Interview: Cellars Gets To The Heart Of Chillwave On Her Ariel Pink-Produced LP ‘Phases’
Silent Shout is our recurring dispatch from pop’s fringes. It may not be music for the masses, but — to paraphrase *NSYNC — this might be pop.
Chillwave is great make-out music. Its ability to provoke an emotional response in the listener was crucial to its rise, but it was always hard to pin down tangible emotions within the actual music. Take Neon Indian‘s “Heart: Decay”: It’s melancholy as hell, but it’s an instrumental, so the title is your only clue as to why it’s melancholy.
I suspect chillwave’s emotional distance was partly due to the fact that you could rarely decipher the lyrics and partly due to the fact that it was male-dominated. While the once-maligned trend has experienced something of a second wave (the still-relevant Neon Indian, radio pop’s off-kilter digitalism, Portlandia‘s opening credits, lean-drenched DIY beats), perhaps the best hope for its continued impact is a potential influx of female artists adding a new perspective to it. Female artists like Cellars who grew up with it.
The 25-year-old uses bedroom pop touchstones in service of bedroom jams, the sort of sexy, emotionally direct fare that chillwave’s bro brigade usually avoided. On her new album Phases, which was produced by glo-fi godhead Ariel Pink, she employs a songwriter’s touch that balances the haze with heart, singing about love and longing and relationship specifics overtop sounds normally associated with vague #feels.
On the morning after Cellars’ very first NYC show last week, we met up for some coffee at The Roxy Hotel to talk about her place within chillwave, the power of nostalgia and more. Read on and stream the full album below ahead of its April 15 release.
Chillwave is a loaded term, so how do you feel about being associated with it? I don’t think it’s a derogatory label. It’s chill…wave! I remember first hearing it, one of the first typical chillwave records, Psychic Chasms by Neon Indian. That was a huge influence on me. And maybe the precursor stuff, bedroom pop and Ariel Pink. He’s definitely not chillwave but that kind of stuff influenced a lot of the artists making it, like Washed Out.
Do you think there’s potential for the genre to have a second life as more women who listened to it start doing their own spin on it, such as yourself? I think so, I would love to see more women doing this stuff. I’m trying to rack my brain to think of any women that make this kind of music. Maybe my friend Charles, she makes fuzzy bedroom stuff. She just did an album at home on Casio keyboards. She’s the only one I can think of, and I know her.
I think one of the barriers is that chillwave has gone hand-in-hand with production, and it kinda sucks but there aren’t so many women in the music engineering field. I would love to encourage young girls to get involved in production and recording. You don’t have to be a boy to do it.
Speaking of the engineering side, music seems to be the only field that’s as obsessed with new technology as it is with outdated gear. Why do you think that is? Music and nostalgia are linked. I have this weird philosophy about recording. Whatever you’re using — the mics, the room, the instruments — it leaves a psychological imprint of what you’re doing. Recording doesn’t just pick up sound, it picks up — I don’t really have like a belief system, but there’s something spiritual about it, it picks up this vibe. So using older equipment gives it this history, a past, that makes it a little bit richer than just using like Ableton Push. I recorded some of the album at home with a giant 88-key keyboard from 1994 that sounds cheesy as hell…Cheap stuff can have such a charm to it, and it’s really cool that you can combine new and old technologies.
Eighties nostalgia definitely comes through on your album. Do you have any theory as to why that decade’s sounds are still relevant? By the time we got to the ’80s, everything is suddenly digital, but we’re like babies, we don’t know how to use it. Or we’re trying so hard to recreate these real, analog things with digital stuff, but the technology was nowhere near the point where they could do that. So that’s why the drums sound like they do, it’s not on purpose that they sound so crazy with the gated reverb, they’re just trying to make it sound like a rock band. But it wasn’t.
And pop as we know it was pretty much invented back then: Madonna, Paula Abdul, Human League, Duran Duran. So that formula was set in stone back then. Everyone got sick of it in the ’90s, but it came back. You can’t say no to a catchy song with cool sounds.
Your prior album was basically a one-person operation. Was it jarring to go from that to overseeing guest musicians like Dâm-Funk, and worrying about hiring a booking agent, doing press, all this extraneous stuff? [Recording] was really natural and chill and super facilitated by Ariel. It was really cool and spontaneous having these people in and out, it helped shape the record… But the cycle is rough, if you wanna take this seriously. You do the writing and recording and then you think about the other aspects, the promotion, the interviews. It’s like homework. So I’m trying to adapt to doing all this. I majored in audio engineering, but I also had to take classes in music business, and thank god I did. Everything I went to school for applies so much to what I’m doing now, which is crazy.
That’s rare, college stuff applying to the real world. I know, I can’t believe it. I was going to school for philosophy, then I was like “this sucks, I just wanna do music.” So I dropped out and ended up going to a community college from a four-year university, kinda backwards. But it was such a cool program and I learned so much, it’s been really helpful for everything I’m doing. And my parents aren’t upset about it.