Image by Catie Laffoon
When you’re from Willard, Missouri, there’s not much chance that a famous music producer is just going to appear suddenly at one of your gigs – no matter you much you believe in what you’re doing. But Chappell Roan is that rarest of Cinderella stories, the small town high school choir girl who happened to post a performance to YouTube that ultimately changed her life.
It didn’t hurt her chances that she has a voice which seems to come from some supernatural or celestial place. And her new EP School Nights, which BlackBook premieres here, is as stunning a debut as we’ve heard in all of 2017. Musically sophisticated yet strikingly vulnerable, tracks like “Meantime” and “Die Young” have an almost hymn-like quality, the latter marked by its soaring strings and stark confessions of emotional uncertainty: “I keep my doubts in the back of my mind.” And “Sugar High” – a haunted, noir-like lament that has an almost David Lynchian essence – proves the range of her songwriting perspicacity.
But it’s perhaps the soulful lead single “Good Hurt” which is most affecting, with its mournful, visceral piano and tormented declarations of, “I should know better.” Indeed, it leaves little doubt of her future greatness. (Though we’ll hold the “next Lorde” proclamations for now.)
“These very personal songs have been tucked away for so long,” she confides. “They’re like my little babies.”
You’re just 19 and from a small town in Missouri. How exactly were you “discovered?”
It was pretty much a long shot. I performed locally at coffee shops and tiny venues and posted my performances on YouTube. Another artist, Troye Sivan, saw one of my videos and tweeted about it…and that got me some buzz and attention from a few record labels. Now here I am, still awestruck that this is even happening.
You have a singularly unique singing style. Who are some of your vocal influences?
I love Stevie Nicks and Karen Carpenter, those are my main influences. I used to try to mimic their voices exactly when I was younger. Stylistically, Lana Del Rey and Lorde inspire so much of my writing and how I move my voice.
There’s certainly a dark thread running through your music. Are the songs a way of working those things out for you?
I write exactly what I feel. When I was writing this EP, I was in a very dark place at the time, and it definitely helped to write and release what I was feeling. Sometimes it’s hard to listen to the songs and realize how sad or crazy or alone I used to feel. I am in such a happier place now.
There’s also a bit of a cinematic quality to your songs. Are you influenced by film?
I just recently got into film. I really love film scores and how they’re such an important part of telling a story. I try to write my songs in a way you can visualize the story in your head – I incorporate specific details so you can really see and feel the same things that I do.
Is the School Nights EP a collective reflection of you leading up to this moment? Or is it pointing the way forward?
I feel like The School Nights is a reflection of so many different sides of me. Some parts of it are things that I still have to work on, but others I have let go of and have grown out of. It has taken me a long time to write all of these songs, so I was at various stages in my life. I just hope that it can make someone feel like they’re not crazy for feeling the way they do, and that it’s okay to feel sad or happy, or both at the same time.
How do you feel about it now that it is finished and ready to be released?
To be honest, I’m nervous…but so excited at the same time. I feel pretty vulnerable with [these songs] being released; but I’m so proud, and I know this is just the beginning of what I have been working so hard for. This all feels like such a dream.
(N.B. She launches an extensive North American tour with Foy Vance in Vancouver on September 27.)