Chela Harper

Bassist, Songwriter, Singer, Guitarist

Biography Chela Harper

This week we spotlight (especially for fans of heavier music) Chela Harper, former bassist for recording artists, Coal Chamber and current bassist for recording artists, White Empress.

I’ve known Chela since she was 18 and we spent a day writing some riffs together when she was about 19 or 20. I recognized she had some serious talent and was not surprised when she revealed she was the new bassist for Coal Chamber in 2011. Since then, Chela has toured the world and showed it what I already knew…she is a force to be reckoned with!

Canadian born Chela Harper is the bass player for the metal band White Empress.  Born in 1984, she began playing bass at the age of 15.  Her father, Carl Harvey, best known for his many years playing guitar in the legendary band Toots and the Maytals, bought Chela’s first bass as a birthday gift. But despite both parents coming from a reggae background, Chela always gravitated towards heavier styles of music.  For many years she played bass and fronted local metal bands, until 2011 when she joined Coal Chamber for their much anticipated reunion tours (2011-2013).  It was at this point she decided to drop her former career path in interior design and become a full time musician.

Late 2013 Chela joined forces with Cradle of Filth’s guitar player Paul Allender and Mary Zimmer of Luna Mortis to birth the theatrical, heavy grooving, dark atmospheric band, White Empress.  White Empress was picked up by Peaceville Records and they released their debut album on September 29th, 2014.

When and why did you start playing?

I began playing bass at around age 15, but technically bass wasn’t my first instrument.  Initially I started with piano and a little pair of hand drums my mom gave me as a kid.  I think I started writing “songs” as soon as I could figure out how to make noise.  I come from a family of musicians, so our house was full of various instruments.

What made you choose the bass guitar?

I’ve never really thought of myself as a bass player specifically, but it was probably the first instrument I actually played in a band.  I gravitated to the bass in my teens so that I could have an instrument to write songs on… something other than guitar. I had always loved the feeling I got from the bass at a live concert, and felt inspired to pick it up. I became very attached to it as I began practicing.  I guess you could say it turned into one of my many obsessions.

What was the first song(s) you learned?

I’m not 100% sure, but I started by learning songs from Tool, Rage Against the Machine and Deftones mostly.   I think Stinkfist was the first Tool song I learned.  Spent a lot of time just sitting in my room recording myself on my portable cassette player!

Which musicians do you admire most? Why?

That’s a loaded question! It’s hard to answer that in a paragraph.   Really, I admire so many musicians for so many different reasons.  I have a strong admiration for artists and musicians who are true to themselves, respect their fellow musicians and listeners, and don’t get caught in the wake of their own ego.  Humility, authenticity and raw emotional honesty are the most captivating to me.

If you had to recommend a great song by a band or artist, what would it be and why?

I would recommend a Canadian artist by the name of Anilah.  I’m sure I could name a few, but I’ve been taking her album on walks lately.  Her voice and her songwriting are empowering.  If you have a chance, you should listen to the song ‘Warrior’.

What kind of a role has music education played in your development as a musician?

I would say it’s played a very supportive role in my technical ability and understanding.  I am of the mind that if you wish to speak the language, you should learn the words and their meaning.

What are your fondest musical memories? In your house? In your neighborhood or town? Around the world?

I find it hard to group live performance experiences with writing experiences.  They are very different to me, so I’ll answer in two parts.

Writing is and always will be the cornerstone to my musical self.  Writing and creating are what give my life a sense of purpose and tranquility.  One of my fondest memories of writing was back in 2007, when I had just begun working under the moniker ‘Sarasvati’.  The band I was in previously had just broken up and I was feeling somewhat emotionally raw.  It motivated and inspired me to attempt an idea I had put on the back burner.  I think that was one of the most creative points in my life.  I set out to do something that I had been told would be impossible for me to do on my own.  I bought a guitar, some studio monitors along with some other gear and wrote and recorded 12 songs within a couple of months.  I was working 10-hour shifts 6 days a week. I would come home to write and record until 4 am, and then be up again at 8 am for work.  I think that experience changed how I viewed myself, but also taught me not to allow others to tell me what I was or wasn’t capable of.  It was an important part of my development.  Not to say it turned out perfect, but it got me to where I am today.

It’s hard for me to pick one favorite live/travelling moment. There have been so many, and I hope to have many more in the future.  But I think one of my fondest memories of playing live would have to be playing Soundwave in 2012.  It was the first time I had played for a crowd larger than a couple hundred.  I was paralyzed with fear for weeks up until the moment I stepped on to the stage. I have always had pretty horrible anxiety in most social situations, and public speaking is next to impossible for me.  So it was a pleasant surprise to feel completely free walking out in front of an audience that immense.

How do you balance your music with other obligations?

Haha! Great question.  I actually am not that great at it.

The music you gravitated towards is very different from your parents. Why do you think you chose a different musical path than your parents?

I don’t think I consciously tried to avoid playing reggae, I just didn’t gravitate to it as I did with rock and metal.  I had a lot of different influences growing up, but I was still a product of my peers and our surroundings.  I grew up listening to a lot of prog rock, 90’s alternative/hard rock and metal.

You’ve performed all around the world. Do you get nervous before a performance?

I do on some levels, absolutely. I’m a nervous/anxious person by nature, so it’s hard to avoid, but it doesn’t freak me out.  As long as I am prepared, I just get slightly nervous.  Truthfully, I think it would be a little weird not to get that feeling before stage.  I like it.

How do you deal with mistakes during a live performance?

Hahaha! Depends on how bad the mistake is! Usually I keep playing and try not to make a ridiculous face!  Or…maybe there is something wrong with my amp? *Walks over looking puzzled* 🙂

When did you know that you wanted to be a full time musician and what steps did you take to begin focusing on a career in music?

I’ve always wanted to be a full time musician.  I’d be lying if I said I was now!  I still work other jobs while I’m not touring, as many musicians do.

I would say 2011 was the year I really began my career as a musician though.  Prior to that, I had never really toured aside from local shows.  At the time I was working at a bedding store in Toronto and playing in a couple of local bands.  That was the year I was contacted to tour with Coal Chamber.  I’d love to say I applied or auditioned for that, but I didn’t.  A (Torontonian) friend of theirs found an old website I had made for female musicians and heard the music I had posted.  A rather random series of events, but one I’m thankful for.  I learned a lot from that experience. It paved the way for much of what I am grateful for today.

What advice would you give to our young students who want to pursue a career in music?

Depends on what kind of career you are looking to have.  There are lots of ways to turn music into a career.   But generally speaking – create a plan for yourself and work towards it every day. Personally, I think you should just do what it is that makes you feel alive.

How often and for how long do you practice? What do you work on when you practice?

I used to practice a lot.  To be honest, I play a lot more than I practice. Once every few months I’ll go crazy on a new technique or try to improve my speed and accuracy.  But for the most part “practice” just means picking up my instrument and playing.  But the truth is, you never improve if you don’t continue to practice.

Are you working on anything new? Any plans for travelling, education, album or recordings?

Currently I am focusing on finishing Sarasvati’s first full length album. What started as a solo album has now evolved into a full collaborative project.  Joe Waller (Adora Vivos) and I, have been writing together for a few years now, so it’s nice to be this close to a release.  If things go as planned, we should have the album out by the end of this year.  For those that have not heard it, the music has changed quite a bit over the years, but in general has always been influenced by world music and various styles of metal.  The new album will introduce melodeath, doom influences and darker atmospheres.

Thank you, Chela!

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