Chelsea Balan: Pop from Behind-the-Scenes

written by Autumn Marie Buysse

Chelsea Balan is a melodically oriented pop songwriter who’s been in Nashville for less than three years, and has already written on songs from AJ Mitchell’s “Spring Break (feat. Rich The Kid)” and Joseph Tilley’s “Something Real,” to Anthony Ortiz’s “Bad Friends” and Kaskade’s “My Distance.” For the fourth installment of OMG! I’m A Songwriter’s pure writer series, I got the chance to sit down with Chelsea for an incredibly cheesy lunch at ‘za in Hillsboro Village.

While Chelsea often sings harmonies for the artists she writes with, she’s never been one for performing in front of a lot of people. She’s always gravitated towards behind the scenes roles like script writing, photography, and fashion styling. She grew up with a lot of diverse genres blasting in the house, and over time saw herself paying more attention to the songwriters than the singers. “I don’t have any interest in being an artist. I want to write in country and pop and urban and do all of it, and I feel like being an artist is a little limiting.” If you scroll through her playlists, you’ll find a wide assortment of songs, featuring some of her favorites like Lady Gaga,John Mayer, Drake, Pinegrove, Marc E. Bassy, Kings of Leon, and Tucker Beathard to name a few. Her diverse taste has made her appreciate genre blending and songs that call back to a previous decade. She’s drawn to songs that can take a listener to another time without being corny, like Annika Rose’s “In the End.”

Chelsea’s a Brooklyn native who went to college at Le Moyne, a small Jesuit school in Syracuse. She’d always been writing songs, but it wasn’t until college that she learned how to play an instrument and started co-writing. The first time she ever co-wrote was at an NYU writing workshop. At first she was hesitant about sharing ideas and credit, but she soon realized that all of her favorite songs were co-written, so she agreed to give it a try and approach songwriting as a collaborative process. Once she started co-writing, she never stopped.

Since Chelsea was a communications major, she wasn’t taking any music courses in college, so she took her music education into her own hands and started a music industry club at Le Moyne. This club allowed her the opportunity to visit Syracuse University and interact with their established music industry program. Le Moyne also agreed to pay for her to record an album, so during her senior year, she travelled to Nashville for a week to record it. She was amazed by how nice everyone was— I’m sure the southern charm’s a shock for New Yorkers.

After graduation, Chelsea travelled to Sweden for two weeks, since that’s where all her favorite pop creators are from, like Max Martin and Erik Hassle. She enjoyed her time there, but found that the scene was very closed off. Since she wasn’t signed and didn’t have pre-existing connections, she wasn’t able to take part in any co-writes. However, she did befriend Finnish-Swedish pop artist Wilhemina, who ended up making a trip out to Nashville last year to write with Chelsea and her collaborators for a week.

Once Chelsea got back from Sweden, she made the move to Nashville and started working at Lyft’s Nashville branch in August 2017, so that she could start pursuing songwriting as a career. When she first got here, she was writing a lot of pop and country, and brought her guitar everywhere. Over time, she’s transitioned to mainly writing in rooms with track guys and on-the-rise pop artists, because she loves giving production notes and being able to have a demo of a song as soon as it’s written. To Chelsea, there’s nothing better than getting a demo back and realizing it’s everything you wanted it to be.

Chelsea will be the first person to tell you she’s shy, but this doesn’t stop her from branching out and grabbing coffee with creatives she’s never met, and emailing artists she wants to work with. She’s found it challenging doing the outreach on her own, because sometimes writers aren’t taken seriously when they don’t have a publisher to reach out on their behalf. While the music industry’s centered on relationships, she’s found that some artists have no desire to expand their circles, something she says you can’t take personally as a pure writer. It can be frustrating trying to get into rooms and navigating the process of everything that happens prior to a song “popping off.” She’s stopped comparing herself to other songwriters or focusing too much on others careers that are moving really quickly. Instead, she’s focusing on getting into bigger and bigger rooms, so that one day soon, she’ll be writing on Top 40 bangers regularly.

When Chelsea’s visited LA to write, she noticed the sessions last longer and are “more go with the flow,” which isn’t really her style, since she prefers to finish a song in one sitting. However, she’s been debating moving to LA, because Nashville’s current infrastructure isn’t set up for solely pop writers. Since there’s not many pop-focused publishing companies in Nashville, not a lot of pop artists and writers are getting signed here, and if she did get signed here, she might be required to move out to LA anyway. That’s why she’s been thinking it might be better for her to live in LA and do trips to Nashville, instead of the other way around. “If we had as many pop writers as country writers, Nashville would be thespot. LA doesn’t have that, LA doesn’t have that country volume.”

When it comes to working with artists, if an artist relates to the song they’re writing, they’re going to want to put it out, which is why Chelsea lets the artist take control of the concept in a write. “If I’m working with an artist, I really try to let them guide what they want to say, I never want to speak for them . . . if you’re an artist, you need some idea of what you want to communicate. I can’t think for you, I can’t tell you what you’re feeling. I can try to get it out of you by talking with you, but I feel like the whole point of being an artist is having something you want to say to the world, whether that’s something super small or something super deep or whatever. It doesn’t have to be super deep— it could just be like ‘I want to get fucked up with my friends.’ If that’s what you want to say, okay, let’s make that song.” Whatever the artist’s message is, whenever an artist has something interesting to say and a fresh way to say it, Chelsea gravitates towards them. Chelsea writes with some artists who are introverted like herself, and others that are larger than life. Since great artists run the gamut, she likes to figure out what an artist’s “thing” is that makes them different, whether it’s their ideas, musical choices, melodies, how they decide to phrase their lines, or something else.

Chelsea’s been focusing on quality over quantity, which is why she’s been trying to limit herself to two to four writes a week. She prefers to start and finish a song in the same write, but she also doesn’t want to finish a song just for the sake of finishing it. There’s been times when her write’s almost over, and she asks the writing team if they’re still invested in the song, or if they’d like to grab another date and start a new song then. While she’s shy with certain things, when it comes to co-writes, she has no qualms about saying what she feels. For Chelsea, the ideal artist is there to work, but isn’t putting pressure on the room to finish the song. By focusing on quality, she’s had more and more cuts lately that she’d want to listen to even if she didn’t write on them.

To Chelsea, the most important element of a song is the melody. This doesn’t mean songs should compromise on the lyric though, because if a song has weird or cringey words set to a great melody, she won’t listen again. A great song has to say something lyrically, feature few (if any) cliches, and have a super catchy interesting melody that’s simple enough for a regular person to follow. The idea shouldn’t be corny or overused, but if it is, it should be conveyed in a new way. In a great song, every section feels like it’s supposed to be there, and nothing feels forced.

If you want to know the latest on what’s happening in music and pop culture at any given moment, Chelsea is the one to talk to. She’s not one to hop on the bandwagon, but she always wants to be aware of what’s hot right now, so she can try to figure out the next big sound. “I feel like industry people don’t want to take a chance on people that they don’t know will be a surefire thing. I think they need to take more risks. We’re being asked to take risks and make this cool new thing, so they shouldn’t totally rely on numbers to see what’s next.”

Chelsea’s always thinking of ways to get her songs into the world, which is why she’s always actively pitching outside cuts. Since she’s always looking at the possibilities of where a song could go, she’d love to start her own publishing or management company one day. For the time being, Chelsea’s not looking for a publishing deal for herself— instead, she’s trying to get on a big song so that once it’s released, she’ll be able to negotiate a better deal.

Click “show credits” on your next favorite song, because you might just see Chelsea’s name. To stay up to date with this ambitious, innovative songwriter who’s taking the pop scene by storm, you can follow Chelsea Balan on Instagram at @cheltherollinstone.