“Living here feels a bit like The Walking Dead,” says Chelsea Wolfe.

The 31-year-old artist moved to the mountains north of Los Angeles to record her latest album, Abyss. She wanted out of the city, and thirsted for a place that was quiet, desolate and surrounded by nature.

She set up shop up in a big empty barn, recorded her demos, and never left the area. In fact, she can’t imagine herself living in a city ever again. She now lives nestled in a blend of high desert and green mountains and is at peace with her decision, especially since she can finally sleep.

Wolfe, whose trademark music blends drone, metal and folk, has suffered from bouts of sleep paralysis since she was a child – an experience which created the basis of her new album. The 11 tracks are strung together to make the listener feel like she’s diving head first into her nightmares, only to re-emerge gasping for air and take the plunge again.

Wolfe wanted to capture that specific feeling of waking up briefly, and falling back asleep into the same dream state (the end of the album’s eponymous song, a full minute and a half of strings punctuated by piano, evoke someone finally losing their mind).

Sleep paralysis – a transitional state between wakefulness and sleep – affects people differently: some awake only to find it impossible to move a muscle, some see apparitions – grim reapers, ghosts or demonic figures. Others have terrifying auditory hallucinations: a presence clawing at their door, or an entity whispering threats in their ear.

I asked Wolfe about how the condition affected her. She described it as “waking up, and you can move your body and your eyes are open, but there are figures and people from your dreams still present in the room”.

While artists and writers throughout history have referred to the phenomenon as “the stranger”, Wolfe calls it “shadow figures”, for it’s how they appeared to her, slowly making their way towards her bed in the dark. At times, the apparitions were so real that she lashed out, and even grabbed a knife. “It’s an instant adrenaline rush at four in the morning, so it’s really strange,” she says. Worst of all, the feeling often lingered, creeping into her day, not leaving her side.

Living far away from the city, with all its noises and lights, has helped greatly. These days, she merely has recurring dreams – almost always a “life or death type of situation”.

With Abyss, Wolfe had carte blanche in the artwork department (she says Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare was her inspiration for the cover). This freedom might explain why her entire output – from her studio music to her live shows, album covers and outfit choices – make sense taken as a whole. So to echo the dark corners of Abyss, Wolfe stripped things back, wearing mostly black and utilitarian clothing.

It wasn’t always this way. When she first started performing live in her hometown, she found herself intensely nervous. One day, as she was scheduled to play a small show at a bookshop, she found that she couldn’t do it. Filled with angst and wondering how she was ever going to perform, she remembered the image of women in a Victorian funeral procession, dressed in long black garments that hid them from view.

She cut a veil out of an old lace skirt, and walked on stage wearing it. It worked. “I found that in a really childlike way, it helped me to feel more free, like if they couldn’t see me I couldn’t see them. So I stuck with the veil for a while, but eventually realized I wanted to be more brave, and started making eye contact with the crowd,” she recalls. This need to make her art public, countered by her intense need for solitude, has always followed her. “My entire life is a dichotomy,” she says.

For her last few releases, she explored clothing and fashion differently, using it “almost as armor, to feel stronger”. Dressing for a show felt like a calming ritual. It’s an art she takes pride in, and says she has learned a lot from the greats: David Bowie, Nina Simone, even The White Stripes. It’s what separates her output from singers, and puts her squarely in the “artist” category: her art is all encompassing, it inhabits her. Her live performances, her clothes, her Instagram: it is carefully curated and highly coherent.

Right now, Wolfe is getting ready to embark on a US tour starting at the end of the month, followed by Europe in October. Away from her cocoon in the California mountains, let’s hope slumber will come easily to her this time around.

(via The Guardian)