The cliché is this: It never rains in L.A. Tell that to Chelsea Wolfe. Over her previous three albums, the Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter has ushered a few dark clouds into the region, indulging in her natural predilection for all things dark and mysterious. Her fourth album Pain is Beauty teases out these tendencies even further, blending ghostly strings, electronics, and the occasional industrial grind and shriek into a miasma that often veers towards the otherworldly. (It should come as no surprise that David Lynch is a noted fan.)
“I feel like an alien most of the time,” Wolfe jokes, attempting to skirt an obnoxiously oversized mound of whip cream topping her iced latte at Los Angeles’s Urth Caffe. “But I guess I’m human.”
Laura Studarus joined Wolfe for a conversation in the blistering summer sun about nature vs. nurture, life after death, music as therapy, and how it all fits together on Pain is Beauty.
Do you feel your new album, Pain is Beauty, is dark?
I don’t always think of it as dark. I talk about it as reality music. There’s always two sides to every story. There’s a dark side and a light side, usually. I guess I do tend to focus on the side that’s harsher.
Have people tried to slap the term “Goth” on it?
Not anymore. I actually thought of it as a joke at first. It started to get so widely used. In my mind, Goth is like Siouxsie and the Banshees or Joy Division, the whole ’80s music thing. I don’t consider myself in that category, so I don’t really think of myself as Goth.
It’s like the word “hipster.” The term has been diluted from overuse.
Yeah, it’s in the same family.
Were you always so aware of this idea of the dark and the light?
I definitely knew that I understood sadness and darkness in reality in a certain way, ever since I was really little. I started by writing poems and things like that about it. I knew I needed to channel it into something. It was frustrating and confusing to figure out the world as a young kid. So I started writing poems.
How old were you when you started writing poems?
Six or seven. I started recording music when I was nine. It was because my dad was in a band when I was growing up. So I had access to musical equipment in the studio.
So music was never some kind of foreign language to you.
No. It was just something I started doing organically. As cheesy as that sounds. I hate that word.
Did you show your dad your stuff early? Or was there an intimidation factor there since he was an established musician?
He would help me record and stuff like that. I have a sister and a stepsister, so we formed a little family band. I was having fun. I remember being in fourth grade and wanting to take the songs to show and tell. Just bringing a tape in.
Did you do it?
I don’t remember exactly. I might have. I was always comfortable with the idea of recorded music.
Where do you stand on the idea of nature versus nurture? It seems to be one of the narrative threads of the new album.
For me it’s a little bit of both. A lot of people are born to do something. A lot of times they don’t figure that out. Sometimes they do. From a young age I knew that I understood things in a certain way, and I could put it into words in my own way. I knew I would always do that, whether it was presenting it to the public or not.
Do you find that your physical environment plays into that?
Yeah. Pain is Beauty is a lot about nature and the inspiration that comes from it, like the intensity of a volcano. I was really drawn to stories of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, stories of natural disaster and the way it affects humanity. That’s where a lot of the lyrics came from. Translations from people and what they were saying.
Part of the title Pain is Beauty was inspired by fire ecology. In certain forest environments, fire is necessary to generate growth and cleanse it, so that new ecosystems can survive and thrive. The idea that something terrible can make something beautiful and things like that. At the same time, though it is something that’s semi-natural, when it comes to people’s homes, it’s very scary. The earthquake thing is pretty intense, too. There’s part of that in the album too, this idea that we go about our lives, we do what we do, but the earth is so much more powerful than us and it could shake us up and kill us off if it wanted to. It’s so crazy to have that dynamic constantly in your head.
Do you have a belief or an idea of a higher power? Or is the earth your higher power?
For this album, it definitely is. It’s the idea that nature has control over everything, that it could wipe us out in a second if it wanted to. It does sometimes; it takes out so many people at once. It’s so intense.
How do you feel about the way humans affect nature?
Thinking about clear-cutting forests makes my skin crawl. If you think about the earth as a living being, that’s how we toxify everything. I get overwhelmed, honestly. I do think about the world in the micro and macro sense, the bigness of everything and the smallness of everything. It’s really overwhelming. So both ways, the way we affect nature, the way nature affects us, and when they collide.
The idea of death also appears several times on the album.
In my music, it’s something I approach a lot and explore in different ways. It’s not something I’ve had to deal with, the death of someone that’s close to me, which is pretty rare. I feel lucky for that, but it’s also why it’s so intriguing. What is it like to lose someone? What is it like to die? What’s it like to be dead?
When I was younger, the first film to really impact me was The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman. The visual character of death stuck in my mind. I used to dream about it in a lot of forms. Eventually I started writing about it in different ways. Sometimes it is very much a character. Other times it’s just a theme.
So if something does happen to a friend or loved one, do you feel like you’d be prepared to deal with it?
I don’t think it would make it any easier. I think I would be just as upset as everyone else, even though I’ve focused on it for so long.
What is your concept of life after death? Do you have one?
That’s such a big thing. I’m one of those people that feels like there’s a lot of different possibilities. I feel at peace with that. Not that I’m not scared of death. But I’m not particularly scared of it, either. It doesn’t fill me with a sense of dread. I feel like whoever or whatever put us here is going to put us in a good place. Whether that’s back in the earth or in the spiritual realm, it’s something that I feel okay with. Maybe one day I’ll have a specific vision of what I think it is.
Do you find it more interesting to write about the idea of finding peace, or the conflict leading up to it?
I’m interested in contrasting the two, I guess. There’s often a sense of yearning or questioning or frustration. But it’s contrasted by a sense of hope. For me, at least. Whether it’s in the melody or the lyrics. Sometimes the music can feel really dark, but the lyrics are actually really hopeful. Or vice versa. The song “The Warden,” the music sounds more light and airy than I’m used to. But lyrically it’s a pretty dark song about tormented love. I usually try to put a little bit of contrast in there so it’s not completely dreadful or too bright and happy. There’s got to be a balance.
“The Warden” does seem like it has some tormented love overtones, but that doesn’t seem like a huge part of your songwriting.
I approach it every now and then. That was one of my personal favorites on the album. I put it on the album as a theme.
There’s a beautiful simile on Pain is Beauty, “I carry heaviness like a mountain.” You’ve worked through so much; do you feel like music is a form of therapy for you?
I think it helps me to clarify things. For me it’s like an exultation. Once I understand something, it’s so much more fun to be alive. That’s why music is fun, even though a lot of my music is dark. It’s me coming to understand something or having a revelation about something. Even if it’s small, I really think epiphanies in life are really important. It’s an essential part of growing as a person.