Was it the whistling that made SHAED’s “Trampoline” go viral? It must have been the whistling.
It starts just before the two-minute mark, layered strategically between frontwoman Chelsea Lee’s crystalline la-la-la-ing and the relentless thud of the bass drum. High as it is in the mix, it creates a moment of total weightlessness against the otherwise moody electro-pop backdrop.
Granted, it’s far from the first time whistling has elevated a pop song. Whistling catapulted an otherwise mediocre Foster the People number about shooting your classmates over their sneakers to nostalgia-playlist immortality. Paul Simon didn’t just sing about committing crimes with Julio behind the schoolyard, he whistled about it. And it’s doubtful anyone actually knows the words to Peter Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks,” but even Google knew that’s the song you meant when you typed “hipster song with the whistling” into the search bar circa 2007.
Supertramp whistled in 1979. David Bowie in 1976. John Lennon in 1971. Roy Orbison, most mournfully, and Otis Redding in 1967. “Rockin’ Robin” had it in 1958. But maybe Lauren Bacall, ever the double-entendre pioneer, was there first by way of 1944’s To Have and Have Not, gazing at Humphrey Bogart from underneath her eyelashes and suggesting he put his lips together and blow.
Pitchfork’s Philip Sherburne took pop-song whistling to task in 2016, bemoaning contemporary pop’s lip-pursing as nothing more than “packaged pep, forced jauntiness, spray-can whimsy.”
Apple, on the other hand, seems to be a fan of the pop-music whistle. In fact, the company liked the whistling in “Trampoline” enough to select the song, including a snippet of the whistling interlude, for a new MacBook Air commercial in which the computers levitate and send exaggerated ripples through cascading silk scarves.
SHAED didn’t necessarily see this — the commercial, what the commercial would do for the band’s career — coming. Apple had reached out some months earlier, expressing interest but making no commitments.
“Trampoline” wasn’t intended as a single at the outset; the bandmates considered it a tad different from their usual fare. They discovered that Apple had chosen “Trampoline” for the commercial along with the rest of the world while watching the annual keynote live stream in March. Then, by Lee’s account, the members of SHAED did what any band would do in that situation: “Called everyone. Screamed at the top of our lungs for 24 hours straight.”
For Lee, such recognition felt like a long time coming. Raised in Washington, D.C., by parents in the real estate business, she’d struggled to make headway as a solo artist after signing to Atlantic Records at age eighteen. She met bandmates and twin brothers Max and Spencer Ernst in high school, struggling in their own right after a deal with Epic Records fell through. But they became fast friends and then some: Lee and Spencer started dating around 2009. The trio would spend nights riding around in an old green Crown Victoria dubbed “The Boat.” (It has since passed away; they’re now the owners of a perfectly sensible Honda Element.)
After several years of making music separately, Lee joined the twins’ folk-rock project, the Walking Sticks, which resulted in a name change and the total abandonment of folk rock as their desired sound. It helped that the twins had just fallen out with their drummer and were eager to try making beats on their own. Together with Lee, they bought a vintage Casio keyboard at a yard sale, used it to write a handful of electro-pop songs in a basement studio, and released the results on SoundCloud.
“I came in, and this was a totally new experience for me. They had been writing together since they were, like, babies,” says Lee. “It was definitely an interesting code to crack, getting in there and being like, ‘I’m someone new, and you’ve been writing together all your lives!’ But it ended up being so magical and so fun.”
The gears started to turn. They dropped their debut EP, Just Wanna See, in 2016, a six-song collection of sparkly synth riffs set against super-sized electronic beats. They moved into a “really cute little house” in Silver Springs, Maryland, working out of a home studio “where we can be as loud as we want and we don’t have to worry about our neighbors,” says Lee. Shortly after the move, she and Spencer were wed at her grandmother’s house in Arlington, Virginia.
“It is so much togetherness,” Lee says with a laugh. “I have to strive for alone time. We are always together, which is amazing, but it’s a lot of grinding out. We’re traveling crazy hours, we’re in vans, so we do get on each other’s nerves, for sure. But essentially, we’re family at this point. It works out perfectly for us.”
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Typical days go something like this: The three get up, and Lee cooks something sizable for breakfast — eggs, pancakes, waffles — as Spotify’s Stress Relief playlist plays in the background, then they all get to work on the logistical nitty-gritty of emails, flights and scheduling before moving on to songwriting, recording and beat-making. Eventually dinnertime rolls around, a much-needed regrouping where everyone cooks and chats in the kitchen. On rare, self-imposed days off, Lee finds time to meditate and read; she’s currently working through Celeste Ng’s acclaimed suburban drama Little Fires Everywhere.
Lee is the first to admit that their close-to-home lifestyle isn’t for everyone, but it works for them.
“People are always on the outside looking in, and they’re like, ‘How does this work?’" she says. “But this is our dream, to be working together and doing music.”
The Westword Music Showcase
Saturday, June 29, Golden Triangle neighborhood, westwordshowcase.com.