By Megan Armstrong
As a young girl, Chelsea Cutler wrote on a whiteboard hanging in her childhood bedroom that she would one day play Radio City Music Hall, as if penning it in would make her wish come true. The 24-year-old singer placed a new emphasis on that goal in March 2020 during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, when nationwide lockdowns forced her to cancel her headlining tour in support of her debut album How to be Human and return to her parents’ home in Westport, Connecticut. Since she dropped out of Amherst College to open for the pop artist Quinn XCII in 2018, the most rewarding thing for Cutler has been moving tickets and connecting with her fans in person. Every day, she would close her eyes and dream about being back on stage.
“I’ve noticed that a huge thing with my depression and anxiety is if I have constant things to look forward to, it keeps them at bay,” Cutler tells MTV News. “When you put that much stock in one thing, you’re bound to be disappointed. I definitely realized there are a lot of other factors that are necessary for feeling better.”
Stuck at home for 11 months, the artist who brought bedroom pop to the masses had nothing but time to fantasize about the person she wanted to be and the things she wanted to do. That also meant reflecting on who she had been, what she had been through, and what she needed to do to actualize the best version of herself. The culmination of that journey is Cutler’s sophomore solo studio album When I Close My Eyes, out tomorrow (October 15). She has always penned vulnerable lyrics, but here, for the very first time, joyful and unapologetically romantic songs flow from a completely unguarded place — a newfound sense of self-acceptance.
Cutler released her debut EP, Snow in October, in 2017 while still studying at Amherst, and her career exploded. The pop-EDM single “Your Shirt” caught fire, and she built momentum through a pair of 2018 EPs. Once collaborative indie-pop EP Brent with Jeremy Zucker boasting platinum single “You Were Good to Me” arrived in May 2019, followed by How to Be Human in January 2020, Cutler was an expert at conveying painful feelings in evocative, keenly relatable songs. Because of that, she had a misguided reputation as a sad-song factory; at times, she felt as if people only wanted to hear from her at her lowest points.
“You read comments and start asking yourself, ‘Do my fans not want me to be happy?’” she says. “I know that people want sad songs because they want something to relate to and feel heard, and I totally understand that. But my depression and anxiety aren’t characteristics of me as a person. They’re things that I struggle with, and they’re big parts of my life, but I’m not a categorically sad girl.”
As a kid, Cutler’s parents put her in guitar and piano lessons. She sang covers, wrote songs, and produced it all to avoid having to rely on anyone else. Today, she takes pride in writing and polishing the majority of her own discography, and she “would love for a defining part of my career to be that I helped pave the way for women in production.” But being alone for months, deprived of human connection, shriveled her creativity. Once it was safe, Cutler holed up with Zucker in an upstate New York cabin and made February’s Brent II. She rode the collaborative high to Newport, Rhode Island, where she met up with Quinn XCII, as well as producers Ayokay and Hazey Eyes, to craft When I Close My Eyes.
In Newport, she danced and sang with her friends. They drove around town blasting the demos they were working on, screaming out the windows. She was revitalized, and she couldn’t wait to tease fans with snippets on social media. In doing so, she finally felt comfortable enough to confirm the muse behind her happiest songs, making it explicitly clear in a video shared to TikTok that the euphoric ode “Forever” and the up-tempo, acoustic-infused “You Can Have It” were written for her girlfriend of three years. The former, the album’s focus single, features a voicemail her girlfriend left her on a bad day, telling her she loves her and to keep her head up.
“The position that I’m in has given me more confidence to be authentic,” Cutler says. “It gives me more bravery. I can’t tell you how many people, male or female or nonbinary, have talked to me about how they see someone being brave dating in a same-sex relationship and how that’s inspired them. That just fuels the fire. That type of visibility is far more important than any insecurities or fears I might have about it.”
It’s a massive step forward from the rollout of How to Be Human, which chronicled the dark emotions she navigated during a one-month breakup with her girlfriend. But at the time, Cutler wasn’t ready to admit the melodious, sentimental track “Lucky” was about her. She fibbed to her team, telling them she wrote the song about her bernedoodle puppy, Cooper. “I was nervous to tell people because this was the first time that I’d ever dated a girl. That was terrifying for me because I didn’t know if it was going to come as a surprise to people,” she explains. “I was only 21, and I even felt that 21 was late to be considering dating a girl. I think the reason I’ve been able to be so open about it now is, the more people I told, the more I realized that literally no one in my life was treating it any differently than when I was dating a guy.”
Cutler’s devotion to bringing her many truths to the surface extends beyond her love life and the album’s happy, romantic anthems. The choir-backed, piano- and strings-based ballad “Devil on My Shoulder” is her “favorite song I’ve ever created” because writing it helped her to “separate my issues with mental health from my identity.” Really, for die-hard fans constantly craving sad music, it's a breakup song for her depression. “There’s something liberating about it,” she says. “I just spent so much time thinking I was boring or quiet because those are the things I felt when my depression was at its worst. Now I know those aren’t things that are true about me.”
The power of When I Close My Eyes is in the way it nimbly traverses contrasting emotions, highlighted by the juxtaposition of “Forever” and “Devil on My Shoulder.” On the title track, Cutler swims in the present, grateful for what and who she has, despite this generation being plagued by perpetual online FOMO. “If I Hadn’t Met You” celebrates when “you find someone in your bed who doesn’t hate the things that go on in your head,” and “Under” reiterates the comforting clarity that comes after finding “the only one.” The album’s nostalgic, slow-burning closer “You’re Gonna Miss This” gazes back at all she longed for while coming of age, using hindsight as a cautionary tale for the future.
“There’s some serious growth between the last album and this one,” Cutler says. “I’ve grown up a lot, and my perspective on a lot of things has shifted and become more refined and mature.” Hang around Cutler long enough, and you will likely hear her talk about the inevitability of impermanence. She is still hyper-aware that change happens frequently, often ruthlessly, but this album captures her at a time when she feels more rooted than ever. She is settled in love. She bought her first home. She is back on the road, her soul reignited, with so much to look forward to. These days, the impermanence that resonates most is inward. Her emotions will come and go. No one label will ever encapsulate her essence. Each season of her life will look different than the one before.
In September, Cutler finally made it to Radio City Music Hall. Her co-headlining, two-night Stay Next to Me tour with Quinn XCII sold out, and when it came time for her to take the stage the first evening, she needed fans to know something. “You are special,” she shouted out between songs. “You deserve to be here. You are loved. No matter what you stand for, who you love, or how you identify.” When it came time for the encore, the voices of over 6,000 fans erupted into a booming chant. “Chelsea! Chelsea! Chelsea!” they cried to remind the singer that she is leaving a lasting mark on them. It felt, if just for a moment, as if they desperately wanted her to know that she’s special, too.