Onstage, Chelsea Wolfe stands tall, a grim reaper draped in dark fabrics. The music all but swallows atmosphere—Wolfe and her band can transform any room into a cavernous hollow with her celestial voice and manipulated, diverse guitars. One minute the drums are pounding while synths fuzz around the beat; the next, it’s just Wolfe’s soft whisper, amplified and bouncing off the ceiling. It takes most performers years to manifest the right look, but Wolfe accidentally perfected hers immediately. She was so shy when she started that she insisted on singing through a black veil.
“When I finally got the guts to let go of the veil and just make eye contact with the audience, it was very empowering,” Wolfe tells me over drinks in her current home of Los Angeles. “But my love of fashion and silhouettes did not go away. Dressing up helps me separate and prepare for the stage. I want to feel good about myself so I can just let go and be in the music.”
Following her debut release in 2010 (The Grime and the Glow, from Pendu Sound), Wolfe and her longtime coproducer Ben Chisolm gained critical media acclaim. And after years of touring with everyone from Deafheaven to Queens of the Stone Age and three more standout releases—including the most well-received LP thus far, Pain Is Beauty—Wolfe’s alternative sound has seen much of the mainstream. Her music has even been featured on HBO’s Game of Thrones. And at 31, the Northern California native is releasing her fifth and fullest studio album yet, Abyss (Sargent House). Produced by John Congleton (who has worked with musicians like St. Vincent and R. Kelly), Abyss is a dynamic orchestration of darkness that documents Wolfe’s foggy personal struggle with dreams, anxiety, and a troubling form of sleep paralysis.
“When it first started happening—heavily in my adulthood—I would scream and thrash because I thought the things in my dreams were in my room, actually coming toward me,” Wolfe explains. “It was only in the aftermath of [Abyss] that I realized how much this influenced the record.”
The new album is signature Chelsea Wolfe cathedral rock, but heavier, toying with tensions between industrial walls, and then diminishing into softer sounds. It’s the kind of album you want to play loud and alone. Wolfe grew up listening to her father’s country band. As a child, she says, she aspired to be a poet, and lyrics are still about as important to her as sound is. “I approach music in an instinctual way because I am not as technically trained as most,” she adds. “A song just has to feel right, emotionally and atmospherically. That’s my idea of perfection: when you can put headphones on and it feels like the song is swirling around you.”