photo by Kristin Cofer
Chelsea Wolfe could be described as a folk singer, but that really doesn’t capture the whole story. Though she’s now based in Los Angeles, she grew up in a musical household outside of Sacramento, California, where her father played in a country band and had a home studio. As such, she began experimenting with music at a very young age, but it wasn’t until 2010 that her debut LP The Grime And The Glow first put Wolfe on the map with its desolate folk stylings.
The follow-up, 2011’s Apokalypsis, garnered an even bigger response, as it put Wolfe’s gloomy vision through the filter of a proper studio set-up. In the wake of those albums, Wolfe began touring extensively, although a crippling struggle with stage fright initially prompted her to take the stage with a black veil over her face. Over time, those fears were conquered, and she even dialed down the doom on her acoustic third album, 2012’s Unknown Rooms, although she then veered back toward stark electronic sounds for 2013’s Pain Is Beauty.
On paper, all of this genre-hopping shouldn’t have worked, yet Wolfe has managed to forge together a uniquely cohesive sound palette that impressively borrows from black metal, drone, dark ambient and R&B. Regardless of its constituent parts, there’s no denying that Wolfe’s music is striking, which is likely why it’s been employed in numerous films and television shows. However, even with the extra exposure, there’s still a defined edge to Wolfe’s hypnotically dissonant sound. In this excerpt from her recent interview with RBMA Radio’s Kaline Thyroff, Wolfe charts a course through her career thus far.
photo by Jeff Elstone
Do you remember when and where you started to get passionate about music?
Yeah. I started really young because my dad was in a band while I was growing up, so I was kind of just naturally exposed to music, and studio, and recording, and band practice, and things like that. They would record and practice at the home studio at my dad’s house.
I started writing poems at a young age. The first way that I got into doing music was when I realized that I could set the words to music. Instantly, that was just so much fun for me. I just kind of went from there. Anything that I would write, I would start to make it into songs instead of poems.
What kind of music were you into at that time? Was it the kind of music that your father did?
Yeah, he had a country band, and he exposed me to some really cool artists. I was drawn to the honest way of songwriting, a lot of heartbreak. But I was also listening to radio R&B like Aaliyah and things like that.
Then on my mom’s side, she was introducing me to folk and a little bit of blues. She’s really into Joni Mitchell. I had a wide range of things that I was listening to at that time. I sort of formulated it into my own weird sound. It took a long time to develop from there, of course, but, at the time, I was writing songs that were this bizarre mix of Bonnie Raitt and Aaliyah or something.
When did you explore this heavier, maybe noisier kind of music?
That doesn’t really come until later. I was really just doing acoustic music, a little bit of piano. Then I started doing a band with a drummer named Jess Gowrie. She introduced me to a lot of heavier stuff, black metal, Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails and things like that. I oscillate between soft, minimal music, things that are really intimate, and the heavier side of things. I love being able to get lost in heavy atmospheres.
I heard that, before you released your first album, The Grime and the Glow, you worked with people who wanted to push you in a certain direction that you didn’t really want to go. What happened?
Well, I think part of it is that I wasn’t ready, really. I was maybe 20 years old, and I’d been writing all these overly lyrical, personal singer, songwriter type songs. Some people were trying to help me. It wasn’t a negative. It was just them pushing me to make an album and trying to sort of produce it in a certain way.
When I listen back to it, I really didn’t like it. I didn’t recognize it. The vocals were really clean and everything was too perfect. A lot of the layers and weird harmonies that I wanted to do ended up getting cut out.
Unfortunately, it was right at the era of the internet was taking over, so that’s why it still exists today. Other than that, I threw like 250 copies of the CD in the dumpster because I just didn’t feel connected to it at all.
I think it was a learning experience. I had to make something that didn’t feel right in order to find my own voice. I backed away from music for a while because I was really confused and lost, to be honest. I knew I wanted to do music, but I didn’t know exactly how.
Fortunately, I have a really good friend named Steve Vanoni. He’s a folk artist, performance artist and painter who I really admire. He invited me to do a tour in Europe in 2009. I would play an acoustic set at the end of each night. Then, as the tour went on, I would borrow an electric guitar, and a little amp, and some pedals. I was singing in all these different spaces, like big factories with amazing reverb or little art galleries with weird echoes. In that way, I really learned about my own voice and about what I wanted to do with it.
When I got home from that trip, I recorded The Grime and the Glow. I went back to my roots, recorded on a TASCAM 8-track. I needed to start from scratch in order to move forward.
Was the writing process for Apokalypsis similar?
Apokalypsis was done a little different, because after I put out The Grime and the Glow, I sort of recruited people to be in a band for the first time. Before that, I was just a solo artist, really.
So as I would write songs for Apokalypsis, we would just play them live the next night or around my hometown. By the time we recorded the album in the studio, the songs had really taken on a whole different life.
Is there anything apart from music that inspired the album?
Definitely. A lot of came from literature. Some of it was the Book of Revelations in the Bible. It’s such a weird descriptive book. I got a little obsessed with that for a minute. Once I had this word “apocalypse” in my head, I looked up it roots, and it had multiple meanings.
One of my favorites was “lifting of the veil.” It’s not so much that it’s the end of all things, it was the end of an era. It felt symbolic for me as well because when I had been playing live previous to that album, I was wearing a veil over my face. I had so much stage fright back then that I really needed to find some sort of child-like barrier to put between me and the audience. When I realized that apocalypse meant lifting of the veil, it was just so perfect and symbolic for me.
People still ask me if I’m into the occult. I’m really not.
After that, you did that collection of acoustic songs. How did that come about?
I moved to Los Angeles pretty soon after I released Apokalypsis and met Cathy from Sargent House, which is the management / record label / company that I’m on now. She noticed that I had all these acoustic songs sort of floating around on the internet for a lot of years. I’d play them live and people would record them and put them up. She had the idea to collect them.
Once I started putting those recordings together and revisiting them, I decided to write some new songs and redo some of the older ones. I think it was important to remind myself where I came from as a singer. Cathy really helped me to realize that people are down to listen to a song that’s just me and a few other instruments, really minimal, direct and intimate. I think it opened up my audience as well because, before that, I was on a label whose imagery was very occult-based, so people were associating me with that. People still ask me if I’m into the occult. I’m really not. Visually, I’m inspired by a lot of different things – a lot of darker things, and more colorful things.
After that, you did something different again. You put out an album that you initially didn’t want to put out under your own name. You considered Pain Is Beauty as kind of a side project, right?
Yeah. Around the time of Apokalypsis, Ben Chisholm joined my band. He became a really important part of the band because I found I could actually write music with him really well. Before that, I didn’t really write with other people unless it was kind of a one-off thing, and I was feeling brave. Mostly, I just would write alone and record alone. With Ben, I felt we could write together.
We started this sort of experimental electronic side project. Then we decided to try a few of them live when we did a tour, and they actually went over really well. It was kind of fun to add guitars and real drums. I found that I really like that mix.
I think the title fits your work. Do you want to talk about contrast and what that means to you?
I’ve always been really drawn to contrast. The macro and micro visuals of things, being able to see things as a whole, and telling stories that are about things that are way beyond me, stuff that has nothing to with my own life, and then things that are so personal. Every song that I write has a little part of me in it, but most of it is something that’s really outside of myself. I sort of slipped in a few things here and there that are really personal. I like to let people guess which parts are personal and which parts aren’t. I’ve always been interested in combining the two.
I think it’s important to show the dark side of things because I truly do feel that we’re living in a really fucked up world. I don’t want to only show the happy side of things. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s just not the way that I am. I’ve always been able to understand that reality is often a harsh thing. At the same time, I try to inject some sort of glimmer of hope in almost every song, whether it’s in a melody or the contrast of the harsh sounds and a prettier vocal.
Many people say that Abyss is your heaviest album. Was that your intention?
Yeah, for sure. For the past three or four years, we’ve been touring a lot. It became the thing that I really enjoyed, which is so strange compared to when I used to have to wear a veil just to get up on stage.
We’re touring with some great bands like Russian Circles and Queens of the Stone Age. They look like they’re having fun when they’re playing, and so I wanted to write songs that were fun to play. For me, at this point of my life, the heavier songs are the ones that are really fun. I made a point to have a lot of heavy guitar-based songs on the album. At the same time, I can’t help having some softer songs.
I don’t know if I’ll ever write an album that’s just one sound or one genre. I can’t help myself. I always have to throw one acoustic song on there, something like “Crazy Love.”
My record label has a farmhouse in the high desert in California. I went out there and set up a little studio and started having really intense writing sessions by myself, trying to dive really deep into myself and confront some things that I hadn’t for a while. I would come out of these sessions physically shaking and really messed up. I wrote “Abyss” to sort of remind myself not to go too deep into the darkness, and to remind myself to keep pushing forward, to not give in to anything.
I’ve struggled with sleep and dream issues my whole life. I guess I just wasn’t really conscious of it until this album.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you suffer sleep paralysis. Is that still the case?
Yeah, I still do. Honestly, I’ve struggled with sleep and dream issues my whole life. It’s always been something that torments me a bit. I guess I just wasn’t really conscious of it until this album.
Once I was done with the album, I was discussing the bio that was being written for the album with my friend Brian Cook. (He’s also from Russian Circles.) He asked me if I could send him some notes on what the album was about. I sent him this page of notes, then at the very end, I sent him one last email that said, “By the way, I have this thing called sleep paralysis where I wake up almost every day, and there’s shadow figures that are from my dreams still in the room with me. It’s really disorienting and gives me a lot of anxiety. I think that maybe it’s affected my music.”
He wrote the bio in a way where, obviously, it has influenced my music, and it made me realize, “Wow, actually this thing that I’ve been dealing with for a lot of years has really crept into my music and helped me create this dreamy reality that I’ve been writing in for so long.”
By Kaline Thyroff on February 19, 2016