Princess Chelsea, Lil’ Chief Records & The Unlikely Rise Of The Label That Could

By Matt Crawley
Princess Chelsea. Photo / Frances Carter

Auckland’s proudly independent record label Lil’ Chief Records may have come from humble beginnings, but it’s seen some of its stable take on the world in a big way. Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, Lil’ Chief was born from the unique partnership between two of New Zealand’s most unexpected success

During their recent world tours, breakaway indie-pop star Princess Chelsea and enigmatic frontman and label co-founder Jonathan Bree found a moment to Zoom in from a hotel room in Romania to reflect with Viva on making music, the early days, and the unlikely rise of the little label that could.

Formed in 2002 by Jonathan and fellow muso Scott Mannion, out of love for obscure music and a mutual disdain for the music industry at large, Lil’ Chief Records has always stuck out like a sore thumb in Aotearoa’s musical landscape. The label has earned a reputation for fostering what Chelsea describes as, “almost an anti-scene”.

Lil’ Chief was conceived as a haven for acts that didn’t naturally fit elsewhere, such as Jonathan’s own bubblegum pop act The Brunettes, Scott’s indie outlet The Tokey Tones and, since 2009, the one-and-only Princess Chelsea. In its time, the label has also housed the likes of Ed Cake (Bressa Creeting Cake), Alec Bathgate (Tall Dwarfs), rambunctious rock’n’rollers Shaft, beloved guitar band Voom, and The Nudie Suits, a Hawaiian-steel-meets-vintage country act featuring Jonathan’s older cousin Mark.

To paint a picture of these early days, it helps to bear in mind the cultural landscape of the early 2000s. In an era when live music in Auckland could often be slim pickings, the advent of ramshackle spaces such as Paradise Bar (a scarcely used karaoke bar) and the notoriously filthy Edens Bar on Karangahape Rd meant young and unknown bands could throw on low stakes shows more easily. It was within this scene that Chelsea began to gain respect for her impressive and creative chops on the keyboard, and where she was crowned indie royalty by her steadily increasing fanbase.

“There were all these ridiculous bands that were being formed that would last for like, two weeks. It was really fun!” enthuses Chelsea. “Teen Wolf was me and my friend who I’d grown up with, Brad. We decided to form a band with his friend from university, Vincent. He and Vincent used to call me Princess Chelsea as a joke, and then I just kept using it when I put out my first music.”

Since her days of playing shows for friends in local dive bars, Princess Chelsea has enjoyed some not-insignificant success, particularly overseas. At last count, her video for the song Cigarette Duet had 82 million plays on YouTube, with Spotify and TikTok stream numbers not far behind for several other tracks. In certain corners of the musical universe, she’s kind of a big deal.

But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. This didn’t happen overnight.

Not long after its inception, Lil’ Chief Records had set up shop in the dimly lit spare room of a basement flat on the cusp of Sandringham and Kingsland, with a garage that doubled as a rehearsal space and venue for an increasingly legendary series of summer gigs that was also a roll call of sorts for the label’s growing roster.

Princess Chelsea performs in London. Photo / The Red Beanie
Princess Chelsea performs in London. Photo / The Red Beanie

It was at one of these gatherings that Chelsea recalls connecting for the first time with the label she would later release her own music on, and be an instrumental part of. She recalls her formative moments as a Tokey Tones fanatic, an obsession she shared with her friend Laura.

“Yeah… we were just weird!” Chelsea laughs. “Like a Heavenly Creatures vibe, writing heaps of letters to Scott, just weirdos from a cult! But I went to this Lil’ Chief party, and I became friends with Scott and Jonathan. I ended up playing in The Brunettes a couple of years later.”

The Brunettes were fronted by Jonathan on guitar and vocals, and Heather Mansfield on vocals, keys, glockenspiel, and if memory serves, the triangle. The rest of the band was something of a revolving cast, with the longest-serving rhythm section made up of James Milne, now better known as Lawrence Arabia, on bass, and Ryan McPhun, who found his own success as The Ruby Suns.

After a support slot for US indie band The Shins in Auckland, The Brunettes were whisked away to America, signed to Sub Pop, and set about touring non-stop. An ambitious band set-up saw countless local musicians enlisted to expand the ranks, with the final line-up of the group consisting of two very musical couples, Heather and New York native Andrew Thompson, and Jonathan and Chelsea.

With The Brunettes reaching the end of their natural runway and on indefinite hiatus, and label co-founder Scott Mannion permanently relocated to a tiny town in Spain, onlookers could have been forgiven for thinking the label was reaching its natural conclusion. But the transition of Chelsea from Brunette to fully-fledged solo act was taking shape, and the label was about to see its brightest star yet.

Little Golden Book, Princess Chelsea’s first solo album, was released on Lil’ Chief Records in 2009. Initially, admits Chelsea, “It didn’t really take off…”

“I put out Cigarette Duet on YouTube, and it didn’t go viral for ages; it wasn’t that big of a deal,” Chelsea explains. “And then at some point, like a year later, we started noticing the view count going up. It started to go up by about 2000 a day, then it got bigger and bigger until it was 20,000 a day, and then it got into the millions, and it got really, really big.”

“It is quite a gimmicky song, but it’s got this very specific subject matter that a song hadn’t done before,” says Chelsea, proffering her thoughts on the song’s unexpected smash success. “When I first wrote it my mum really liked it, and my auntie, and they only like Simply Red and nothing else, so they’ve got a high bar! But they liked it, and I liked it, and I knew I’d done something catchy.”

“The music video that we made was so voyeuristically ‘one-shot weird’ that it was this perfect recipe, and people just shared it around. But since then, it’s taken off again on TikTok, and now I Love My Boyfriend has taken off,” says Chelsea, with slight bemusement, as she doesn’t use TikTok herself. “Cigarette Duet definitely got heaps of people into my music, and now it’s not even my most popular song.”

Putting it in context, roughly the same number of people have seen the video for Cigarette Duet as live in Germany, give or take a million. Its viral success has enabled Chelsea and her ever-expanding band to tour Europe every couple of years since, developing something of a cult following in places most New Zealanders never get to visit, including Poland, Turkey, Hungary, and Romania.

In fact, when describing their most recent shows, Chelsea mentions that they are the first international band to ever visit the area of Romania they’re phoning from. This niche type of success seems to suit Princess Chelsea’s brand, somehow. Another example of the fabled “Kiwi approach”, the homemade video for Cigarette Duet is filmed in mostly one shot, with Chelsea and Jonathan side by side in a hot tub, lip synching with an impassive and impossible cool.

It is difficult to describe the upward swing of Lil’ Chief Records and the trajectory of Princess Chelsea without mentioning the simultaneous rise in renown of Jonathan Bree. Following his early successes fronting The Brunettes, Jonathan is now enjoying a second wave of popularity, reinventing himself as a masked solo artist, with a look best described as 1960s crooner meets eerie mime. Now, some of his own tunes are just casually streaming in the millions, and his single You’re So Cool found its own viral success, with Time Out New York voting its stylish monochromatic video the best of the year in 2017.

Jonathan Bree. Photo / Adam Custins
Jonathan Bree. Photo / Adam Custins

While initially it made sense for the pair to play in each other’s bands, their increased tour demands have led to the two forming distinctly separate groups. There is also a sense of it being important for both to be respected as individual talents, despite coming together for such iconic duet moments.

As Chelsea explains, “When you’re a 23-year-old girl and you spend three years trying to engineer your music, and then you put out your first thing that’s a duet with a guy who’s already done three albums of engineering, people are going to be like, ‘Well he just did all that and she’s singing on it’. I was very defensive about that at that time, because I wanted to be known as a producer. Now I care less, but at the time it was important to me to get acknowledged for that.”

Jonathan elaborates, “There were certain other couples where it was almost exploitative, using the dynamics of their relationship in real life to sell their music. I was like, that’s naff, let’s never do that.”

“Our partnership has been a big part of the reason behind both of our success in some ways,” continues Chelsea. “In all honesty, both of us have acknowledged that without the support of each other as a working partner and as a personal partner, the stresses of what we’d have to have done this year would have been almost impossible.”

”The truth of the matter is that we didn’t expect either of our projects to be as successful as they have been,” says Chelsea. “We were just making them for art’s sake, and it’s taken all of our energy to put those out and keep them going." Photo / The Red Beanie
”The truth of the matter is that we didn’t expect either of our projects to be as successful as they have been,” says Chelsea. “We were just making them for art’s sake, and it’s taken all of our energy to put those out and keep them going." Photo / The Red Beanie

The 20th anniversary of such a defiantly independent record label is no small feat, but the natural question is of course, “Where to from here?”

“The truth of the matter is that we didn’t expect either of our projects to be as successful as they have been,” says Chelsea. “We were just making them for art’s sake, and it’s taken all our energy to kind of just put those out and keep them going. We basically got to the stage where we needed to get more organised before we felt like we could release other people’s music properly, and we’ve only just got there.”

“We just signed this deal with [US-based] Secretly Distribution which is worldwide, and it’s massive for our label. We will look to start signing new acts again, but it’ll probably take another six months or so. You don’t want to sign people, and not be able to do a good job.”

“We’ll probably start A&Ring again,” Chelsea says, both excited and amused at the prospect, before adding, while doing her best hammy impression of a chin-stroking Hollywood talent scout, “We’ll just go to gigs with our arms folded and say, ‘Yeah, sounds pretty good’.”

Jonathan agrees, both of them clearly energised by the prospect. “We’re finding our feet again, and settling into this new structure and arrangement, but I feel very optimistic about once again doing what the original manifesto of Lil’ Chief was, which was to seek out and champion a lot of hidden talent or overlooked talent from the New Zealand scene.”

For now, with a recording stint at the legendary Abbey Road studios completed, another weird and wonderful world tour under their belts, and excited to embrace the future of their homegrown record label that started life in the spare room of a humble basement flat, Princess Chelsea and Jonathan Bree are enjoying being home… for now at least.

So, if you find yourself invited to a summer barbecue in a dilapidated Kingsland garage, you’d best jump at the chance… you could be next in line for the crown!

• Princess Chelsea and her seven-piece band play Friday, February 17 at Artworks Theatre on Waiheke Island, and Thursday, February 23 at The Wine Cellar, Auckland. Tickets from

• Jonathan Bree’s new album Pre-Code Hollywood is out on April 14, while the title track (featuring Nile Rodgers on guitar and production) is out now.

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