Uneasy Pain: An Interview With Chelsea Wolfe

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Chelsea Wolfe. Photo by Charlotte Patmore.


Like Marissa Nadler and Liz Hysen of Picastro, Chelsea Wolfe is a folky, pseudo-goth singer-songwriter with connections to heavier music. To group her in a scene, or to suggest her music is not heavy simply because it’s not loud, however, is a disservice to Wolfe’s unique vision. It’s hard to describe Wolfe’s music, let alone give it a genre label; her most recent album alone, the incredible Pain is Beauty, features elements of blues, noise, industrial rock, and baroque pop. But what’s notable about Wolfe is that you, as a listener, are often emotionally confused when listening to her. You’re sad, scared, and overcome with hope, and sometimes, as in eight-and-a-half minute penultimate track “The Waves Have Come”, which was inspired by the 2011 Japanese Tsunami, all at the same time. In this sense, Wolfe’s music is very visceral. It’s simply real.

It’s seemingly contradictory, then, that following Pain is Beauty, Wolfe decided to make a very surreal short film out of songs from the album. The film, Lone, directed by acclaimed music video director Mark Pellington (Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy”; U2′s “One”), contains a loose narrative, ambiguous symbolism, and minimal, repetitive dialogue. Wolfe’s songs, however, work just as effectively as a soundtrack to a film that plays like a fever dream. “Feral Love” creeps and chugs along, while “The Waves Have Come” soundtrack a montage of natural imagery, from disasters to animals hunting. Ultimately, that Pain is Beauty both stands alone and effectively complements another piece of art is a testament to the cohesiveness of Wolfe’s statements on life, death, and everything in between. And it was a big reason that I jumped at the opportunity to interview Wolfe last month over email.

Read the interview below, edited for length and clarity.

Frontier Psychiatrist: What made you want to make a film out of songs from Pain is Beauty with Mark Pellington?

Chelsea Wolfe: It was Mark’s idea. We were going to make a music video for the song “The Waves Have Come”, and as we met to listen to the song together and talk about ideas, we ended up listening to the whole album, and he was inspired to make a film out of five songs from the album, including that song.

FP: Is this your first foray into film?

Chelsea Wolfe: I haven’t made many music videos, and this was my first time working on something like this.

FP: What makes Lone more than a series of music videos with a loose narrative?

CW: Each character represents some emotion – it’s a surreal trip through dreams and memories. Beyond having a specific story for each video, there are threads throughout the film and sections between the songs which Ben (my bandmate) and I soundtracked – they are the guiding moments that pull the story along.

FP: Does Pain is Beauty tell a “story” the same way Lone does? If so or if not, do you consider the two pieces companions, related but not quite companions, or separate artistic entities?

CW: They are separate. When I made the album, it came together with themes and certain inspirations, but I didn’t know I would be making the Lone film until after Pain is Beauty was already finished.

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A still from Mark Pellington’s Lone

FP: Lone contains a lot of religious imagery, from crosses to recurring characters looking up at the sky with their arms spread to people seemingly praying.

CW: I believe a lot of that imagery in the film was Mark’s way of showing the characters coming to terms with death, regret, and shame.

FP: At times, in Lone, you’re wearing the same or similar dress as you do on Pain is Beauty’s album cover. What was the importance of or decision-making behind Pain is Beauty’s album art?

CW: I wanted to have something familiar with me throughout the film, so I wore the different dresses that my stylist Jenni Hensler had found or made for me over the past few years and I had worn on tour.

FP: In general, Lone’s colors are muted and stark, except for the repetition of the color red. What does this color symbolize to you, both within the context of Lone or Pain is Beauty and outside of the context of art?

CW: Life, blood, lava, intensity.

FP: Throughout Lone, we see abstract forms of post-apocalyptic environments: desolate ruins, grass, and desert. But we also see closeups of concrete objects, like the toy horse. To you, do both of these types of images evoke or psychologically trigger childhood memories or memories in general?

CW: The horse for me represents forward-motion, and I did ride a lot as a child. The horse for Mark represents his father. It can mean new things for each person who watches the film. The scenes in the film are not post-apocalyptic. They are natural disasters that have taken human lives, and they are scenes of what humans do to the earth and to each other. It’s a back and forth, and I wanted that to be reflected in Pain is Beauty as well as in Lone.

FP: To me and I’m sure many others, “The Waves Have Come” is the emotional climax of both Pain is Beauty and Lone. In Lone, the song soundtracks a montage of life and death, the latter resulting from everything from natural disasters to the food chain and generally animalistic imagery. Are you trying to make the point that death, while at times tragic, is inevitable and that we shouldn’t be so afraid of it because everybody experiences it in one way or another?

CW: No. I just wanted to give a sense of overcoming: to fight through the hard times and come out on the other side stronger.

FP: Lone features the color red, rushing blood, and twin girls. Is this simply a coincidence or were you referencing or at least influenced by The Shining?

CW: The two girls represent two sides of a personality.

FP: What made you want to work with Mark Pellington?

CW: Him and my manager Cathy Pellow are old friends. He’s got a beautiful, frantic mind and understood my music. Mark is a fantastic person.

FP: Where was Lone filmed?

CW: In the high desert, a burned forest, and a beach near Los Angeles. Also at the Lee Strasberg Institute.

FP: How was your tour with Queens of the Stone Age? What was one thing you took from their live performance that you might adopt into future performances (either something concrete or abstract), and what was something you think they took from you? How about with Russian Circles? How about with True Widow?

CW: I learned a lot from touring with Queens of the Stone Age, but it’s not something easily put into words. They really own their shit. It’s inspiring. Russian Circles taught us how to tour. True Widow taught me how to party and let go a little. I love those guys and gal. I love all three of these bands.

FP: Do you feel a kinship with the metal community more so than with artists who make music more similar to yours?

CW: I feel a kinship with all sorts of people and artists, regardless of genre. I’ve never really been associated with any particular scene. I have friends from all corners, and that’s how it’s always been.

FP: What’s next for you musically or artistically in general?

CW: I am bored of myself at the moment, so after this summer’s touring, I’m going to torment and torture myself until I come up with new visions. New album will follow.

Jordan Mainzer is the Midwest Editor at Frontier Psychiatrist. He last interviewed Protomartyr. He regrets not asking Wolfe about how she feels about all of the “wolf” band names of the past ten years