photograph by TRAVIS SHINN
The intensely private musician shines a light on her personal life and family history to create her most real and raw work yet
This isn’t how Chelsea Wolfe remembers things at all. We’re in a corner bar in downtown Los Angeles, a noirish watering hole with a throbbing trip-hop soundtrack that she used to frequent during seven years of living and making music in the naked city. She’s returned for an afternoon visit dressed in elegant layers of vampire black; a three-legged raven tattoo is apparent on her left forearm as she hovers over a purplish mixed drink. But everything is askew as a big-screen TV blasts a sporting event and sunlight shines brightly through the long windows around her.
“I’m a little thrown. This bar used to be my favorite,” she says, having her first drink here since she moved back to the woods of Northern California a year ago. The shadows are Wolfe’s preferred comfort zone, where she makes music in smoky shades of black and gray, with intense flashes of melody and distortion that reflect what the singer-guitarist calls “the brutish side of myself.”
Her interior life has also been largely kept in the shadows. She’s revealed little of her own story in song lyrics and media interviews, begging off questions that cut too close to the personal.
“I never talk about this stuff,” Wolfe says. “My extended family — there is just a lot of darkness there. I don’t know how to get into it without being emo.”
On her fifth album, Hiss Spun, she finally turns the light on herself, reaching backward to old feelings and memories of self-destruction and the pain of watching a lover fade in a cloud of addiction. The result is her most complete and dynamic offering to date, the definitive achievement thus far of an artist who has won a diverse and devoted fan base by being hard to define, daringly spanning the worlds of goth rock, neo-folk, electronic music and metal. On Hiss Spun, Wolfe whispers and wails to sounds that are characteristically wide-ranging, shifting from noisy to ethe- real, gloomy to cinematic, but the lyrics cut deeper than ever before. On the creeping “The Culling,” she hints at some grim family history: “I’ll never tell the secrets of my family/Bled out/A cult of anonymity …” On “Scrape,” she rages of “a young nymph defiled.”
It comes up more than once, reflecting an old secret that she explains has shattered the peace among her extended family, a subject she isn’t ready to fully talk about. “It’s too big of a bomb to drop,” she says of the secret revealed to her at 19 by her maternal grandmother. “My family is all very estranged because of something that someone did to everyone in my family.”
She looks up from her drink and adds casually, “My family is pretty fucked up. The way that I came out is not like a big surprise.”
At age seven, Chelsea Wolfe wrote her first poem, already overloaded with atmosphere and observation: a rainy day, dogs barking, a siren rushing past and thoughts about where that siren might be heading. “I would space out sometimes,” she recalls. “My family was like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I was thinking about the whole world around me, and all these sounds and sadness and happiness that were happening at the same time.”
She grew up in Sacramento, California, splitting time between her mother, her grandmother, and her father and stepmother. One house overlooked a graveyard, with daily funerals of diverse denominations. Her father is a country musician who handed down one of his guitars to Wolfe and taught her how to record in his home studio. (They once sang together at a tribute to Dolly Parton.) When she turned 18, her father drove young Chelsea to get her first tattoo: a Celtic cross on her back.
“I grew up pretty fast. I had older sisters. By the time I was 11, I was drinking 40s and getting fucked up and getting in trouble and smoking weed,” she remembers. By high school, she was bored enough with drink and drugs to stop, then started experimenting with it again in her twenties.
Her early musical forays included a grungy trio called the Red Host, named after a 1911 erotic expressionist painting by Egon Schiele. Also in the group was her close friend Jess Gowrie, who plays drums in her current backing band. The songs were raw and brooding, hinting at the Wolfe music to come, but after a couple of years of playing around town, she chose a solo path. There was a falling out with Gowrie, and they were mostly out of touch for several years.
“I knew that I had to follow my own vision. I was young and still very curious about what I could do musically on my own and with other people,” Wolfe says now. “I knew that it was going to be a very painful thing. So a lot of getting over that was her forgiving me for leaving this project, and me forgiving myself for hurting a good friend.”
Her reunion with Gowrie began when Wolfe was again spending time in Sacramento after years away. Gowrie took her out regularly for karaoke, and Wolfe made Black Sabbath’s teary “Changes” and other Ozzy standards her specialty. The drummer turned her on to some Nineties music (Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, etc.) Wolfe missed the first time around. They also began experimenting with their own music again, a collaboration that evolved into a new album under the Wolfe name: Hiss Spun.
“Some of my favorite moments on the record are when she is really going wild,” Wolfe says of Gowrie, whose influence on the singer goes back a decade. “She really helped me become the frontperson that I am because I was always really shy,” Wolfe says. “She was always really encouraging and pushing me to play lead guitar parts and sing and do as much as I could. When we reunited, it was almost like a triumph: We’re friends again, we’re making music together again. I really wanted her to shine on this record.”
Another key player on several Hiss Spun tracks is guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen of Queens of the Stone Age. Wolfe met the sharp-dressed guitarist while she was opening a short run of shows with Queens in 2014. Van Leeuwen introduced himself by mixing drinks for Wolfe and her band backstage. Also on that tour, Wolfe got an essential piece of advice and encouragement from Queens leader Josh Homme.
During her shows, Wolfe often spits onstage, but was careful on that tour not to hit any Queens gear. Homme told her not to worry. “I didn’t want to fuck up their stage,” she says now. “Josh was like, ‘No, do your show fully. Be you and go for it.’ Having the backing of a band you look up to so much was really great for my confidence as a live performer. I feel like I’ve grown a lot since that tour.”
During the Hiss Spun sessions late last year, Van Leeuwen traveled out to Salem, Massachusetts, for a few days to join Wolfe at recording engineer (and Converge guitarist) Kurt Ballou’s GodCity Studios. “Instantly, it was great,” she recalls. “I was begging Kurt: ‘Please, let’s start recording and get all this shit and figure out the right direction to go.’ Troy would hit these notes that were gut-wrenching.”
It’s a descriptor that applies to Wolfe’s music in general. At their core, her songs are still inspired by the “real and raw and fucked-up” examples of Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt, American songwriters who shared a gift for authenticity and despair. “It’s the honesty of it,” she explains. “I always wanted to know there are two sides to every story. I want some brutal honesty.”
On Hiss Spun, Wolfe’s brand of brutal honesty begins with a wild screech of feedback, launching the emotional swirl of “Spun,” as electric guitars slice across a foundation of distortion and Wolfe sings, soft and soaring: “You leave me reckless, you leave me sick/I destroy myself and want it again.”
The sound is meticulously layered, shifting from delicate to grinding on “Spun,” which Ballou called “a big sloppy rock song.” The album’s first single, “16 Psyche,” follows a similar trajectory, unfolding from a brooding riff and menacingly tumbling beats. Then comes “Vex,” colliding death-metal angst with Gothic gloom, erupting with a guttural roar from guest vocalist Aaron Turner of Isis, Old Man Gloom and Sumac. “I get chills every time he comes in,” says Wolfe.
An emotional peak on the new album is “Twin Fawn,” equal parts romance and tragedy, beauty and loss. “It hurts to stay, but it hurts to stop,” Wolfe sings to an achingly gentle guitar that soon explodes with thundering wrath, as she cries: “You cut me open/You lived inside.”
“Part of that is about being in love with someone who’s addicted to drugs,” she explains. “I’ve experienced that before — trying to help that person, and at the same time the frustration when someone doesn’t want to be helped. There are a lot of love songs out there. I hope that I can write a good love song someday, but for now I tend to write songs about the more practical sides of love — when you’re actually putting work in, spending time with someone, trying to help them through something, or they’re trying to help you through something, the give and take.
“There’s definitely some anger on this album,” she continues. “There’s anger about the election and what’s to come from that. There’s anger that’s directly expressed from the viewpoint of a woman, and thinking about what my foremothers had to go through, and what I had to go through sometimes.”
On the cover of Hiss Spun, Wolfe depicts herself as a cornered animal, photographed on her knees and backed against a white wall in a black dress made of hair, head bent downward, a single eye peering dangerously forward. “I knew that I wanted to represent some kind of messiness and just being fucked up,” she says of the feral image. “I do feel like there is a lot of pressure on women artists to be like, ‘I have my shit together’ — and it’s not always like that. I’m a messy person. I’m self-destructive a lot of time. I wanted to represent that.”
A week after her visit to the bar in Los Angeles, Wolfe is on the phone, between rehearsals back home with her band. A fall tour of the U.S. is still many weeks away. Her family secret comes up, and she considers the possibility that revealing too little could lead to wild imaginings.
She hesitates to say more. “I really don’t want to hurt anyone in my family, because a lot of them were more affected by it than I was,” she says. After a moment, she explains, “Basically, my great-grandfather was a pedophile and fucked up every woman in my family. I don’t always feel that it’s my story to tell, because it was an older generation of women who had the worst of it.”
It’s a story that mostly unfolded years before her birth, but Wolfe remembers him. “I was around him when I was a little kid. So there is some blurriness there that I won’t get into.”
Bringing the story into the light, and dealing with her family history, has been part of a larger process for Wolfe. It’s not just a personal journey, but also one meant to connect with listeners dealing with their own lives and anxiety. She makes a point of talking to fans after her shows.
“I’ve never gone to therapy. This is my version of that,” she says of making art that explores life’s hidden places. “At the same time, I’m trying to write from the human experience or write about being this mess of a person who’s trying to come to terms with things, and finding strength through that. Even though there are some really dark moments on this record, all of my music is about overcoming that and pushing forward and surviving another day.”