Who Is…Chelsea Wolfe

Stacey Anderson

By Stacey Anderson

on 08.30.11 in Who Is...?s

File under: Pensive and sprawling doom-folk with a rock 'n' roll silver lining

For fans of: P.J. Harvey, Liturgy, Marianne Faithfull, Sonic Youth, and Helium

From: Los Angeles

Personae: Chelsea Wolfe (singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist)


Chelsea Wolfe

Chelsea Wolfe’s morbid folk-metal records are like a one-woman rebuttal to the Los Angeles department of tourism: They capture her hometown in a surreal, sinister light of aggression and decay. But don’t get her wrong — the California native loves her locale. “It’s an inspiring place — a good place to get things done, a very forward-moving place,” explains the young singer-songwriter. “The lighting here is really bright, but it’s the kind of brightness where on an overcast day, you look up at the sun and see the shape of it perfectly through the clouds. It’s a bright darkness.”

Wolfe’s second album, Apokalypsis, handily fits that description as well. It’s her first proper studio effort — 2010′s terrifically haunting The Grime & the Glow was recorded on an 8-track recorder at various impromptu moments — and it is rich with thoughtful, gothic contradiction. Strangled yelps bleed into dirgelike bass (“Moses”) and reverb-heavy, uptempo guitar bounds atop a PJ Harvey-worthy moan (first single “Mer”). Her excellent end-days opus has already earned a glamorous reception worthy of her hometown; she recently toured with doom rockers Liturgy, one of Wolfe’s favorite bands, and pop artist Richard Phillips used a track to score his latest film starring porn actress Sasha Grey. (It opened at the Venice Biennale.)

eMusic’s Stacey Anderson called Wolfe as she was putting the final touches on Apokalypsis. On top of prepping the dark record for consumption, she was also about to head off to a L.A. rec center to swim laps, a preferred pasttime. Always with the contradictions, this one.

On diving under the sea:

Right now I’m working on the video for “Mer,” the second track on Apokalypsis, with director Zev Deans. He just did a Liturgy video ["Returner"], and he had a strong vision for my video. There are a lot of ’50s and ’70s kind of cult, woman influences. Another influence was one scene in The Little Mermaid, where Ariel’s being taken into Ursula’s lair and there are all those creatures that Ursula has turned into stuck to the floor. Remember that? It’s a culmination of deep sea darkness, beautiful imagery and older cult movies. It should be really interesting.

On being the “Vanna White” of Eastern European performance art:

I played music in the past but I was never really happy with what I was doing. So I decided to take a break in 2008, step back from music, rethink things. In 2009, a good friend of mine invited me to come with him and some other performance artists to Europe for a few months, mostly Eastern Europe. I was a performance art assistant during their show, then I’d do my own impromptu shows at the end of performances. We ended up in all sorts of different spaces: an old nuclear factory, a toy factory, basements, things like that.

Hearing my own voice in those different spaces, doing things so last-minute versus being so prepared, was really good for me. The trip inspired me to come home and start taking my 8-track around recording in different spaces and with different people, trying things more in that way. Those songs became the album The Grime & the Glow, which I released at the end of 2010.

That tour was a pretty awesome experience. There were performers from South Korea, Estonia, Germany; a lot of different places and influences going on. My friend would refer to me as the “Vanna White” of the show. If they needed someone to bring a prop into the scene or do a small part, that was my job. I couldn’t even describe it, but can you describe performance art?

On the end being (very) near:

I think the seeds of this album started while I was reading Atlas Shrugged [by Ayn Rand] in 2009. To me, that’s an apocalyptic book. It speaks of the culmination of things, the degradation of things. How things are and how things could be. I started reading into different end-times theories, all the scientific ways the world could end, whether by solar flare, massive volcano. These different types of apocalyptic thinking in literature came together in a certain way as I started writing the songs that would become the album. Imagery in the Bible, the absurdity of it — that’s always inspired me, too.

I think the most interesting thing about the word “apocalypse” is that it doesn’t just mean the end of the world; it means the end of an era, the end of something. I like that idea. The word I chose for the album title translates to “revelations,” which to me speaks to epiphanies, the revealing of truths.

On breaking through, Kim Deal-style:

My father was in a country band while I was growing up. I don’t think it was a direct influence, but having the musical equipment around, seeing my father go off to shows, probably inspired me in some way.

My first band was something between punk and experimental. We were a Pixies-style band. We made our own way and didn’t know what we were ever doing. I joined because I saw a flyer on the wall at my community college looking for female bass player for a Pixies-inspired band, and I called them and was like, “I don’t play bass but I’ll learn.” Then I went out and bought a bass and we started making these weird punk songs. I did that for awhile then decided I wanted to do my own thing. I still don’t know if I was playing that bass very well.

On summer road trips and future albums:

I’m going to play in Norway on this tour, and I’m really looking forward to that. My family has some Norwegian heritage so I’m looking forward to getting to explore it over there. This year, I’m doing more touring than usual, with a full band and solo. I’m doing the Liturgy tour with a full band, then I’ll do the European tour solo with just my keyboard player. I like the contrast of those two types of sets.

I’ll also start working on next album soon — it’s coming out in the spring of 2012, on Pendu as well. It’s going to have more quiet passion. More of a mix of electronic and folk, I think. It’s going to be intense, still, but more about things that are simplistic; a feeling of desolation, and peace at times of being alone.