, “The Cigarette Duet” and “I Love My Boyfriend” are clearly mentioned.)

Before that tour begins, she’ll perform Everything Is Going to Be Alright in its entirety at shows in Auckland, Whanganui, Paekākāriki, and Wellington through October. It means that Chelsea and her band will be constantly touring for just over two months: that’s a long time to spend with six other people, I insist. “You’ve got to be confident that you’re touring with the right people,” she laughs.

At the Powerstation last December, during the first night of a short New Zealand album tour, Chelsea and her band exuded light and joy.

They had just returned from a tiring UK and European tour, but all performed with an ease that made it seem like it was their first time onstage together. As Chelsea contorted her face in unimaginable ways, fully occupying her theatrical Princess persona as she tends to do, her bandmates exchanged warm glances behind her, and each one was given ample time in the spotlight. Just one week prior, I had watched the momentous US folk-rock band Big Thief perform at the same venue – who were equally in the midst of a tiring period of touring – but the difference in energy and camaraderie exhibited onstage was palpable (another difference: one could barely move at Big Thief’s show, fans packed like sardines, but there was plenty of room to move around the sticky Powerstation floor while Princess Chelsea played). 

Her band’s performance that night in December didn’t go unnoticed by Chelsea. “It’s so funny, just a simple thing like that that really resonates with people, and people can feel it, you can’t fake that, humans are very perceptive,” she says. “To achieve that chemistry and positivity with such a large group, it’s quite a rare thing. So it’s something that I’m really holding onto and valuing.”

On Everything Is Going to Be Alright, her band had more of a presence on one of her records than ever before. “We did [second track] “The Forest” live in the studio, we recorded it live for the band,” Chelsea reveals. It’s something she wants to do more. “The trick for me will be to retain my identity as the creative lead while also collaborating in a really healthy and genuine way,” she adds. 

Viral success never really suited Princess Chelsea.

Always far too aware of the vision for her musical project to risk losing any integrity, the temptation to chase trends or streaming numbers was non-existent. Her fifth album, she confesses, was “made for myself, to my taste.” She acknowledges that her music has perennially been “pretty eclectic, too eclectic for some listeners.” 

“Cult musician from New Zealand,” reads Princess Chelsea’s Instagram bio, after all. Does it suit her to be regarded in this way? She answers immediately. “It really does, I’m really happy with it. There’s a certain risk when you start to get to a certain level of success, kind of feeling like you’re on a hamster wheel or something. I’ve seen it [happen] with people I know, and they find it really hard because they’re expected to churn out an album or tour and just become almost like a business or public figure. I’m not saying everyone falls into that trap, but it sort of starts to feel like that. I’ve almost felt like that, but I’ve always kind of pulled back.”

Another reason for Chelsea’s surprise at her Taite triumph: there’s an inherent playfulness to her music, humour embedded in her words, which she believes often isn’t favoured by awards voters. “At least from my perspective, albums that usually win awards and stuff are quite serious and broody,” she contends. “There isn’t a huge room for humour and playfulness in a critical sense. I’ve always thought it was silly, like to be taken seriously you have to be perceived as a really serious artist.”

And yet, Everything Is Going to Be Alright is far from a cheery sonic stroll: the press release last year labelled it as her “nervous breakdown album,” the songs the culmination of an intense two-year period of mental health battles. “It’s about a mental health crisis, really,” she says about her album. “My stuff’s always serious but it’s often presented in a kind of tongue-in-cheek, funny way. I think, overall, that can not always be understood by everybody.”

Chelsea bookends her latest album beautifully.

Everything is uncertain and shaky as we enter the world of the opening title track, the narrator – she always exquisitely traverses the line between fiction and fact within the Princess persona – sounding forlorn in love. When she sings the titular refrain, she sounds like she’s trying to convince herself of the truthfulness of the words: “Everything is going to be alright,” she cries out again and again, the lyrics laced with almost menacing tones.

But relief comes later, in “Everything Is Going to Be Alright (Pt.2)”, when everything is much less foreboding. When she now sings those same words as before, there is growing belief and conviction. Everything will be alright in the end, her voice seems to say. Just maybe. 

For Chelsea the person, the future looks alright, too. Now over 10 years into this project, she foresees it going for a while longer, although she won’t put an end date on it. “There’s been times when I felt like it was time to wind down, but at the moment, I feel like it’s taking on a new life.” She wants to make “more of a collaborative album,” bringing her tight-knit band further into the recording fold. She’s studying Psychology at university – she’s taking the ferry to class on that windy May day when we talk – and lives a quiet life on Waiheke, venturing into the city when she needs to. And her debut North American tour feels like the crowning moment of a stunning year, Chelsea able to go to the Northern Hemisphere secure in the knowledge that her home country values her music more distinctly than ever before. 

“I wouldn’t want to be too much in the limelight because I think it can be really distracting,” she tells me as we discuss the coming years of Princess Chelsea. “You can get caught up in it, forget why you’re doing stuff, or fall into your public identity too much and become almost like a parody of yourself. It’s hard to stay authentic if you buy into anything too much.” For a moment, all that can be heard on the call is the wind. “The level I’m at now, though, I could be ok if it got a little bit bigger,” Chelsea adds.

Princess Chelsea 2023 New Zealand Tour

Tickets available via banishedmusic.com

Thursday, October 12th
Neck of the Woods, Auckland

Friday, October 13th
Porridge Watson, Whanganui

Saturday, October 14th
St Peter’s Village Hall, Paekākāriki

Sunday, October 15th
San Fran, Wellington

Friday, October 20th
Big Fan, Auckland

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