Most stories about loved ones lost begin with how you met. But I can't remember the first time I met Chelsea Faith Dolan — simply because her presence in the world of Bay Area underground electronic music was ubiquitous.
From the first night I began going out in San Francisco, Chelsea was there: in the crowd; on the bill; behind the decks; on the stage. There was no mistaking her: she wore bright, colorful outfits, often with hair dyed to match. When Chelsea performed, she was always done up in brilliant, otherworldly makeup, looking like a visitor from another planet. Considering how inhumanly talented she was, that look seemed particularly apropos.
Under her stage name Cherushii, Chelsea was regularly booked as a support act for touring international headlining artists. I say without hyperbole that three times out of four, her performance outshone the main acts. She invariably performed live on hardware, programming and coaxing sound out of her machines in real time. That's no small feat, musical genius notwithstanding.
From the start, I was deeply impressed by her kindness, grace, and humility. Chelsea spoke softly, gently, and assuredly. She was endlessly generous with her time, knowledge, and resources, going out of her way to share with others, even if it meant hardship for herself.
As our friendship deepened, I learned that Chelsea and I had grown up together in San Rafael. Both of us spent untold hours at StarBase One — a video arcade, now defunct — unbeknownst to the other. If circumstances had been different, perhaps Chelsea and I would have been friends for decades.
Chelsea's talent was boundless. She possessed a deep, intimate knowledge of electronic music of all kinds — dance music certainly, and so much more. She told me she fell in love with the first generation of rave music — U.K. hardcore, jungle, breakbeat — before she was a teenager, just like I did. She soon became smitten with classic deep house — Larry Heard, Robert Owens — and it was these sounds that primarily informed her own music. Later, shortly before she passed, Chelsea began experimenting with moody, mellow textures.
Every corner of the community remembers Chelsea with love. Her mother, Colleen Dolan, remembers her as an "extraordinary person, full of exuberant joy." Her mom recounts that Chelsea's musicality began at age 3, and at age 15, she traveled solo to Japan, where she adopted the moniker Cherushii. Chelsea turned to electronic music, Colleen explains, when she realized, "it allowed her to play the complex and haunting melodies she heard in her head."
Her sister, Sabrina Dolan, says Chelsea remained unapologetic about who she was, chasing her dreams with a courage few others possess. Chelsea always accepted others no matter who they were, Sabrina recalls, and loved colorful clothes, sparkles, glitter, neon, and iridescent fabrics.
Friend and fellow DJ David Siska remarks that Chelsea's true love was music. She "lived it all day, every day," Siska says. Even if that meant working side jobs, less-than-stellar gigs, and going without basics to cover rent in the most expensive city in the U.S., Chelsea was, "absolutely at peace with this choice," Siska says, "and unrelenting and positive in making it work."
Another DJ, David Sylvester, who once booked Chelsea for a party in Portland, was in awe of her talent: "I knew she would only get bigger and bigger as time went on," Sylvester says. Meanwhile, longtime friend and musician Evelyn Malinowski recounts that when she and Chelsea visited Berlin, Chelsea wrote an entire track — "Nightsteps" — while waiting for Evelyn to arrive at the flat they were sharing, a protracted pause that turned into an artistic boon.
Chelsea's live-in partner and musical collaborator, David Last, remembers what it was like working with her: "She wasn't busy copying any particular style. Working together, it was just our personalities, winding playfully across chords, rhythms, and melody. Chelsea was never afraid to write music into her music."
Chelsea worked tirelessly to promote, empower, and support women in electronic music. This year, Chelsea performed and presented an educational workshop at Daphne, a showcase for female electronic musicians hosted in Chicago, arranged by renowned DJ Marea Stamper, aka The Black Madonna.
Stamper emphasizes how "special, rare and important she was for women in dance music in a wider sense. She was the kind of woman that other women wanted to be and best of all, she was accessible enough that she made you feel it might be possible to someday know what she knew. She was the kind of woman I wanted younger women to meet."
Chelsea's longtime roommate, friend, and fellow electronic musician Sepehr Alimagham summarizes her radiance. Chelsea filled every room she entered with “color and vibrance," Alimagham says, making "every room a painting, every room a garden, every room a waterfall."
The last time I saw Chelsea was Thursday, Dec. 1 — the night before the Oakland warehouse fire. I went to visit her at her house. On her way out the door, Chelsea gave me a high-five. Sometimes high-fives are awkward, but this one wasn't. She nailed it — right in the middle of my palm. I can still feel her.