Call her goth, metal or doom pop. Just don’t call her pedestrian. California-based musician and songwriter Chelsea Wolfe naturally defies categorization, siphoning influences as varied as Neurosis, Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails and Tricky into her brooding new album Hiss Spun. The music spans distorted dirges, electronic ephemera and folksy tranquility, with her siren soprano vocals contrasting with the grittiness of the music, creating a striking contrast that has helped define her sound for many years.
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When Wolfe spoke with Billboard, she was in the midst of heavy rehearsals for her next U.S. tour, which commences on Sept. 28 at the Constellation Room in Santa Ana, Calif. The touring lineup includes Wolfe, drummer Jess Gowrie, bassist Ben Chisholm and a guitarist filling in for Bryan Tulao, who has been pulled away by family commitments.
“We’re having to retrain a new person, which is difficult but also keeps things interesting and keeps us on our toes as musicians,” notes Wolfe. Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, who guests on the new album, will join them for a couple of Southern California shows.
Despite creating highly personal, rather uncommercial music that embraces a dark aesthetic, Chelsea Wolfe has received some high profile recognition lately. Her music has appeared in promo teasers for Game of Thrones, How to Get Away With Murder and Fear the Walking Dead. Jaguar used “Carrion Flowers” from 2015’s Abyss in a new commercial. And the title of said song was inspired by an essential oil scent she created for herself and wore and sold on tour a few years ago, which was a prelude for her two new products (Ash and Ember Eye Soot and Enchanted Lip Sheer), available now through Rituel de Filles.
Chelsea Wolfe Drops Haunting Track ‘Grey Days’: Exclusive Song Premiere
“It’s fun to branch out a little bit sometimes, and I think it wakes up your creative brain a little bit too,” says Wolfe of her cosmetic endeavors.
First and foremost is the music itself. Wolfe calls her sixth studio release, Hiss Spun, her rock album, even though some people have immediately deemed it metal. Goth is another tag she gets labeled with even though, visual imagery aside, she does not identify with that scene. People have come up with new tags to describe her music, such as doom pop or doom folk.
“I think there are a lot of different descriptions out there for what I do,” says Wolfe. “I think that most of them are probably valid depending upon what song of mine you’re listening to.”
Hiss Spun was recorded by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou. The two met when she was asked last year to join the Massachusetts metal band onstage for a few European shows to perform reworked Converge songs under the group name Blood Moon, for which she sang and played some acoustic guitar. During tour rehearsals at Ballou’s GodCity Studio in Salem, Mass., she became enamored with the space and ultimately recorded the new album there. The set up with an apartment above the studio appealed to Wolfe and reminded her of home.
“I work in my home studio whenever inspiration hits me,” she explains. “I like that vibe of being able to get out of bed at three in the morning and work on something if you’re feeling it.”
The main Hiss Spun recording lineup includes Wolfe, Gowrie, Chisholm and Van Leeuwen. Wolfe considers Chisholm her co-producer because they worked closely while demoing and fleshing out the material before the studio sessions and she jammed with him and Gowrie, which is not her typical approach. “I like to write alone and send things back and forth to Ben or whoever I’m working with at the time, but for this one I felt really comfortable with Jess,” says Wolfe.
Some interesting sonic bits were injected into the album. For “Particle Flux,” Wolfe sampled the sound of her fingers moving over a Walt Whitman book that she was reading while writing the song. While the group was visiting her former canyon home north of L.A., Chisholm recorded the sounds of coyotes howling and motorcycles riding by. “He ended up manipulating them and making them into this weird beat that we used on the breakdown for ‘The Culling,’” says Wolfe. “That was a weird one, but I really like how that turned out. It’s nice to create new sounds that people haven’t used before.”
The musical and lyrical fodder for Hiss Spun arose from two reunions; one with her friend and former bandmate, drummer Jess Gowrie, and the other with her hometown of Sacramento, which she lives near again.
Close friends Gowrie and Wolfe were in the band Red Host a decade ago, and the drummer taught Wolfe a lot about music and helped her gain confidence as a frontwoman. But then Wolfe departed to launch her solo project, which she says was a difficult decision to make, and the two friends did not speak for seven years. But a meeting on New Year’s Eve 2014 was the catalyst to renew their friendship and rekindle their strong musical chemistry.
Another personal reconnection came about when Wolfe relocated outside of Sacramento last year. “A lot of this album ended up being about that in a way – just being around old friends, hanging out in old haunts and being around family,” says Wolfe. “It definitely dug up a lot of memories and unfinished business.”
Part of what gives Wolfe her mystique is her intensely private nature. She keeps personal matters close to the vest, although in a recent Revolver interview she opened up about a patriarchal family figure with disturbing sexual predilections who harmed the female side of her family. Thus what she rails about in album closer “Scrape” clearly comes from an intensely personal place. “Scrape” is probably her most intense vocal performance to date as she pushes both her emotional and vocal range.
Wolfe was surprised by how personal her Hiss Spun lyrics became. She says her early, pre-studio music tackled more common concepts like breakup songs.
“I didn’t just want to write about my own life,” she confesses. “But once you get older and you really start to process things that happened to you, things that you did and your memories, it feels a little more poignant to write about because I’ve processed things and I’m dealing with them and dealing with the aftermath of certain things. There is something about looking back at your own life rather than writing about it as it happens that makes a little more sense to me.”
Many of the album’s lyrics address personal views without being overt about their origins. “I think there’s a line here or there that actually reflects the state of the world, but a lot of it is really internal this time,” says the singer, who reveals that she is already working on her next album. “I won’t say what it is yet, but it’s definitely different from what I’m doing right now.”
Wolfe’s last studio release, Abyss, hit the Top 200 at No. 130 for a single week. As she notes, she is not getting played on the radio or being asked to do late night shows, but word of mouth is helping build her fanbase, which has resulted in a slow growth that she feels comfortable with. “I think it’s more of my pace,” admits Wolfe. “I’m kind of a slow person. Because I’m doing it my own way and not adhering to one specific genre, it does make it a little bit more difficult to move forward. But I think I’ve done some really cool things so I’m happy.”
One imagines that if Wolfe stripped away the bellowing male vocals of the new song “Vex” and tweaked it a bit that she could have a potentially commercial single. But she is not sure she could write a really good pop song. The musician needs to have that crunchiness in her tunes.
“I do,” concurs Wolfe. “I don’t know what it is, but if something sounds too perfect I just want to tear a hole in it and fuck it up a little bit.”