Jeremy Zucker and Chelsea Cutler
After starting 2020 with two highly anticipated debut albums, 2021 marks a cozy-yet-triumphant return for frequent collaborators & musical pals Jeremy Zucker & Chelsea Cutler and their new EP, ‘brent ii’.
When thinking back on the records that softened the blow of the pandemic, Jeremy Zucker’s ‘love is not dying’ and Chelsea Cutler’s ‘How To Be Human’ are two of the albums that stand-out the most. There’s a reason why so many fans of Cutler are fans of Zucker and vice versa; both have been praised for the vulnerability and universality throughout the lyrics, something that many (including myself) leaned on during the low moments of 2020. Many discovered the two songwriters after the release of their 2019 EP, ‘brent,’ falling in love with the ease in which Cutler & Zucker work together and how seamlessly their voices fit with one another.
Over the summer, the duo carved out a week away and headed to upstate New York to work on what would be the follow-up to their acclaimed & much-loved EP, ‘brent’. The sequel in the Zucker/Cutler musical universe is ‘brent ii’, a 5-track EP touching on themes of love, longing, and learning how to live life in this quarantine-pandemic.
Over Zoom, 1883 caught up with the two singers, songwriters, and producers and talked all things ‘brent ii’, what it’s like to watch one another grow as artists, and why they don’t see social media as a mark of success.
It’s been almost 2 years since the release of ‘brent’. How would you describe how you’ve grown separately as artists and songwriters and together as collaborators in that time?
Jeremy: We’ve grown so much in both ways. Do you want to explain first? [Laughs]
Chelsea: Sure! Yeah, I was listening back to our live performance ‘you were good to me’ from when we performed the first part of ‘brent’ back in 2019 and I was comparing it to how we sound for the rehearsals for the live stream. Not to toot my own horn or anything but our voices sound so much more mature. I don’t know if that’s a weird thing to say about myself, but our vocal control sounds so much better and just how we sing together sounds even richer than it did before. Sonically, I think we’ve both made a lot of gains as artists. To speak to my artistry, this year I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about writing songs — not necessarily to write songs to express emotions and experiences I’m having because I’ve been very stagnant and not a lot of personal stuff is happening. I’ve been learning how to hone in and work on songwriting as an art form rather than a medium of expression. Jeremy, do you feel that way?
Jeremy: The first thing you said with listening to older performances — I cringe when I watch those now and they have millions of views! That’s what gets me so excited about Brett II and the live stream. We’ve both grown so much as artists, songwriters, and performers. Neither Chelsea and I are classically trained vocalists; we just came up and taught ourselves how to express that way. In regards to artistry, I haven’t heard you explicitly say that Chelsea — I didn’t know you were focusing more on the artistry itself rather than the expression. That’s something I struggle with because my ego is tied to my music; it almost has to be an expression for me. I’m trying to get to where Chelsea is and remove my ego from it and just make great music.
I read your statement on Instagram about ‘brent’ being something of an accident that just happened. The nice thing about both ‘brent’ projects is that it never feels like you’re trying to replicate what you’ve done before — you say it’s meant to feel like a warm hug and that’s exactly what it’s like. What was it like returning to the world of ‘brent’ with the mindset that you were coming together to make something rather than stumbling into it?
Jeremy: It was a wild ride because our mindset going in was just so excited. Brent came so easy without even really trying, so we looked at one another and said “If we were barely trying last time, what else could we do when we really try?” and so we went into it. We psyched ourselves up a bit; I was trying so hard at one point where we had to look at each other and tell one another to stop taking ourselves so seriously. We had to relax and not try to make this groundbreaking project. As soon as we did that, we started writing amazing songs. It’s true when they say as soon as you stop trying, the better you do….. That’s my life motto.
Chelsea: Yeah, it’s not to say we didn’t work remarkably hard on it but I think when we initially went into it we were feeling the pressure. Brent was a really big success for both of us, not so much for Jeremy because he’s amazing but ‘you were good to me’ is my biggest song by 100 million streams. There was a certain amount of pressure on us that we placed on ourselves. Going into it, I had thoughts like “Is this going to be as good? Is it going to be as magical?” because we had no expectations when we wrote that track. When we started to let go and move freely, songs started flowing and coming together.
Yeah, putting pressure on yourself is normal when there’s a certain level you want to reach and go even further after something like ‘brent’ and ‘you were good to me.’
Chelsea: Yeah, we didn’t create anything that sounds like ‘you were good to me’ so If eel like the music is its own entity from the first Brent project. I’m proud of us for that.
‘brent ii’ feels like a natural next step for you both; it feels a lot more mature when listening to it, too, so even if you were feeling the pressure, you can hear the growth you’ve both had in the two years. It has the same essence of ‘brent i’.
Jeremy: It’s wild because that’s exactly what we set out to do. Every day when I wake up and think about the project, I’m like we did it! We did exactly what we wanted to do! And it came out better than we ever thought it would. It’s weird because as musicians, we don’t have much control. We have the gifts we were born with and we work every day to be better and refine our skills, but at the end of the day, creativity comes from the ether. For me, it comes out of nowhere and sometimes it’s scary to feel like you don’t have control over what you’re making.
Chelsea: I get that too, especially the timing of it. It’s not unfathomable for me to go a month without writing a song and it’s not unfathomable for me to write four or five songs in a week. I was nervous when we carved out a specific week just to write because I was worried it was going to be a time where I wasn’t inspired. Sometimes you can set the conditions for everything and it doesn’t come. Working on writing as an art form rather than an expression has helped with that.
Besides the current state of the world, how did you both approach writing and recording brent ii differently than when you worked on ‘brent i’?
Jeremy: We tried to do it a bit more professionally and then we found out quickly it works better when we do it in the most basic way, face-to-face and talking it out and playing instruments.
Chelsea: Our writing process was very similar. Having success writing starts with dabbling around the piano or guitar until Jeremy hears something he likes and we tweak things around. I don’t even know why the way we write is special but it just works well between the two of us.
The song I was most taken aback by was ‘parent song’, which is a beautiful ode to your parents. The lyric “I’m so sorry for the things I do/I hope it doesn’t hurt your heart, it’s true/Go rest your mind ’cause I still need you too” was so touching and I feel like a lot of kids eventually feel something similar. What was it like writing and recording that track?
Jeremy: In a typical Chelsea way, I leave the room for 20 minutes and by the time I come back she has this amazing song written. She played the first verse and I remember it was the first song we wrote after a day or two of having a block. I started tearing up as she’s singing and we wrote the rest of it together.
Chelsea: It comes from a place when you’re in your 20s and I just turned 24 and I’m hitting my quarter-life crisis.
Jeremy: I’m turning 25! That’s fucked up!
Chelsea: It’s this transition period in a person’s life because your role as a child and parent are evolving a bit. It’s learning how to adjust to that. It must be hard for our parents who have children like us, who have careers where you’re more exposed in the public eye and things happen so fast. My parents are so loving and protective and I know it’s difficult sometimes for them, so that’s where that song was coming from. Roles are changing as we get older.
‘brooklyn boy’ and ‘the stars’ were written and sung by you both separately, but the lyric “Do you think the stars wish on us?/’Cause I think they do” ties them together in a way. Was that intentional?
Jeremy: It was the most random coincidence.
I was wondering if they connected! You wrote them separately but I needed to know if they were meant to have that specific word to tie them together for the EP.
Jeremy: No, not at all. Chelsea wrote hers completely on her own and I wrote mine on my own, too. I didn’t even realize the significance of it until it came out and people were talking about us talking about stars. [laughs]
Chelsea: I didn’t think about it either until interviews and you were explaining the voice memo and I thought what a weird coincidence.
It shows that you were in similar mindsets which is cool. You’re pulling at similar ideas even when you’re working separately in a collaborative project. Are you guys ever hesitant to release music that is personal to you?
Chelsea: I wasn’t scared to put that out because I very infrequently put out happy love songs! I’m scared when I’m putting out these really specific horrible songs about break-ups or mental health struggles. I’m happy to put out a song that’s letting people know I’m okay!
Yeah, I saw on Twitter you posted about letting people know not to be shocked when you release a happy album one day!
Chelsea: I wonder all the time! You hear “Oh I like the old Taylor Swift better” and stuff like that, so I worry about it. It’s crazy to think artists are going to be in the same headspace forever. I’m curious to see how people are going to respond to newer music. I was using songwriting as an expressive outlet before whereas now I’m writing songs for the sake of writing songs. I’m in a really good headspace and I love being able to explore it as an art form.
Speaking of debut albums: you both released your albums last year—Love Is Not Dying and How To Be Human. When I think about the music I listened to during the start of lockdown, I think about those two records. In particular, I remember going on my pandemic walks and listening to ‘lakehouse’ and the track ‘How To Be Human” on repeat. How does it feel to be giving people another body of work to help comfort them after 2020?
Jeremy: The more music I’m proud of that I can release during this time, the happier I am. It’s all we can do; we can’t tour or do anything like that. This live stream that we’re doing is the closest we can get to that right now. The fulfilling part of being an artist for me is being able to take the time to make these songs and the other half is releasing them and seeing what people are saying about them. Going on tour and having all these experiences and connecting with fans and seeing their reactions in front of you… nothing else feels better than that. When you don’t have that other half, it becomes hard to keep writing. It feels unfinished until you go and tour the music and experience it with other people.
Chelsea: I really feel disconnected from music and the fans when I’m not touring.
Yeah, and I feel like unless you’re on social media all the time you don’t know how your fans are responding to things.
Chelsea: And that’s all intangible. Our brains are not programmed or capable of processing all of what we read on social media. We must see thousands of comments and tweets a day.
Jeremy: The way we measure our success online is engagement and numbers and quantity. It’s different when you’re in person. It’s all about how the room feels and how many people are packed in. What was the look on their faces? How loud were they? How many of them were smiling, how many of them were screaming?
Chelsea: The meet and greets, too. Talking to people and hearing their stories! We miss it a lot.
I feel like the two of you could be the music version of Kate and Leo — I think you’ll be making music together, in some capacity, forever. Where do you hope this collaborative partnership takes you in the future?
Jeremy: We are already both incredibly successful in our ways, but I would love to do a Brent tour. We each have our own set and at the end, we perform together.
Chelsea: This very stripped-back beautiful cozy intimate show. I hope we just keep working together for a long time.
Jeremy: Yeah, that’d be sick.
Listen to ‘brent ii’ by Jeremy Zucker & Chelsea Cutler now!