The inimitable Chelsea Wolfe has just finished her recent US tour, so this seemed like the perfect time for Terrorizer to catch up with her. We sent Joy Shannon to quiz Chelsea on her creative process, overcoming stagefright, her collaboration with King Dude and what we can expect from her new film, ‘Lone’…
An absolute hush goes over the crowd when Chelsea Wolfe stands on stage. Her presence is otherworldly and when she sings, it seems as if even the ghosts in the rafters of the old theatre stop and listen.
Terrorizer caught Wolfe on her last US tour date in Los Angeles at the Orpheum Theatre opening for the Eels, right before she embarked on a Canadian and European tour. This was a unique tour for Wolfe, which she crafted to be a stripped-down acoustic experience, accompanied only with by her co-producer Ben Chisholm & violinist and backing vocalist Andrea Calderon. The trio created devastatingly gorgeous melodies and vocal harmonies, which didn’t shy away from moments of bold, bleak minimalism. Much of the set was played on a very darkly lit stage, transforming the spiralling Baroque architecture of LA’s Orpheum Theatre into a shadowed cave, out of which Wolfe’s voice howled.
There is something truly surreal about seeing Wolfe perform. Though her performance itself is refreshingly straightforward, her control of her voice, the intention behind her performance and her melodies are so incredibly powerful, one cannot help but be swept away into some sort of dreamscape. This is truly what happens to me when I listen to her music on CD and what makes the imagery of the film ‘Lone’, in which Wolfe collaborated with director Mark Pellington to create a surreal landscape to accompany a series of songs from her album ‘Pain Is Beauty’, so powerful. The weight of the intention behind her work in recorded form, translates to an even more arresting form live. Truly, Wolfe is not to be missed. Like her sublimely haunting music, she creates a live experience that will not be easily forgotten.
In various interviews, you’ve mentioned real world inspirations for your songs like natural disasters alongside what seems to be the human emotional response to such experiences. Do you ever find that songs have more layered meanings that you may have even first conceived when you wrote them?
CW: “Sometimes a song comes all at once and only after I look back at what I’ve written does it really reveal its meaning.”
Your songwriting and album recording process seems very organic and also, since you are so prolific, you seem like you tend to be writing all the time. Is this accurate?
CW: “Yes, I mean I’m always writing lyrics at least. On tour there’s a lot of time in the van where you often have no choice but to drift into this strange limbo, and at like, hour 11, your mind snaps and it becomes very easy to express thoughts…”
Can you reveal anything about what you may be working on for your next album?
CW: “You caught me a little too early to talk about the next album.. I know when and where I am recording.. and that the experience is going to be pretty different than before, I can say that much. I have been writing a lot for my next album since the past six months.”
Was there any particular music, song, or any experience you had as a child or young adult that made you decide to be a songwriter? How did you ultimately decide to choose this pursuit in life?
CW: “While I was growing up my dad had a country band and they had a little home studio at his house. I’d go there on the weekends and hear them recording or practising – my dad played guitar and sang backups, he’s always been great with harmonies. When I was around 9 years old I started sneaking in there and making my own songs, just with a Casio keyboard and my voice. He taught me how to record on an 8-track and I started writing songs. I learned to play the guitar and always kept writing and recording music secretly but for some reason didn’t think I was good enough to be a musician. I went to different colleges and followed different paths but music kept pulling me back to it. Eventually I gave it and started recording, releasing albums and finding it in me to play shows.”
You relocated to Los Angeles in 2011. Did you find that being around the physical location of LA has inspired your work in any way?
CW: “Typically I would answer no to this question, but looking back at the songs I wrote while I was living in this big old house near downtown LA for three years, I think sometimes it did have an effect on my music. There were helicopters that would constantly be flying around that neighborhood, often shining their lights into our windows… I wrote ‘Feral Love’ soon after I moved into that house, as well as ‘Ancestors, The Ancients’. I felt trapped in a way, and there was some anger or torment about forcing myself to live in this new place that didn’t feel like home. I recently moved an hour outside of LA to the mountains. It’s much more quiet but has new sounds. The first night I woke up to a pack of coyotes howling and running through the streets, so it’s a change.”
You’ve talked openly about stage fright often, though over the years you have been touring vastly more. How has stage fright impacted you? Does it impact your voice or other parts of your self? Have you found that it has gotten better for you? Do you have any rituals you do that help you in your performing process?
CW: “I’ve never really thought of what I had as “stage fright”… I’ve just called it that because talking about wanting to be invisible or feeling claustrophobic doesn’t make as much sense, but that’s really how it feels. I don’t lose my voice or throw up, it’s just that my skin crawls. It’s a fucked-up dichotomy that I love the energy of performing songs live and having the audience there with me but I also hate being up in front of people or being the centre of attention. At first I would wear a black veil and all-black long sleeves, it helped me get through it… In this childlike way, there was a barrier between their eyes and my eyes. When I released ‘Apokalypsis’, I wanted to be more brave and also move forward from that so it didn’t become some sort of gimmick. One meaning of that Greek word Apokalpysis is “lifting of the veil,” so I felt it was symbolic to move on and start to make eye contact. I still struggle with it sometimes but I find it’s a much better experience. I was also lucky at that time to meet my friend and stylist/costume designer Jenni Hensler who helped me explore fashion as a way to feel strong and confident onstage, rather than just covering up completely. So now I take that approach – getting ready for a show is like putting on armour. It’s a ritual to focus on the task at hand.”
How you use your voice live and on your albums is very unique. I love how it is, at times, treated as another instrument woven into the mix, and, at other times, with stunning moments of crystalline, vulnerable clarity. Was there a concept behind how your vocals were treated production-wise on ‘Pain Is Beauty’?
CW: “There’s always a lot of notes before I go into the studio, usually just simple things like “dirty” or “intimate” to try and guide an engineer’s choice of which microphone to use for my vocals or something, but also I sometimes write or demo with effects on my voice and that kind of guides the direction of the song in the first place.”
Additionally, live for this tour you are playing with vocal effects. What vocal effect processors are you using live?
CW: “I use a TC-Helicon VoiceLive Play on one mic for a lot of the newer songs and also sing through a bunch of old Boss guitar pedals on the Telefunken M80 mic. I also like Earthquaker pedals.”
I LOVE your collaboration with King Dude. How did that come about? What was the concept behind that project?
CW: “He played my first album release show in LA for ‘The Grime and the Glow’. We became friends instantly and collaborated on our first 7” in LA soon after. Recently I went up to his place Seattle for a week and we made the second one. I find I can collaborate really easily with him and I also really respect him as a musical and visual artist, so I trust his vision.”
The film ‘Lone’ is a mesmerizing work of art that felt like it captured a dreamscape full of memories and life experiences from which your songs are born. Do you feel that this is an accurate interpretation for the film’s relationship to your music (at least the work on ‘Pain Is Beauty’)?
CW: “The ‘Lone’ film is a separate work from ‘Pain is Beauty’. I didn’t go into the recording of the album knowing I’d have a whole film around it. But I think it’s cool for there to be new meaning through visuals – the story doesn’t always have to directly relate to what the lyrics mean to the person who wrote them; sometimes I’m more interested in just having imagery that makes me feel something rather than a complete story with plot and satisfying ending. There is this really frantic, beautiful vibe that Mark Pellington creates in his films and music videos… a lot of energy and a lot to take in. I instantly related to it. Very dark and truthful. ‘Lone’ became something surreal and exploratory. For us creating the film was cathartic in a strange way and we want it to be that for the viewer as well. It looks into the power of nature, family, memory and dreams.”
Your work lends itself to the visual medium of film so well, now after ‘Lone’,do you have any future plans for other film projects?
CW: “Of course! To be honest I have a lot of unreleased stuff and I’m also working on many new things. Soon…”
Interview by: Joy Shannon
You can find Chelsea Wolfe on Facebook.