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In Darkness, Light: An interview with Chelsea Wolfe

Around the release of the emotionally-charged singer-songwriter’s third album Pain is Beauty, Daniel Jones finds out what went into her most confrontational and honest work yet.

It’s easy to be intimidated by Chelsea Wolfe in person. Despite the power of her presence, however, the Los Angeles-based musician comes across as sweet, introverted and down-to-earth. It’s her voice which contains the real demon, capable of moving souls as much as destroying them. After 2012’s acoustic ballad LP Unknown Roomstwo EPs of re-imagined Rudimentary Peni covers and collaborative 7-inches with friend and fellow doomsayer King Dude, she’s returned with her most varied, confrontational and honest work yet.

Exploring once again the agonies of love as well as the connection between both nature and ancient ancestors, her new album Pain is Beauty offers a remarkable clarity of vision with every track. Though much as been made in press releases about the increased use of synthetic instrumentation, it’s a natural evolution that stays mostly subtle. Wolfe has become adept at bringing the listener up from the depths into the light, lifting you higher before releasing you and leaving you to fall—even as the breath is sucked from your body. There’s never a moment of distraction as she weaves her words over gently strummed guitar, calmly cooing beneath pounding tribal drums or howling savagely as exploding beats and chrome slashes of noise rain around her.

While the darkness inherent in her music has seen her connected to both the goth and metal scenes, her spirit dwells closer to powerful singer-songwriters like PJ Harvey and Patti Smith. Though often draped in shades of reverberating black, her songs never leave you with the acrid taste of angst in your mouth; rather you’re taken on emotional rollercoasters, given glimpses into the human heart and led into revelatory worlds both strange and familiar. It’s dark, certainly, but sometimes so is life.


On Pain is Beauty, it feels like you’re referencing pain that’s less a physical thing and more like a spiritual cramp. 

It’s a reference to a healing process.

Do you believe in pain as a healing force?

Pain and hard times are of course unavoidable in this life—everyone goes through shit. But if you are able to be strong and overcome, you can come out on the other side a stronger, wiser person with a beautiful new perspective. It’s not easy and it never will be; I’m not trying to make it seem that way. I’m just always interested in the reality of things—bringing a little light into a dark situation.

You’ve also used more electronics than before on the new album, yet that doesn’t overpower the organic instruments, but works in symbiosis with them.  

These songs, my bandmate Ben Chisholm and I started writing a couple years ago and eventually started incorporating into the live set. Ben actually created a lot of the beats with samples that he took. On “Sick”, the beat is actually a sample of an industrial elevator mixed with a sample of steam.

How closely connected are you to your senses and environment when you write music?

I write when inspiration hits me so the physical situations are different.

Do you prefer a sterile place, nature, or something more humanistic; incense, cigarette smoke and whiskey? 

When I was at a point writing this album where I had a bunch of ideas, I set up my recording stuff and my instruments in a sort of half-circle around me, took mushrooms and went a bit wild getting everything down. My bandmates say I trip utilitarian-style. I like to get things done.

Do you do that often?

I’m not an advocate of drugs. I only personally condone mild psychedelics like pot or mushrooms for when a person is in a safe environment and a positive mindframe. I like the idea of swallowing something down from nature and something new growing up from it, however. I wanted this album to be about freedom, so I let go of the inhibitions I had. I wore what I wanted, ate what I wanted, took mushrooms, fasted, slept, stayed up for days, did what I wanted. I like the idea of diving into something completely, at least for a little while. I’m so reserved most of the time that I have to cherish the rare moments when I can be free.

You always seem to wear what you want. I think it’s interesting how image plays just as much of a role in Chelsea Wolfe as the sound does, but in a way that incorporates both high-end fashion and art while still feeling totally natural; like you’re doing it because you want to, rather than as a marketing tool. 

That’s nice to hear that it comes off that way because that’s totally how it is. Obviously, looks-wise I’m not the typical size or shape for someone in the fashion world, but I appreciate certain designers and the aesthetics they uphold. Honestly, dressing up for the stage is part of what gave me the confidence to keep going, because when I first started playing out I had a really hard time being onstage and just wanted to be invisible—so I’d wear black from head to toe and a veil over my face. It wasn’t a gimmick; I was genuinely trying to disappear. But when I decided I needed to be a little brave and lose the veil, I just started dressing up. Luckily at the time I met this great stylist, Jenni Hensler, and she has helped me figure out the types of clothing and design I felt comfortable in, and helped me find pieces to borrow that fit the types of visuals I wanted to portray. She’s also made me a lot of dresses that I wear on tour. I try to have fun with image.

Do you have any plans to expand the multimedia experience? 

With photos and video I typically work with people who are close to me because I don’t actually like to be photographed, but at the same time, I want to present myself in a way that relates to my music and the different sounds and moods within it, that’s why I end up experimenting with so many shoots.

Who are some of your favorite photographers to work with? 

I work with my friend Kristin Cofer a lot. I enjoyed working with Eliot Lee Hazel. Anna Dobos shot the new album cover, she’s really great, too. Samantha Casolari has my style of shooting photos—putting things in front of the lens and such to distort the image.

Given how theatrical and epic your songs are, have you ever given any thought to writing a musical theater piece?

No, but I would love to do more soundtrack work for film. I don’t have very many “official” music videos or anything so far, but I am currently working on a film with Mark Pellington that has four or five of my new songs along with soundtrack pieces Ben and I are working on. I’m a character in the film, as well. I had to let go a bit more than I’m comfortable, so it was a good learning experience. Mark is brilliant and I’m really excited about the project. Honestly, film is one of my biggest inspirations for music. If I’m ever feeling uninspired or tired, I’ll go to the movies. I’m not too picky, even; I just like to get lost in another world for a while, and discover something new that I’ll end up taking away from it.˜


Pain Is Beauty is out now on Sargent House.

Published September 03, 2013. Words by Daniel Jones.