Chelsea Wolfe is trying to remember the name of the Werner Herzog film she loves so much, that one about Antarctica. Arctic Circle? Journey to the End of the Earth? She ruminates for a second. “Encounters at the End of the World, that’s it!” She says it victoriously but timidly, in a soft-spoken whisper that makes you wonder if the mysterious singer ever really lets her emotion show outside of her palpable songs.
"That movie was so inspiring for me. It’s such a magical piece of art focusing on something most people would overlook and showing how beautiful it can be," she says, hinting at the deep worldview she grasps at behind those fierce blue eyes. The documentary was just one of the many films Wolfe fixated on while making her new album Pain Is Beauty, a chiseled record with electronic flourishes, sultry piano and string ballads, and even Goldfrapp-cured pop that, at its core, comes from and is about nature.
”A lot of the album has to do with the intensity of natural disasters and how that affects human life,” Wolfe says. Her latest obsession is with volcanoes and lava, so much so that it inspired the normally muted singer to choose a vibrant red dress for the album’s cover shoot. The finished piece is an eerie image that looks as if she could be bracing for (or welcoming) a car crash. “I wanted the effect of car headlights,” she says, “and the feeling of being a bit uncomfortable in the spotlight.”
It’s a feeling Wolfe knows all too well, never completely confident with being the center of attention even as her experience and exposure grows. “I wish I could be invisible and just play music and not have to worry about anyone looking at me,” she says, hinting at the black veils and chain masks she used to hide behind on stage. With her 2011 album Apokalypsis (translating to “lifting of the veil”), she felt it was a symbolic time to leave the masks behind, which prepared her for the stripped-down acoustic tour behind 2012’s Unknown Rooms. It was here that she really learned to open up, which she does now as she talks about her early upbringing in Southern California.
With her parents divorced, Wolfe grew up in two different households, spending most of her time with a creative mother who made jewelry and painted. But there were also the seminal moments with her father, a music man in a country band called El Dorado that opened for acts like Tanya Tucker.
At 9 years old, the budding singer/songwriter would sneak into her dad’s studio and record her own takes of songs like “It’s My Party” and the theme to The Neverending Story before moving on to original material, none of which she particularly liked at the time. It wasn’t until years later that Wolfe started to take her craft seriously. She was invited to tag along on a trip to Europe with a group of performance artists and found herself playing acoustic sets there.
"It was nice to have people willing to just stop and listen, and let me figure out what the hell I was doing. After a while I started to figure out my own voice more. When I came home I was inspired to start from scratch and approach music again in a new way."
In just three short years, Wolfe’s career has produced three lauded studio albums that have drawn varied fans from the folk, metal, and indie communities, all of whom have let her continue to figure out what she’s doing with her music, such as experimenting with an electronic album and moving into the realm of film scoring. And for Wolfe, that’s just how it has to be in her world.
"I’m a claustrophobic person, and that goes for my creativity as well," she says. "I need lots of space to move and roam."
[This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s September/October 2013 issue.]