All this has largely happened without the artist’s contrivance; in fact she seems slightly bemused by it. Chelsea herself doesn’t even have the TikTok app. Her videos are low-to-no-budget and usually self-directed. The singular, subtle and sly songs she has been writing and releasing for the past decade via the indie label Lil’ Chief Records have been made first and foremost to satisfy herself.
Chelsea Nikkel calls herself “a westie/shore-girl hybrid”. Born in Onehunga, she spent her early childhood in West Auckland and her high-school years on the North Shore. Her musical upbringing, too, was something of a mashup. As a child she remembers listening to The Best of Grieg, Solid Gold Hits Vol.4, and Simply Red’s Stars. “My parents didn’t have a huge music collection but my dad had Pink Floyd albums. The first time I heard ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ it blew my mind, at about age seven.”
Around the same age she started taking piano lessons, at her own request, and became familiar with Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and – her personal favourite – Haydn. She seemed to have already settled on her career path. In home footage she used in the video for ‘Growing Older’, from her 2018 album The Loneliest Girl, you can see her, barely yet of school age, announcing cheekily to camera: “My name’s Chelsea and I’m going to be a musician when I grow up.”
Her early teens coincided with the advent of file-sharing, which opened up worlds of sound for a curious youth. “I remember discovering the Velvet Underground accidentally when typing my own name into Napster. I then joined Soulseek, which was very cool underground indie file-sharing software, and got quite into a lot of the Washington DC early emo/hard core bands. Yo La Tengo, My Bloody Valentine, PJ Harvey, Belle and Sebastian, The Pixies, and Sparklehorse were early favourites.”
At 17, after leaving school, she found a job at Marbecks record store where her musical horizons were further broadened by a staff of fellow music obsessives. “I felt really lucky to be working somewhere with so much knowledge and passion for music and that really influenced me too. I discovered Lucinda Williams while working at Marbecks, a very important artist to me and a lot of other people.”
Though she had messed around with composing software during her time at Rangitoto College, it was hearing Lil’ Chief Records’ flagship group the Tokey Tones that convinced her she might be able to make music of her own. In 2003, the year the Tokey Tones’ Scott Mannion put out the label’s first releases, the 18-year-old Chelsea formed Teen Wolf with her friends Brad Fafejta and Vincent Lum. She moved into a flat in Avondale and they practised in the living room.
hearing the Tokey Tones convinced Chelsea she might be able to make music of her own.
“We wrote democratically all together, and I have to say I think we were great,” she says with a laugh. “Brad screamed kinda like Frank Black and would play bass or guitar, Vincent and I would provide BVs. I would shred classical-inspired keyboard riffs on a digital Roland synth, and Vincent, who had never drummed before, drummed like someone who shouldn’t be drumming like that, but it was awesome.”
Though the only music they ever released were demos pressed on mini-CDs and sold at gigs, Teen Wolf made their mark with memorable gigs at inner city Auckland venues such as the Wine Cellar and Eden’s Bar, and toured with So So Modern as part of a Low Hum package. Jonathan Bree, who co-founded Lil’ Chief with Mannion and was playing at the time with his group The Brunettes, remembers Chelsea eating meat pies on stage, getting drunk and occasionally passing out while playing. “We were a bit bratty,” Chelsea admits, “but still mostly very nice.”
Through gigs and her Marbecks job she got to know the Lil’ Chief fraternity, including multi-band member Gareth Shute, the label’s “postmaster general” Lawrence Mikkelsen, and founders Mannion and Bree. Teen Wolf did one tour as support act for The Brunettes, but by the mid-2000s they had broken up. In 2006 Chelsea joined an expanded Brunettes line-up for a Big Day Out performance, but could not officially become a member at this time; she was now going out with Jonathan Bree and the band’s “no partners” policy prohibited it. This changed in 2008-2009 after The Brunettes signed to American indie SubPop and began touring extensively. For practical reasons, Chelsea, along with Heather Mansfield’s partner, American musician Andrew Thompson, became a Brunette.
The next couple of years would see intense touring in the US and Europe. But by 2009 the band had become beset with problems – as detailed in Gareth Shute’s Brunettes story on AudioCulture.
While The Brunettes were in the throes of disintegration, Princess Chelsea began to emerge. Before the final Brunettes tour she had begun recording demos of her own. She had uploaded one of these, ‘Monkey Eats Bananas’, to MySpace, and it had been discovered by someone at the Auckland City Council who was looking for a theme for a television campaign. “We’d been stuck in New York for eight or nine months with The Brunettes. I had no money and I was babysitting for cash to, like, feed myself, and then I just got this email saying, hey, we want to use your song for TV and I ended up getting, like, a pile of money!”
In the space left by The Brunettes, the Princess Chelsea persona took form. The name had originated with a nickname her fellow Teen Wolf members Brad and Vince began using on a Low Hum tour. “I think it was ’cause I was the only girl on tour and they thought it would annoy me. It was also funny because I am so not princess-like. Even now in my thirties I’m often dishevelled and covered in food with a beer in one hand, or sometimes two beers in two hands.”
AT A 2007 CAMP A LOW HUM she appeared in a spontaneous if tentative performance as Princess Chelsea.
She had already made a few demos of original songs and even appeared in a spontaneous if tentative performance as Princess Chelsea at a Camp A Low Hum in 2007, but now she committed herself to her solo project. Jonathan Bree showed her how to use Pro Tools and, using the bedroom of her Eden Terrace flat as her studio, she began to record what would become Princess Chelsea’s debut album, Lil’ Golden Book. It took two years to piece together and finally came out in 2011.
In many ways it epitomises what had become the Lil’ Chief brand: alternative pop without the usual wall of guitars; traces of retro (especially sixties girl groups like the Crystals and the Shangri-Las) yet a contemporary embrace of electronics; and a withering, ironic view of modern love.
It also included what would become a bona fide hit, ‘The Cigarette Duet’ – a one-act play in miniature, in which a passive-aggressive male bickers with his female partner over her recreational smoking. With the help of a brilliantly deadpan video featuring Chelsea (in pink wig and heart-shaped sunglasses) and Jonathan Bree exchanging droll lines in a hot tub, it has notched up over 70 million streams on YouTube and almost as many on Spotify.
The sound of the album revolves around electronic keyboards, which she began using at an early age. In Teen Wolf she rocked a Roland E-20 synthesiser; even earlier, she acquired a red Yamaha “keytar” left behind in a rental house her family moved into. (You can see her with it, at around age five, in home footage she used for the 2018 ‘Growing Older’ video.)
Listening to the album now, she says, she finds “kind of cringy because I can hear the fake harps and stuff,” yet she acknowledges it has a quality that can’t be repeated. “Lil’ Golden Book is kinda the sound of me learning to record and produce. It’s pretty much Chelsea Learns Pro Tools! So while to my ears it’s kind of naff in parts, I really like the naivety and charm of it.”
In 2012 she toured Europe for the first time as Princess Chelsea, fronting a four-piece line-up with Jonathan Bree, Jamie Lee Smith, and Miles McDougall.
Her next album, The Great Cybernetic Depression, released in 2015, was more sophisticated. Expanding her electronic world into a kind of sonic metaphor, it is a cycle of electro-pop songs that wallow in lonely reflection. Though it is again mostly Chelsea alone with her synths, Bree makes the occasional appearance, playing drums, singing ‘Too Many People’ and alternate verses on ‘Is It All OK?’, and breaking up the solitary reveries with a stadium-rock guitar solo on a song titled (with Prince-style spelling) ‘We Were Meant 2 B’. To support the album, she toured Europe in 2015 with Jonathan Pearce, Jackson Hobbs (Sharpie Crows), and Jonathan Bree.
It was followed closely by Aftertouch, a surprising album of classic covers, Chelsea-style. If you ever wondered how Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’, Lucinda Williams’ ‘Side of the Road’ or Elvis Presley’s ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ would sound as shimmering reverb-laden reveries, the answers are all here.
But her next release, 2018’s The Loneliest Girl, returned to the original songwriting that defined her first two albums. In ever-more elaborate settings, it found the girl-and-her-synths joined by strings, guitars and live drums. Again it starts out as a fairy tale: “‘Once there was a funny girl,” she sings, accompanied by what sound like showers of synthesiser stardust. But already there’s something wrong with the picture. The funny girl falls in love with a strange boy (“he was weird, he had no joy”). They move in together and never go out, watch a lot of television and, “though she knew he’d break her heart”, as she sings in the final verse, “they never were apart”. It’s low self-esteem and high anxiety dressed up as storybook romance, the hopeful innocence of the music just making it all the more disturbing.
‘The Loneliest Girl’ album continues Chelsea’s examination of storybook love, ever so sweetly defacing each page.
There are less-expected subjects too, for instance ‘Respect the Labourers’ – a lovely song in appreciation of manual labour, and a collaboration with Jonathan Bree. But for the most part The Loneliest Girl continues Chelsea’s examination of storybook love, ever so sweetly defacing each page. As I noted at the time in a RNZ Sampler review, “in a new era of uncompromising women songwriters, many of them tackling sexism and gender issues head-on, an album of titles like ‘I Love My Boyfriend’ and ‘I Miss My Man’ might seem out of step, but Chelsea Nikkel has plenty of dark thoughts about modern love; she just has her own ironic, pop-sweetened way of expressing them.”
The album also saw Chelsea’s current band take shape around the rhythm section of bass player Joshua Worthington-Church, drummer David Harris, and Chrystal Choi on keyboards. When it came to planning what would become the follow-up, 2022’s Everything Is Going To Be Alright, her intention was to record live with her band, but lockdowns intervened. So while the album includes one fully live studio performance – ‘The Forest’, captured in all its grungy late-night glory in Auckland’s The Lab – it also involved much of Chelsea’s typical layering. Still there are noticeably more guitars than on any previous album, with touches of early Flying Nun in ‘Love Is More’ and hints of The Cars in ‘Forever Is A Charm’, while the juxtaposition of sweet sentiments and unsettling tones reaches new dimensions. Suffice to say, the album’s title is not as reassuring as it might seem.
At the time of writing, Chelsea and her band are set to tour Europe in October 2022, culminating in a live-in-the-studio recording at the hallowed Abbey Road. The Beatles connection is significant to Chelsea; not only is she a diehard fan, but among her various side-projects she has played in The Disciples of Macca, an aggregation of mostly Lil’ Chief artists dedicated to the music of Paul McCartney and Wings. This occasional band originally featured Scott Mannion on keyboards: “he was Linda,” Chelsea says. It was a role she took over when Scott moved to Spain.
Though Chelsea effectively stopped work during the lockdowns, her music seemed to keep working for her. For one thing, it was discovered by French pop artist Mattyeux. “He wrote to me and said, ‘I’m doing an album and I’m really a big fan of yours and I was wondering if you’d collab with me.’ And I was like, who is this person? And then I looked at his project, and the music videos for the project were really, really good, and the songs, I was like, oh, this is pretty cool. So he sent me the beat that he had, which is pretty much the instrumental bed of that song, I wrote the lyrics and basically turned that beat into a song and sent it back to him. I think I spent three or four days doing it, and he really liked it and added his own verse and his vocals. So it was a really good collab.”
The song result was ‘Sometimes’, released in mid-2022 with an imaginative video filmed by Mattyeux’s sister.
Her audiences, too, began to grow and change during the enforced layoff, something she has noticed now she has been touring again. From the stage she sees “the sort of people that might shop at Marbecks” alongside old punks, heavy metallers (“maybe they like the classical kind of stuff?”), a queer contingent, and a lot of much younger people, “the TikTok generation”. In the first six months of 2022 her streaming numbers suddenly “tenfolded”, she says, “and it’s got to be TikTok, it’s the only thing I can think of.” From her Spotify insights she sees she has listeners scattered everywhere. “Turkey is a big one. Germany, France, recently the US. And heaps in Mexico. I don’t know how. I’ve never been to Mexico, but I’d like to go.
“It’s just weird to me. Like the last two years or three years I didn't do a thing, I just took a break. And during that period, heaps of people started to listen to it without me lifting a finger. So my modus operandi since then has been like, I’m not going to plan or try to do anything. I’m just going to make the music, and play a really good live show, and not worry about anything else.”
In April 2023, Princess Chelsea’s album Everything Is Going To Be Alright was awarded the 2023 Taite Music Prize.