Pop singer-songwriter Chelsea Lankes has lived through more than her share of highs and lows in the last three years. In 2014, TIME featured the then-obscure musician’s song “Secret,” jumpstarting what Lankes thought she wanted in a music career.
Spurred on by the attention paid to the guitar-driven slow dance jam, the Texas-born, Nashville-based Lankes moved to Los Angeles to pursue bigger and better things. But her two years in Los Angeles were never what she had hoped for. Despite the success of her critically praised next single, “Bullet,” and a self-titled EP that was successful in growing her fan base, record labels didn’t bite at giving her the chance she thought she wanted.
“I was … doing pretty much everything in my power to make a full-time music career a thing for me,” said Lankes, who now once again calls Nashville home. To support herself, she waitressed at Burbank café for meager tips, performed administrative tasks at a tax software company, and drove unsuspecting Uber riders, even after the release of “Bullet.” In her free time, she played as many shows as possible.
“It didn’t work out the way I wanted it to, or thought it would,” she said. “But after … really pouring myself out into it—financially and emotionally and physically, and feeling like [the EP] was the best thing I had to offer at the time … I just felt really discouraged. I was like, ‘You know, I’m kind of tired of jumping though hoops for that crowd.’”
At the same time her former dreams of a music career were fading, in March 2016, Lankes was going through a devastating breakup with a boyfriend who had cheated on her. The breakup would soon inspire her to write a new song. Seeing no other options, Lankes moved back in with her parents in Texas to rest, recharge and save some money.
“I was broke, at the end of the day,” she said. “I was like, “OK, I can’t keep this up, and be the version of myself that I really wanted to be.”
At home, Lankes used her communications degree to find work as a freelance copywriter. The jobs allowed her to express her creativity in other ways; she’s loved writing her entire life. She also took to the time to self-examine what she wanted out of her desire to continue writing music, out of her relationships with her friends and family, and her overall life goals.
“I did step away for a second, from writing, because I was admittedly a little bitter and sad,” she acknowledged. “I didn’t have the inspiration to continue to pour into it the way that I had before.”
But this is not the only thing Chelsea Lankes was doing at this time. During her eight months living at home in Texas, she was in a relationship with Nashville indie and post-rock musician Julian Dente, with whom she’d previously been friends and reconnected around the same “Bullet” was released.
“We did the long distance thing for a second, and I realized pretty quickly that it was more than just a fling, and I moved back to Nashville [in late 2016],” she said, just before announcing that the two were married in November.
“So I’m telling you, a lot happened in the last year and a half!” she said.
All this might surprise fans whose first new taste of Chelsea Lankes’ first new music in more than a year was “Matches,” a song inspired by her previous breakup.
“You made me somebody/ That I don’t even know/ I’m chasing your shadows/ And I know that you’re up to no good,” she sings on the biting syncopated track. “Boy you better shut your mouth/ Because I’m done with all your shit.”
In reality, Lankes was simply determined to finally release new music before the end of 2017, and “Matches” was the only song, of several she has in the works that she had completed. She missed the joy of writing, recording and letting others hear her music.
Her next song to be released, early in 2018, is called “Easy.” The love song, which Lankes said is a mid-tempo jam about her husband, is a much better elucidation about her current outlook on life.
“I feel like it’s really hard to write love songs without them being cheesy,” she said. “This one isn’t cheesy for me, at all. It was written in a time when I was still dating Julian, and I was so excited about the relationship, and it was just really refreshing to write about something from a really happy place in my life, and a joyful place.”
Lankes now has different goals for her music. She’s no longer out to find success with the help of a record label. That’s not to say she would decline an offer from someone who could truly add to what she is already doing, but she’s no longer willing to bend her dreams to the will of others. She’s making music because she enjoys it and because it makes her happy.
Even if her future means writing in the background, for other musicians, for TV or for film, but even if that doesn’t happen, she’ll continue to do that because it’s what she wants to do. She has found full-time marketing work in Nashville, but has begun to consider playing live again in the near future. She doesn’t have a band yet, but she and her husband played a couple of concerts together to test the waters.
“[Music] makes me feel like I have some purpose in what I’m doing in my life,” she said. “Aside from being a friend and a daughter … I really find value [in music], and I think other people do as well. I’ve gotten messages [from] people that are affected by my music and feel like it’s a soundtrack to certain times in their life. And that’s just a really special thing. I don’t want to not be a part of that just because I didn’t get this thing that I thought I wanted.”