Throughout our Testing Times edition, we’ve been exploring questions of identity – of what exactly, when it comes down to it, being ‘Australian’ means. Within the music world, we couldn’t think of anyone better to ask than Chela, aka Melbourne via Los Angeles via Perth-based singer, songwriter, filmmaker and dancer Chelsea Wheatley. On a balmy Sydney afternoon, we sat down with Chela at a run-down pub to dive deep into how her Filipino heritage informs her music, the state of pop in Australia vs the States, and her experience of the industry at large as a woman of colour.
“You know when you go to your Instagram account, and you choose if you’re a musician/band or an artist?” Chela asks across the table, soda in hand. “I chose artist, because I believe I’m not just a musician – I do so many different things. I’m a jack of all trades and a master of none, I feel,” she laughs.
Humility aside, Chela is extremely good at everything she does. An irrepressible pop polymath, she is just as preoccupied with the look as she is the sound – not to mention the moves. One of her very first singles ‘Full Moon’ dropped in 2012, with a DIY music video released alongside it that’s sure to put a smile on your face. Since then, self-directed visuals featuring her now-iconic dance moves have become a given. In her 2014 music video for ‘Handful of Gold’, premiered by Noisey, Chela dons a ‘City of Baguio’ cap and lays down lively, loose-limbed choreo through a technicoloured fever dream. In the clip for ‘Romanticise’ – which sits at over 1.2 million views on Youtube, and feels like it could be what inspired Donté Colley’s viral Instagram videos – she wears a similarly styled cap with ‘PHILIPPINES’ emblazoned across its front panel. “I’ve always been super proud to be Asian,” she says. “And luckily, apart from being called “ching chong Chinaman” in high school, around Year 8 or 9, I’ve had really good friendships in my life, and those friends have made me feel really proud to be who I am. Of course, my family have also made me feel proud to be who I am. I’ve had a really healthy relationship with my heritage.”
Sure enough while speaking with Chela about identity, a refreshing secureness becomes apparent. Refreshing because of how aberrant it is; I’ve had conversations with Asian-Australians from all around the country, and something most of us seem to have in common is – heartbreakingly – a period of white-washing and sometimes self-hatred, particularly during adolescence.
But it seems for Chela, pride has never been an issue. A strong base of family and friends growing up in Western Australia combined with a deep respect and adoration for her mother became something of a suit of armour, shielding her from some of the inner turmoil associated with growing up Asian in this country. “Sometimes I feel more Asian than I am Australian, and then, sometimes the other way around. And that can be confusing for me, because depending on the situation or the surrounding I’ll feel more one than the other. But no, I’ve always been proud.”
Fittingly, her musical origin story also differs from the usual tale. “When [my sister] was around three years old, she started singing, and she’s a Leo, so, big attention seeker,” Chela laughs. “So she was performing for people left right and centre, and Dad saw something special… so he kind of dedicated all his time to being a stage dad, putting us through private training and everything. But I was much less the focus – she was going to be The Thing, and he taught me how to produce music and I was just more nerdy… So growing up, I loved music and I think that I actually had more of a natural relationship with music than my sister did, ‘cause she was really forced into it.”
“I sometimes wonder: am I truly creative, or was it a product of being pushed as a kid? And the answer is, I think that I’m innately creative – and this is what I was meant to do – because my mum is.”
There wasn’t a lightbulb moment in which Chela decided music was going to become a career for her – rather, it was almost inevitable. “We were kind of raised to look at music in a professional light. From the age of 12, when I learnt to use Logic, I really wanted to be a producer. And I really enjoyed performing – and dancing, dancing was one of my strong suits. I guess it’s one of those things where people say, “that’s all I know,” and it’s true. Since I can remember, music was presented to me in a way that it was like, this is my career. Whether it be in front of the camera or behind the camera, in front of the mic or behind the mic.”
Despite her marked self-assuredness, there are certainly moments Chela second guesses herself. “I sometimes wonder: am I truly creative or was it a product of being pushed as a kid? And the answer is, I think that I’m innately creative – and this is what I was meant to do – because my mum is. She’s a nurse, and I know that she always wished that she…” Chela pauses in thought. “She’s an incredible cook, and she’s really talented at making clothing – she’s just so creative. People will go to her house, and be like ‘wow, your mum’s amazing’ – she’s got all the indoor plants, and the way that she makes a home is so, so special. I know that I got that from her. I know that I got that urge to create from her.”
Chela’s Filipino roots have also had a strong impact on her creativity. “Filipinos are innately musical. When I went to the Philippines when I was 19, to visit my family, there was music everywhere. Most Filipinos that I meet either sing or dance or act or do something performative – it’s in a way where it’s because they enjoy it and it runs through their veins… I’ve definitely embraced what I think is a natural Filipino sense of creativity and musicality that I think is inherent in me, and not tried to shy away from it… And there have been Filipino artists, like the Black Eyed Peas – there’s one Filipino guy who wrote that song ‘Bebot’ which basically means ‘babe.’ I was obsessed with that song, ‘cause it was a big pop song that was Filipino. Stuff like that I find really inspiring.”
“If I was white, would my music have reached more people in Australia?”
“Powerful women doing their thing” have been another constant source of inspiration throughout Chela’s time in the industry – Lauryn Hill, Missy Higgins and Ladyhawke were all early influences. “I think because I’m a person of colour as well, I find it really inspiring when someone who is ethnic, and also female, and maybe even also queer makes something in the world. Because I must admit, being in Australia there aren’t many people like that. It’s still a problem. And I wanna believe that that’s gonna change soon, that someone like myself is going to be boosted up by the Australian music industry. Because it hasn’t happened yet.”
We’re seeing it happen slowly but a little more surely in the States – Chela brings up Hayley Kiyoko, “who is part Japanese, and queer, and just totally nailing it” – but on the whole, despite some progress in terms of diversity in music, there’s still a severe lack of women, let alone queer women of colour breaking through. It’s no secret that Australia has an aversion to celebrating non-male, non-white achievers across all fields, and music is no exception. Year after year, triple j’s Hottest 100 confirms this – the nation’s biggest music poll is yet to have been topped by a solo female artist, and in 2017, Kendrick Lamar became its first and only winner of colour to date. The ARIA Awards and APRA Music Awards have a similarly dismal track record, as do most major Australian music festivals; while nominee lists and lineups are gradually becoming more representative, it’s difficult to shake the sense that this shift is more to avoid growing backlash than anything else, when the winners and headliners are as persistently white and male as before. Plus, as white female artists begin to receive some of the stardom once reserved for their male counterparts (think the likes of Amy Shark, Tash Sultana and of course, 2019 ARIA and triple j favourite Tones and I), it’s easy for the predominantly white and male industry decision-makers to pat themselves on the back, forgetting about women and non-binary people of colour, who have at least double the odds against them than white women and men of colour do.
With all of this in mind, it makes sense that Chela often finds herself thinking “if I was white, would my music have reached more people in Australia? I honestly believe that. At this point, I’ve been doing this so long and… there’s no one to look up to. There are so many people in my lane, who are people of colour, who are all my friends – there’s Ecca Vandal, there’s Kira Puru, there’s Mojo Juju – like, we all talk about it. We sit together and talk about how fucked it is that we’re… at this level below all of these white female artists. It’s really tough! You think in this day and age that things would be different. But we’re fighting for that change and I believe it’s going to come, with any one of us, and we will all boost each other up because it’s… it would be such a victory for any one of us to actually get to that position, you know?”
The realisation that perhaps your ethnicity is holding you back, despite how common an experience it is across creative industries and beyond, is always jarring. “It’s so odd to me to think like… could it really be because of my race that I’m not further along, or that I haven’t had certain opportunities?” Chela frowns. “It’s so bizarre to me that I haven’t even really thought about it that much, ‘cause I think that doesn’t feel fair or make sense in my mind. So I haven’t really, until now, stepped on the outside and thought, ‘Is my race, my heritage, really holding me back from something?’ It’s such a disgusting thought to have. So yeah, I’ll continue to band together with my PoC womens, and try and make a change.”
“Australia’s a very special place to come home to, and you realise how lucky you are when you’re here. But creatively, you feel suffocated.”
Over the past few years, Chela’s solo project has had her splitting her time between Australia and Los Angeles – a road many local artists, across disciplines, have been known to tread. “There’s not enough infrastructure to support the amount of talent that’s here,” Chela explains. “There’s a lot of politics involved, still, within the music industry and the fact that radio and Spotify dictate the careers of so many people here… How those people are chosen and filtered through into the one percent of musicians that got into that funnel is beyond me; I can’t help but sometimes feel like identity, or race and things like that, have a grasp on those decisions.”
The complexities of identity politics add yet another barrier to an industry already notorious for aggressive gatekeeping. “Having a team, being with a major label you’ve got a much better chance of getting on Spotify or getting on radio. So – and this stands for any country – there’s a level of it being unfair and having to play the game and just being lucky or whatever, in any area of music.”
Yet Chela’s experienced a different level of success in the States, as have many other Australian artists who have relocated. “There are less limits, there are less boundaries. And there’s more people, like it comes down to population on such a core level. There’s more opportunities – it’s just true. And it’s sad because Australia’s a very special place to come home to, and you realise how lucky you are when you’re here. But creatively, you feel suffocated – it feels really claustrophobic, because you know that there’s only so much that you can do. And then you go over there and like, everything opens up for you. So… it’s a shame, but you know things are changing and we’re multiplying, which is really not good for the planet but it will be good for music.”
“I think it’s sad that we’ve become scared to ask people where they’re from… because it’s one of my favourite questions.”
There’s also something to be said about the different way race is grappled with in the States compared to here in Australia. Broadly speaking, Americans are miles better at talking about race than we are, something that is likely to do with this country’s relative youth. To be fair, race has been at the forefront of their politics for many years, in a way it never has been in Australia. It’s far from perfect over there, but there seems to be less of an ingrained culture of assimilation and erasure, perhaps because race is more visible and discussed. “American-Asians are more proud to be Asian, I would say that,” Chela says. “I think that because it’s simply a more diverse country, people have been able to embrace their ethnicity more. Whereas in Australia I’ve noticed that Asians really embrace being Australian and Westernising themselves and talking with more of a bogan accent or… it feels like they’re kind of trying to embrace being white more. Whereas overseas, people are so proud of their heritage and…” Chela trails off. “Yeah, it’s funny that you ask that ‘cos I’ve never thought about it until now, but there’s definitely a difference.”
Working in a country far from home combined with being mixed-race and thus deemed ethnically ambiguous by some, Chela is well acquainted with that now-notorious question – where are you from? “I don’t look very Asian, and so people question… they often ask me if I’m European,” Chela cuts herself off, changing tack. “I think it’s sad… that we’ve become scared to ask people where they’re from. And there’s been a stigma put upon that, because it’s one of my favourite questions. I love asking people where they’re from – and it’s coming from a very sincere place, you know, because I’m from somewhere else too.”
As someone who grew up wanting to distance myself from my Pakistani heritage as much as humanly possible, the question ‘where are you from’ evokes a sort of knee-jerk reaction for me. I suggest to Chela that it hits differently, when coming from a white person. “It’s different brown-to-brown,” she agrees. “But, you know, because I’m half white, I’ve seen some of the white members of my family also be interested, because they’re related to Asians. The intention is always difficult to grasp, and of course people have had bad experiences. People used to ask my mum, when she was nursing – people at the hospital would treat her like she was inferior to them and ask her where she was from in a judgemental way – I get that, totally. But I think that I believe more in continuing to ask the question, but changing the intention and making that more the norm, rather than shying away from asking the question at all. I think that that kind of backfires.”
I’ve found myself repeatedly coming back to this part of our conversation while writing this piece, because the truth is, I arc up every time I am asked where I’m from – even if it is coming from another person of colour. Why, exactly, does it bother me so much? As a kid, being asked the question felt like an instant cover-blow; a direct, aggressive reminder that no matter what, I would always be seen as different. Surely now that I’m more comfortable in my identity, I no longer have to see it as an attack? For the first time, I am conscious of and ready to challenge this pattern. Of course, as Chela pointed out, intent is key. But more often than not, perhaps we can see the question as an opportunity to connect, to tell our stories and to hear from others about theirs.
“Home is a feeling, and I think home is people.”
Distance from home brings a new perspective to things one may take for granted, and living in the U.S. has changed the way Chela sees Australia in myriad ways. “We are ignorant assholes,” she laughs, shaking her head. “We really don’t realise how lucky we have it. Like, I’m so glad that I’ve spent so much time over there because I value Australia so much. In LA, there’s almost a homeless person on every corner, and they’ll be laying out the front of a million dollar apartment building. The disparity is so in your face. And I think if you spend enough time there it becomes the norm. But when you’re travelling between the two, you’re reminded that that’s not normal.”
This newfound viewpoint can be a little bit of a catch-22. “I feel just so grateful to be Australian after living over there, but then you know, I’m also desperate to be over there because it feels better as a musician to be there. So then I feel really lucky that I have a visa to live there. All in all I think living in two places and seeing the vast differences between the two just makes you value them. ‘Cos I’m constantly missing the other when I’m in one, for different reasons. So it’s definitely changed my view on a lot of things.”
When I ask what the term ‘Australian’ means to Chela, she pulls a face.
“‘Australian’… that word is like, a bit gross, I think?”
I can’t help but agree, and admit I found the question difficult to ask. “I think being Australian is a brand,” Chela decides. “And I only go along with it because I can’t be bothered, almost. But… to me, naturally it gives me a bit of a strange feeling, because I don’t feel like I am from here, and I don’t feel like any of us are from here. You know, like, the Indigenous people are from here. They, I’m sure, feel even weirder about being called ‘Australian’. It does feel like… it holds less gravity than it should, to me.”
Splitting her time between three cities almost equally, Chela’s view on home is understandably abstract, and also one of the sweetest conceptions of it I’ve ever heard expressed. “Home is a feeling, and I think home is people,” she says slowly, deliberately. “I feel really at home when I’m around my family and when I’m around my best friends who I grew up with, no matter where they are. I currently live in Carlton with one of my high school best friends, Etta. And when I walk through the front door and I smell her smell,” she pauses, laughing. “Our other best friend Nellie and I have tried to pinpoint what exactly that smell is, it’s just her natural smell – to me, that smell makes me feel secure. It’s just so familiar. And especially if I’ve been away in LA for a long time and I’ve come back and I go to Etta’s house and I smell her natural smell walking through the door – that’s the feeling of home for me, I think.”
Chela’s curated a sweet, sweet You Don’t Sound Asian playlist for us – listen below. Her EP Delivery is out now, via Minerva Music.