Chelsea Wolfe’s music may be dark, but don’t call it diabolical – though some take it as such.
Those spooked listeners might point to Exhibit A: the striking cover of her last long-player, 2011’s “Apokalypsis,” with its portrait of a young artist as an otherworldly creature with whited-out eyes. Yet that eerie image was simply misunderstood, explains the laconic Sacramento-born, L.A.-based singer-songwriter.
“That wasn’t intended to be scary,” Wolfe, 28, says matter-of-factly. “It was supposed to represent being enlightened, but people took it as demonic.”
Undeterred, those same rattled observers might trot out Exhibit B: songs like “Sunstorm,” the closing track of her most recent album, “Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs”: “It was a Thursday/ I ran right over/ You were laying there/ Twisted at the knees,” she sings, bouncing plaintive call-and-response vocals off a chugging piano and celestial synth and replicating the pull of a memory – or the eternal recurrence of a haunting.
That song is about hearing someone’s last words and the responsibility that comes with that,” Wolfe says. “My interpretations of things are always a little strange and skewed – I was originally inspired to write it when a good friend got in a bad accident and was near death and pulled through, and I imagined what it would be like if he died.”
So if Wolfe’s songs frighten gentle listeners, then perhaps it’s because they share something with their maker.
“A lot of my songs deal with death because it’s not something I’ve experienced much in life, and I’m a little scared of it, I think,” says Wolfe, whose father played in a country band when she was growing up. “So I explore it in music and songs. It’s my way of understanding it, I guess.”
Death and darkness lapping at the edge of town, at the borders of civilized life, saturate “Unknown Rooms,” a gathering of old and new numbers ornamented with minimal yet lyrical arrangements. Death seeps into the opener, “Flatlands,” a twanging ode to simplicity and antimaterialism; rises to the fore in the fragile fragment “I Died With You,” a whisper to a loved one; and lies in wait during the swaying, sonorous “Appalachia” which evokes a place and its denizens.
“The Appalachian people and history have always inspired me,” she says now of the latter track. “It’s really intriguing, that separation from the rest of society, and I found out last year that my grandmother had been missing for a long time and that she moved to the Ozarks – I was thinking about it.”
“Appalachia” was one of a handful of songs that Wolfe wrote for “Unknown Rooms,” which spun off a thought by Cathy Pellow, owner of Wolfe’s current label, Sargent House. Pellow mentioned that many of her favorite Wolfe songs were unreleased, floating around on YouTube or simply performed live. So the songwriter recorded more than 20 of those tunes from the past five or six years along with simpatico new ones.
“I chose ones,” she says, “that could live together on this home of an album.”
“It’ll be so much more intimate than my usual live show,” she says with a jot of trepidation. “Half of the set is just me out there, so I’m a little challenged by it.”
With King Dude. 9 p.m. Friday. $15. Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell St., S.F. (415) 885-0750. www.slimspresents.com.