Los Angeles musician Chelsea Wolfe has been steadily accruing dedicated fans across the globe since the release of her debut album ‘The Grime And The Glow’ in 2010, her goth-tinged coalescence of doomy sludge and delicate acoustics providing the perfect platform for her eerie vocals. At nearly six feet tall and with alabaster skin, Wolfe is often draped in abstract black attire; her early concerts and photographs showing the camera-shy musician obscured by veils, hoods and tendrils of black hair. Recently returned from a gruelling European and Russian tour with her band, Wolfe spoke with us about her new album ‘Pain Is Beauty’, a surprising affair incorporating hard electronic beats and synth-y flourishes that nonetheless retains its author’s spooky atmosphere and haunting vocals. It’s a bold step in some respects – she’s a cult figure amongst her fans, so how will they feel about this new, glossy direction?
Hello Chelsea! You’ve only been back from your huge European and Russian tour for a few weeks. You must be exhausted.
It was good, it was more tiring than usual because of the routing. A lot of long drives and not enough sleep, but it was great to be there and exciting to play in Russia for the first time. Scotland as well, and Ireland. We are home for most of the summer though, getting the new songs ready for the next tour.
I saw that you were in a different country each night sometimes! Do you ever get the chance to have a look around?
Every so often there is someone kind enough to show us around or maybe we’ll have an hour to ourselves to wander. Red Square was a treat to see, but we only got there after midnight, after the show was done. I’ve always wanted to see more of London too, but it hasn’t happened yet.
So, the new album, ‘Pain Is Beauty’. It’s got a mature sound, but it’s still foggy and haunting as with [debut album] ‘The Grime And The Glow’ and follow-up ‘Apokalypsis’, but there are new sounds on there.
Yes, I like to experiment with new sounds, new ways to use my voice and instruments. I was excited to finally have these electronic songs on an album, like ‘Feral Love’ and ‘The Warden’.
Yeah, the electronic songs! They really fit in to the whole atmosphere of the record, though. How did you develop ideas for the album?
Well, the electronic songs were songs that my bandmate Ben Chisholm and I had started writing a couple years ago, originally with the intent of having a side project with them, but eventually we incorporated some of them into the Chelsea Wolfe set and I wrote some new ones as well. When we started thinking of a new album, the electronic songs felt right. And of course, I can never stick to one genre of music, so there are piano songs, rock songs and folk songs on there as well. For me, things come together thematically. Sometimes it’s a colour or an image. Red became a really strong colour in the vision for this album because the intensity of nature really inspired me as I was writing, and volcanoes – the bright red lava, the grey of the ash – stuck in my mind…
I’m quite jealous of the red dress you wear on the album cover.
Oh yes, that dress! I went to a great vintage collector in LA.
So you don’t sit down and think ‘I have to write 12 songs for this new album’?
No. I prefer for music and art to happen in its own time. My life moves in slow-motion really. There is no timeline and things are out of order, but it’s what I’m used to.
I always think you have black metal sensibilities, in the sense that nature – in both a volatile and peaceful sense – is a main theme running through your work, and you manipulate sounds that in isolation would sound hellish but in the context of the song it’s beautiful.
Black metal is one of the types of music that inspires me. There’s some sense of white noise in black metal that I’ve always loved, it’s peaceful, and I sometimes inject that into my own music as well.
The production on ‘Pain Is Beauty’ sounds different from your previous work, too. Have you worked with a different recording team?
Well I have had the same bandmates for almost three years now. Ben Chisholm, who is my co-producer and plays bass and synth live, Dylan Fujioka, drummer and Kevin Dockter who plays lead guitar. Typically I write alone and then bring ideas or songs to Ben or to the band as a whole. We used to record ourselves a lot but wanted to try to make this album a bit more clear so we recorded with a great engineer, Lars Stalfors, who also co-produced a few songs on the album, but mostly when I go into the studio I already have the songs organised in my head how they should be, and a list of instrumentation, or they’re already demoed out and we go in to reapproach it and get a more dynamic version.
OK, clear is a good word for the sound, actually.
Yes and I wanted it to be heavier too, with heavy bass and beats so I needed to do that in a nice studio with good monitors and speakers to really work it out.
Yes, those beats need that crystalline sound. Does it worry you that fans – or internet dullards, perhaps – might not know what to make of the electronic songs? I’ve spoken to many a person who’s scared of a drum machine, and often fans don’t like their favourite musicians to drastically change…
I feel lucky that I have an audience who seems to be pretty accepting of the different styles I try, like when I released an acoustic album last year I was surprised to see how many people were so kind about it and came to the shows and experienced it with me, so I don’t feel scared about presenting them with more new sounds. Also we have been playing two to three of the new, more beat-heavy songs live for the past year and no one has thrown tomatoes at us yet!
I suppose your fans are more sophisticated than the average car park metal head!
Our audience is so diverse. It’s one of the things that makes me most happy, to see so many different types of people at the shows and get to meet them and hear their stories too.
The artwork is the most clear you’ve done, too. No hiding behind your hood or your hair!
Yes. I’ve had to become more brave over the years and overcome my tendency to hide. It’s been a progression that changes with each album as well, I think. I started by wearing a veil and hoods a lot, and when I released ‘Apokalypsis’, the meaning of that word is “lifting of the veil” so it was symbolic for me to show my face finally at shows, and for the acoustic album I was stripping things a little more bare and revealing a more personal side of myself. I still struggle with feeling uncomfortable onstage but it’s important for me to give my all. That is partly what this new album cover is about for me. That sense of feeling uncomfortable in the spotlight but trying to be brave.
But I think that vulnerability is part of your charm, it’s kind of a rawness.
I suppose raw is a good word for it. That’s how I feel up there most of the time, but like I said, it’s important to me to really be present and to let go and fall into the songs. I want to have a real experience and I want the audience to have a real experience.