When I walked into Chelsea's Brooklyn apartment she immediately offered me a SAGE tea in her welcoming British accent (why is anyone with an accent just instantly cooler...?) and her gorgeous cat, Louie, pulled up a seat right on my lap as we settled in her living room. I'd never met her before, Nor am i am expert on the subject i was planning to interview her on, so honestly I didn't know what to expect.
I'm still talking about OUR CONVO a week later because even though I've interviewed a ton of people for the podcast, it's not everyday that I find myself wanting to introduce them to my good group of girlfriends. Chelsea's authentic, interesting, whip smart and so incredibly humble. She bravely shared her (and her sister's) experience growing up with epilepsy and I thought that was such a brave move. One that I don't know I would have been bold enough to share with a complete stranger (and 10,000 other people listening.) Below is an excerpt from my amazing podcast conversation with globally known DJ, Chelsea Leyland.
ALIA AHMED-YAHIA (AAY): Tell us the story of how you became a DJ.
CHELSEA LEYLAND (CL):. I was at drama school and I met the photographer, who is now a good friend of mine, Ben Watts, who's a big fashion photographer. He had invited me to his house with a bunch of people out in Montauk, and this was before Montauk was the “it” place to go and it still felt small. You sort of knew the people that went out there every weekend and it felt very, it's not that big sort of a community. It wasn't as put on the map as it is now. This was when there was one little dive bar to go out in, and we're not talking that long ago. Everyone kind of went to this dive bar, ended up back at Ben Watts' house. I remember he had this really cool basement with all these, you know those old fashioned games, there were like the pinball machines, and it was all kind of crazy basement.
AAY: That's cool. It's like every child's dream.
CL: It was like an adult's playground basically, or an adult's nursery. I was putting on music from, this was before I even had an iPhone, I had a Blackberry cell, so I was putting on music from my iPod and I was playing a lot of Brit Pop, I think, because we were all a big little British group. And he was like, "I want you to DJ my July 4th party, which is funny because he's half Australian, half English, but yet he throws this renowned, famous ...
AAY: Shark Attack!
CL: Shark Attack, exactly, yeah. Well, that was it. And now it's like 10,000 people or something. Yes, when I started doing that, I think it was 200, 300 people. Anyway, he asked me to DJ, and then the next day, I sort of thought, I didn't think he was really being serious. He brought it p again. He was like, "I really want you to DJ my July 4th annual Shark Attack party." And then, lo and behold, a few months later, it rolled around, and I was like, "I don't know how to DJ." He said, "Just come, bring 2 iPods. We've got a mixer. You can cross-fade from one iPod to the other." Which is not how you DJ and this is what I call "fake DJing”
AAY: And you had never done this before? Just to be clear.
CL: I had never done this before. Never, never, never. I ended up doing an hour set. I was really nervous. I had my friend Rennie there, who's an amazing DJ and producer. Who was all over me, and he was kind of playing big brother, and he was standing next to me and helping me, making sure the transitions were smooth. And, it went really well, and Ben Watts was really happy, and then it was my boyfriend at the time that was like, "I think that you've got a really good ear." He's like, "For your age, you play a lot of old music and I think that this is something that you should potentially pursue." So, I started taking DJ classes with a DJ who was recommended to me. I would go to his house in Brooklyn and do like an hour's worth of DJ tutorial with him. At the time, I was recommending to a friend of mine, a couple of girls who were DJing, because everyone was jumping on that whole, "We want female DJs for fashion events." It was really after I had been to a couple of events that this friend of mine was Djing, that I started to think maybe I could actually do this. I was taking the classes, and it all happened really quickly. I was then hired by this specific friend to DJ "A Fashion's Night Out" and then it just spiraled, and I think it was one of those, I guess I sort of learnt while I was going. I don't think, and I still don't think, that I'm the most technically talented DJ. To me, and you ask other DJs this and some will agree and some will disagree, but I think that's one of the biggest parts of being a good DJ, is being able to read a room, to be able to vibe off people's energies.
AAY: Know your audience.
CL: Yeah. I guess I sort of carved out this little niche in the fashion world, and it just sort of started to grow, and I never thought it would become a career. I never thought I would be traveling around the world doing it. It really was just something that seemed fun and I needed to pay my rent, and I'm now here.
AAY: That’s an incredible story
CL: I think there is definitely a lot of luck and I feel very blessed to be where I am. I still wake up and it's bizarre that I'm here.
AAY: It sounds like luck and a lot of mentorship too. If you ask a lot of successful people, no matter what industry they're in, nobody gets where they are on their own.
CL: They don't, and I think being in the right place at the right time, and believing in yourself, and also being passionate about something. I really really, I've loved every moment of it, and I think that that, as cheesy as it sounds, does really help.
AAY: Can you give us a short hand of what's happening in music right now? If we were talking about fashion, for example, I would say, "Okay. Big sweeping general statement, it's the maximals vs. the minimals, very, very pared back vs. the pile it on, pile it on." Is there any specific genres or styles that come to mind, that you think are really interesting or trending, if we were talking about the CliffNotes of music right now.
CL: I host for Apple Radio, which you can access on iTunes, and we really try and play everything on Beats, it's called Beats 1 Radio, and that always, I guess allows me to see what's trending in music and there is so much that's trending, I think. Hip hop's really come back around and is having a great moment again. I'm a huge fan of hip hop in the '90s and early 2000s, but I think, with hip hop we're really, we're seeing so many talented, gifted artists again, and so I'd say, hip hop's having a great moment again. But then, the electronic world's grown so tremendously and I think there are so many artists that you're seeing now, commercial artists, artists like Rihanna, who you would never consider Rihanna, you would consider her sort of R & B, hip hop, now she's working with top producers. To go back to your question, electronic sounds, all these big producers and Djs, who are creating beats and collaborating with artists who you would never normally think would have an electronic sound.
AAY: Disclosure is one of my favorites, I love them.
CL: They're great but you know really, their sound is similar to a lot of what we were listening to, I say "we" but I wasn't even around (laughs). I was listening to The Spice Girls in the '90s but shh. Don't tell anyone that. A lot of the music that I like from the '90s, which I tend to refer to as "cheesy dancey house," but Disclosure, taking a lot of sounds from the '90s and that's become fashionable again. It's like Fashion Week, always taking from the past and putting it together with today's technology and recreating it and making it contemporary sound.
"You've got artists like LEON Bridges, who's such a soul-full artist. He's from Texas. I believe he was washing dishes this time last year."
AAY: I love those stories. Love it.
CL: Yeah. I know. Amazing. I've been lucky enough to see him live, but he is one of my favorite new artists. For those who don't know, Leon Bridges, listen to his sound and it doesn't make sense for today, but we're playing him on Beats 1 Radio. It's about always listening to as many different types of music as you can and always trying to grow your knowledge and educate yourself. I tend to not look at things too much as "trending." It's about what I like and what speaks to me and what other people are responding to.
AAY: Let's talk about how you collaborate with designers. You've done runway shows for just a laundry list of major New York designers. How does that collaboration work? As you just said, and as I can imagine, music is such a make-it or break-it point of bringing a designer's vision to life. The whole purpose of a runway show is to show the world their vision for the season, and music really sets that tone. So, how do you collaborate with designers and what's our expectation of what you'll bring to the show?
CL: When I collaborate with designers, initially we'll have a meeting. I'll go and meet the designer. And it's important for me to feel the designer's overall vibe and energy, and I'm sure the designer feels the same about me. You have to have that connection to start off with, to know that you understand each other, to have a working relationship. The way that I always see it is, it's a soundtrack that you're creating for a runway show, and shows are 15 to 20 minutes. We're not talking a very long time, but the music is so key, and there is so much work that needs to go into making that 15 to 20 minute mix. It's this kind of even balance of energy where the music should never take away from the clothes, and what's being shown, because ultimately, people are there to look at the fashion. So, you can't go in with this big ego and say, "Oh the music's going to be the ..." No, because that's not what it is. It's about the music complementing. It's about being a soundtrack. It's about allowing the fashion to speak louder. We sit down and look at, normally it starts with a mood board. I've seen mood boards and we've gone in a totally different direction with the final outcome, and sometimes we haven't. These mood boards will be bits of fabric or cut-outs from magazines, and perhaps there'll be interiors on there. It's just this overall mood, and then it's my job to really look at that and start coming up with ideas. I start thinking about specific genres and, all the artists will say to me, "I have this idea. I want it to feel regal and grand and decadent," then I take what I'm looking at, and sometimes it's really natural and it flows, and I know straight-away what we're going to do. Sometimes I don't, and I have a block, and I get stressed out.
AAY: What have some of your favorite collaborations been? Some favorite designers that you've worked with, that you, at the end, look back and are like, "Yes. It executed their vision, it was even better than I thought it was going to be."
CL: It has to be Naeem Khan, I would say, because we've worked together now for a few years and to really work successfully together, it's that relationship. It takes building on that relationship, and he trusts me now, and a lot of the time that's a big part of it, is trust. (Download Chelsea's Naeem Khan runway mix here)
"It's for me to turn around and say, "This is what I think's cool right now. This is not a commercial sound, but this feels underground and this is going to allow you to stand out from the rest of the designers in New York. Let's not play it safe. Let's not do what everyone else is doing."
AAY: Where are you looking for new artists and staying current? To go back to what you were saying earlier, yes, the internet, SoundCloud, Pandora, Spotify, all these great resources have opened up this door for the average person to be able to scout new talent, see new artists, but I think the flip-side of that is, the radio, traditionally, has always been the place that introduced new music to people. It was sort of like where you went to find out what was happening, and now you have so many other options. To me, I freeze when I go on SoundCloud or Spotify, because I'm not sure what I'm looking for. What stations or artists are you loving right now? What are you listening to? What's inspiring you right now?
CL: I’ll say Beats One Radio, first off broadcasting to, I think now, over 103 countries and it's growing. The nice thing about it is that it broadcasts out of London, LA, and New York, and you get such a different vibe if you switch it on and you've got Julie Adenuga hosting her show out of London, or you've got The Connectors. I'm considered a connector and we're, rather than our own show, we host essentially, but we've had everyone from Disclosure, Elton John, Drake, I mean you name it, doing shows. In terms of new artists, there are so many. I'm loving Leon Bridges, who I mentioned before. He is absolutely fantastic, and having seen him live. A dear friend of mine, who's also one of my favorite artists, who has been around for a while. He was actually the first artist that Young Turks record label signed. Young Turks also represent the XX and a lot of other really cool artists, but he's about to put out his second album, I believe, Jack Penate. He's an artist that I think a lot of people will know already, but definitely keep your ears open, because he's about to come out with a new album which is amazing. British artist. He actually performed during London Fashion Week at the Serpentine. Nicola Cruz is an artist that I'm currently loving, which is, jumping over to a totally different genre here, I'd say that's kind of like ethnic-y, worldly electronic, but I actually don't know if I ended up using one of his tracks for my Naeem Khan mix.
"I'm starting to play more in the wellness space, for yoga events, and this has given me the opportunity to play music that I listen to at home and relax to, but I've never really been able to play out before. It's sort of electronic beat, but mixing a lot of worldly sounds. I actually hate to use the word worldly like that, but kind of ethnic-y, earthy sounds, and those sounds, mixed with an electronic beat, just amazing."
AAY: Beyond your DJ lifestyle, I know you are so multi-faceted, you're such an entrepreneurial woman, with a lot happening, what else is on your radar? From projects, what are you focusing on right now?
CL: I'm focusing a lot of my attention on a cause that's very near and dear to my heart, which is epilepsy, and that is because I am epileptic.
"I have a type of epilepsy called JME, which is controlled by medication. My sister unfortunately has epilepsy as well, but has a really really severe type. She's also on medication, but she has up to 15 to 20 seizures a day."
So I grew up with having that, with her obviously being very sick, and so this is something that for years I didn't speak about, and kind of hid away, and then a couple years ago I started to talk about it and I realized how empowering it was to speak about it, and also, having created a small platform or following or however you want to call it, for myself, I'm able to hopefully inspire other people that are struggling with epilepsy out there. Perhaps there are other young people that want to grow up to be a DJ or don't think that thy can do whatever they want to do, and so I think that I'm in a position, or I realized that I was in a position to help inspire other people.
AAY: People are afraid of what they don’t know. You GO GIRL!!! How can we support you?
CL: And also, there's a funny thing here, obviously, being epileptic, choosing the path of a DJ is probably the most ridiculous profession I could have chosen. There's something funny in itself there. It's flashing lights, lack of sleep, highly stressful job. Those are all the 3 ...
AAY: You're like, "Perfect! I'll take it."
CL: I struggle a lot with my health and with what I do, in ways that people don't see. With epilepsy, you don't see it, so you don't see someone sick a lot of the time, unless you see them have a seizure. So, people can be quite shocked when you tell them you have it, or they're surprised that from me getting on a 6 am flight, what that does to my health and how much fear runs through me because I'm like, "Oh, I haven't had enough sleep. Am I going to have a seizure?" But, I am where I am because of that, and now it's my chance to shed some light on that. I'm actually speaking tomorrow night, it's the first time I'm ever doing a talk on epilepsy, so I'm quite nervous about that.
AAY: Amazing! You're going to be amazing. Everything that you've said is so authentic and comes from the heart, and all that's going through my head right now is how brave you are to share with all of us and how passionate you are about what you do- you didn't let something stop you. You didn't let fear stop you, and I think it's important to talk about these things. We don't, as women, talk about the things that stress us out, that we live with every day, and everyone has their thing…
CL: They do, and that's the thing that I think, whether I'm inspiring someone to come forward and say, "Hey. I suffer from severe depression," or "I suffer from severe anxiety," whatever it is. I'm all about that and I've so many talented, wonderful friends that are using their celebrity status or their platform to get people talking about things, but I've lived with a lot of fear due to having epilepsy, and just to even see the effect that pushing it to my social media, the response that I'm getting. People coming to me and saying, "I want to support you. How can I support you?" Or other people just saying "Hey, I'm epileptic too. "I've never really told anyone." It's incredible, and now, the way that I see it is, how can I use all these relationships, whether those are with amazing artists, other DJs, or fashion brands, to do something good and put something back into the world, and that's sort of where I'm at now, and you know, I'm doing this project with FARFETCH. I wanted to do something that wasn't a dinner, wasn't a party, because obviously I spend so much of my time doing those types of things, so we're going to do a massive yoga class, so it's like this yoga collective. I'm going to DJ the yoga class. We're going to do it somewhere amazingly beautiful... We don't have a date yet, but soon.
AAY: How can we support you?
CL: Thank you so much to everyone. I've started an awareness campaign for epilepsy and I'd be grateful for everyone's support of the NSE (National Society for Epilepsy based in the UK)
JOIN ME IN SUPPORTING THIS AMAZING WOMAN (AND FOLLOW HER!)
IN THE KNOW: CHELSEA'S FOUR ARTISTS TO LISTEN TO NOW