With In Limbo, Vancouver's Chersea makes a triumphant statement about the importance of not giving up

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      Sometimes there’s a reward for persevering when things get heavy, that being true on multiple fronts for Vancouver’s Chersea. Spend a couple of hours talking to the unflinchingly forthright singer-songwriter, and you get a story that’s as inspirational as it is at times painfully dark.

      On the positive side, the artist born Chelsea Laing is doing better today than she might ever have dreamed in her late teens. The good news starts with the recent release of an ambitious and accomplished full-length, In Limbo, four years after her debut EP, Grey Matter.

      While electro-pop fits as a broad description for the full-length, Chersea has zero interest in pledging allegiance to any one genre. Over the course of nine tracks, she proves as adept at dance-club burners (“Chromance”) as at chill-out-room comedowns (“Tongue Tied”).

      There are moments of high drama, with the singer exploring very real relationship issues like emotional abuse in the neosoul near ballad “I Can’t Be You”. And there are moments of stunning beauty, as when “The Wolf” begins as an exercise in Bristol trip-hop cool and ends up in synth-pop heaven.

      For a good idea of how much of a victory the record represents on a deeper level for Chersea, begin with the title—which acts as a statement that, as far as she’s come as a person, she still has plenty of work to do.

      “When I was finishing the album, and sending everything to my label, I said, ‘I’m going to call the album In Limbo, because that’s what I was,’ ” the singer says, on the line from home. “After releasing Grey Matter, I was in this nondescript place where I didn’t know where I was going, or what my purpose was. It’s crazy to not know what’s going to happen to you—to have your life flipped around until you realize how sick you are.

      “But that can be a catalyst of change,” she continues. “A lot of people wait their whole lives for that change to happen, but I was fortunate enough to be able to see the light again. When you’re in a place of purgatory or limbo, you don’t know where you’re at or where you are. What limbo was about for me was the hope for something better.”

      EVEN WHEN THINGS were at their darkest, with boozing, drugging, and depression consuming her every waking moment, Chersea had reason to think things might work out. Right from childhood, she was blessed with a golden combination of god-given talent and win-at-all-costs competitiveness.

      She started playing piano at age four, eventually picking up guitar, bass, trumpet, clarinet, drums, and even a bit of banjo. To get a handle on her prowess as a musician and songwriter, hop on YouTube, and punch in “Chelsea Laing + Chemical Polarity”. Chersea starts by creating a simple beat and then, using a looper, keys, guitar, and brass, fashions an entire song on the fly. The video eventually won a Boss Loop Station challenge, with a payout in cash, gear, and valuable web exposure in the form of promo videos and product endorsements for the Roland musical-instrument company.

      Hockey was not only a major passion after she picked it up at age 10, but something that she grew to excel at. After setting multiple records as a player in B.C., she eventually rode the sport to a scholarship at UBC.

      Then music went from a secondary pastime to a full-blown obsession. A huge fan of local radio station the Peak while she was at UBC, Chersea became fixated on the Peak Performance Project—a battle-of-the-bands-style competition that launched such acts as Said the Whale, Dear Rouge, and Current Swell. That caused her to walk away from hockey and the structure it provided.

      “I think it’s because I had more time because of less hockey that all of my flare-ups started to happen,” she offers. 

      Manic phases soon began to mark her life.

      “I was seeing this guy, and one day we did way too many mushrooms—I did three-and-a-half grams, and then we shot it back with lemon juice, which activates the psilocybin in them,” Chersea says. “I’ve never been that messed up, ever. I went into the Matrix—it was like when Neo gets attached to the machine for his training. It was all white, and then I heard a voice, which I’m assuming was my conscience, going, ‘Hey. Don’t be a fuck-up. You gotta do music, and you gotta do it now. You’re going to write this record. Time is running out.’ I snapped out of it, fully clothed, in his parents’ upstairs shower, thinking, ‘I’m an asshole.’”

      If there was positive to such phases, it was that she could also be extra-productive.

      “Within six weeks of that happening, I’d written all of Grey Matter.”

      The EP helped secure a spot in the 2015 edition of the Peak contest, with its $100,000 first prize. She was cut from the competition before the finals, leading to crushing disappointment and the start of a downward spiral.

      “That’s when things got really out of control with alcoholism and my addiction to pot,” Chersea says. “I wasn’t just smoking it, I was doing bong chops. I was getting super fucked-up, and I would do that all day long.”

      She was still productive, working a job, playing shows, and also making music in the studio—the one constant being that she was perpetually stoned. Figuring a change of scenery would help her both creatively and from a mental-health standpoint, she decided to move to Montreal, where things escalated.

      “HERE'S THE THING—I’m diagnosed bipolar,” Chersea says. “So I was self-medicating for a very long time. I actually took off to go to [the music festival] POP Montreal, and I told my family, ‘I’m not coming back.’ I bopped around houses, got a shit job in a shit pub working in a shit kitchen, and then just started getting fucked-up.”

      She continues: “I was manic, really messed up, and I wasn’t sleeping. I was drinking, smoking, and doing whatever. Montreal is a fucked-up place. There’s so much speed there, everyone smokes, and everyone drinks. I was in the West Island, where there’s a whole bunch of English speakers who hated themselves, and acted accordingly.”

      When she started having blackouts, Chersea figured something bad was going to happen if she didn’t get help. That led her to back to Vancouver. As the spiralling continued, she worried she was going to harm herself. Chersea headed to the hospital and checked into what she wryly refers to as “the loony bin”, which marked the beginning of her gradually rebuilding her life. As doctors worked to assess and then stabilize her, she also stepped up for a battle that was anything but easy.

      “When I went into the hospital, for the first three days I was just out of it—kind of like a psychosis coma. In my first week in the hospital, I wasn’t allowed to smoke, and I obviously wasn’t smoking pot. My parents were like, ‘You were like a caged animal.’”

      Still, good things began to happen. A guy she’d had a single date with before her hospital stay proved to be someone she could lean on during a barrage of text messaging. Fortuitously, a label she’d been talking to while in Montreal contacted her in the hospital, eager to work with her based on demos she’d sent. Next came news that she had a deal with Fierce Panda Canada—the Canuck branch of the label that signed Coldplay and Death Cab for Cutie.

      Clean and sober today, Chersea sees In Limbo as proof that you should never give up.

      “All of the music wasn’t finished, but it was written, before I really found my stability,” she says. “By that, I mean my stability on my medication, my stability with a great partner, my stability financially, and my stability with my family.”

      Given all that she went through during the writing process, it would have been easy for Chersea to make a record darker than Joy Division’s Substance. Instead, there’s an unmistakable sense of optimism on In Limbo. It’s not by accident that Chersea sounds anything but down when—over fog-shrouded John Carpenter synths—she sings “It’s a waste of time” on the album’s gorgeously atmospheric final track, “No Waste of Time”.

      More than anything, her message is that, no matter how bad it all gets, there’s always hope for a better tomorrow.

      “I wanted limbo to be a place that you can get out of,” she says simply. “You can be there, but you can also leave—although not necessarily on your own terms. You just need something to get you out.”

      Chersea plays an In Limbo album-release party at the Fox Cabaret on Friday (February 1).

      Chersea, "I Can't Be You"