photo by Kristin Cofer // words by Dianca Potts
Last January, GIRLSCHOOL, an LA-based collective dedicated to supporting women in music, celebrated its inaugural music festival at Bootleg Theater. Featuring acts like Gothic Tropic and Maria Taylor, GIRLSCHOOL’s first festival confirmed that powerful things can happen when women collaborate for the greater good. This year, founder Anna Bulbrook and co-founder Jasmine Lywen-Dill hope to conjure a similar spirit of solidarity and community. “It’s my ultimate dream to have a nexus of incredible women thinkers and doers around us,” Anna says. This year’s lineup is not only intersectional but also sonically diverse. “In today’s political climate, it especially matters to have these outlets that unify and celebrate women,” Jasmine says. “I hope [we] can be a vehicle for change and for raising awareness of girl-positive organizations in the arts.” Set to kick off this Friday, GIRLSCHOOL’s weekend extravaganza is exactly what we need right now. I was lucky enough to catch up with the festival’s headliner, the forever busy and immensely talented Chelsea Wolfe. Best known for haunting dirges like “Dragged Out” and hypnotic ballads like “Mer” and “Feral Love,” Chelsea’s fusion of folklore, Jungian theory, and gothic motifs is as beautiful as it is brooding. A week before the festival, I chatted with Chelsea — who’s currently working on a new album — about the importance of taking credit for your work and why darkness isn’t always a bad thing.
Dianca Potts: What did music mean to you when you were growing up?
Chelsea Wolfe: When I was a kid, my parents divorced, and my mom was always a creative person herself, making clothes, drawing, and painting, and she’d listen to great music like Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt. On the weekends I’d go to my dad’s house, where he had a home studio for recording and practicing with the country band he had with my stepmom. Hearing them harmonize and work on Fleetwood Mac covers was my first inspiration to write my own songs.
I really connected with Lindsey Buckingham’s voice. I think I took some vocal styling from him back then that I still use today. Over the years, I’ve been drawn to singers and bands with androgynous voices — Nina Simone, Placebo, and bands who go to extremes musically, like Sunn O))) and Swans. I find some comfort in things that aren’t easy to define, maybe because I always felt like I was an in-between myself.
DP: In a feature for Under the Radar, you mentioned that in the past you haven’t given yourself enough credit for the work that you do. I feel like this is something that a lot of creatives, especially women, struggle with. What advice would you give to younger creatives who feel hesitant to celebrate their accomplishments in fear of coming off as prideful?
CW: I’m glad you’re bringing that feature up. I spent a lot of time doing a full interview about “sexism and misogyny in the music industry” and they only used that one line from it, of course. I do think there’s kind of an unspoken societal thing where we’re not supposed to talk about our accomplishments very much. I always felt like my work spoke for itself, and I wanted people to be able to relate to it in their own way, without everything being over-explained. But as I slowly gained more of an audience, someone’s gonna be offended by what you’re doing, and there was a person who tried to start a campaign against me, making false claims of what I was inspired by or what my music and videos meant. I didn’t fight back publicly because, well, I’d rather spend my time on music than Internet drama, but all my friends in real life and in the music industry who knew about this reached out to me with messages of love and support and reminders that they know I’ve always followed my own path and been true to myself. That was really heartening when I was bummed about being attacked like that. I learned that I need to take credit for my work more publicly, and be a little more outgoing with what I share about myself and my music.
My advice to younger female and nonbinary artists is this: take credit for your work, always and rigorously, otherwise some jerk might come along and try to take the credit for you, or they’ll say that a man wrote your songs for you. Fuck that. I think Grimes is a great example of someone who makes sure it’s known that her work, ideas, and production are her own. Follow her lead.
DP: Your music is often described as dark. What do you feel is the value of exploring the dark side of emotion and human experience?
CW: From a young age, I wanted to know both sides to every story. I used to have these recurring nightmares of macro and micro. I would be in a white room with an object in the middle, like a book or a telephone, and the object would grow really, really large and fill the room, smashing me against the wall, and then the object would grow small again, back and forth. It was maddening, but I think it kind of represents how I approach writing songs. I’m hyperaware of the macro, the world as a whole, and all the fucked-up things that are happening at the same time: bombings, rapes, suicides. That is all really dark stuff to write about, but it’s not like I’m making it up. At the same time, I’m also able to focus in on my own life or community and write a song that comes from there. It’s all a contrast of the hideousness of life and the beauty of life. My first album, The Grime and the Glow, was kind of the beginning of this exploration in contrasts.
DP: How did you get involved with GIRLSCHOOL?
CW: Through the Echo Society, which is a group of composers who put together this great night of original music with an orchestra and guest collaborators each year. They reached out to me to compose a piece, which I did with the help of my bandmate Ben Chisholm, since he’s a master of arranging string samples and percussive elements. Anna Bulbrook was running the Echo Society show in LA. On day one of the rehearsals, I was in the wrong place at the right time, and Anna was so kind as to relocate me to the place I was supposed to be.
On the drive there, we got to know each other a bit, and she told me about GIRLSCHOOL. I had heard of it before and was blown away to be talking with the person who started it. My drummer Jess Gowrie and I had just been talking about how inspiring it is to see women musicians onstage when you’re a young, aspiring female musician, and we were hoping that we could help do the same for the younger generation. So when Anna said there was a festival involved, I was like, “If you’d ever want my band to play, I’d be honored.”
DP: What makes organizations like GIRLSCHOOL so vital?
CW: They normalize the idea of an instrument in a young woman’s hands, or a woman being the leader of a band. And of course they encourage young people to explore music and the arts and gain confidence and self-acceptance through that. I know I grew up feeling the pressure to be society’s typical, subdued definition of “feminine,” even though I never felt that way inside, and my body type has never represented that either. It was difficult for me to assert myself as an artist when I was starting out. I’m here representing for the late bloomers. Nowadays I think a lot of younger folks are moving past all those antiquated gender restraints much quicker than I did, which is great to see.