No Boxes: An Interview with Chelsea Wolfe

Chelsea Wolfe
Pain is Beauty
Sargent House

“One of the things I used to really love about black metal, actually, is that kind of white noise. A lot of it has got this white noise to it that I find really comforting. Even if the song is really heavy, there’s a really peaceful white noise,” says Chelsea Wolfe, the LA-based songwriter whose dark, challenging work has ranged from metal to noise to goth to acoustic chamber folk over four albums, and currently includes elements of electro-pop. She made her mark, early on with a Burzum cover; she has, more recently, interpreted the work of Nick Cave. (She is one of the few contemporary artists to be represented on Mark Lanegan’s all-covers Imitations; he sings her song “Flatlands”, from the unplugged Unknown Rooms.)

If it all sounds a bit intense, well, it is. Wolfe’s latest album, Pain Is Beauty, plumbs the dangerous, obsessional side of love, seeing the urge to connect as a primal natural one, like animals migrating thousands of miles to nesting grounds. And there’s her other connection to heavy music, she adds. “A lot of black metal artists are really inspired by nature and use that as fuel to write music. That was actually something that inspired me a lot for this album, the beauty of nature, contrasted with the ugliness of nature.”

Take for instance, “Feral Love”, a dizzyingly intense bit of electronically-altered pop, whose beat sounds like a search helicopter’s blades and whose lyrics describe an annihilating, instinctual sort of attraction. Wolfe’s voice in the song is chillier, more poised, less the wild cathartic banshee wail of Apokalypsis, more an icily controlled singer along the lines of Beth Gibbons. (Wolfe is a big fan of trip hop but prefers Tricky and Massive Attack.) Wolfe says she got the idea from a passage in D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, where a boy and a girl ponder the civilized and the savage.

“It makes me think of the wild men of the woods, how terrified they would be when they got breast to breast with the open space”, says the boy, whose name is Paul

“Do you think they were?” the girl, Clara, asks.

And Paul replies, “I wonder which was more frightened among old tribes—those bursting out of their darkness of woods upon all the space of light, or those from the open tiptoeing into the forests.”

“I was thinking humans and the idea of love in a very animal instinctual sense … survival and pushing forward to provide for your family,” says Wolfe. “I also had just watched a show called Planet Earth, too, about all the different animals and their super long journey to find water. And I don’t know, it seemed so intense and so crazy that thy have to travel so far to find water. It’s like a year, that journey definitely relates to what I was talking about earlier, that push to survive and that animal instinct towards love. That was definitely an inspiration as well.”

“And yeah, for the beat, I also did kind of want it to be almost like a helicopter. I live in a neighborhood where there are constantly helicopters overhead and lights shining into my window. There is that sense of a search, you’re right,” she says.

Singing Over Electronics is a Different Feeling

Pain Is Beauty is Wolfe’s fourth album, and the first to make extensive use of synthesizers. She had been working with Ben Chisholm, who plays keyboards in her band, on a few electronic ideas that they original thought might be for a side project. But, says Wolfe, “I feel like I can go any direction I want to go with this. So when it became time to do this album, we had a couple of electronic songs, and I really liked them and we started playing them live, so I said, why don’t we take these electronic songs and go from there?”

The use of synthesizers — for this record a Yamaha GS 20, a Juno 60, a Juno 106 and a Farfisa — dramatically changed Wolfe’s sound and even her approach to singing the songs. She says, “I’m so used to singing over guitar that singing over electronics is a different feeling. I’m almost able to use my voice in a different way.” She adds, “Sometimes I think of my voice as an instrument but when I’m singing over electronic music it feels more like I’m actually singing. Whether it’s like a soft whisper or something more forceful, but it’s interesting to be able to use my voice in a new way.”

So Many Different Styles

Pain Is Beauty continues Wolfe’s trajectory from the noisy goth of Apokalypsis to the melodically accessible Unknown Rooms, but she says that no one should infer a linear kind of development. “I don’t write in order. Music doesn’t really happen in order for me. A lot of these songs are even older than the acoustic album,” she explains. “I think these songs with choruses and melodies were just kind of bubbling up through the songwriting process. I guess I just go back and forth.”

Wolfe’s work changes enough from album to album that it’s hard to pick a genre for her. “I used to get really bothered with labels,” she says. “But I don’t really mind the genre labels that people want to box me into, because I understand that it helps people to categorize their musical tastes or to be able to explain something that they like to someone else. I don’t mind it. It just depends on which album you listen to first or which song. Because I have so many different styles.”

The main common thread in her music, Wolfe says, is that it’s always her, and for the last four years, she has been supported by the same group of musicians. “Even though we’re trying out different styles, acoustic and electronic and rock, it’s the same people and they’re willing to go and experiment with me. We’ve formed this sort of musical bond and understanding with each other,” she explains. “The drummer, the guitar player, the synth player, obviously Ben, and the bass player and viola and violin, we’ve all been playing music together for two to four years. I think that’s part of what ties it all together. It’s the same people.”

A Folk Artist at Heart

Wolfe is mostly self-taught as a singer, though she recently started taking lessons to help her strengthen her voice so that she can get through her tours. That’s different from the female artists she often gets likened to — Zola Jesus and Austra — both of whom came from classical backgrounds. It’s not the only difference, says Wolfe, who is obviously a little frustrated at the comparisons.

“I would say that the comparisons to Zola Jesus are really wrong. That’s something that’s very strange to me,” she says. Though she is careful to add that she means no disrespect to Zola Jesus, the comparison clearly rankles. “From what I know, come from really different backgrounds. I’m someone that writes playing with a guitar. Even though there are electronic elements in my music, I’m a folk artist at heart. I started playing music with a guitar and my voice and that’s how I always write music. So I think that’s … I think that we have a different perspective. I don’t usually talk about this stuff because I think it’s silly, but we get grouped together so often that it’s like strange to me.”

Androgyny and Feminism

Pain Is Beauty‘s cover art is a relatively conventional photograph, showing Chelsea Wolfe in a red short-sleeve dress, made-up, hair arranged, looking slightly away from the camera. It’s a far cry from the black veil that Wolfe wore during her early performances or the whited-out demon stare she tried on for Apokalypsis. Asked how she feels about the way female songwriters are evaluated by the way they look and the way they dress, she says, “I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been presenting myself in such an androgynous way since I started that I don’t really have a problem.

“Most of my fans are very cool. It’s never really about looks,” she explains. “It’s only been recently that I’ve been brave enough to actually show my face and not wear completely all black. Typically the fashion that I like is structural or drape-y or like a really long silhouette. It’s not so much about showing off a woman’s body as finding pieces that you really love and you really resonate with. And I think a lot of other female artists are like that, too. It’s about making music. It doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl. It’s about making music.”

Wolfe has never made her music overtly political, but it does engage with issues like sexual power and exploitation. She says that “I personally don’t feel like I’ve had to deal with a lot of sexism in my career, which is really fortunate, but I get upset when I see sexism and I get upset when I see men taking advantage of women. And I’ll fight for that.

“I would not call myself an activist,” she continues, “I’m not actually out there on the ground doing anything like a lot of great people in the world, but my music is about the injustices of the world. At times I do try to highlight that a little bit and bring attention to it, in my own way. Like I said, I’m not trying to be an activist. I’m just sort of talking about reality.”

When we talk, Wolfe is getting ready to leave for an American tour, with a run through Europe on the schedule for later in the fall. She is also working, as time permits, on a film project with Mark Pellington. So far, she and Pellington have made films around a handful of songs from Pain Is Beauty. The pieces may be used as music videos, or might be combined into a longer-form movie. And always, the woman with the extraordinary voice is thinking about singing.

I ask her what she looks for in a song, what makes one song better than another, and she says, “I usually listen to the voice. I really like voices. I really love that song ‘Nights in White Satin’. I don’t really like any other songs by that band. I love that song. I just think there’s something about the melody and the orchestration. It just all comes together in a beautiful way. It’s all about the elements of the song combining, the melody and the way the voice moves and capturing a really special take of the song. Because, you know, you can record a song, sing a song a million times, but if the first time works the best, then you should do with that one, even if it’s rough or imperfect.”