Stage fright hasn’t sidelined singer Chelsea Wolfe
words and photos by Chris Parks
Washington (CNN) – In a small, dark club in this city’s hip U Street corridor, Chelsea Wolfe stands at a microphone before a sold-out crowd, swaying back and forth as she sings and plays guitar.
She often closes her eyes, seemingly engrossed in her dark, atmospheric music. Between songs, she keeps her banter brief, offering an occasional “thank you.”
After watching Wolfe play several songs from her new album, you might not guess that she grapples with anxiety that can make it difficult for her to perform live.
“Performing was something that I had to learn. I could barely handle being onstage for the first few years, and it’s the reason it took me so long to start my career as a musician,” she said. “I started writing songs when I was 9 years old but didn’t release an album or do a tour until I was 25.”
Now 32, Wolfe is wrapping up a tour that has taken her across the U.S. and Europe and added to her cult-like but growing popularity. Last year, she got a major boost when her song “Feral Love” was featured in the trailer for season 4 of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” She got even more attention last summer, when her song “Carrion Flowers” appeared in a trailer for AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead.”
Chelsea Wolfe practices backstage before performing at a club in Washington, D.C.
“This time Wolfe fully embraces the eerie darkness that’s always trailed her work. … (She) makes a convincing case to follow her into the underworld,” wrote Spin’s Harley Brown in a review.
But getting to this point hasn’t been easy.
Wolfe grew up in Sacramento, California, where her father was in a country band and used to sneak into his home recording studio to record herself playing what she calls “goth Casio music.” A self-described hermit, Wolfe says her career began slowly because of her insistence not to “force” her music on anyone.
She posted songs on social sites such as Bandcamp and YouTube, recorded an “overproduced, terrible album” and then took a break from music, disappointed with the musical direction in which she was headed.
But she kept coming back.
“I tried other paths. But nothing fulfilled me like music, and enough friends and family encouraged me to start sharing my songs and playing shows that I finally gave it a go,” she said.
A rigorous tour schedule means Wolfe spends most of her waking hours preparing for that night’s show.
Wolfe’s haunting music, filled with melancholy lyrics and distorted guitars, has been described as everything from doom metal to gothic folk. (She says her emotionally charged songs reflect “the horrors of reality.”) Her first official release, 2010’s “The Grime and The Glow,” had an experimental, lo-fidelity sound that showcased her vocal prowess.
But in her formative years as a performer, there were occasions where getting up on stage was not an option. Anxiety plagued her performances, and even playing in her hometown bookstore proved to be too intimidating. When Wolfe did perform, she wore all black and a dark veil over her face.
“The veil was a childlike way for me to feel like there was some sort of barrier between the audience and I when I first started playing shows,” she said. “I wanted to hide. It helped, but I also wanted to overcome that and push myself to be a stronger person and performer.”
“I’d rather smoke a little bit and have the focus and calm that comes with it than dull my senses with big pharma pills,” she said. “I don’t smoke on tour because of my voice, but I’ll have a cannabis lozenge or an edible on a day off to help relax my nerves.”
Performing solo for small audiences can still trigger anxieties, however.
In September, Wolfe did a solo gig for a handful of people as part of National Public Radio’s “Tiny Desk” concert series. Visibly nervous and admittedly tired, she pushed through several songs from her new album. Even a shot of tequila from a staffer seemed to do little to calm her nerves.
“Certain intimate situations are more difficult for me. Our tour schedule has been a bit grueling, and we’re in a van, not a bus, so we’re running on very little sleep, which starts to break you down very quickly,” said the singer, who now lives in the mountains north of Los Angeles.
“I couldn’t sing to the best of my ability, and my heart was fluttering like crazy, so I was more nervous than usual,” Wolfe added. “If I’m playing a big venue with my band behind me, I can sort of hide it a little better. … I can lose myself.”
While Wolfe seems at ease now, she used to perform with a black veil over her face.
Wolfe says she now fully enjoys performing for fans. She no longer wears a veil on stage, instead using hair accessories to highlight her face rather than hiding it.
“I’ve learned to use clothing and fashion as armor – but not to hide behind it,” she said with a trace of irony. “You have to pull yourself together in order to fall apart onstage.”
But while her anxieties are more manageable, the introverted songwriter acknowledges the possibility that they could still cripple her touring career.
“If there comes a point when I feel I can’t properly perform anymore, I’ll stop doing that aspect of it,” she said. “But I plan to keep recording always, because it’s what I love. I’ll never stop making music.”