Chelsea Wolfe has been a long time coming. Over the past four years, the Sacramento songstress has been staggeringly prolific, but it was with last year’s Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs that she first left her indelible mark. Now, with the release of her fourth LP, Pain Is Beauty, Wolfe has further refined her sound, stripping it of its most abrasive qualities and further exposing the bruised, gnarled heart at its centre.
Wolfe’s progress from shy ingenue distorting her work to a songwriter with a cryptic depth of feeling and emotional command has been gradual but concurrent with her own battle with public introversion. The Pain Is Beauty sleeve, for instance, “represents an intense discomfort with being in the spotlight but also fighting to overcome that,” according to Wolfe.
Playing live is a struggle in this regard. “Some nights are really magical and everything comes together in a good way and some nights are tough and I’m fighting the urge to just throw it all down and run off stage. I love writing music and I love playing music but sometimes I wish I could just be invisible when I’m up there.”
It would be a shame if that urge got the better of Wolfe because Pain Is Beauty deserves a spotlight: from the dark, gothic pulse of ‘Feral Love’ to the haunting coo that ushers ‘Lone’ to its end, it is an album of towering strength and remarkable beauty. It’s her best to date, and while it retains some of the dirging, repetitive elements of her lesser early albums there are pained detours into melody throughout. Exploring more traditional musical alleys instead of relying on rabid textures and obfuscating noise is most definitely a welcome development and further proof of Wolfe’s commitment to open herself to a larger audience and the world at large.
Unknown Rooms showcased a vulnerability that is further exposed on Pain Is Beauty. The former album’s limited acoustic palette laid both Wolfe the person and Wolfe the songwriter bare, but such a stripped approach was less challenging than you might think. “I’ve gone back and forth between sounds and styles my whole life so it wasn’t strange for me… it was more of a gathering of songs that fit under the “acoustic” label somehow and finding the right ones to live on that album. Some of them were five-years-old and some were new.”
Indeed, Pain Is Beauty initially runs far away from Unknown Room‘s can’t-look-away intimacy. The two tracks released over the summer, ‘We Hit a Wall’ and ‘The Warden’, are loud and proud, the former a stark, stabbing chronicle of a relationship at the breaking point while the latter flutters menacingly as Wolfe wails into the ether.
Though it may not be as elemental as its predecessor, it is still quite restrained at points. Sometimes in service of some galloping climax, other times to emphasise Wolfe’s veiled lyricism, but it’s clear she is still taking steps to extend herself. In this regard, she says she has only benefitted from her relationship with her label, the LA-based Sargent House, home to acts such as And So I Watch Your From Afar, Bosnian Rainbows, Tera Melos and Mylets.
“It’s a very supportive place, a place where artists can be themselves and develop. I’m grateful to have a musical home at Sargent House. They gave me the time and support I needed to get my shit together.”
Aside from a nascent yet fruitful partnership with producer and bandmate Ben Chisholm, however, very little has changed when it comes to recording for Wolfe. Chisholm has been in Wolfe’s backing band for over three years, but he has only become Wolfe’s producing partner on the last couple of LPs. Wolfe typically writes alone but trusts Chisholm to assist her in bringing her compositions to life. Like many artists, however, Wolfe has matured with experience and has learned how to bring out the best in herself irrespective of the influence of others such as Chisholm and engineer Lars Stalfors. “I’ve learned to edit myself rather than releasing the first take,” she says. “But I also still go back to original version on certain sounds or vocals every once in a while because I feel that sometimes some special energy can be captured and just can’t be re-done.”
A woman of few words, Chelsea Wolfe was never going to be an overnight sensation, but she has developed into a beguiling artist that moves between tone and genre with ease and grace. Pain Is Beauty is quite a literal title rendering moments of shocking elegance from utter darkness both emotional and musical; we can only hope it makes Wolfe’s into more than a cult concern and inches her into that dreaded spotlight slightly more. And if not, she will remain vibrant in the shadows.
Story by George Morahan