Unseen Plays: We feel honored to have you with us Chealen! Welcome to Unseen Plays. We ask the first question about your background and music history. Tell us about your story! How did you get started? And what got you into music?
Chealen: Thank you so much for welcoming me to Unseen Plays! I’m honored to be interviewed! I am currently a junior at Northwestern University studying Civil Engineering and Spanish, all the while trying to pursue my passion for songwriting. I first started my music journey back when my parents signed me up for piano lessons when I was four years old. I immediately became hooked on the piano and continued to take formal piano lessons throughout high school. In middle school I started wanting to learn other musical instruments and was surprised on my tenth birthday with an acoustic guitar. Unlike piano, however, I took formal guitar lessons for only two years. During this time I began to experiment and improvise on both piano and guitar and started to record my new song ideas on my iPod. Over time, this practice developed into more formal songwriting starting in my high school years.
We read through your biography and found an interesting story about you in your early years (8th grade). How was that moment for you? And did it make an impact on your life? We would suppose so since you mention it. You also discussed stage fright. You still get those butterflies?
Chealen: Yes, so I decided on a whim to sign up for my school’s talent show in eighth grade and, due to the suggestion of a friend, I decided to sing “The A Team” by Ed Sheeran. I still don’t know exactly what flipped the switch for me and made me all of a sudden have the courage to put myself out there for the first time, but I’m so glad I did. It was admittedly the most terrifying experience of my life. I shook the whole time I sat on stage and only had the courage to sing one verse and one chorus; but I got through it, and the positive reception and comments I received afterwards were the motivation I needed to put myself out there again, and again, and again. I signed up for a voice class in high school, joined both my school and church choirs, and sang at other high school performances. Long story short, it was that one random decision to sing one-and-a-half minutes of “The A Team” that gave music a truly central role in my life, because it was as if I finally admitted to the world that music was my passion. I’ve come a long way since that first terrifying performance; however I definitely still do get stage fright practically every time I perform, even if it is just in front of friends. I’ve found that it gets easier with each time I perform, however, and, at the very least, the reward of sharing my music is well worth the fear of doing it.
Unseen Plays: We’re always curious about an artist’s songwriting process. What is your songwriting process like? It’s interesting to know the unique differences and similarities between songwriters.
Chealen: I’ve always found it hard to define my songwriting process, since I feel like it really depends on the song. Most of the time, I would say that I’m simply just messing around and improvising on either piano or guitar and singing random words and melodies along with the chords and then I stumble on something I like and then I just run with it. I frantically pull out my notes app and record about twenty different voice memos until I get each verse and chorus right. Sometimes, however, I have an idea for a song that I eventually want to write, so I type a lyric into my notes app or sing it into my voice memos and then if I ever catch a melody or chord in my head that I think would work with it I go back to it and start writing. I have found, however, that with very few exceptions that I crank my songs out in one sitting. It normally takes anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour, but when a good song idea comes, it just seems to flow, so I always finish writing it (both the lyrics and the music accompaniment) in one sitting.
Unseen Plays: You seem really down to earth, very simple, minimal in your approach to showcasing yourself as an artist. We love that! It’s very authentic. Tell us a bit about your authenticity. Is that something that matters to you? Or is this the first time you hear something like this?
Chealen: First of all, thank you so much! I really take that as a compliment because I do try to stay very authentic in how I present myself and my music. I honestly never turned to music or songwriting or even to publishing my music with the intention of becoming famous. I just wanted to share my music and make it well-known, not me. Maybe this stems from the introvert in me, but I’ve never been one for the spotlight, so this process of putting myself out there and trying to get people to listen to my music has been a wild, yet extremely exciting and rewarding ride. It has been so fun knowing that the people that my music does reach are affected by it and made to feel the emotions that I am trying to portray. With this being said, I try to make each song that I write count and use the lyrics to say something important and the music to make you feel something truly authentic and relatable.
Unseen Plays: Inspiration happens in so many ways. What inspires your music? And what would you say to another artist struggling for inspiration? Or maybe a fan who struggles to feel inspired in life?
Chealen: I feel like I find inspiration in so many different places. When I was growing up, I found that I often turned to themes of nostalgia, since that was one of the most relatable emotions I had access to at the time. As I have gotten older and experienced more, however, my emotions have grown deeper and have expanded to such topics as love, heartbreak, joy, and fear, among others, all of which I try to incorporate and showcase in my music.
Whenever people ask me about the inspiration or story behind my songs, I always tell them that even though not every song I write is based on a true story, they are all based on true emotions. Therefore, if another artist is struggling with inspiration, I would say that they don’t have to have lived a momentous, “cinematic” experience to write a good song or to tell a good story. They just need to draw on what emotions they know and go from there. Along similar lines, if there is a fan who is struggling to feel inspired by life, I would say that there is value to every emotion and that no matter the depth or profundity of the emotion, always try to turn to your emotions and let them guide you in both your creative endeavors and life in general.
Unseen Plays: Okay, let’s talk about your new single “Cigarette Kiss”. Tell us about it! What should we know about this song? What is the story behind it?
Chealen: “Cigarette Kiss” is honestly one of my favorite songs I have ever written. I was sitting in my sophomore-year dorm room by myself (because the introvert in me requires that I am alone when I am experimenting and writing music), just messing around with my guitar when I stumbled upon this melody and the lyrics to the last line of the chorus, “Your cigarette kiss kept me warm”. After that, it was one of those songs where the melody, the lyrics, and the guitar all just flowed and somehow I had created a new song in roughly half an hour. As far as the inspiration behind the song goes, I hate to break the news that it isn’t one-hundred-percent based on a true story. It simply stemmed from my long-kept desire to write a song about cigarettes (even though I don’t smoke). And so there I was, in snowy Chicago in the month of November sitting in my dorm room, writing about the emotions of a warm and comforting and lasting love, symbolized by the memory of a cigarette kiss. Somehow it just worked.
Unseen Plays: Is this single along with “that song” part of an entire ep or album? Or are they just singles? Do you have any significant projects coming up?
Chealen: I recently launched a campaign at the start of 2023 where I am planning to release a new single on the first day of each month. “That Song” was my most recent release for the month of March, and “Cigarette Kiss” is April’s track. I am hoping at the end of the year to compile the twelve singles into a larger album that possibly would contain even more songs that I have written. I am still waiting to record many songs that I have written (over twenty at the moment), so nothing is set in stone, but that is my optimistic plan for the future.
Unseen Plays: We see you with an acoustic guitar often! Tell us about that relationship. We know you use the piano often in your songs. Which do you love the most?
Chealen: It’s funny because I feel like my relationship with both piano and guitar has changed over time. Given that the piano was my first love and that I was classically trained on it for fourteen years, I would definitely say that my expertise lies in the piano. On the other hand, given that I only took two years of guitar lessons due to difficulty finding a teacher, I never reached the level of proficiency that I had initially hoped I would achieve on guitar; however, this honestly has sort of been a blessing in disguise. Guitar thus became a tool of experimentation whose sole purpose was to help me write songs. I therefore started improvising with new chord progressions and finger-picking patterns in order to find my singer-songwriter, acoustic-pop style. When I lived at home, I always seemed to turn to our piano before my guitar when I needed a musical or emotional outlet; however, since I have always gravitated to guitar for songwriting in particular, and, especially ever since I moved away from home and have only had access to my guitar throughout college (rather than a piano), I have come to develop a stronger relationship with my guitar than ever before. I guess long story short, the piano will always be my first love; but my guitar is my songwriting partner-in-crime.
Unseen Plays: You mention Ed Sheeran as one of those people that influenced you and that you derived your sound from (along with other artists). What is it about Ed Sheeran that you admire and do you have as well? They say we attract like-minded people into our lives. In this case, music!
Chealen: I guess one of the more personal and obvious reasons behind my love for Ed Sheeran stems from the fact that my performance of his song “The A Team” way back when was what first allowed me to share my love of music and singing with the world. On a broader note, I have always admired the way his music makes me feel something. Every lyric he writes is intentional and isn’t just a filler. I try to do the same in my music, selecting every lyric very intentionally and making sure that every song has a message and isn’t just a pretty sound. I also love that he has stayed true to his original sound and acoustic roots even as his music has changed throughout the years. Furthermore, he has discussed publicly how stage fright and anxiety have affected him and therefore he serves as a sort of role model for me given my struggle with stage fright; and he also serves as proof that even as an introvert it is still possible to find the courage to share my music with the world. Plus, I feel the need to mention that as a fellow red-headed songwriter, I naturally have always had a liking for him.
Unseen Plays: Where do you record your demos? And what studios have you recorded in? Feel free to shout out to your producers or engineers.
Chealen: My parents first booked me studio time as a Christmas present when I was a sophomore in high school at a local recording studio, Globalsound Studio, in my hometown of Broomfield, CO. It was during that four-hour session that I recorded the five songs I released on my first EP album, “Degrees to Remember”. Following my senior year of high school, I reached out to another local studio, RogueWave Studio, for help recording another five-song EP album. The producer Jayson helped me to record the five songs, and also offered to help me pursue my passion on a more professional level, changing my initial plan of simply releasing another EP. With his help, we brought in other local musicians to help build up some of my songs with the ultimate intention of producing more professional-quality demos to release and market in hopes of an eventual record deal. After working with him remotely from college for two years, we parted ways given the difficulty of trying to produce music from different states; however, I am happy to say that it was a great experience working with him and some of the songs we worked on are on the list of releases this year. Having a repertoire of completed songs by December of 2022, I decided that it was now or never and came up with the idea to release one song per month for the year of 2023. I even had an order picked out for when I would release them… however, things always change. A songwriting club (SWAN) was founded at Northwestern University in 2022 and I naturally joined from the very beginning. This year, the club decided to create a mixtape in which the producers in the club were paired with the artists, each pair having to produce a song by the end of the term. Having written “Cigarette Kiss” my sophomore year in college and having yet to record it, I immediately knew I had to get this track recorded. I got paired with an amazing producer, Joy, who invited me over to her apartment one Thursday evening and helped me to record the song, sending me the produced and mixed song a few weeks later. Her work on the production of the song turned out so perfectly and just how I had envisioned it that I adjusted my release plans and set “Cigarette Kiss” to be my next release. I absolutely loved working with Joy and hope to continue to work with her in the future!
Unseen Plays: It’s time for our random question! If you could become an animal and shapeshift. What animal would you be?
Chealen: If I could be an animal, I would be a snowy owl. Throughout my life, owls have always been one of my favorite animals, and I would absolutely love to know what it feels like to fly. Plus, owls are often associated with wisdom, and a little wisdom never hurts anyone.
Unseen Plays: Where can people find you online? Your most active social media platform.
Chealen: My most active social media platform is Instagram, so definitely check it out! https://www.instagram.com/chealen_music/