An Interview with Chelsea Wolfe
I first encountered Chelsea Wolfe’s haunting, ritualistic music at the tail end of 2011, and like many of her fans, I was immediately spellbound by her audible cabinet of curiosities. While the sonic landscapes are at times rife with a beautiful esoteric energy, her lyrics have the texture of the deeply personal. Seeing her perform live, during which she so intensely bares herself to her audience that the music is nearly palpable, only cemented my interest in both the music and the lady with the otherworldly eyes behind it.
I’ve heard your newest offering, ‘Unknown Rooms’ described as being a record full of “orphaned” songs and how it also may be considered a “stop gap” between the styles of your previous records and your forthcoming one. Can you talk about how these songs were conjured and how you feel it bridges the gap between albums?
It wasn’t a purposeful thing. I had started working with a new record label and they suggested that I take all my acoustic songs that were just sort of floating around on the internet and release them as an album. I was into the idea so I started gathering the old recordings and figuring out which ones felt right to put on the album. After doing that I ended up writing some new acoustic and folk songs so I decided to add those to the album and also re-record some of the older ones with a new approach or arrangement so they felt a little more cohesive. My next album will sound a little different too but I’m always experimenting with sounds and genres, so I think it’s a natural progression.
Your personal fashion is very magnetic; feminine and yet imbued with a dark, striking drama. Can you talk about some of the choices you make when traveling and performing? Do you believe there is an aesthetic kinship between your fashion choices and your music?
My fashion choices are really based on my mood on any given day, week, month, tour. Sometimes I love harnesses, straps and sort of bondage wear. Other times I end up with oversized minimal stuff from Weekday or Complex Geometries. Lately, and for my acoustic tour, I’ve been drawn to more feminine silhouettes and vintage gowns. I watched that movie Dark Shadows and was inspired by the costume designer’s take on Victorian gothic for the women in the film. I also was inspired by old country singers like Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton – the way they’d dress up for their performances. On a day to day basis though I usually end up in some version of black skinny pants, black tanktop and black or white leather boots (Acne Pistols every day). I like utilitarian clothing and things I can move and work in. It’s almost like a uniform.
You were recently on tour with King Dude from Actual Pain. How did this amazing pairing come about?
I got to play with King Dude for my album release of “The Grime and the Glow” a few years back and instantly loved the guy. He’s one of the best humans I’ve ever met, and so is his wife Emily. Over the years we became friends and he’d always host us in Seattle. When it came time to do the acoustic tour I knew I wanted King Dude to be on it as well. They had to leave for a European tour about halfway through our US tour but I feel lucky to have done the first half with them. I truly love King Dude’s music, those songs are classic.
There are a few covers scattered throughout your oeuvre and there is also the recent Rudimentary Peni tribute cover record. Can you talk about how you approach making an existing song your own?
I cover songs that haunt me. They won’t leave my mind until I finally play them and record them. It’s that way with Rudimentary Peni, and with the Sybille Baier song. The Rudimentary Peni tribute ended up that way because I didn’t hear all the of the songs before I covered them – it was more based on lyrics and the frantic energy behind the songs. I covered them based on that and found my own way of translating the songs.
You seem so prolific in your output. Are you inspired by traveling whilst on tour or are you only able to create when at a home base?
I wrote a lot of songs on this last tour. I usually don’t write a lot on tour, but in between when I have more time to focus and record.
What inspires you? It appears that the shouldering between the beautiful and the grotesque is something that interests you. Can you elaborate on what draws you to this push and pull?
Since I was a child I always wanted to know the truth behind any situation. I always understood that while the world could be a beautiful place, it could be equally as dark and horrifying. I’m inspired by things in between this as well – landscapes, stories, love. Tormented love is usually the type I understand and write about.
Literature seems to be a locus for many of your songs and overall themes, I’m fascinated with how you describe being able to transmute the images you see in words into music. What are you reading now ?
Right now I’m reading Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. I like books that have a lot of idealism in them, a lot of detail and books that transport me. When I’m reading a book I love I often get cinematic visuals which begins to translate into a sort of soundtrack in my head. And sometimes that leads to my songs.
One of the things I love best about your music is that you are able to conjure such a grand, exquisite atmosphere and yet, through the deep sincerity of your vocals and lyrics, your songs feel so intimate. What is the process of creating like for you? Are the lyrics created as a band or do they stem directly from you?
The songs come from me. I am constantly writing and recording ideas and often a song comes to me all at once. It usually starts with some subject or idea or content, and the lyrics and music carry the song forward from there. After a song is written I’ll bring it to the band and we’ll figure out how best to perform it live. Then it transforms over time.
Your live shows are astounding! Your passion is so palpable and moving. Do you have a favorite moment from a live experience?
Thank you. I feel like I have a long way to go still. Being on stage doesn’t come completely natural to me – I didn’t grow up imagining I’d be a performer. But over time I’ve accepted that it’s part of being a musician and a singer and songwriter and so I embrace it and try to channel as much energy and realness into my live performances as I can. My favorite moments are when I completely lose myself in the songs because then I hope it allows the audience to lose themselves as well.