“Who is more frightened: those bursting out of their darkness of woods upon all the space of light, or those from the open tiptoeing into the forests?” ponders D.H. Lawrence in his semi-autobiographical masterwork, Sons and Lovers. It’s a passage that American noir-tinged singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe is quick to attach to her track ‘Feral Love’: the opening salvo of her recently released fourth album, Pain is Beauty.
An album of contrasts, Pain is Beauty is by no means the dark and drab affair that the dourness of that quote might have you believe. Instead, it’s a record of contrasts that crackles with all the intensity of a bonfire on a crisp November night. Whether dabbling in more beat-driven electronica or piano-led elegies, what ties it together is the sort of mythic, grand storytelling you might expect to find in a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale.
In the midst of a tour with instrumental post-rock trio Russian Circles, we met Wolfe in the corner booth of a North London pub to discover the ways in which she first connected with music, the love of poetry that informed her passion for writing, and what she’d spin on her final night on Earth.
PlanetNotion: You’re currently on tour with Russian Circles. How’s the Pain is Beauty material been going down with audiences?
Chelsea Wolfe: It’s definitely a lot of fun getting to play the new material. I can tell a few people have heard it before and are singing along, which is cool. I think it’s new for a lot of people so I can never really tell how they’re feeling but I guess the best sign is that no one leaves when we play so that’s good [laughs]; people aren’t walking out the door or shaking their heads or anything so…
PN: And you’re both co-headlining, as well as you having performed on their new record, Memorial. What is it about them that appeals to you as a touring partner and as a group to collaborate with?
CW: Well, I think their music is really cinematic and it’s really special that they can create so much emotion without any words. It was an honour for me to sing on their album.
PN: Has there been much on-stage collaboration on this tour?
CW: Yeah, we actually do the song ‘Memorial’ together each night as their first encore. So, when they get an encore – which is every night – then I’ll get up and sing that with them.
PN: Pain is Beauty’s been out for two months now. With a little bit of separation from the process of creating it, how do you feel looking back on it?
CW: I’m happy with the album; we’d been working on a lot of the songs for three years, so it was nice to finally put them on an album. This was actually one of the first experiences where it came out pretty soon after it was finished; it didn’t take that long to record but the mixing process was probably six months or so because I actually love that part of it: it’s when everything comes together. You get to obsess over tiny little sounds that you feel need to be there, that are missing and that we have to go back and find.
PN: To my ears, it’s a really poetic record lyrically. Growing up, were you quite a prodigious reader?
CW: Yeah, I definitely always read a lot as a kid, and I wrote a lot too. The first thing I did creatively was writing pages upon pages of poetry. Eventually, I started translating that into music.
PN: What sort of books did you read when you were growing up?
CW: I was part of this club at the local library where you’d have to read so many books and then you’d get a prize. I was definitely constantly reading and logging my reading hours to try and win. I always loved reading.
PN: In terms of what you’ve read then feeding into your work as a musician, are there any novels or authors that have particularly inspired the music you make?
CW: For sure. There’s definitely at least one book or author that inspires each round of songs. D.H. Lawrence has inspired a lot of words for me. The way that he writes about nature is really detailed and really colourful, and the way that he relates nature to humanity is something that’s really inspired me. It’s something that’s reflected in this album a lot.
The song ‘Feral Love’ is pretty directly related to a passage from Sons and Lovers where the character asks which would be more frightening: the men of the forest who are suddenly in the open space, or the men of the open space who are confronted with the forest. I just thought that was a really interesting way to look at humans in this very instinctual, animalistic sense.
PN: Was there any specific moment where you decided to turn your initial interest in poetry into something more musical?
CW: When I was growing up, my dad was in a country band and they had a home studio. They’d record and practice in there and that was probably one of the most influential things for me because I learned how to record and my dad set me up with this old, analogue 8-track. He taught me how to set up some beats on the keyboard and I started writing songs. The things I was writing probably didn’t make much sense – it was stuff beyond my years at the time – but I knew I wanted to write. It came really naturally to me.
I would always beg my dad to let me go in the studio. My sisters would sing back-up for me and we recorded a lot. From then on, it was just something that I always did naturally but I never really imagined I’d be a musician because I was painfully shy and I didn’t ever want to be up in front of people. It took me a really long time to come to terms with that and reconcile the two things; my love for writing and recording songs, and my stage fright and dislike for being in front of people.
PN: Is that something you feel you’ve overcome to a certain extent?
CW: To some extent, yeah. I still struggle with it but I’ve realised it’s something that’s part of being a musician and I want to be able to have that experience, and to be able to present the music in a live way.
PN: Have you thought much about what you’d like to do after Pain is Beauty?
CW: I have a million ideas but I’m not entirely sure of which direction they’ll go. I’ve been recording some demos of songs and I’m constantly writing words or music. When it comes time for me to put together an album, it’s more of a gathering process; some of the songs are really old, some are brand new. It’s about fitting them together in the right home. I don’t know where it’s going to lead but I’m sure I will soon enough.
PN: When I think of you as a musician, I picture you drawing on a hugely eclectic range of influences. It must be difficult knowing what’s going to work and what isn’t from a stylistic basis.
CW: I never really know if anyone else is going to make sense of it because things in my head sometimes fit together – Pain is Beauty has songs from a bunch of different genres; electronic songs, acoustic songs, piano songs – but, for me, they have some kind of bloodline running through them. It might not come across like that for everyone, though.
PN: On a final note… If you had one evening left on Earth, what would you choose as a final record to listen to?
CW: Honestly, I think I would just take that time to gather the people I love together and play music. I think Hank Williams Sr. is someone that has a really beautiful sense of melancholy and reality, and that would be something really nice to listen to if you were trying to come to terms with the end of things.