L.A. songwriter talks about her bleak sound, beaten-up instruments and more

chelseawolfe Kristin_Cofer_San_Francisco

Los Angeles songwriter Chelsea Wolfe makes dark, haunting music. Her instruments sound worn and beaten. Her voice is low and fragile. Her lyrics explore themes of mythology and death: She says her song “Sunstorm” is about the intensity of being with someone when they’re about to slip away, and the responsibility of hearing their last words.

Her new album, Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs, compiles nine “once-orphaned” songs that she’s written over the past five years. While it doesn’t have the post-punk vibe of her previous album, 2011’s Apokalypsis, the new collection manages to sound just as dark and foreboding, if not more so.

In time for her performance at Tijuana’s All My Friends Music Festival on Saturday, I interviewed her over email while she’s been touring overseas: 

You’ve said in interviews that you spent a while making music before you took it seriously. How did you arrive at this bleak, dark sound? Was it something you arrived at after a while, or did you set out from the beginning?

I always understood that I wanted to make music that was honest, stark, and open, but yes, I spent a long time making music before I fully realized my vision. I felt quite lost musically and unhappy with my own work, so I stepped away from music for a while around 2008-2009. Around then I got invited on a European tour with a group of performance artists and I came back home inspired to look back to the beginning and start over. That’s why I recorded my first album, The Grime and the Glow, on my Tascam 8-track, which is what I’d always written my songs on.

When you write your songs, do you ever imagine what you’d like listeners to be doing as they listen? Do you have an intended context for your music?

I only imagine an intimate experience. I don’t listen to a lot of music, but when I do, I find something that really strikes my interest. I usually spend time listening to it alone. In that way I think someone listening to your record is more personal than the live setting.

Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something kind of medieval about some of your music. When I listen, it feels like I’m traipsing through a haunted Shakespearean forest. Is there anything about the Medieval era that you’re attracted to?

I’m very attracted to ancient times, yes. My next record I’m working on is heavy on themes of ancestry and mythology and how it translates into our modern personalities and moods.

For Unknown Rooms, what made you want to put all these “once-orphaned” songs on one disc?

I started working with [L.A.-based label and management company] Sargent House earlier this year and Cathy (Pellow) brought up that I had all these acoustic/folk songs on YouTube, etc., that were some of her favorite songs. But they had never been released, there were just live performances or old demo recordings. Anyway, she had the idea to release these old recordings, but as I was gathering them, I decided to re-approach most of them and make new recordings. Then I ended up writing new songs for the album as well.

Even though they’re acoustic, the songs on Unknown Rooms have a very oppressive, claustrophobic feel (but in a good way, of course). How did you approach recording and producing the songs?

Maybe I captured some of the feel of my surroundings—it was made in home studios and makeshift studios. Small, homey spaces. I just read Damien Echols’ book, Life After Death, and there’s a great line in there that I really resonate with: “It’s not the ghost that haunts the house; it’s the house that haunts the ghost.”

The song “Appalachia” feels really country. Did you set out to write a country tune or is that how you arranged it after writing it?

In my head a lot of my songs sound country, but this one actually came to sound country on the recording once I had my friend Daniel Denton play bass on it. Ben Chisholm (who produced the album) played drums on it as well and their playing totally changed the vibe into something different than when I first wrote the song.

I love the sound of the piano in “Sunstorm.” How did you make it sound so brutal?

It was just an old electronic piano. I appreciate instruments that are slightly fucked-up or out of tune.

What’s that keyboard-like sound on “Boyfriend”? It sounds like some kind of weird evil synthesizer.

That’s Ben’s beloved Juno. It’s been through some shit.

By Peter Holslin