Driving into L.A. mid-morning in late July, the Chelsea Wolfe-layered chorus of “Feral Love” is rattling the windows of my truck, her vocals leveled so the words just carry over a wash of toms, reverb, and guitars: We press for the water, press for the river, press for the pain. The lyrics play cinematically to the passing images of a city that, according to Werner Herzog, has “the most substance—even if it’s raw …” As it is, speaking of raw, L.A. goes to bed nightly praying for rain, so while Wolfe’s words are immediately relevant in the most straightforward sense, the song’s waves of distortion are further sharp commentary on aging brick shopfronts and the cracked surface streets of near-Downtown. The soundtrack effect is dissociative, but it feels somehow unifying and drifts into a dreamlike reception. I have the sense that I’m not myself, but someone playing me, driving into a scene, heading for an arc.
Since Wolfe signed with Sargent House Records in 2012, she’s experienced something of a mainstream arc herself, with songs featured in television trailers for Game of Thrones and Fear the Walking Dead, in the videogame Fry Cry Primal, and in Ben Affleck’s upcoming film Live by Night, in theaters January of 2017. Wolfe’s music is deeply interested in the spaces between categories—sleeping and waking, beauty and pain, life and death—which makes it a natural accompaniment to any noirish tale dwelling on conflations of the contrary. Sometimes, in the willingness and ability to peer through normally exclusive boundaries, this is where a class of authenticity is found, a way of speaking to what’s unspeakable and of sharing what’s most difficult.
Sitting down with Wolfe is at first a little difficult. The photo session goes long and when we finally are able to talk, there’s no ready place in this very open, loft-sectioned building to conduct the interview. We end up seated on a hard bench in an echo-chamber hallway, occasionally interrupted by passers-by. She isn’t very comfortable with the setting (nor am I), and I’m very aware that she can, if she chooses to, simply stop the proceedings and reschedule, even if that means I’ve spent ninety minutes in traffic and a few hours waiting for nothing. I offer this here to emphasize the sincerity of what follows. Wolfe is up-front with how she feels, but there’s no veneer, no costume, and no face but one.
I’ve been listening to your music a lot over the last week and, you know, it’s interesting to me, especially on the singles that you released off of Abyss [Sargent House, 2015], the music has this cinematic scope and lends itself to storytelling. But your lyrics, they’re very impressionistic. I wouldn’t say abstract—just very responsive. To have the kind of confidence that the response is going to register, it seems like you have a connection with your audience. Is there something that you implicitly understand about what they’re expecting from you, or expecting from the album? A message you’re trying to get across? Or is it just emotional intensity?
Yeah, I don’t think it’s as much of a specific message as I’ve just always tried to be real on stage. I mean, getting on stage isn’t really an easy thing for me, as I’m not one to want to be up in front of people. Or, you know—not or—it’s not me to want to be up in front of people, really—but, uh—this is the worst time to do an interview. I’m so distracted right now.
It’s okay. I just feel like this is a bad time to do this. I’m losing my mind right now. As you can see, photo shoots and stuff like that just don’t go well with, like, my state of mind usually.
So. Anyways. When I’m on stage, I have to let go of a lot of things and I have to let go of my own inhibitions and fears. So, I’m real up there, and I’ve always encouraged my band to be the same way, just be in the moment, feel the songs, you know, remember when we first wrote them. Just give all you can to them so that there’s real energy there. That’s always been the goal, to keep it real, and, like you said, really emotional. Because I do write emotional music, but I write about what’s going on in the world and the world around me and the world way beyond me. It’s always a macro versus micro, which is really intense. I think that just translates through our music and hopefully when we play live it translates to them as well.
There’s this great Montaigne quote. He says, ‘One who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.’ The reason I mention it is because of the song “Iron Moon”, which was in response to the poetry from Xu Lizhi. It’s a heavy tune—it registers as opposites for me. There’s this heaviness to it and to me there’s still an open feel to that song. I feel like it’s expanding out, and I’m wondering if that is something that’s intentional. Is that an arrangement idea that you’re trying to get across all the time, or is that something that’s just happening organically with the rest of your band?
I think it’s a little bit of both. And, you’re right, for me it feels the same way. I personally have issues with claustrophobia and not wanting to be in small spaces. I’m a big person. I’m a tall person and I take up a lot of space, so maybe it comes from that. But when I’m making music, I’m not trying to make music that will crush you. I’m trying to make music that you can express yourself within and then let go and [is] expanding in space, rather than a pressure-type thing. So obviously everyone translates music differently and is going to take it according to the day that they’ve had or whatever. But the general idea for our music is feeling spaces and stuff like that. That’s why I prefer to play an indoor show, a club or something, rather—you know, festivals are fun, but it’s just a totally different feeling sonically when there’s tons of open space. The sound is just going away from you. But when you’re in a building, you can sort of fill the space and it can swirl around.
Is there also an acceptance that goes along with that? I mean, I guess what I’m thinking about acceptance is that there is this—some of the songs almost seem chant-like. They seem—you said repetitive, but in an almost mantra-like way, and there’s a way that the music can have of washing over you.
Well, I mean, I feel like—you’re saying I’m not like a traditional storyteller, but I do kind of feel like a storyteller in that I do pick up on stories, you know, like the Chinese Foxconn worker who wrote poems, and committed suicide and then his poems got out there and it was really beautiful and expressive and sad and desolate. So, I took his story and I gave it a new perspective, or a new ending. I mean, in my tale, it’s like he lives and he dances through the factory and quits and he finds a new life or something like that. And I guess I’m always trying to give certain situations some sort of new hope or light, even though they’re usually pretty full of despair, the things that I’m talking about. And sometimes I don’t, really, attempt to give it light. Like, on “Crazy Love”, for example, that’s just a sad song about losing someone and realizing that you have to live without that person. There’s not much hope or light in that situation. It’s just something that you have to live with, so there’s a combination of things.
I try and inject some light in there, some hope, because I think hope is really important. And I think I’m trying to express some sort of freedom within my music, you know? Freedom within reality. It’s like the world is a really fucked-up place, but what are we gonna do? We just have to keep on living, and keep on pushing, and that’s kind of been the message of my music for a long time now. Just keeping on, moving forward. Everything within the sound and the lyrics, it’s forward motion, and trying to move on from things, and grow, and learn from things.
Do you detect any evolution in the way that your music’s going in terms of production or the sound that you’re after? Is there something that you think of as coming up in two years or four years that’s going to be a change in approach or sound?
I don’t usually look ahead too much. Or, I don’t define it this early in the game. But, for Abyss, once I decided that I wanted there to be some heavy songs on there, and I decided to go with a certain producer— John Congleton—because I know that he can capture bands in their raw element, in their live element. Not that Abyss [was] a live album or anything like that, but I wanted someone who would push me further into that direction of being real and raw and allowing there to be some vulnerability. Because I have my own weird definition of perfectionism that I only place on myself and my own music.
You know, if it’s too easy, it’s going to sound too easy. There are struggles sometimes, and when I first met John I could tell that there’s going to be tension between us. I liked him, obviously, but I could tell that our personalities would butt heads a little bit and I knew that would end up being a good thing in the long run. I’m constantly challenging myself to do things that aren’t always the easy way, because I think that it gets better results, for me personally at least.
Do you have a preference for guitar pedals or vocal processors, or—?
Yeah, I have both. Vocal processors are really…they don’t have a lot of…balls. As far as I can tell with the ones I’ve experimented with. They’re all right, but the guitar pedals are made for an instrument, and running through amps and shit, so they have a little more grit and life to them, basically. At the same time, I drive all the sound guys in the world crazy with having to deal with the feedback issues. But when we can get it right, it works. I think I still have some more experimentation—I shouldn’t put down all vocal pedals, you know? I might find one someday that I love. And I still use one—it’s just not my preferred one. I use two mics live and I usually lean towards the guitar pedal.
It just seems like your voice comes across cleanly anyway. Is that something that you’re paying conscious attention to? I haven’t seen you talk just about the voice part of your singing.
I have a vocal teacher that I go to. Not all the time, but when I have a tour coming, or when I have a record coming up I’ll go do some work with her and I can stretch my voice a little bit, learn some new tricks. I started out singing through nothing, you know, just the microphone. For many years I was just doing the singer-songwriter kind of thing, so I think I learned my own voice in that way. And then the first time I did a real tour and started taking music more seriously, my friend Steve Vanoni invited me on this performance art tour to be their resident musician at the end of each night. So it was a couple months in Europe and that was where I started figuring out my voice more. Because we were performing in weird spaces. Just places like this, big buildings, old factories, art galleries—weird spaces that naturally have reverb or delay and I started to like that, and I felt it was more fun to sing when there’s something catching your voice and playing with it rather than just singing and that’s it. I think that was the appeal. I came home and I had some guitar pedals, so I started singing through them and liked how that sounded. So there’s this natural thing that I wanted to emulate once I got home from that tour.”
Have you been working with loopers at all?
I’ve had a loop station for a long time. I have a couple songs that are completely looped all the way through. I’ll probably experiment more with that in the future. I’ve always had it in my head that I would like do an album that’s more vocal-based. Even after Pain Is Beauty [S. H., 2013] I was thinking that I would so something like that, something more stripped back. You’ve got to go where you’re pulled and as soon as I started writing heavier songs, that was where I wanted to go. So the quieter songs I wrote for this album are ending up in the pile of unused songs that I have, that I might do something with someday or might not. I’m not afraid to throw a song away, so we’ll see.
What about from album-to-album, as you go through your process and become more identifiable as a style, sort of unto yourself? If I say to someone, ‘That sounds like Chelsea Wolfe,’ that’s more and more understood.
I mean, to me, like, I don’t know what someone thinks of when they think, Oh, that sounds like Chelsea Wolfe. I mean I know that my voice is on everything so that’s probably a through-line. But I try not to limit this project. I don’t place any certain genre or sound or instrument limitations on this project. We stick within some sort of round when we play live, so we get acoustic-experimental or rock-experimental. But when I’m writing or when the band’s writing, we just do it in a very instinctual way. It happens naturally. So, from the outside, I have no idea if we actually have some sort of sound that’s definable or not.
Do you write with the band, then, as well as on your own?
Typically I’ll start alone. Or Ben [Chisholm] writes also for the band, so he’ll work on something and then I’ll pick on the riff and tell him to go wild with that and then we’ll write a song that way. But typically I’ll write and then I’ll bring something to the band and then we’ll flesh it out together. Abyss [was] really collaborative. I feel like it’s a culmination of a lot of people I’ve worked with over the years and I wanted to include Ezra Buchla, the viola player. His style of playing is visceral and emotional and expresses a part of my soul when he plays. So I felt like it was important to have him on there. And Mike Sullivan from Russian Circles—he had played on one of the demos, and we were just like, Why don’t you play on this one? But, yeah, Ben wrote a lot of songs for [that] album. “Iron Moon” is kind of a collaboration between me and Ben and this guitar player, Karlos Ayala, who wrote the song “Boyfriend” that I covered on Unknown Rooms [S.H., 2012]. He sang me this riff and I stored it somewhere and then found it right before we were about to go in the studio. And we wrote “Iron Moon” based on that little riff that he gave me. Yeah, there’s a lot of collaborative efforts, for sure. And it feels good—it feels like it was the right time to do something like that. I’m so lucky to be playing with such amazing musicians and to know so many amazing musicians, so I try to bring them together when I can.
Is there some difference between albums like Pain Is Beauty and Abyss that’s registered because of your surroundings?
Yeah, looking back. Where I was living in L.A. for three or four years was pretty close to here and just outside of Downtown. And it was really noisy all the time. Every night there were helicopters shining lights pretty much in my windows. It was a totally different energy. I was living in a big house with a bunch of roommates, and some of them I didn’t even know at first, when I first moved down here, and it was just crazy energy all the time. So, Unknown Rooms and Pain Is Beauty came out of when I was living in that house. And I think it’s reflected—like that song “Feral Love” is a direct reflection of the helicopters. Just that constant noise—you feel like you’re in some sort of energy battlefield or something.
My record label has a farmhouse out in the high desert and I went out there and just kind of set up in this big empty barn and started writing [Abyss] out there. And then I remembered that feeling of the fears back when I was experimenting with different spaces. Because this barn has amazing natural reverb and it fills this space when I write songs and feel them out. And so after that I made a conscious effort to find a place that was more on the outskirts. I wanted to live on the outskirts anyways and I found this spot up in the mountains. It’s about an hour-and-a-half north of L.A. and it’s quiet and I have more space there, because it’s more affordable. It was immediate. As soon as I got set up out there with my little studio, I was constantly working and writing. It was a freeing thing for me to have that space and that time. There’s no distractions out there, other than mountains and the trees. You can go for walks and hikes and that’s about it.
You’ve mentioned once before that sleep paralysis has played a role in the way some of your music has been written. Is that something you continue to contend with, or is that something that’s mostly been solved by being out in the wild a little bit?
Moving has helped. I’ve always had sleeping issues since I was a kid. It’s nothing new. But as an adult I started experiencing a version of sleep paralysis, where I’m not physically paralyzed, but the figures, the shadow figures from my dreams, are still there when I open my eyes and they’re still in the room and it’s felt so real sometimes. And I’ve lashed out or yelled, you know. And I think starting my day like that for so long, the feeling of it started creeping in my day. It wasn’t like I woke and instantly started writing or something like that. It’s a weird thing to have be the start of your day. I think it started giving me weird moods and hazy feelings that I probably channeled into the music. I didn’t think about directly writing about sleep paralysis. I think it happened naturally and then afterwards, when I was talking to Brian [Cook]—another friend from Russian Circles—that was when I realized how much it had affected the way I’ve been writing the past few years. And I did make a conscious effort for Abyss, to write about the deep mind, and the mind at night, and thinking about the word ‘abyss.’ It obviously has a lot of meanings, and I was giving it this meaning of the night and it’s something that you can dive into and explore. So. There you go.