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Travels With Brindle finds her voice though indie-pop on ‘Notes From Undergrad’
The literary-inspired debut album from Chelsea Spear’s lo-fi ukulele-pop project commences on Friday, June 2
Travels With Brindle’s sparking single ‘Switching Tracks’ is now playing
“An extremely gifted songwriter with a golden ukulele, Chelsea Spear is an American treasure” – Jersey Beat
Photo Credit: Jen Vesp
CAMBRIDGE, MA [June 2, 2023] – Ask a person to define college rock, and chances are they'll run off a string of long-gone indie bands and once-mighty left-of-dial radio stations. But decades later, the halcyon days of college rock lives on in both legacy and spirit, and still encompasses a certain mood that exists today far outside lecture halls and crusty old basement studios. For Travels With Brindle, the indie-pop ukulele project of Cambridge singer-songwriter Chelsea Spear, the ideals of college rock permeate throughout her debut album, Notes From Undergrad, set for self-release on Friday, June 2.
Made possible in part by a $5,000 Covid-19 relief grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, one of 3,000 awarded to artists from across the commonwealth, the official Notes From Undergrad album unveiling party goes down – appropriately enough – at the Somerville Public Library on June 1, the eve of the album release.
And here, across the album’s 12 literary-minded tracks, the themes of college rock exist in multiple layers. With a sound that stretches across genres – the ‘60s girl group inspiration of opener “Something’s Wrong”; the jangle-pop of “Switching Tracks”; the dramatic and experimental pop pull of “Two Devils” – the lyrical themes of Notes From Undergrad are largely inspired by Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. The 2017 novel is set a few decades ago in and around Harvard Square, taking place over the protagonist Selin's freshman year at Harvard University, across the same streets, and around the same time, Spear cut her musical teeth as a busker.
“I grew up around Cambridge,” Spear says. “When Batuman was attending Harvard, I was working a series of full-time jobs and taking the 77 bus to Harvard Square to get to work, and I have a weird feeling we may have crossed paths during these lost years. Reading The Idiot felt like I was seeing the Harvard Square of my youth from the perspective of someone who was on the inside. As an adult, I've busked near the Clover in Harvard Square, across from the Harvard gates and the bus stop, and pulling my cart and my hardshell case past all the Selins and Ivans of 2020s Harvard puts a new spin on the book for me. It feels like the story never ends, no matter how much you hope it will.”
From the geographic reference point of “Linden Street” to the storyline surrounding the aforementioned “Ivan,” two 2022 singles that set a tone for the album, Spear’s colorful and studious storytelling not only extend Batuman’s narratives, but also inject her own, pulled from personal experiences that span from the height of personal victories to the low of enduring toxic relationships. But the record also has a certain sound, one entrenched in a certain hopefulness, existing just outside the mainstream; Spear’s songwriting getting compared to the likes of Magnetic Fields, They Might Be Giants, and Belle and Sebastian are not without merit.
“Since Notes From Undergrad was inspired by a campus novel set in the 1990s, I wanted the album to sound like something you'd hear on college radio in the 1980s,” Spear admits. “As a precocious tween in the late 1980s, I was a devoted listener to WMWM and WFNX, but when the pendulum swung from the jangly power-pop and synth rock of the pre-grunge era to, well, grunge, I felt a little abandoned. I wanted to bring back the magic of that era, and I played my favorite albums from that time to put myself in the right frame of mind as I wrote this. In particular, Game Theory's Real Nighttime spent a lot of time on my turntable. Scott Miller's bittersweet, epigrammatic observations on young adulthood rhymed with Elif Batuman's writing. I was also inspired by how much his lyrics stung when they were set against his angular melodies and tinkertoy arrangements.”
Spear’s arrangements are something to behold, and with the aid of collaborators Christian DeKnatel (co-production, mixing) and Joel Edinberg (mastering), is redefining our perceptions of ukulele-based music, especially with the pop polish and depth displayed in these recordings. That notion perhaps becomes the loudest on the power-pop propulsion of “Miss Lonelyhearts,” the expansive “Letterlocked,” and pop yearning of album closer “Another Year.” Spear also cites the musical influence of Sparks, as well as Baltimore late-‘80s-era singer/songwriter Linda Smith, for helping further crystallize her musical vision. And with a sonic blueprint established, she was able to tell her storylines with enhanced dramatic effect, one that also connects the real world to calls for change happening at college campuses around the country, especially as it pertains to relationships, both sexual and profession, between men and women.
“The big lyrical theme in Notes From Undergrad is dealing with the power differential in some creative relationships and recovering from the abuse of those differentials,” Spear says. “There's been a lot of discussion about this in the past few years in the wake of #MeToo. Reading The Idiot and seeing the documentary Shirkers – whose director Sandi Tan is making a film of The Idiot – helped me put into words some of the weird friendships I'd had with men who were a bit older or had a higher social standing, and who treated me with casual cruelty as a result. I'd struggled to explain what those friendships were like and how those men treated me, and how their dismissiveness or their cruelty caused me to question my own creative work.”
Spear hoped to build upon Batuman's writing as a way of understanding the effect of those friendships on her creative work and as a way of finding her creative voice.
“I think some of the reason why The Idiot hit me as hard as it did was that I'd seen #MeToo discussed almost exclusively in the context of sexual assault. I think we've been long overdue for these kinds of conversations, but I also think that in the early days of #MeToo, the experiences of people like me – whose toxic relationships were emotional, but not sexual – got lost in the shuffle. I felt like I could support women who had experienced sexual assault, but I could tell myself I wasn't part of this conversation. The Idiot, and Shirkers, gave a voice to, in these cases, young women who had their dreams and aspirations taken from them emotionally and mentally, but not physically. Reading The Idiot helped me find a way to make art around these experiences, and I will always be thankful to Elif Batuman for that.”
Spear is also thankful for those who have given her music a listen, as well as those who have written about it for digital publications and spun the singles on internet and college radio. The path to Notes From Undergrad, from online writing group prompts to bedroom recording sessions and unlikely collaborations to releasing five singles dating back to early last year, was a long and winding one. Each single release felt like a new chapter for Travels With Brindle, and now, Notes From Undergrad acts as her novel, the storylines and sounds coming together for one cohesive package and presentation. And the messages contained within should resonate.
“I hope listeners hear a story of another person who grew, albeit painfully, from a difficult friendship, and who was able to make art from it,” she adds. “I hope someone else takes this album and tells their own story in a different medium. We need more stories like these.”
But Spear’s ultimate goal for this album, and Travels With Brindle, in general? Well, that’s truly rooted in the style of college rock.
“I want to be your high school English teacher’s third or fourth favorite artist,” she concludes.
‘Notes From Undergrad’ production credits:
All songs written by Chelsea Spear
Except “A Toast” (lyrics by John Collins Bossidy)
Developmental editing by Erin McKeown
Produced by Chelsea Spear and Christian DeKnatel
Cello overdubs recorded by Joel Edinberg
Mixed by Christian DeKnatel
Chelsea Spear: Ukulele, vocals, mbira
Marshunda Smith: Cello on “Something’s Wrong”, “Two Devils”, and “Another Year”
Hilary Lahan: Percussion
Christian DeKnatel: Guitar, bass, drum programming
Joel Edinberg: Standup bass, drums on “Rudolph’s Ranch”
Mastered by Joel Edinberg
“Very special thanks to my mom SLB, CK, FT & everyone in Red Bank, TD, RB, the members of Brindle’s Singles Club, LS for the Audacity pep talk, Michael at Knyvet, Rachel Blumenthal, EBG
Elif Batuman and Sandi Tan: When it came to insights, which songwriter could ever touch the hem of your lofty garment?” – Chelsea Spear
‘Notes From Undergrad’ album artwork:
Art Credit: Chance Brown
Travels With Brindle short bio:
Chelsea Spear has been a music critic, a show promoter, a college radio host, and a video director… but all she really wanted to do was start a band. Not long after learning to play the ukulele, she formed the bedroom recording project Travels With Brindle. Her melodic original songs and wry, poignant lyrics have attracted a growing audience at open mics and busking pitches in the Greater Boston area. Spear is inspired by lo-fi songwriters and jangle pop acts of the 1980s and ‘90s, and her work has been compared to the Marine Girls, the Raincoats, Courtney Barnett, and Liz Phair. In June 2023, Travels With Brindle releases its debut album, Notes From Undergrad, led by a string of well-received singles, including “Ivan,” “Linden Street,” and “Something’s Wrong.”
Media praise for Travels With Brindle:
The music of Travels With Brindle can be heard on Banks Radio Australia, Blood Makes Noise, BumbleBee Radio, CTRL Plus Space, Enigma Magazine, Everything You Know Is Wrong (Salem State WMWM), Good Music Radio UK, Hash Brand New, Hump Day News, If It’s Too Loud, I’m Music Magazine, Indie Radio YFM, Jersey Beat, Lonely Oak Radio, Mad Wasp Radio, Marc’s Alt Rock Playground (Mark Skin Radio), Moosic Entertainment, Original Music Showcase (Mark Skin Radio), PipiloPop, Rising With Skybar (WMFO), Rock N Roll Fables, Spill Magazine, Sunshine Music iRadio, The Bad Copy, The Whole Kameese, Tour Bus Tunes, Turn Up The Volume, Your First Listen (Ken’s FM, Eardrum Buzz), and other fine shows, stations and platforms.
“An extremely gifted songwriter with a golden ukulele, Chelsea Spear is an American treasure. If you do not believe me, listen to anything and then everything she released this year.” – Rich Quinlan in Jersey Beat’s Best of 2022
“Spectacular… We couldn’t help but fall in love with the brilliant honesty that is found within ‘Switching Tracks’ from Travels With Brindle. We found ourselves having an instant connection with the magnificent and memorable melody and finding a relatable and honest truth within the lyrics.” – The Whole Kameese
“[‘Switching Tracks’] is the kind of song that could sneak up on the mainstream, the way Belle & Sebastian do every so often. It has enough of a pop sensibility to appeal to (at least some of) the masses, but enough indie charm and quirk to entice us music snobs.” – If It’s Too Loud
“Fantastic” – Rock N Roll Fables
“...it's clear that Chelsea Spear (aka Travels with Brindle) is picking up even more momentum and speed with every single stop along the way - 'Switching Tracks' is a poppier stop, the opening warm and welcoming as it embarks on a journey of realisation.” – Tour Bus Tunes
“Melancholic mellowness.” – Turn Up The Volume
“[Linden Street’ is] as glorious and refreshing as the first crisp, autumn morning… Spear’s brand of melancholy exposes a raw humanity in a poignant and brave manner… [it’s] the closest Spear has come to achieving perfection.” – Jersey Beat
“Travels With Brindle creates harmonies that balance on the line of folk and indie-rock singer/songwriter, an artist loaded with stories to share... 'Linden Street' sets the intriguing tone and curiosity to hear what the next single of this trilogy will bring.” – I’m Music Magazine
“Power pop ukulele — you can't go wrong with this. This is great stuff!” — Marc Hurwitz, host of Marc’s Alt-Rock Playground on Mark Skin Radio
“‘Something's Wrong’ is going to immediately remind you of The Magnetic Fields, especially Claudia Gonson's songs. It has that stripped down quality along with a storytelling feel to it. It's almost even more theatrical than you would get with The Magnetic Fields despite having bare instrumentation. A lyric like ‘I read his emails by the glow of the Coke machine’ just sets a mood completely. ‘Something's Wrong’ is going to be nearly impossible to resist for many of us.” – If It’s Too Loud
“Travels With Brindle is typically known as a busking project, but ‘Linden Street’ is more alt-pop based than anything you've heard on the streets. It's a fun song that helps cement Spear as an artist you're going to want to watch out for.” – If It’s Too Loud
“Once a busker on the streets of Boston, Chelsea Spear is now performing in venues, and she’s not afraid to get a little spooky.” – The Lynn Item
“The [‘I Want U’] video, directed by Vanessa Mark and shot in Central and Harvard squares, is inspired by Spear’s experiences busking – ‘You run into a lot of interesting people, folks who maybe need a therapist as well as people who are very enthusiastic about music,’ she says – and proves that things go more smoothly with a dinosaur by your side.” – Cambridge Day
“Chelsea Spear makes her ukulele rock throughout a collection of six poignant tracks.” – Jersey Beat