Chelsey Sanchez Parachuting Adventure Got Her Singing Career out of Free-Fall
Chelsey Sanchez sits at the front of a dimly lit café backroom holding a borrowed guitar in her lap. Seoul, her regular guitar, is at the shop this day. Her pose is stoic: legs crossed, a knee-high boot kicked out front, while a salmon-colored dress drapes down around her.
Even before she sings, all eyes and ears are on her.
“Chelsey is larger-than-life; from her tall stature to her captivating stage presence,” says Nathan Douglas, a Long Beach songwriter and fellow singer, who met Sanchez at an open mic last year.
When she breaks into song, her voice takes over the room, sucking all the air out of it. Literally — one is left wondering how big a breath is needed in order to summon such a big voice.
Blue and brooding, she peppers her vocals with ululation and full-throated growls. Some say she’s a throwback to Nina Simone or Joan Baez. But she’s quick to remind them that it’s all her.
“The worst thing you can tell a singer,” the 21-year-old Sanchez says, “is that they sound like someone else.”
A songstress since she was 5, the first number she wrote was titled “Turn Off That Heater.” Set to the tune of “Viva Las Vegas,” it was about her mom’s habit of keeping the house too warm.
Her love for Elvis carried through to elementary school where she would serenade students on the playground–mostly unsolicited, the Mexican-born singer now admits in hindsight.
Sanchez discovered her love for performing in second grade after her mom entered her in a talent show. In middle school she started to seriously write music because she sounded funny trying to sing the Britney Spears songs popular amongst her friends.
“I disliked singing to karaoke tracks. My voice was always a little different. I didn’t have that pop voice,” Sanchez says. “I had this deeper, darker voice. I hated it for a long time”
When she was 13, she started playing in bars. Because she was underage, sometimes the bar owners wouldn’t let her inside. Instead she’d have to stand out in the alleyway while her mic and guitar were hooked up to the PA system.
Back at the café, and in between songs, she tells the audience about attending the Berklee School of Music in Boston after high school but dropping out after a year because she was so broke.
“I didn’t learn much there,” she says. “ I have a heart, a brain, and ears. I put them together myself.”
After coming back to Long Beach in 2014, she opened for Aaron Carter at the Federal Bar, a gig she got by responding to a Craigslist ad. But soon after, the opportunities dried up.
“I was shy and didn’t really know how to network,” Sanchez says.
She found herself working stints at Goodwill, Target, Chipotle and a jewelry boutique. All jobs she hated. She even worked as a security guard at the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach.
“I had to stop playing music to work and pay rent,” she says.
She only began to consider music again after receiving encouragement from some of the comics at the club. But what finally made her take the plunge was going skydiving, a big deal for someone as terrified of heights as Sanchez.
“They open up the flap [in the plane] and the sky literally sucks you,” she says. “I’m thinking we can’t go any higher and they say, ‘We’re halfway there.’”
Her fear of heights is so bad that standing on a chair makes her tremble. But after the initial 30 seconds of freefalling at 120 miles an hour, she started to smile uncontrollably.
“You’re looking out and you feel no fear, just complete serenity,” she says.
Skydiving became a major turning point in Sanchez’s life and an experience she sings about in her song “Optional.”
After making it back to earth, Sanchez quit her job and started performing at open mics around Long Beach, such as DiPiazza’s and Viento y Agua. Eventually she landed paid gigs and even a residency at The Wine Bar on Ocean Boulevard, which ended last week.
“She has a lot of jazz and soul in her that seeps out into her performance,” says Rene Marino, a local singer-songwriter who has shared a bill with Sanchez.
When she performs, it’s not uncommon to hear audience members making a punched-in-the-gut grunt, sort of like at poetry readings. Others whisper an astonished “wow.”
“It’s crazy that something I wrote at two o’clock in the morning, on the floor, just gross, and crying could impact someone else,” Sanchez says.
After wrapping up her set at the café, a man from the audience walks by her as she’s at a table having tea with friends. He stops and compliments her voice but tells her to give up jazz otherwise she’ll only ever be a barroom singer.
Sanchez laughs shyly and the man walks away. He doesn’t understand that she didn’t choose the jazz; the jazz choose her.
You can preview and purchase Chelsey Sanchez’s self-titled EP at chelseysanchez.bandcamp.com/releases
You can catch her live at Bogarts Coffee Shop on March 11 from 7:30-9:30 p.m. and at The Wine Bar on March 16 from 7-10 p.m.