By Megan Armstrong
As a young girl, Chelsea Cutler wrote on a whiteboard in her childhood bedroom that she would one day play Radio City Music Hall, as if writing it on her wish would come true. The 24-year-old singer put a new emphasis on that goal in March 2020 amid the worst coronavirus pandemic, when nationwide lockdowns forced her to cancel her headlining tour in support of her debut album. How to be human? and return to her parents’ home in Westport, Connecticut. Since dropping out of Amherst College to open for pop artist Quinn XCII in 2018, what has been most rewarding for Cutler has been moving tickets and getting in person with her fans. Every day she closed her eyes and dreamed of being on stage again.
“I’ve found that a big problem with my depression and anxiety is that if I constantly have things to look forward to, it keeps them at bay,” Cutler tells MTV News. “If you put so much value on one thing, you will be disappointed. I definitely realized that there are a lot of other factors that are needed to feel better.”
The artist who was at home for 11 months had nothing but time to fantasize about the person she wanted to be and the things she wanted to do. That also meant thinking about who she’d been, what she’d been through, and what she needed to do to become the best version of herself. The culmination of that journey is Cutler’s second solo studio album When I close my eyes, out tomorrow (October 15). She has always written fragile lyrics, but here, for the very first time, joyful and unashamed romantic songs flow from a completely unguarded place – a newfound sense of self-acceptance.
Cutler released her debut EP, Snow in October, in 2017 while still a student at Amherst, and her career exploded. The pop EDM single “Your Shirt” caught fire and she built momentum through a few 2018 EPs. Once upon a time collaborative indie pop EP Brent featuring Jeremy Zucker with platinum single “You Were Good to Me” arrived in May 2019, followed by How to be human? in January 2020, Cutler was an expert at conveying painful feelings in evocative, sharply recognizable songs. As a result, she had a misguided reputation as a factory of sad songs; sometimes she felt that people only wanted to hear from her at her lowest points.
“You read comments and start asking yourself, ‘Don’t my fans want me to be happy?'” she says. “I know people want sad songs because they want to have something they can identify with and feel heard from, and I totally understand that. But my depression and anxiety are not characteristics of me as a person. It’s things I struggle with, and they’re big parts of my life, but I’m not a categorically sad girl.”
As a child, Cutler’s parents gave her guitar and piano lessons. She sang covers, wrote songs and produced it all so as not to have to rely on anyone else. Today, she takes pride in writing and polishing most of her own discography, and she “would like to see a defining part of my career be paving the way for women in production.” But being alone for months, devoid of human connection, shriveled her creativity. Once it was safe, Cutler shot himself with Zucker in a cabin in upstate New York and made February’s Brent II. She drove the collaborative high to Newport, Rhode Island, where she met Quinn XCII, as well as producers Ayokay and Hazey Eyes, to When I close my eyes.
In Newport she danced and sang with her friends. They drove around town blasting the demos they were working on, screaming from the windows. She had been revived and she couldn’t wait to tease fans with snippets on social media. In doing so, she finally felt comfortable enough to acknowledge the muse behind her happiest songs, making explicit in a video shared on TikTok that the euphoric ode to “Forever” and the up-tempo, acoustic-infused “You Can Have It” were written for her friend of three years. The first, the album’s focus single, features a voicemail her friend left her on a bad day, telling her she loves her and to hold her head up.
“The position I’m in has given me more confidence to be authentic,” Cutler says. “It gives me more courage. I can’t tell you how many people, male or female or non-binary, have talked to me about how they see someone being brave to date in a same-sex relationship and how that inspired them. That just feeds the fire. That kind of visibility is far more important than any insecurities or fears I might have about it.”
It’s a huge step forward from the rollout of How to be human?, detailing the dark emotions she navigated during a month-long breakup with her friend. But at that point, Cutler wasn’t ready to admit that the melodic, sentimental song “Lucky” was about her. She told her team that she wrote the song about her Bernedoodle puppy Cooper. “I was nervous to tell people because this was my first time ever dating a girl. That was scary for me because I didn’t know if it would come as a surprise to people,” she explains. “I was only 21 and I even thought 21 was too late to consider dating a girl. I think the reason I’m so open about it now is that the more people I told, the more I realized that literally no one in my life treated it differently than when I was dating a guy.”
Cutler’s dedication to bringing her many truths to the surface goes beyond her love life and the album’s happy, romantic hymns. The chorus-backed piano and string ballad “Devil on My Shoulder” is her “favorite song I’ve ever made” because writing it helped her “separate my mental health issues from my identity.” Really, for die-hard fans who constantly crave sad music, it’s a breakup song for her depression. “There’s something liberating about it,” she says. “I just spent so much time thinking I was boring or quiet because those were the things I felt when my depression was at its worst. Now I know those aren’t the things that are true about me.”
The power of When I close my eyes is in the way it deftly traverses contrasting emotions, emphasized by the juxtaposition of “Forever” and “Devil on My Shoulder”. On the title track, Cutler swims in the present, thankful for what and who has them, despite this generation being plagued by perpetual online FOMO. “If I Had’t Met You” celebrates when “you find someone in your bed who doesn’t hate the things going on in your head,” and “Under” reiterates the comforting clarity that comes after finding “the any”. The album’s nostalgic, slow-burning closing track “You’re Gonna Miss This” looks back at everything she longed for as she grew up, and uses it as a cautionary tale for the future.
“There’s some serious growth between the last album and this,” Cutler says. “I grew up a lot and my view of a lot of things has changed and become more sophisticated and mature.” Stay with Cutler long enough and you’ll probably hear her talk about the inevitability of impermanence. She’s still hyper-aware that changes happen often, often relentlessly, but this album captures her at a time when she’s feeling more rooted than ever. She has fallen in love. She bought her first house. She’s back on the road, her soul revived, with so much to look forward to. Today, the impermanence that resonates most is within. Her emotions will come and go. No label will ever encapsulate its essence. Each season of her life will look different from the last.
In September, Cutler finally made it to Radio City Music Hall. Her co-headlining two-night Stay Next to Me tour with Quinn XCII sold out, and when it came time for her to hit the stage the first night, she needed fans who knew something. “You’re special,” she yelled between songs. “You deserve to be here. You are loved. It doesn’t matter what you stand for, who you love or how you identify.” When it was time for the encore, the voices of more than 6,000 fans erupted into a booming chant. “Chelsea! Chelsea! Chelsea!” they cried to remind the singer that she will leave a lasting impression on them. It felt, if only for a moment, as if they really wanted her to know that she’s special too.