The lights are low at The Smell in Los Angeles. The space is alive and way more chaotic than the mural of a serene desert scene along the tops of the walls would suggest. The pit is filled with people bouncing off the old brick walls, moshing to the band, Chase Petra, on stage. A group of kids ask the front woman, Hunter Allen, to spit on them, and she takes a drink of water and sprays it into the crowd. Fast forward a month later, and the space is empty, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In retrospect,” Allen says, “I’m like…oh fuck.”
In today’s world, where masks are employed to keep as much spit as possible from one another, it’s a little cringey. In any other scenario, it’s pretty badass.
The era of the COVID-19 pandemic would have been an understandable time for Allen to give up. Venues across California were closing their doors, both temporarily and permanently, making it extra tough for a band from Long Beach to do shows. Seeing her bandmates was becoming increasingly challenging between COVID precautions and scheduling, so writing songs together from afar wasn’t really plausible. Simply put: things were hard.
But, that’s the thing about Hunter Allen. She doesn’t give up. From the strength that resonates through her singing voice to the candidness and vulnerability she expresses in her lyrics, Allen is all about perseverance.
“A lot of the songs that I write are fairly dark. Not all of them, like some of them are funny or fun or whatever. But a lot of them are about sad things: depression, all that kind of stuff. But the thing that I hope shines through all of that is, yes, you can be sad. Yes, life can be fucking awful. But, things work out,” she says.
There’s no doubt that Allen has been through a lot. From family issues, experience with anxiety and depression and turmoil from her first band breaking up, she’s had more than her fair share of obstacles.
“I survived some really fucking horrible shit,” she says, “I wasn’t talking to my mother. I felt like I didn’t have my dad around. So, I felt really alone. I was dating somebody and hanging out with people that were not very nice. And when I lost my band, I thought I had fucking nothing.”
A little misty eyed, Allen recalls this time in her life, which was about five years ago, comparing it to where she is now.
“I made better friends, found a new, healthy relationship and started a new band, and I’m talking to my mom again! I don’t think I would have believed any of the things that have happened to me,” she pauses, “I am truly fucking proud of myself.”
That pride, resilience and passion inform her songwriting today. Her enthusiasm for music is abundantly apparent from the way she animatedly speaks with her hands and visibly lights up when she’s recalling moments on stage or stories of how the band came into its own. She is her own unique brand of stoic; a blend of grit, quirk and a little bit of edge that’s still somehow warm and inviting, like a long-lost friend who’s not afraid to kick the school bully’s ass for stealing your lunch money.
Part of that vibe undoubtedly comes from a personal philosophy she’s come to trust in:
“My big epiphany I had at some point in my life that follows me everywhere I go is: either things work out, or you die. Those are the only options. It may look like you have no idea what’s at the other side of this, but like, either you’re gonna be happy again one day, or you’re straight up gonna fucking pass away. I find comfort in that and I hope that other people know it’s not just sadness here. It’s like, sadness, but also a resolve that things are gonna be cool.”
And for Chase Petra, things are cool. The band’s Spotify streams are at an all time high, followers are skyrocketing and a second album is in the works. What’s at the center of these numbers? A little app called Tiktok.
Getting Started on Tiktok
A far cry from spitting water on fans at The Smell, Allen is often sitting cross legged on the floor holding an acoustic guitar in her Tiktoks. Rather than colorful lights cutting through the darkness, or a stage with giant speakers and a mosh pit, she’s usually singing in a bright room with her hair, half orange and half maroon, down and curly.
But make no mistake, the videos are still true to the band’s values, as the sunshine streaming in across her “Defend Roe V. Wade” and “Capitalism is a Death Cult” wall hangings showcase.
At first, Allen didn’t really expect anyone to watch her videos. Out of the millions of singer/songwriters who sing and play guitar on the app, she wasn’t sure why anyone would choose to listen to her out of all the other options. “When people on Tiktok started paying attention, I was like, what the fuck is happening?” she says, “I had 100 followers last week. Why me?”
As most good things do, the attention started with a Taylor Swift song.
“I posted a few covers just to see what would happen and nobody really noticed. But then, I posted a Taylor Swift cover. I don’t even listen to Taylor Swift that much. But I posted a Taylor Swift cover and it got over 1,000 likes. I was like, Oh, that’s cool.”
The success prompted Allen to keep posting covers, raising the frequency of her posts from monthly to weekly, and then nearly daily when followers continued to like and show support. In the past month, Allen has jumped from right around 100 followers to 155,000 and counting.
“The past month has been insane. But it’s also restored a lot of my confidence because I thought we needed all these tricks and baubles and gimmicks to make people pay attention. And I was just wrong. It’s never felt so good to be wrong.”
Finding the Balance
But the attention isn’t without its struggles.
“I feel like one of the largest hurdles of our society is how to use social media in a way that’s healthy and connects you with people but also, you don’t base your self-worth on it. It’s one of the biggest struggles for people, especially Millennials and Zoomers, it’s hard” she says.
Unlike Facebook and Instagram that allow users to share content with their friends, Tiktok makes content available to anyone on app and targets it toward people its algorithm identifies as possibly being interested in viewing. Suddenly, Allen’s videos were being streamed to a wider audience, gaining hundreds of thousands of views— far more people than she’d ever played in front of before.
“The first few days that this just started happening, I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I was stoked, but I was also so fucking anxious. Oh my gosh, like, what if this disappears tomorrow? What if this doesn’t disappear tomorrow? What if this was a one-time thing? Am I crazy? Is that really what I sound like? Like, I was fucking going through it,” she recalls.
For Allen, finding a balance and staying unapologetically herself is the key to managing her growing Tiktok presence and making the most of it for herself and the band.
“I’m trying to find this balance of like, okay, just post what you want to post, and if people don’t like it, that’s okay. Social media is so easy to overdo,” she says, “It’s just as fucking addictive as smoking and drinking coffee and doing drugs, that serotonin hit. That’s a dangerous fucking game. I’ve been trying to be very, very cautious about it and trying to ground myself as much as possible.”
Allen started Chase Petra in 2017, with longtime bestie Evan Schaid on drums. In 2018 Brooke Dickson joined the band on bass/vocals. As far as their sound, Allen says Evan coined the perfect term: “quarter life crisis pop rock.”
While the band has some things work around, they’re happy to do it. Dickson is also a band member of The Regrettes, which Chase Petra wholeheartedly supports, even though it means she sometimes can’t play with the band.
“She joined The Regrettes, which is a huge band, so it was one of the craziest things any of us had ever seen. Me and Evan were like: Dude, if you want to quit, fucking cool. This doesn’t happen to people. And that was a time that was scary, because we could’ve lost one third of this project.”
But, they pushed Dickson to take the opportunity, saying she’d be insane not to. “I think just she felt a lot of loyalty and commitment to what we were doing, and I am forever grateful to her for that. Sometimes we have people fill in for Brooke but like, yeah, obviously. When you gotta go on tour in Japan, you gotta go and tour Japan.”
The band is working on a second album now, but doesn’t feel pressure to put a date or schedule on it right away. With the world sort of in a pandemic limbo, Allen says they’re just doing what feels right and enjoying the wider audience they’ve been able to connect with online.
“I’m really grafeful people are interested enough to follow,” she says, “I’m just happy to be here.”
No matter what kind of challenges or opportunities arise from the new attention from Tiktok, they’ll be ready for whatever comes their way.
“So yeah, I don’t know. There are hard times all the time. But it’s worth it. You know? You never know what the fuck is gonna happen. You have no idea what’s gonna happen to you, to your bandmates, to yourself, to the offers you get. I didn’t know Tiktok was gonna happen. You just have to be ready. You gotta roll with the fucking punches.”
Stream Liminal by Chase Petra on Spotify: