Rising star Princess Chelsea finds inspiration in cosmic imagery and retro music. She talks to Lydia Jenkin.

When Princess Chelsea (aka Chelsea Nikkel) released her debut album, Lil Golden Book, back in 2011, she didn't have any particular expectations for the songs to find their way overseas. She didn't envision finding fans in Eastern Europe - or Western Europe for that matter. She did not foresee Alt-J frontman Joe Newman calling Princess Chelsea his favourite new band in NME. And she certainly had no inkling that her track Cigarette Duet and its accompanying video would light up the blogosphere and earn over 20 million views on YouTube.

But that's what happened. Her lilting chamber pop tunes filled with acerbic wit and cutting observations were shared around the world, and Cigarette Duet went viral.

She laughs when reflecting on making a video that became a cult sensation.

"It was strange how it all happened, because at that stage the album had been just getting word of mouth interest. I started to build a fan base in Europe, but I think the Cigarette Duet video really opened up interest in other countries. It was amazing to go there and play to all these people who knew my music. And we might not have gone back again so quickly, but Alt-J asked us if we would come out on tour in 2013, and we kind of felt like we couldn't turn it down, because they'd just won the Mercury Prize, and they were playing these big shows, and we just thought, we should go."

Advertisement

The Guardian became a fan too, calling her things like "ravishingly strange", and describing Cigarette Duet, which she sings with her long-time partner and fellow musician Jonathan Bree, as "a bit like Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood in synth hell, only with an extra dose of vicious".

All those YouTube hits and international touring don't make you rich though. The flat Nikkel and Bree share in Kingsland is modest and unassuming, and even though they have two home "studios" in which they record and mix all their work, they're humble spaces - small, stripped back, and dark, set-up by necessity rather than design.

Princess Chelsea features on the cover of this week's TimeOut:

Nikkel writes, arranges, and records in their kitchen or living area, and takes things into "Studio B" to work up, before popping next door into "Studio A" to polish the songs up with Bree.

"It's a little bit fancier. And where we keep all our cocaine," she jokes.

The pair have both done a variety of other jobs (composing, working at Marbecks, etc), as well as running Lil' Chief Records, one of Auckland's eminent indie record labels - so you can see how on top of all the touring, the second Princess Chelsea album The Great Cybernetic Depression, has taken a while to come to fruition.

As with Lil Golden Book, it's a lovingly crafted affair, a complete package with carefully chosen aesthetics and themes. But this time, it's all about synthesisers.

"I wanted to do that again, because I like doing that. I like the album format, and I like records, and I like the idea of a storybook of songs.

"I'd been listening to a lot of this guy, Tomita, who is this sort of 70s synth guy, who does some pretty cute stuff, some of it's a bit cheesy, like covers of Debussy way back when synthesisers were first built. But I remember listening to it and thinking, 'Man it's so cool how he's using the synthesiser in this way, which is more like an orchestrated way'.

"I was really into the Yamaha DX7 sounds, which was the big synth of the 80s, so there's lots of cheesy bell sounds and pad sounds that really bring back memories for me, like when I first heard a Madonna ballad or a Michael Jackson song."

Cyndi Lauper, Aha, and Sinead O'Connor were all also on high-rotate, but lyrically and thematically, Nikkel was in a darker place than those musical references might suggest.

"I knew that I was feeling pretty bummed out, and somewhat depressed, if I'm honest. I was having a weird year so I was like, 'Well, I guess I'm writing these songs that are somewhat depressing in their ideas, so instead of writing them in the first person, maybe I should channel them into some type of narrative metaphor-type thing'. So that's kind of what I did.

"I was initially writing this story about these characters in the future, who fall in love over the internet, and then one of them dies. And I wrote We Are Strangers about those two characters, but then things went a different way, so the whole album is not about them, but that's how it started, with this futuristic concept."

And the cosmic, space element which permeates the artwork also presented itself early on.

"I guess with synthesisers, I feel like the early use of them was always kind of associated with space, they seemed to be intrinsically linked with that kind of imagery. I don't necessarily close my eyes and see nebulas everywhere and then write music, but dreamy synth pop goes with space to me."

Nebulas are also the inspiration for their band outfits, and there will be limited edition nebula vinyl too.

"I feel like nebulas are pretty fantastical looking - I sound like such a stoner!" she laughs. "But sometimes I will just sit and look at pictures of nebulas for two hours, and go 'Oh wow, wow, look at this one!'"

The album weaves together Nikkel's futuristic narrative ideas, with a couple of songs written by other people - No Church On Sunday, which was written by her friend Jamie Lee about their shared experience in choosing to leave their church and religion behind at the age of 17, and We're So Lost, which was originally a Voom song.

"I love covers, but I felt like these two belonged on the album. With Jamie Lee's song I felt like it was a shared experience, so it seemed like the right thing to do, to finish it and put it out, if she wasn't going to.

"And We're So Lost is an amazing song. I actually did the cover ages ago, but the palette of the song, the synthesisers, and instruments, and way it's presented, that kind of shaped the album I think."

Nikkel also decided she wanted to do her own version of a power ballad, something that hadn't fit in the past, and so We Were Meant To Be was born. "It was hard, and it took me a long time, but I had a very solid idea of the kind of sounds I wanted to use for it. It's obviously referencing a certain type of song, no doubt about it, but I also wanted it to suit the album, and I didn't want it to be too much of a pastiche either. So it's kind of like a power ballad, but in a modern context.

"People sometimes think I'm being ironic with this stuff, but I'm not. It's interesting because I think when synth pop and power ballads and hair metal were popular, a lot of pretty crazy music was on the charts. Like Vienna, by Ultravox - that is such a crazy song, and the fact it was in the public consciousness is pretty amazing. And the older you get, the less you scoff at these songs that you might've written off when you were younger."

Yes, Nikkel still has plenty of dry wit and clever observations, but it's the way she's embraced all those 70s electro artists and 80s synth sounds without any scoffing at all, that makes The Great Cybernetic Depression so appealing.

Who: Chelsea Nikkel aka Princess Chelsea
What: New album The Great Cybernetic Depression
Where and when: Performing on Sunday at the Kings Arms in Auckland.

- TimeOut