Chelsea Cutler compelled me to write this, though neither of us knew it at the time. We spoke over the phone one week to the day before the release of her debut full-length album How To Be Human (out today via Republic Records and Visionary Music Group). The day after she gave me, a 20-something swamped in so many existential questions it’s probably sickening, a crash course in being a 20-something figuring out who she is and what the human condition actually entails, Chelsea got “HUMAN” tattooed on her middle finger. Two days after that, I was forced to apply what I had learned from our conversation and her album when my grandfather passed away.
“Well, the only way to get through hell is to keep going,” Chelsea told me, answering a question about the album’s lead track “Sad Tonight” and what allowing herself to sit in sadness has gifted her in the long run.
“If you don’t process your emotions and sweep them under a rug, you’re not really doing any good for yourself,” the 22-year-old singer, songwriter and producer continued. “So, I just think it’s important not to push things aside and to actually feel things because there’s such a standard for happiness, and it’s so unfair that we do that to ourselves because sadness is such an important human emotion, and it’s there to be felt. I’m not saying we should just be sad all the time—obviously that’s no good. But it’s no good either to just expect us—you know what I mean? There’s such a standard for us to be happy all the time, and the second that we feel sad, it’s like, every alarm in the world goes off in our heads. We immediately try to alleviate that. It’s like, it’s alright. Part of being human is to feel a whole spectrum of emotions, so it’s important to sit with your sadness just as it’s important to sit with your happiness.”
No story worth telling in human history has ever included just one emotion, and How To Be Human is no exception.
When she said that, I did not know I was about to be consumed by profound sadness. But once that sadness enveloped me, I found myself playing How To Be Human on a loop. An album being given to me early is typically just a perk of the job, a lovely byproduct of interview preparation. This album, however, quickly developed into my safety blanket. As I ran through each of How To Be Human’s 15 tracks, my grief was unexpectedly met with vivid lyrical vignettes articulating what I was feeling despite who, what or where Chelsea had in mind when actually writing them.
Chelsea, in “What Would It Take”: “Staring up at the ceiling like it’ll bring you home / But we both know it won’t / Losing track of the hours that I spent in my bed / How I’m losing the power to get out of my head / When it starts spinning downwards, so I face it alone”
Chelsea in “I Was In Heaven”: “I dreamt you said my name / You looked at me the same / I was in heaven”
Chelsea, in “Sad Tonight”: “It hits me like a tsunami”
Chelsea, in “The Human Condition”: “All of my friends say / It’s a part of the human condition / Everyone falls, everybody goes trippin’”
Me: I’m not alone.
This may come across as making How To Be Human’s release all about me. That was my fear when deciding whether to frame this album review through a personal lens. It seemed a bit gross and narcissistic. But then, aren’t the best albums crafted by an artist to make each listener feel like each line was written, each beat produced, with him or her in mind?
“I think the most cathartic part of it is the actual writing of it,” Chelsea said on the phone, “and I get to relive that moment every time I perform a song. That, for me, is what’s most important … I’m very grateful that these intimate, private moments with myself resonate with other people and are able to help them as well.”
How To Be Human was written and produced mostly by herself over the course of about one year and a half. She has stated numerous times online that she’s very nervous for it to now be released. “With any great expectation comes great potential for failure, so yeah, I’m definitely nervous,” she mentioned to me, “but I’m very excited, and that’s what’s most important.” (There’s that emotional spectrum again.)
It is her love letter to her ex, their past relationship and herself. It extends beyond that, though, to her family and friends—evidenced in the official music video for “Lucky”—or whomever, whatever, whenever the listener needs to assign it.
“I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned in writing songs for this album is how important it is to rely on your friends,” Chelsea said to me. “I think generally I kind of struggle with really letting my friends in to see the worst of me and to see my most intimate moments, but I’ve been working on that.”
How To Be Human is tangible proof of the progress she has made. Sometimes, the worst of us can lead to the best of us.
In the “Lucky” video, Chelsea is seen surprising her loved ones with gifts. She bought her parents a new car. Her tour manager, Manny, got a New York Giants Saquon Barkley jersey. Her drummer, Gavin, walked into his apartment to find a brand new drum set. Victoria, a fan, received a visit from Chelsea. And now, all of her fans have been given something to make them feel better in How To Be Human.
Gavin, as Chelsea revealed in a lengthy note accompanying the release of “I Was In Heaven” on Dec. 5, often writes the word “impermanence” on his body. In fact, Chelsea shared painfully detailed explanations for “Lucky” and “How To Be Human,” too.
Since writing the album, Chelsea said, she is “significantly calmer and more at peace with the present.”
She added: “Pretty much everything is fleeting, right? You know, like, our time, the moment that we’re in right now, the people that come and go into our lives, the places that we live. It’s always transitional, it’s always changing, and I’ve been coming to peace with impermanence and coming to peace with transition because humans innately, we don’t really like change. Instinctually.
“I just feel like if you accept that everything is always changing, I think you’ll find a lot more happiness (instead of) bugging out about what you want in the future and what you missed in the past.”
When I covered Chelsea’s private New York City showcase in late November, she told her small audience that music is an intimate thing, and we should treat it that way. She encouraged fans to put away their phones, put their arms around each other and just be. How To Be Human gives listeners no other choice. Each track welcomes listeners to fall in and embrace whatever floats to the surface. Those sentiments will be combined when she embarks on her worldwide How To Be Human headline tour from Feb. 13 to May 14.
“I definitely subscribe to this idea that writing is a selfish thing and performing is a selfless thing,” she told me. “So, I write as my own outlet for me, and I perform to provide everyone else an outlet to feel safe and to feel whatever it is they need to feel.”
Chelsea has waded through a lot in order for this body of work to come to life. She fell madly in love, got her heart broken, was whiplashed in every direction while navigating young adulthood and presumably so much more that isn’t publicly disclosed. The best part is that none of it went to waste. All of it went into the album, and all of it placed her in this particular position.
“I hope that I look back and can say that I was really present and just really enjoyed every moment of this and soaked it all in because what I’m getting to experience is really special and not a day goes by that I’m not so grateful for everything,” Chelsea said. “It’s a short life, and I just wanna really feel every moment of how special what I’m getting to do is.”
I was ambushed by just how short life is with my grandfather’s passing, but then I was reminded how sweet a life it can be, for all the heartbreak is only possible when a decision is made to truly live, while listening to How To Be Human.
Listen to How To Be Human below: