Singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe and I are sitting out on the back patio of Black Boar bar in Los Angeles drinking vodka and talking about pitch shifter pedals. However, we are being interrupted by an ex-touring musician-turned-bottomless-cage-dancer-turned-shrimp-boat-fisherman.
Wolfe and I politely listen while bottomless-shrimp-interrupter-guy explains to both of us exactly how a pitch shifter works, even though we both know: a pitch shifter shifts pitch. It allows the musician to program and play multiple harmonies at the same time. It’s a really atmospheric toy, one that Wolfe has been using lately. We engage bottomless-shrimp-interrupter for a bit, then direct our conversation back to her fifth studio album Abyss (Sargent House), a masterpiece of angelic, darkly compelling songs that grow far past Wolfe’s prior material.
“You should put that in the story,” Wolfe laughs as the guy walks back inside the bar. It’s too typical: male musician hears two female musicians talking about making music and feels he has to insert himself into the conversation. It’s annoying, but it’s harmlessly funny. It’s just part of being a woman in music: some man always thinks he knows better.
Not many people know how to make a Chelsea Wolfe record better she does, but for Abyss she enlisted world-renowned producer John Congleton (Swans, St. Vincent) in full trust that he did know better. Wolfe and her band met Congleton on tour, months prior to the album, and she knew she liked him right away, but she could tell their personalities would “butt heads a bit.” However, his past work spoke volumes and conflict in the studio is almost never a bad thing. It will ebb and flow, and make a better record.
“He is a great producer so I kind of had to let go a little bit,” she explains. “My approach to the album was very warm and hazy, and [Congleton’s] was more cold. It’s probably one of the reasons [Abyss] sounds so different from the others. Sonically, he does such a good job of making sure everything has a place. I’ll mix songs into mush.”
Abyss (which drops August 7th) plays on the mantra of designer Yohji Yamamoto: “Perfection is ugly. Somewhere in the things humans make, I want to see scars, failure, disorder, distortion.” The album weaves in and out like a trance: a crafted swirl of guitars, drums, viola and synths. Songs like “Iron Moon” pull you in from the first hit, while “Crazy Love” and “After the Fall” ring out like demonic, unpredictable lullabies. Abyss is a showcase of tension and texture with Wolfe’s voice leading the way. Wolfe and her long time co-producer Ben Chisholm used it as a mirror to express the terror of the sleep paralysis she has been plagued with most of her adult life.
“I wake up, I open my eyes and figures that were in my dream are still there,” she tells me softly. (Everything about Wolfe is quiet yet unassumingly strong.) “When it first started happening I would scream, thrash because I thought there was a real person there in my room, moving towards me.” She never opened up about it to anyone, but soon told her father (a country musician himself with a home studio) and realized this wasn’t normal. “I just assumed it happened to everyone.”
Wolfe began her career almost a decade ago in her hometown of Sacramento, California. A shy kid who always felt as though she was “100 years old” at heart, Wolfe started writing songs at age nine on a simple 8-track, drawn to the pianos and guitars that were always around.
“From then on I was always writing and recording but oddly never imagined that it was something I could do for my career; for my life. I even avoided it for some reason, suppressing the part of myself that desired music and tried to go in a million different other directions,” she says. Then, in her early 20s, she met folk artist Steve Vanoni who ran an art compound called HorseCow, where Vanoni invited Wolfe to come on tour with him and helped guide her into her own musician. She returned home inspired and recorded her debut album The Grime and the Glow on her father’s 8-track. She soon started playing live, but stood out like a sore thumb in the hyper-technical math rock scene of the early 2000s.
“Everyone was doing all these things that seemed so crazy and I was just strumming and singing these emotionally raw songs. I felt like I was unequipped to be doing music,” she admits. But this alienation from a technical genre set her apart. She played with a veil for the first few years, unable to show her face due to her extreme stage fright. In 2010 she released her debut album, followed by Apokalypsis (2011) which was praised by international music media, gaining her an underground following. She signed with Sargent House alongside bands like Deafheaven, Wovenhand, Earth, and the next two albums saw her touring with Queen of the Stone Age, collaborating with designers and filmmakers (she and Mark Pellington recently released a long-form film, Lone), pushing her to a more mainstream stardom. Her single “Feral Love” was featured in Game of Thrones.
All the while, the fashion world was taking note of Wolfe’s unique style, draped fabrics, structured capes and custom-made horse-hair arm bracelets so long they drag on the ground. “Dressing up [for stage] is like armor, or a ritual for me to prepare to play the show,” Wolfe says. She and her stylist Jenni Hensler have been working together for years. “[Hesler] taught me to take risks in [fashion] and introduced me to designers who made the kinds of clothes I felt aligned with.”
Wolfe’s appeal in both her aesthetic and her music has always been mystery. Unlike many other artists today, she is very private about her personal gossip, only expressing deeply through her music instead of in interviews and social media. She is carefully reserved, which she says, was due to a few bad experiences at the beginning of her career.
“I make emotional music that some people connect with on a deep level and I’m sharing a really intimate side by being a singer and songwriter, so I feel strongly that I have to keep that separate from my home life and personal relationships, to keep them protected from each other,” she explains.
“I just want to make honest music, an honest living.”