By Rachel Johns
How does one transform oneself from an unknown poet to a world-renown musician in three short years?
You follow your heart and take a leap of faith.
It was 2005 and Chelsea Lynn La Bate was living in an attic above a restaurant in New York. She was living a simple life: going to school for yoga, writing poetry, drawing, painting and plucking around on the child’s guitar she carried around with her. She intended to be a muralist and had come to New York to see what doors opened for her.
The circumstances which lend themselves to opening these doors of potential can be quite surprising.
During one of her yoga courses, the VHS tape they had been using for practice did not work. There were a group of classmates gathered together to learn yoga, and no instructional video to teach them. Spying the child’s guitar that Chelsea always had with her, they asked her to play a song to entertain the group.
After much applause and cheering, Chelsea was so encouraged that she ended up playing an entire set for her classmates that day.
Similarly, when she was plucking away in her attic home near the restaurant, patrons would comment on her songs, specifically her lyrics, and encouraged her to perform at an open mike show nearby.
Chelsea did not even know what “open mike” was at this point in her life, but she soon found out and began to perform for strangers. She hit the streets and went to every open mike opportunity she found. Chelsea would play a four-five song set in front of an audience that was already there to see other performers and it was a great way for her to get experience. By the time she left New York, it was her performance that the audience was coming to hear. She was filling up venues every Friday and Saturday night.
It was her lyrics, the words that she used which moved them.
“I didn’t study music, I was always singing, but in the shower. It fell out of the sky and I followed it.”
She performed in front of her parents for the first time when she was 24 years old. Her father, a jazz trombonist, was floored. He asked her how had she learned to play music, and how had she learned to write her own songs.
You see, Chelsea never went to school to study music, nor had private lessons on any instruments. She did not even read music, but taught herself by ear how to play and compose.
What Chelsea did have growing up were two very supportive parents. “Whatever I was into, they would support—water colors, pogo stick, wherever they saw my intention and passion of something creative. My parents would encourage, praise and celebrate it,” says Chelsea.
Chelsea’s passion for poetry was one such creative endeavor that started in her youth. “I was nine and I had [written] a poetry book. My mom typed it up and bound it and I was winning poetry events the same year. I was a young poet. I was encouraged. I had inspiring teachers and a family who let me express myself. Creatively, there were no limits and ultimate support,” Chelsea says with a vibrant smile.
Moving to Asheville, NC opened more doors for Chelsea. While playing at The Jack of Hearts in downtown Weaverville, one of the members of the audience heard her perform some of her music on stage with string accompaniment. So moved by the music and her string arrangements, Silas Durocher introduced himself after the show.
Silas had a Masters degree in classical composition and arrangements and was amazed to discover that Chelsea simply sung to the cellist each part of the music to learn; she did not write down any sheet music to read.
Soon the two of them began collaborating and putting to score Chelsea’s music. Silas now arranges Chelsea’s pieces, converting them to orchestral arrangements. “He went in with the first batch of tunes and found where the viola could come in and the violin could talk also. The players appreciate the gorgeous arrangements,” Chelsea states. “Silas is my #1. There is no way we could be where we are today without him.”
By 2008, she was touring Europe—30 nights, 30 days in six countries. “When I came back to New York, I was done with the city; I can make money as a musician. They love me in Paris—they thought I was the new Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, ‘We love your words, we love your lyrics!’ they’d say.”
Chelsea can play with 14 string players or three, but as soon as she has two or three of each instrument, they are able to harmonize with each other and the music becomes richer. “[My] driving force is to bring live orchestra to the everyday person that doesn’t want to go to a classical music venue,” she says.
Chelsea’s music is unlike any other orchestral pieces you’ve heard. Strings are coupled with Chelsea’s poetic voice and now full-sized guitar. It’s sensual and provocative and often relates current events. “The collective comes through you and that’s how we heal—through that recognition. I came to represent this collective voice, to tell my story as an artist and woman and to tap in to a larger level.”
There are songs about bringing awareness for the Earth, love songs, stories of courage through chaos, war and destruction.
What is important to Chelsea as an artist is to stand for beauty, to be a voice for the Earth and for our children, to not give in to how it’s always been. “That’s this new kind of shift—women get empowered in ways I’ve not seen before,” she says and quotes Anais Nin: “The story of one woman is the story of millions.”
Chelsea’s words of advice to women in WNC: “If you have a dream—go for it. Asheville is here to support you. Magic happens here. We need to step it up, secure our stages, secure our place on these stages and work together to have that happen because it’s not going to be done for us and we’re standing on the shoulders of women before us who have really paved the way.”
You can hear Chelsea and Ten Cent Poetry at her next local performance in West Asheville at the Isis Theater on September, 27, 2013. Tickets are $8 in advance and $10 at the door. Visit the Isis Theater website for more information.
Rachael Johns is a content writer with Asheville Creative Content. She enjoys interviewing local individuals, businesses and organization for promotional material. Visit AshevilleCreativeContent.com for more information.