Chelsea Williams has been writing and performing her own music from the age of 13. By the age of 17, she took the stage, on her own, performing first at clubs and coffee houses. While some of her early songs are still hits with her fans, she has continued to develop as a writer, penning over 100 original songs to date. Chelsea is also known for making her living by busking—selling tens of thousands of homemade demos, one by one, on the street. Her magnetic personality draws in the fans; her songs set the hook. Most recently, Chelsea was featured on a Chevy commercial, which made its debut on Simon Cowell’s hit television show, the X FACTOR. Kate Buckley recently caught up with Chelsea to learn more about her background and upcoming projects.
KB: Chelsea, I first “discovered” you, playing with your band, The Salty Suites, at The Cliffs in Laguna Beach. I’d been invited down by our mutual friend, Russell Boston, to come hear this amazing talent. I was blown away by your unique sound and talented songwriting, and I’ve enjoyed learning more about your story. You’ve really done it old school, haven’t you—busking—building your base one person at a time?
CW: I started singing on the street when I was 20, and to be honest it was one of the only things I felt like I was good at and enjoyed doing. A lot of my heroes were buskers at some point—Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan. That was definitely part of the allure. But I think I was also partial to the idea of being so close to the audience. On the street, there’s no barrier between you and them, where at most venues there seems to be this giant chasm. The stage can almost make the artist seem untouchable. A lot of bands play into this by taking on a larger than life persona. You know, they wear a costume, whether it’s a skin colored bikini, or a freshly pressed suit with polished shoes and put on a well rehearsed, thoroughly choreographed show. Not to say that I don’t appreciate and enjoy a well rehearsed show with costumes, lights and the occasional smoke machine. But the kind of music that I’m drawn to is much more conversational and intimate. The artists that I’ve been the most impacted by, consider themselves to be on the same level as their audience: speaking and singing to them as friends and fellow human beings. Musicians that let their heart and soul rest comfortably on their sleeve with an irreverence to the way a “show” is supposed to look or sound.
As far as building a base/audience, that hasn’t been something I’ve consciously attempted. I just try to enjoy what I do, go where I feel creative and hope that people enjoy it so I can keep playing shows.
KB: You count Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Billie Holiday among your musical influences, but I understand you have another musical influence a little closer to home.
CW: When I was around five or six years old, my mom was writing a lot of music and playing shows occasionally. She was a beautiful singer. There were always musicians jamming in our living room. She had this friend with a recording studio in his garage (this was back in the day before everyone and their grandmother had one). We would stay over there late and I remember so many nights, falling asleep listening to them write and record. I didn’t realize how much that would impact me as an adult. Years later, my sister started playing guitar. She showed me a couple chords and I kind of had this aha! moment like, “Oh, this makes sense to me.” It was a way of using up my creative energy without getting into trouble—which I was prone to do.
KB: What’s your first or fondest memories of music?
CW: Without a doubt, listening to my mom sing Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” It was her signature song at shows and parities. She sang it so much that I thought she wrote it. When I asked her about it she said, “If I had written that song, Chelsea, we wouldn’t be living in this apartment.” I didn’t get what she meant then, but I do now.
KB: Have you ever performed with your Mom?
CW: No. And it’s kind of silly, because I first learned to sing by listening to her so much as a kid and then later, she started to teach. I took lessons from her for years. But I love the idea of families singing together. The Carter Family is a great example of that! There’s nothing like the vocal blend that a family can get. There’s another group called the Wood Brothers. Their harmonies make me melt just a little every time I hear them.
KB: The Wood Brothers are on my iPod as well—fantastic sound. Chelsea, where did you grew up?
CW: In the San Fernando Valley in a little town called Sunland, a suburb of LA. It always smells a bit like horse manure and meth. But it’s right at the base of the Angeles Crest Mountains. Really beautiful back there. I used to drive deep into the mountains with my guitar and sing into the valley below. It made me feel like less of a city girl. I live in Glendale now, near Hollywood. While I love the city sometimes I dream of moving to Montana or something.
KB: You have a huge fan base in Laguna. What’s your connection to Laguna Beach? You play shows here quite a lot!
CW: The Salty Suites played the Sawdust Festival about three years ago and Rick Conkey saw us playing there. He has been instrumental in getting us booked around Laguna at quite a few venues. Those venues have been stepping stones to playing places like The Festival of Arts. [Click here to hear Chelsea and The Salty Suites playing at The Festival of the Arts.] Rick is such a passionate genuine guy. It seems like he’s always scheming/organizing to help the community through music. Between his help and support from a host of other Laguna Beach locals, it’s become a kind of haven for us here.
KB: That’s great, Rick’s another mutual friend—you’re right, he does so much for music in Laguna. Chelsea, what do you love most about Laguna Beach?
CW: Well it’s obviously out-of-this-world beautiful. But more than that, there’s such an appreciation for art and music in Laguna. It’s hard to have a genuine voice and be heard in LA. There seems to be a lot of importance placed on image and “cool” in the music scene there. While there’s something to be said for having a “product” that people wanna buy, I think the quality gets lost in that process more times than not. The feeling I get in Laguna Beach is much more relaxed and honest. You can just sing your little heart out and people respond. You don’t have to put on a facade and sacrifice yourself to the music machine gods.
KB: How did you and fellow bandmates Scott Gates and Chuck Hailes get together to form The Salty Suites?
CW: We all got to know each other through mutual friends, playing in the same circles. But I think ultimately John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was the reason we all met. I met Scott at a John McEuen show that he had invited us both to play. And we both met Chuck shortly after that through John’s son, Nathan. It wasn’t till a couple years later that we started playing together. It was kind of kismet that we were all playing at a benefit show up in Paso Robles (a show that John McEuen was headlining). We had something like four hours between sound check and showtime, so we learned a couple songs and ended up playing them that night. Still, it was more than a year after that, that we formed the band as it is now.
KB: What’s your vision down the road, Chelsea? What’s your dream outcome for The Salty Suites?
CW: I just love playing music with those guys, whether it’s in the living room or opening up for Dwight Yoakam. I guess I’d just love to be on the road most of the year and still be able to pay my bills. And if someday we can afford 20 dancers and a pyrotechnic show…I’ll die happy.
KB: When did you open for Dwight Yoakam? What have been your other memorable shows to date?
CW: We opened for Dwight last year, in Orange County and Santa Rosa. I enjoyed opening up for the Avett Brothers, Colin Hay was great too. (Funny enough, he’s playing the Laguna Music Festival on November 2nd—small world). My favorite show ever though, was playing the Ann Arbor Folk Festival. Pete Seeger was there along with Old Crow Medicine show and Jeff Tweedy from Wilco (God, I sound like I’m name dropping). I was just so excited to be there. I would have paid money just to SEE the show, but to be able to get up on stage pretend to be worthy was really memorable.
KB: And you’ve got another fabulous show coming up right here in Laguna Beach where you’ll be part of the opening night for the inaugural KX93.5 Festival of Music. Tell me about that. And where can we get tickets to come see you?
CW: We are so excited to be part of the pre-show on November 1st for this exciting festival benefiting the Mauli Ola Foundation, The Tony Hawk Foundation, and The Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach, and to be playing at the Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course (it’s gorgeous, I’m told!). Like I said we LOVE Laguna Beach and we’re so happy to be included in the community.
Please visit our site for information on upcoming shows (we’re playing The Cliffs in Laguna again on October 24th), and to get on our mailing list. And visit KX93.5 for ticketing information on both the pre-show (where we’re playing with Deborah Magone on 11/01/13 at the Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course), and the main event with Colin Hay and Matt Costa on 11/02/13 at the Festival of Arts Grounds.