Musician Chelsea Wolfe recently stopped by KCET’s Studio A to perform songs from her album “Pain is Beauty.” She revealed the influences behind her music in this extended uncut interview, extolling the role nature, as well as her her father’s recording studio, played in her writing process. She also discusses how country music has influenced her work and the hidden meaning behind her song “Feral Love.” Discover more about Chelsea Wolfe in her own words. Below
CW: Music happens really out of order for me. When my band-mate Ben Chisholm joined the band about three or four years ago we started writing these electronic songs for fun and maybe thought that we would do a side project with it or something. But over time, I just realized that I didn’t want to put limits on my own project and we started playing some of the songs live, just to kind of see how it felt and how they went over. And it was a lot of fun. So I knew when it came time to put together a new album, I wanted to include some of those old electronic songs as well as write some new electronic songs and have that be a base that we kind of start with. But I could never really stick to one genre or one sound so I added some rock songs and a folk song and a piano song on there as well and kind of fit them together in theme, and lyrically and things like that.
On Creating the Album Pain is Beauty
For me, the themes are very elemental. Starting with nature itself and one of the first songs that I wrote for the album was ‘The Waves Have Come,’ which is a song I wrote after I watched a lot of documentary footage of the earthquake in Japan and then the tsunami that followed. And seeing first hand stories of people who experienced that: losing their loved ones and their homes. So that was kind of like the first theme of the album that I realized that I was kind of stuck on; that sense of great loss or that nature affects humanity. Then I started thinking of the darkness of nature in general, how it’s so beautiful. It can be so heavy and so overwhelming: Forest fires, and lava flowing, and really beautiful dark things like that. So that was one of the main things that inspired a lot of different songs on the album. Then comes this sense of loss and also tormented love. It’s looking at love in a more realistic way, that it takes a lot of work and that there can be a lot of pain in love as well.
On “Feral Love”
I always like to explore one subject in a lot of different ways. I definitely looked at the subject of love in a few different ways in the album. Whether it’s something that’s painful, or the song “Feral Love” is kind of more about an animalistic sense of love and looking at love from an animal’s point of view just a very survivalist kind of love; providing for your family and moving forward.
One of the reasons it took me so long to really start taking music seriously and doing it as a career per se is [that] I’ve always loved writing and playing music but I’ve always hated being the center of attention or standing up in front of people. When I was a kid and I started writing songs, it was just something I did, I never imagined that I would be onstage and touring and things like that. At first, I just couldn’t handle it. I would do two or three songs and my skin would just start crawling and I would leave the stage. So I started wearing a veil and tried different ways of being invisible up there but still being able to perform. Eventually I’ve realized that I need to overcome that and that was a lot of the thing that I wanted to explore with the artwork of the album to finally show my face and not cover it with something. But there’s still that sense of the spotlight and the way that I’m holding myself is a bit uncomfortable. I was trying to portray that. It’s a small thing in the scheme of things, but that thing, having to be brave and overcoming my stage fright is something I had to overcome. Going back to the themes of the album, there’s a lot of themes of overcoming and fighting for something. I was trying to portray that I was trying to fight and be brave and to be a better performer because music is my job. I love writing songs, and I love making albums, but sometimes getting onstage can be like pulling teeth.
On the Influence of Her Father
My dad was in a country band when I was growing up and he would sing harmonies and play guitar. He’s a really great guitar player and I think the thing that mainly influenced me was that they had a home studio where they would practice and record and work on covers and stuff. Hearing them do that really made me want to do it. I had always written poetry when I was a kid and just naturally started applying it to music and I asked my dad to teach me how to record and he set me up with a little 8-Track that I still use to this day. It’s a little Tascam, I love it. He taught me how to make some Casio keyboard beats and I would write songs and never really stopped after that. So I think the studio was the most influential thing on me.
On Folk and Country Music
I definitely have folk roots and I have country roots and I love country, especially old country. Some of my first influences were people like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash that real storytelling, that honest way of writing. That was really the first thing that drew me to music was that honesty, and people being able to express something lyrically and in sound that was very honest and very emotional.
On Heavy Rock and Black Metal
I also really like some heavy ’70s rock stuff, my dad got me really into that as I got into older Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, then I got into black metal, eventually. One of the things that influenced me a lot growing up was soundtrack music, watching films and just being so interested in which song they would choose for the credits or whatever. Still to this day, I love the connection of video and audio. I think I unconsciously started making music that felt cinematic, and you would just close your eyes and sort of see something. That’s how I approach music when I’m recording. Sometimes I’ll just close my eyes and see shapes of music and things like that.
I love California and I think it has a really wide range of beautiful things to offer. Being from Northern California, we would go camping a lot. Being close to the river and the mountains and the giant redwood trees, was always a favorite place of mine to go, and still is. Then down here, I moved [to Los Angeles] three years ago — and being down here, it’s very different obviously, the sun shines in a different way. It’s brighter, it doesn’t get cold as often, I definitely miss the weather up there, but there are definitely things to offer down here. There are different things to be inspired by in Los Angeles, it’s a good place to get work done cause there’s a lot of motivated people here and that’s kind of why I wanted to move down here. I’m a California lover for sure, I dont think I could live anywhere else for too long. I definitely have these moments where the city drives me crazy but I like it sometimes, it’s part of California so you got to love it.
On the Impact of Her Music
If everyone is happy, then I’m happy. It’s always nice to put something out and have a positive reaction. I’m sure there’s people who don’t like it too, but fortunately those people aren’t as vocal as the people who do like it. I’ve heard some nice things from people. It’s been like a healing process for some people, it helps them heal. And that’s all I can really ask for as a musician is to bring some sort of understanding or healing or something positive into someone’s life.