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Poetic Songwriter Chelsea LaBate Finds Artistic Thread Through Family Truths

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Chelsea LaBate has two voices. In song, you hear the tone and vibrato of Fiona Apple, maybe even a little Billie Holiday. Then there’s LaBate’s inner voice, of resilience and sunny determination, to live and work as an artist.

“I think I have waves of feeling like I’m getting there, and then we all have whammies,” LaBate said. “For me this past year, it was my father died and I tool in my teenage brother, and I’m just now pulling out of that.”

Labate and her poetic folk songs have been fixtures in and around Asheville for eight years. She grew up in Northern Florida and began her artistic life as a muralist. She’s written poetry since she can remember, and she added music to it while living among bohemians in New York City.

“It was the first time I ever felt like I had a public voice,” she said. “The music became a binder between my private practice and what I could offer publicly.”

In 2009, LaBate followed family ties to Asheville. She found the music she wrote in New York didn’t fit into her new life in the mountains.

“I remember the first song I wrote about trees and rolling in the grass, and I was like ‘Oh dear, I’ve become an Asheville hippie,’” she said with a laugh. “And I think what was happening was I was shedding that intense kind of gotham chapter.”

A few years ago, she followed a whim to Paris, France. She made quick friends with Macaulay Culkin, of all people, in a small cluster of artists making art, music and community. This was the life she wanted.

Then, within a week, she got two phone calls that changed her path. First, her grandfather died, and she flew back to Florida for the service. Then, during her flight back to Paris, still wearing black from the funeral, LaBate got another call--that her father, whom she hadn’t spoken to in years, had died. At her first landing overseas, she turned back to the U.S.

“My story was I was always going back. The pattern is me being pulled out of my life to be a good daughter,” she said.

She came back for her father’s funeral, in Florida, and brought her 17-year-old brother, Leo, back with her to Asheville. LaBate is twenty years older, and she became a mother figure of sorts.

“The entire family struggled with (my father’s) addictions, and at that point, my brother, I really thought if I didn’t step in, his life was at risk,” she said. “I can take Leo, I have a home and I have this community.”

LaBate has Kickstarted two lush studio albums, and made a book and podcast to help songwriters come up with things to write about. LaBate’s brother returned to his stepmother this past January after a successful semester at Asheville High School, and LaBate is trying to live and work more simply now.

She mostly performs alone with her guitar, and she’s continuing work on her memoir. She wants to package it with an album full of new songs written over the past year, drawn from dozens of notebooks filled with LaBate’s handwritten verse.

“This is all coming out through the writing and through the songs, and the pressure from the family, like ‘Why aren’t you visiting your father?’ and I’m like ‘Why did he do crack?’ You don’t get both,” she said. “This is adult work. I’ve grown up. I’ve got a lot of life behind me.”

You can find LaBate performing under her stage name -- 10-Cent Poetry -- December 23 at Native Kitchen and Soul in Swannanoa and December 28 at the Block On Biltmore.

Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.
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