Chelsea Cutler can’t suppress the grin spreading across her face. The best part is that she’s not smiling because everything is going according to plan. Quite the opposite. Adorably, her mom interrupts our Zoom. Someone arrives at her New York City apartment to pick up her dogs for their walk. Her seven-month-old puppy is behaving like a seven-month-old puppy. Cutler’s reflex now is to smile because, during the two-year process for Stellaria, her third LP out today (October 13), she practiced appreciating the beauty in everything around her.
“Stellaria means starlike, but more importantly, it’s the Latin name for chickweed,” the platinum-certified producer and singer-songwriter says. “This whole album is about noticing and being present and seeing what’s right in front of you. If you see chickweed in nature, it actually looks pretty sick, even though it’s considered a weed and undesirable.”
Contrastingly, I’d burst through my apartment door, frazzled from my first appointment with a dietitian after relapsing in my eating disorder, moments before my scheduled time with Cutler. Like Cutler sings on the surprisingly sonically upbeat “No One Hates Me More,” “How does anybody / Learn to be alone / When you hate your home,” I felt overwhelmed (and terrified) to confront what was right in front of me. I had no idea the comfort I’d find in the company of Cutler, someone on the other side of relinquishing control. Making Stellaria served Cutler’s healing, and listening to it is supplementing mine, as it will for many others. Read how below.
You were off all social media from March to June. What most noticeably bubbled to the surface?
I would say the most prominent emotion I had was probably acute awareness that all of my goals for the album revolved around data and quantifiable things — a Grammy nomination, what number I’d debut at on a Billboard chart, how many streams — instead of qualitative things. When I was able to take a step back from seeing everybody else’s careers, accolades, and commentary, I could look at this album and ask myself what I wanted to make and why I wanted to make it. The goals for this album are honestly entirely different than they were when I first set out to make it two years ago. I watched a lot of Rick Rubin interviews and left with a more passionate belief that I needed to make music that I thought was cool. That’s where longevity exists.
Looking at a third album, it was really important for me to make something that I felt could start defining my legacy. I want to be touring in 10 years. I want to be touring in 20 years. I want people to look at me as a long-term artist here to stay. I wanted something that I could look back on and still want to play.
Playing off of “You Don’t Think About Me At All,” did you wrestle with fear of being forgotten during this process?
The second you start envying someone who looks like they’re in the hot seat, they’re out, and the next person’s in. Something that someone like Taylor Swift has done so well is continually reinventing and crafting a different marketing plan every single album. Look, anyone with a public-facing job must experience thoughts of struggling with feeling irrelevant. That would just be bizarre if someone wasn’t sensitive to how they’re perceived and sensitive to the cyclical nature of the industry.
I’ve been off cycle for two years. I put [When I Close My Eyes] out on October 15, 2021. I had this conversation with my team about how I had to take a step back and look at it on a macro scale and recognize, You’re a silent assassin right now. You’re working quietly. When the time is right, you’re going to show the world what you’re working on. In the meantime, let someone else take up space in the industry. And when it’s time to go, it’ll be go time.
What is your No. 1 overall draft pick for favorite fan moment around “Your Bones” and the viral reaction to such a visceral love song?
I mean, it’s kind of lit that Millie Bobby Brown used it in an Instagram Reel.
Right? Pretty good. I think that means she might be a fan. Who knows?
A little birdie named Jesse [Coren, Cutler’s manager] told me that “You’re All I Ever Dreamed Of” is about those special early days of dating your girlfriend, Tilly, and now I must know the backstory.
We had only had boyfriends up until meeting each other. We told a couple close friends, but for the most part, every time that we hung out was in a hotel. I was still living with my parents after dropping out of college, and she was a senior. I’d either get us a hotel in New York City, or we’d meet in Boston while she was in school in Rhode Island. There was such a sacred nature to those experiences that we shared when we were in hotels. We felt really anonymous and really safe to explore this beautiful new and scary thing. And then, you’d leave the hotel room and go into public. Suddenly, this really, really special thing didn’t feel so safe and didn’t feel so normalized. I wanted to write a song that delicately and carefully recreated that feeling of these fragile early days of a queer relationship when you’re both terrified and so happy at the same time. And I think the song sonically feels as haunting as those moments.
a song about how scary and special the beginning of a relationship is
How does Tilly help you see yourself the way she sees you?
I mean, she’s remarkably supportive. I really do believe that your significant other is the most important choice you can make in your life.
That’s why I haven’t made it.
Take your time! It’s an important choice. A lot of what I’ve done the last five years wouldn’t be possible if I were with a partner who was not as supportive as she is. Her words, not mine: She’d tell you that I’m the coolest person she knows, which I don’t understand because being in a relationship with someone is just progressively getting weirder and more uncool by the day. Every day of the last five years has just been like, What new weird accent can I speak in today? How far can I push you? But her belief in me and the way she sees me has never changed, never wavered, from day one.
Candidly, I recently relapsed in my eating disorder and have struggled with body dysmorphia since elementary school, so “I Don’t Feel Alive” and “No One Hates Me More” hit home hard. What compelled you to specifically make “I Don’t Feel Alive” so explicitly vulnerable about your body?
Prior to COVID, I honestly had no thoughts about eating or my body at all. It was literally never something I experienced or dealt with, which is such a blessing. Post-COVID, I went through a process of gaining weight and then running a half marathon, working out a lot, and losing weight, and a lot of the residual effects of not feeling good in my body remained. I posted an Instagram of myself in my underwear the other day, jokingly saying I was dropping in some sex appeal before the album. It’s funny — a few of the comments were like, “You’ve been holding out on us under your baggy clothes!”
I’m a big advocate of body neutrality, but for me, getting my body back to a place where I feel confident and sexy has been really important. And it’s so interesting how I still really struggle to not wear baggy clothes or to see myself as a sexual being worthy of being seen, admired, or appreciated. Writing “I Don’t Feel Alive,” I just felt so sick of it. I hit a wall. It felt so cathartic to write that song and talk about how getting undressed to be intimate with the person who’s loved me for five years is still really challenging for me, especially being a forward-facing figure. I have to see myself on camera all the time. I have to think about how I look all the time, and every human being does, but it’s something that I struggle with. I was just so exhausted that I didn’t even care anymore to keep it private.
That exasperation comes through in lines like, “Stepping on a scale I keep in the bathroom” and “I’m writing feelings in a journal / ‘Cause that’s what people who have their sh*t together seem to do.”
Oh my God, dude. We ran a half marathon, and my two primary reasons for wanting to run a half marathon were 1) I thought I would look amazing and 2) to show myself I could do it. We trained for five months. We did it, and I felt sore and achy and all my joints hurt. “I Don’t Feel Alive” was such a culmination of things like that where I was doing all of these things people were telling me to do, and nothing actually felt good.
There’s often a false perception of finality associated with healing. Have you given yourself permission to stop chasing that made-up finish line?
I’ve become more aware of the fact that the finish line is made up, but it is really challenging to accept that life just is, and you just are a work in progress. I think it’s possible to give yourself that permission while also being in a place where you’re still processing that permission even exists. An interesting example is, before COVID, I did two sold-out nights at Terminal 5 in New York. I had a little whiteboard where I wrote goals. I had Hammerstein and Radio City Music Hall. By the time I was 26 or 27, I fully expected I’d be playing MSG. And I remember on my 26th birthday, I was crying to Tilly about the fact that I thought, by 26, my career would look so different. It’s been a really long process of learning how to grieve that things went differently than you thought they would.
The hook from “I Don’t Feel Alive” is, “If I could, I’d wake myself up when I am somebody that I’m proud of.” What is one way you’re proud of yourself today?
You just reminded me what I’m supposed to do for therapy tomorrow. I would say one thing that I’m proud of is, honestly, just what we’re talking about. I feel proud that I can recognize the commercial success of my art is not controllable. My only job as an artist is to make the best possible art that I can, expressing how I see the world through my one-of-one lens. If I think it’s sick, and I put it in the world, maybe other people will think it’s sick. The music is either going to hit or it’s not, and unfortunately or fortunately, it doesn’t have anything to do with me.
The one place where you still have total control is in engineering, producing, and writing your songs. You’ve previously said you want paving the way for women in production to be a cornerstone of your legacy. Where are you with that now?
It’s still a big priority for me. Even when my production was bad in the beginning, I didn’t care what anyone thought because I wanted to be the one doing it. With Stellaria, I had my hand in 13 of the 15 songs. I just taught a class for Studio, and I think I was the first woman to teach a production class [for the platform]. I don’t feel like there’s been significant progress in the industry, which is a bummer. But change like this probably takes a lot longer.
How did you know it was time to let Stellaria go?
We pushed the album date back three times, at least. I’m really grateful everyone around me was honest enough and believed in me enough to push me to keep writing. At the same time, you have to draw the line. At a certain point, I’ve got to put the pen down. I kind of was just like, “Alright, no more.” Because I’ll write forever. I’m going to spend the rest of my life writing songs.
Stellaria is out now via Mercury Records/Republic Records. Find more information here.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.