This year Chelsea Cutler released two mixtapes, completed her first headlining tour and even had her face on the Spotify billboard in Times Square. But for the 21-year-old songwriter-producer, the most surprising moment in her career came when she didn’t return to college in the fall.
“It didn’t really hit me honestly until this September, when all of my friends went back,” she explains, “and I left for Nashville for tour. I was like, ‘I’m really not going back to school. This is crazy.'”
Hailing from Westport, Conn., Cutler has been creating and sharing music ever since her junior year of high school. After uploading her songs on SoundCloud, her blend of indie-pop and electronic music garnered a loyal following. Tracks like “Your Shirt” led to collaborations with artists like Louis The Child on “Slow Down Love” and ayokay on “The Shine” — all while Cutler was playing soccer as a student-athlete at Amherst College. When Quinn XCII offered her a support slot on his spring tour, she made the “really scary” decision to drop out and pursue music full-time.?
Her worries appear to be unfounded: She released her mixtape Sleeping With Roses in June and sold out her first headlining tour earlier this fall. Now with her just-released Sleeping With Roses II project under her belt, she’s gearing up for the second (and biggest) headlining tour of her career. Below, Cutler tells Billboard about her breakout year, her fears about dropping out and her vision for her live shows.
You’ve said that you had more to say after Sleeping With Roses and couldn’t move on with that part of your life until you got it out. What did you feel like you still needed to express, and how do you think Sleeping With Roses II accomplishes it?
Chelsea Cutler: When I sat down to keep writing, because I knew I wanted to put out another project shortly after, everything that I was writing about was the same — I just wasn’t in a new place yet. I felt like I was still very much in a period of growth and transition. I just couldn’t leave the era, musically, behind me until I grew out of it. What’s important for me is that it shows a lot of growth, and it shows listeners that it takes time to come out of dark periods sometimes. Writing Sleeping With Roses II is my way of working out of that dark place that I was in and trying to emerge on the other side with some light.
Are there any specific tracks that are most meaningful to you?
Cutler: I think “AF1” is a really special record for me. It’s so nostalgic and emblematic of youth — and of shedding that youth and reflecting back on it. I think leaving college, especially leaving college early, is difficult and forces you to grow up.
Since Sleeping With Roses II does mark a huge transformative moment in your life, what did it feel like to finally finish it and release it?
Cutler: I’ve been sitting on it for a couple of months now, and it feels like a huge weight off of my chest to finally put it out. Hopefully it helps people and does all of the things that I love about music. I feel like I can just start writing and moving forward and working on a debut album.
You write all of her own music, but you also produce too. Why is it important to see your music through from start to finish?
Cutler: I have a really specific vision for what I want to say and what I want my music to sound like. I actually ended up working with my friend Andy Seltzer on the project, and he helped co-produce everything. We really clicked the first time we got in a session together. A lot of female artists get in rooms with male writers and male producers who have an idea of what they want her to sound like, and it isn’t always necessarily what that female artist wants for herself. If I’m in a room, hopefully I can help produce and write for other women and be a supportive person for them. I think it’s also really important because it creates visibility and shows other female artists that this is a possibility for them, that they can do it if they want to.
At what point did you start to think you could turn your music into a career?
Cutler: If I’m being entirely honest, it’s not even until I went on tour supporting Quinn XCII. I heard people singing my words back to me. Even as a supporting act, people still came to see the shows and still knew the words. I was like, “Oh wow. This is real and tangible.” I feel like it’s so surreal. Incrementally, I just keep believing more and more that this is real life.
Your songs offer a lot of insight and perspective on the inner workings of relationships. What drives your songwriting?
Cutler: It’s really just driven by my relationship with myself and how I view myself. Even if it’s framed romantically, it’s still more introspective than anything else. I love referencing real things and real moments that have happened to me.
What was it like making the decision to drop out and pursue music?
Cutler: It was really scary. I’m really fortunate that I have really supportive parents who told me they believed in me and that they’d support me in whatever choice I made. I think what really pushed me over the edge was when I got the offer to support Quinn XCII on his spring tour. It didn’t really hit me honestly until this September, when all of my friends went back for preseason for our team, and I left for Nashville for tour. I was like, “I’m really not going back to school. This is crazy.”
Has your history as an athlete influenced who you are as a performer?
Cutler: With college athletics, you have to be really selfless because everyone is really talented, and you’re not guaranteed any playing time. You get the playing time that you work for and deserve. We learned to put the team first. There were shows where I was just really down and did not want to perform at all. You just have to do it because it’s a selfless thing, and it’s for the ticket holders who went out and bought tickets for you. It’s really important to recognize that as an artist, you’re providing a service. Being an athlete taught me a lot of discipline and about putting others first.
What has the response been like from your fans?
Cutler: It’s lot of pressure, I’m not going to lie, to increasingly have more eyes on you, but it’s helped me grow up really fast. I find great responsibility in it.
What are some of your favorite moments from your first headlining tour?
Cutler: In L.A., we played the Roxy, and that was five shows in. My drummer Gavin literally quit his job four days before we left for tour. It takes a while for chemistry to happen, and L.A. was the first night we just clicked. The energy onstage was just different than anything I had ever experienced –the energy in the room as well. I remember posting on my Instagram saying I would spend the rest of my life chasing that feeling, and I swear I will. It the most remarkable night.
Do you have a different mentality going into your second tour?
Cutler: I’m just hungry. I love being on the road. You get to reinterpret the music and create live arrangements. Words just don’t explain what it feels like to exchange that energy with fans every night.
Have there difficult parts of your career that you didn’t expect?
Cutler: There’s a lot of pressure to create an image. It’s part of art, and I enjoy it. I just recognize that with that comes a lot of confusion over what’s my “image” versus who am I as a person? That was a lot of what I think I was writing about on Sleeping With Roses II. It’s really important to recognize that who you are isn’t what you’re posting. I just try to stay grounded and stay me.
How do you think you’ve grown as a performer in the past year?
Cutler: If you watch footage of me opening for Quinn the first few shows, I would take these little baby steps onstage. I was just way too scared. Jesse, my manager, said, “You gotta walk onstage and be a person.” I love engaging with people now. I’ve learned how to capture the attention of people in the room.
What was your favorite moment of 2018?
Cutler: My parents and I went to go see the billboard in Times Square, when Spotify put me up there. Moments like that remind me of how fortunate I am to have a family that is so supportive of this. I wouldn’t have my face on a billboard in Times Square if it weren’t for my parents sitting me down and saying, “We believe in you.” I could say the same for the L.A. show. My dad hadn’t really seen me perform that many times, and after the show he didn’t even talk. He just hugged me and started crying his eyes out. It was the first time I’d seen him so proud of what I was doing.
As you continue growing your music career, what’s something you hope you remember?
Cutler: I hope to always keep my circle close and keep the people around me the same that they are now. You’re a product of your environment, and as long as I keep those people around me, I’ll stay the person that I’m proud to be right now.
Jan. 26 – Stockholm, Sweden – Nalen
Jan. 27 – Copenhagen, Denmark – Pumpehuset
Jan. 29 – Berlin, Germany – Maschinenhaus
Jan. 30 – Cologne, Germany – YUCA
Feb. 1 – Amsterdam, Netherlands – Melkweg
Feb. 3 – Brussels, Belgium – Witloof Bar
Feb. 4 – Paris, France – Le Pop-Up Du Label
Feb. 6 – London, UK – The Camden Assembly
Feb. 14 – Nashville, TN – Exit In
Feb. 16 – Chicago, IL – Metro
Feb. 19 – Minneapolis, MN – Fine Line Music Cafe
Feb. 20 – Madison, WI – Majestic Theater
Feb. 22 – Toronto, ON – Velvet Underground
Feb. 23 – Detroit, MI – The Shelter
Feb. 24 – Columbus, OH – TRISM
Feb. 27 – Philadelphia, PA – TLA
Feb. 28 – New York, NY – Irving Plaza
Mar. 2 – Boston, MA – Paradise
Mar. 5 – Boston, MA – Paradise
Mar. 6 – Washington, DC – 9:30 Club
Mar. 8 – Carrboro, NC – Cat’s Cradle
Mar. 10 – Orlando, FL – The Social
Mar. 12 – Atlanta, GA – The Loft
Mar. 14 – Omaha, NE – The Waiting Room
Mar. 15 – Denver, CO – Bluebird Theater
Mar. 16 – Boulder, CO – Fox Theater
Mar. 18 – Salt Lake City, UT – The Complex
Mar. 20 – Portland, OR – Wonder Ballroom
Mar. 22 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
Mar. 26 – Los Angeles, CA – The Fonda Theater
Mar. 27 – San Diego, CA – The House of Blues
Mar. 28 – Phoenix, AZ – The Crescent Ballroom
Mar. 30 – Austin, TX – Emo’s
Apr. 2 – Dallas, TX – Trees