A lot has changed for Chloe Chaidez in the seven years since her band, Kitten, made their major label debut with Cut It Out, the group’s 2011 six-track EP. Second single “G#,” with its hazy, Yeah Yeah Yeahs-esque chord progressions and ethereal vocals, made Kitten—at the time comprised of Chaidez, producers Chad Anderson and Gavin Mackillop, and band members Waylon Rector, Zach Bilson and Lukas Frank—instant music blog darlings. Their smoky, hazy synth-rock and provocative lyrics became a signature calling card for the West Coast act, later morphing into flirty, sensual new wave anchored by youthful angst.
Following a total band member overhaul, a relatively quiet year or two and a cross-country move, in February, Kitten returned with “I Did It!,” an urgent, upbeat slice of retro-pop featuring hints of early ‘80s Madonna bubblegum and bratty mid-’90s Britpop (think Pulp meets Shampoo).
Brighter, clearer, and more playful than the band’s moody, dark new wave steez, the track seemed to capture a more optimistic outlook for Chaidez, something which she chalks up to her new bandmates. “Before we wrote [‘I Did It!’], our guitar player, Parker, said, ‘I just want to make something that makes people feel happy.’ At first, I kind of cocked my head, like, ‘What?’”
The new sound also reflected the lyrical message behind the track, which is about “triumphing over mistakes,” the singer-songwriter shares. “The kind of mistakes that you're happy that you've made because, in retrospect, you learned something. I think that's why, even though some of the lyrics are a little bit regretful, when it gets to the chorus, it's uplifting.”
“Uplifting” wouldn’t necessarily be the first word that comes to mind when listening to the band’s nocturnal 2014 self-titled album, but the tonal shift isn’t lost on Chaidez, who laughs as I point it out. “I've never made uplifting music in my life, so I cringe as I say it.” Kitten’s imagery has also moved well past its muted, late 2010s glam-goth aesthetic, something the singer reveals was as inevitable as her musical evolution. “Visually, I've gone in a different direction as well. I'm a big fan of Grace Jones and she uses a lot of color … When you're creating something aesthetically, it influences your music and vice versa.”
The color-drenched video for “I Did It!,” which features the band playing with slime and posing rambunctiously in front of a fisheye lens, throws things back to the late ‘90s and early 2000s, referencing Nickelodeon shows like All That. But it also conjures some of the ‘80s new wave styles Chaidez has been associated with for years, something the singer says she “can’t seem to get away from.”
“I guess this new wave thing is in my DNA, but I've learned to embrace that. I've always been extremely inspired by the singers of the ‘80s, like Annie Lennox and Dale Bozzio. I love the way these people sang; they really put on a character, and that's what I ingested as a vocalist. I think it comes out in the music and, therefore, the visuals.”
When I first saw Kitten play at the Warner Sound showcase at SXSW back in 2013, I was blown away by Chaidez’s precocious command of the stage. I remember how her energetic gyrations conjured the primal spirit of her rock predecessors, like Bow Wow Wow’s teen frontwoman Annabella Lwin. I recall holding my breath as she scaled the tower of speakers at the edge of the stage for a verse, before leaping down. But the rock n’ roll posturing wasn’t just performative: the artist was truly living the life of a wild child.
“I think I made a lot of mistakes as a teenager doing music and touring. I would get wasted before a show, so I would just be unprofessional. I think most of that had to do with my age because when you're a teenager put into an adult environment and you mess up, you don't know, at the time, that it’s probably because you’re 15 or 16. You think, ‘Shit, maybe I'm a fuck up.’”
Fortunately, Chaidez, who started performing at the age of 13, emerged from her teen years in the music business—just one hungry mouth of a larger industry that often eats its young—in one piece...though not without a few bruises. “I was never the Hanson Brothers. I was never a child star by any means, but I was definitely living a rock n’ roll life at a very young age.” As for what the artist, now 23, learned from her teenage mischief? “I just grew up, I guess.”
For musicians, New York offers a much different ecosystem for than the “fake it ‘til you make it” ethos of Los Angeles, where Chaidez was born and raised—and where the majority of Kitten’s backlog of music (including their full-length debut) was written and recorded. While Kitten was once very much an “L.A. band,” since moving to NYC a few years ago, Chaidez now firmly considers her act “a true Brooklyn band, at the expense of sounding pretentious.
“There's a transparency [in New York City] that's very attractive,” she explains. “Most artists that I meet in New York are musicians. The cost of living here is so expensive—we're doing music but we’re all struggling to make ends meet—and no one is trying to flex like their band playing at Mercury Lounge is just the ‘cool’ thing to do.”
The songwriter adds that she prefers making art on the East Coast, even if it means busking in the Bedford Avenue L line—something she does occasionally in order to “make a little extra cash.”
“In L.A., everybody is kind of pretending that they've made it, or at least are very close to. There’s a lack of true identity in what you're actually doing … When I’m busking, I’m my truest self,” she says.
But singing for strangers in Brooklyn’s underground isn’t the only way Chaidez has discovered more about herself. It’s only quite recently, she admits, that she’s finally become comfortable and confident with her own vocals. “Before, there was a disconnect between the music that I loved and how my voice would fit with the music that I made. I'd put my voice on top of it and it would sound like a different person. I’d think, ‘Am I not good enough?’ And that sucks,” she shares, adding that she would heavily manipulate and mask her voice in the studio with a “ton of effects and reverb”—something she hasn’t done for her upcoming, as-yet-untitled sophomore album.
“With this new record, I've matured as a vocalist. That took a lot of time and years. Now I'm not afraid of my voice.”
Chaidez’s story about struggling to appreciate her own vocal talent—undoubtedly one of the highlights of Kitten’s output as a band—is a humbling anecdote. It also makes me wonder about how she may have been impacted by the similarly uniquely-voiced frontwomen she’s previously toured with, from Gwen Stefani to Hayley Williams to Shirley Manson.
As it turns out, it was the Garbage singer who imparted the most lasting bit of wisdom on Chaidez. “Shirley Manson said something to me that I'll never forget. We were heading off on tour with Paramore after our theater tour with Garbage, and it was the first time that I had ever played theaters in my life. She said, 'This will only happen for the first time, one time.' That really stuck with me because there are so many times in the music business where you hit a milestone and you're too focused on what's ahead that you can't enjoy what's happening now."
“I think sometimes we try to minimize our accomplishments and any small victory that happens,” Chaidez adds. “None of your victories should be minimized. With social media, it's so easy to forget about something good that happened to you when you go on Instagram and you see someone else [doing something better]. You think, ‘Well, I'm not doing that…’ Everyone does that. They don't want to say it and you don't meet people and have these conversations off the bat, but it's real shit, man. Shirley taught me that.”
Ultimately, the sentiment isn’t too far removed from that of “I Did It!”—which, distilled down to its essence, is really just about embracing the moment, for better or worse. And like Chaidez, it’s something we can all learn from.