It’s practically impossible to fit Chelsea Mitchell into a neat little box. Whether she’s singing folk, rock or pop, her hauntingly beautiful voice lends itself effortlessly to a wide array of genres, all of which can be heard on her band Dirty Dollhouse’s latest album, Vinyl Child.
Over coffee and peanut butter pretzels at Newtown’s Zebra Striped Whale, The Times caught up with Mitchell during some rare down time to hear how she built confidence over the years, ultimately becoming the powerful female frontwoman seen today.
Born and raised in the Newtown area, Mitchell had a flair for word play from a young age. Her third-grade self could usually be found writing poetry and actively volunteering to read her pieces in front of the class.
“I was definitely a very weird child,” she laughed. “And it’s fine. I’ve accepted it. I was strange.”
At 14, Mitchell began adding melodies to her prized poems when her father bought her a guitar, which she slowly but surely taught herself to play. After graduating from Council Rock North High School and spending some time at Bucks County Community College, Mitchell enrolled at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. Surrounded by what she called “ultra-classical” peers who sought careers in opera, Mitchell felt like the black sheep of the school.
“It was not for me. The fit wasn’t there,” she said. “I just needed to be around a more singer-songwriter kind of group.”
Rather than try to mold herself into something she wasn’t, Mitchell gave Temple University a whirl, which proved to be a perfect fit for her musical style.
“I’m more ‘figure it out as you go along’ with music. That’s my one outlet where I don’t need to have a plan,” she said. “It’s as freeform as it can be without it being avant-garde.”
This open-minded approach to songwriting is what ultimately led to the creation of Dirty Dollhouse’s original lineup. In 2012, after spending time with a rock/jazz band, Mitchell penned on a whim the traditional yet catchy folk track, “Nobody’s Daughter.”
At this point in her career, Mitchell was no stranger to the stage, but wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of being the center of attention as a solo artist. So, she called on her two friends — Philly singers Vanessa Winters and Amber Twait.
“I thought, well, they don’t play instruments but they’re such fantastic singers. We can make this work. We’re really going to be harmony heavy,” Mitchell said.
For several years, the trio worked to make a name for itself in the male-heavy local music scene by relying solely on their flawless vocals.
“This idea that three Philly female singers were starting this project that didn’t have any guys involved, I thought that was really exciting,” she said.
Mitchell still names Twait and Winters as some of her closest friends, but due to travel restrictions and other responsibilities, the two were forced to move on from Dirty Dollhouse. Being the self-described “chameleon” that she is, Mitchell regrouped and emerged from her comfort zone to take on the role of lead vocalist.
“I think it was really easy for me to step back when the girls were with me and just let the harmonies do the talking,” she said. “Now, I try to fill the space on my own instead of shrinking back. Now that I don’t have them with me, I have to be stronger.”
With a core band behind her, which includes fiance August Lutz II of local band Levee Drivers (featured in our Jan. 3 issue) on guitar, Mitchell exudes the confidence required of a female lead vocalist, something she previously struggled to achieve.
Once upon a time, “Chelsea Q,” as she called herself back in the day, was a shy teen with a big dream. Reflecting on those years, Mitchell described how on stage, her hair would fall in front of her face as she attempted to shrink behind the mic stand, singing as quietly as possible. Thankfully, a mentor named Lily, whom she met at an open mic night at World Cafe Live, gave her some blunt advice — if Mitchell wanted to be a star, she needed to start acting like it.
“It made sense,” Mitchell said. “How can you get a full breath when you’re Quasimodo-ing over your guitar?”
After that night, “Chelsea Q” was no more, with Mitchell evolving as an artist ever since. Last year, she released Dirty Dollhouse’s first full-length album Vinyl Child, which boasts a confidently unique blend of rock, pop and folk influences.
The inspiration for both the album’s title and overall ambience came after more than 12 years working at a record store. One of Mitchell’s favorite pastimes was digging through old crates to see what albums she could get her hands on. Whether it was Carly Simon or Ian & Sylvia, it didn’t matter to her.
“I love the sound of vinyl. I love the act of putting on a record and watching it spin,” she said. “The warmness of vinyl is what I was trying to achieve. Even when there’s nothing, you hear something. You hear the crackle, or the hiss.”
For Mitchell, vinyl is where a concept album truly shines. It’s harder to skip around and cherry-pick certain songs. The listener experiences each track in the mindful order the artist intended, which she wanted to be the case on Vinyl Child.
“I want to be taken on a journey,” Mitchell said. “It’s not just a bunch of stuff I threw at the wall.”
This spring, Mitchell plans to get back in the studio to record a potential EP. She’ll also hit the road to perform shows through Band Aid, a charitable organization that donates concert proceeds to the American Cancer Society.
Until then, Mitchell will be in the final planning stages for a major milestone — her upcoming spring wedding, where she’ll marry her №1 fan, Lutz.
“I’m just going to get married real quick then I’m back in the game.” ••
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org