When a new minister makes a statement moralizing about the evils of homosexuality, what’s the first thing people say? If your friends are as cynical as mine: He’s gotta be gay.
That kind of jaded cynicism — expecting a public persona to be the exact opposite of someone’s personal life — is tiresome and simplistic, of course. But it’s pretty much spot-on in the case of Chelsey Flaherty.
It’s not that the Gunbarrel singer-songwriter is moralizing about anything. For Flaherty, the discrepancy is between her bold vocals, which display raw, frightening power, and the private fears and self-doubts she confesses to feeling about her ability. Her voice projects strength and intensity, but she constantly battles uncertainty about music, she says.
Flaherty is fond of the label “folk/triptonic/soulspeak,” but adjectives might work better than nouns: haunting, aching, spiritual and even, at times, deeply disturbing. Over folk-blues bass and acoustic guitar, Flaherty unleashes her powerful voice, a voice that soars and croons with raw pain and majesty.
On many tracks, she adds textures from all kinds of instruments, giving most songs the feel of an airy, ethereal soundtrack. Flaherty’s unpredictable song structures and echoing electronic instrumentation bring a healthy dose of Radiohead to a distinctly Boulder-ish folk-acoustic sound.
Guitar sets the foundation in Flaherty’s songs, but she says she simply sees the instrument as a necessity.
“I’m really not a very good guitar player. My focus is vocals,” she says. “I play the instruments because I need them.”
When Flaherty plays The Laughing Goat Nov. 26, she’ll present a stripped-down version of her music — just acoustic guitar and vocals, which should give her compelling voice more room to shine.
But Flaherty says she isn’t always ready to let it shine. She admits there are times self-doubt and fear can dominate her creative process.
“It’s a vulnerable thing,” she says of performing live.
“I’ve been extremely insecure about it, but with time and practice it gets easier to detach.”
Flaherty says insecurity can call into question even her strengths. She acknowledges, for example, the power of her voice — “That was pretty intense. That is really insane,” she says after playing a clip of a new song — yet singing can still be a source of insecurity. After she describes a friend’s opera talent, she says, “I cannot even touch that. It’s completely intimidating where that power comes from.”
“It’s amazing how we glorify others as a way of not doing it ourselves,” she says. But self-criticism is a constant issue in the back of her mind.
“I just wanna be so amazing and I know I’m not,” she says. It’s not that Flaherty isn’t proud of her work — she’s just finished creating a new website, www.anticlimax.com, that collects her poetry and music in one place. Flaherty says that’s a sign of pride and confidence, but having pride in one’s work doesn’t mean never questioning whether it’s any good.
“The voices are there: ‘Is this good enough?’” she says. A sense of self-doubt can extend to Flaherty’s performances, she says, especially when she’s covering other artists. She says during a recent live cover of Tool’s “Right in Two” — a nine-minute, intricate song in 11/8 — she began to doubt if she could pull it off.
“The whole time I was thinking, ‘Who do you think you are, playing this?’” Flaherty says.
She says she often asks herself, “Am I being sincere?” But she says she’s made strides in defining herself as an artist.
That includes letting her guitar work take the spotlight sometimes, as in an extended song she plans that includes a 20-minute guitar-centered section. Even rehearsing the song lets doubts creep in, Flaherty says. Persistence is required.
“Plowing through [helps], making sure you get through it,” she says. “I have to allow myself to get through it, like, ‘Let it do its thing, allow, allow.’”
The doubts don’t show in the power and intensity of Flaherty’s vocals, or the unique directions her music takes, defying categories as it draws from soul, folk and blues. But others sometimes give her well-meaning advice, which doesn’t always help. She’s practiced tuning out criticism, but it isn’t always easy.
“I still have moments of defensiveness,” she says. “When you tell me I should sound like someone else, you’re not giving me credit for what I’m doing.”
Most of the music, recorded in her Gunbarrel basement, draws its inspiration from Flaherty’s dreams and poetry. In her recordings, Flaherty says she doesn’t aim for hollow happiness — “It’s not always friendly or really comforting or happy, but it’s emotion” — but live she hopes the audience doesn’t leave frowning.
“Live I want a sense of closure and inspiration,” she says. “When I first started recording, my family was like, ‘Dude, this is dark. You have issues.’ I’m not necessarily making this music to please people, but I want them to like it.”
Lots of artists grapple with the same questions as Flaherty about their ability and their confidence. In fact, Flaherty says she expects to worry about her own abilities.
“It’s reassuring to hear that other artists struggle. There’s a lot of demons and [it helps] remembering everyone’s going through that,” she says. “All of it is natural. [It helps me] remembering how natural the shadow of doubt is.
“Sometimes I don’t want to play music at all,” Flaherty adds casually. But she has always overcome those waves of doubt, and she doesn’t seem likely to give in any time soon — in fact, just the opposite.
“I’m really just disappointed in myself,” she says, “for not doing enough.”