CHESS: POP, SOUL AND PASSION
It almost seems like a long time, but it's really only five years ago that I first interviewed Chess for this very same newspaper, just months after she had just moved to the UK, where she'd gone to pursue her studies and a career in music. Five years on, she's still UK-based and, with several recorded tracks, an acclaimed covers album and 2 EPs under her belt, she's about to launch her debut album proper, 1869. The album, an effective balance of pop and soul reflecting an acquired maturity in Chess's songwriting, will be launched on Monday, June 6 at Razzett L-Aħmar in Mosta. The talented young lady gives up some of her time to talk ahead of the big day.
So, 1869 is finally out! It's been quite a journey getting here... how are you feeling now that another significant milestone in your career has been achieved?
I feel good. It's so satisfying to finally finish something so huge, that I've been wanting to do for a few years now. I came to realize it wasn't just the financial aspect that was holding me back, but my ability. I knew I had to be better in order to make an album, so I spent every day honing my craft last year until I finally felt ready. I hope it's received well by the public, but all in all, I am happy with the result, as I created exactly what I wanted to.
You've released a couple of EP's and collaborated on several songs along the way, often experimenting with different sounds. How much has your past work and what you learnt along the way impacted on the music on 1869?
I have a love for all kinds of music and wanted to explore different corners in order to learn from each style and genre. I'd take the best songs, the best artists in those areas and study them, making notes to develop my own individual sound. I always wanted to do pop because, ultimately it's what instigated my dream; I just knew it had to be definitive and I was looking for ways to do this. I still am - I'm sure my next record will have another element to it.
What did you learn during the making of this album?
It was a massive learning curve. I had this huge vision in my head that I needed to spell out. I was very fortunate to have the time and space to lay down these songs in the Caribbean, on my own. Being an artist has its frustrations of course, so there were times the journey was hard - but I always remember that I chose this career path and I knew it was going to be unstable, so I cannot whine if it was my choice - I am proud of my choice.
Who else was on board for this project?
I worked with Bristol producer Jake Bright, who also produced my 2015 single Paradise. I liked his work ethic and asked him to create this album with me. I would write the demos in my room in the Dominican Republic, and send them off to him. We'd work back and forth like this until I was ready to go down to the studio in the city and lay vocals down. It is really euphoric when you hear the final track and it has been emulated exactly as you envisioned.
There's an evident soul vein throughout the album... what was your primary inspiration, lyrically and musically, given you wrote all the songs?
I sincerely believe pop doesn't have to be 'empty' music. I love the sound of soul, old Motown and funk. I wanted to let that come through. In the intro, I mention all the artists who left a mark on me and inspired me to make this record. Some songs, like Perfect and Because We Can bring forward current affairs such as oppression, terrorism and war. I think it's so important to address such issues through music, as Lennon, Dylan and even Michael Jackson have done. Other songs are about emotional issues I've experienced that have changed me for the better as a person. I literally wanted to record this time in my life, in people's lives.
OK, I just have to ask... why 1869 and what's the story there?
This is something I'd like you all to figure out! I can tell you though, it's definitely not about the year 1869. That's the only hint I can give!
How much has your UK experience helped you in getting this far on your own steam, especially given that the music scene there is rather tough to break into?
I think living in the UK has definitely helped advance my career in music. In London there are the HQ's of the world's biggest record labels, management teams; one can perform at countless venues, meet talented and respected people, go to meetings and events, attend inspiring concerts of your idols...the possibilities are endless. It really isn't for the faint-hearted though, as you'll probably be broke most of the time. You'll also be taking a lot of criticism, but if you're ready to work hard and build your career it will be worth it. I believe I still have a very long way to go, but each thing I've done in recent years has got me a step further. My 2015 covers album brought in more paid gigs, which as a musician in London is very good, so I thank everyone who was a part of that project. This album will be another step into the kaleidoscope world of music. It's good to feel the pressure here. If you don't feel the pressure to be better and to do more then it isn't the place or the industry for you.
Your songs have been picked up by UK radio, which will hopefully lead to bigger opportunities and more attention from the industry...
Yes, Perfect was recently played on BBC Radio, which is very exciting, and some independent stations are also playing tracks from my album. Furthermore, in the promotion plan of 1869 is a radio tour, a schools/college tour, live performances around the UK and a few competitions. I've been in touch with a few prominent people in the industry. Ricky Martin's former manager gave me some advice during the last stages of the album and I am in talks with a couple of managers regarding the next step forward. Signing with a label or management is definitely where I'm heading right now. There will also be a remix competition later in the year where the winner gets their remix signed to a label - so producers and DJs... keep an ear out!
1869 is available as a digital download from all major music portals or on CD from Bandcamp and the launch party.
An edited version of this interview was first published on The Sunday Times of Malta's ESCAPE magazine (29 May 2016)