Interview: Coffee, Pie, and Death with Chelsea Wolfe
Does the queen of darkness take her coffee black? How does it feel being the dream woman of metalheads and goths alike? These are the questions I ask myself regularly about Chelsea Wolfe, the Northern California singer whose ghoulish melodies are as uncanny and dread-inducing as the veil she occasionally wears while performing.
Wolfe’s dusky melodies inevitably resonate with a sense of apocalyptic doom, but are still rooted in the strums of country ballads that win over our blackened hearts time and time again. Currently she’s touring to support the release of her latest, a collection of sparse acoustic tracks entitled Unknown Rooms.
Over ‘50s surf rock tunes on the radio and a delightful slice of quiche at DC’s most darling pie shop, Dangerously Delicious, I had a delightful conversation with Chelsea about tour tats, haunted houses, the mystique of death and driving an ex-prison van around the country.
Thanks for trekking out here on your day off from tour to eat pie with me.
No problem. I got to sleep in late, then I think we’re going to try and find somewhere to go and spend the day. I was actually looking for a tattoo parlor.
Haha, thanks. One thing I’ve read in interviews you’ve done in the past is that you’re very concerned with exposing the beauty within darkness. What is so appealing about the darkness?
I’ve always been interested in truth and honesty in music. That was the first thing I was drawn to about art and music when I was younger—brutal honesty and taking something really stark and finding something beautiful about that. I’ve always been interested in contrasts. Like someone laughing and crying simultaneously, it’s this macro view of the world. That’s definitely what drew me to it, that whole view.
What sort of art forms brought that out? Did you grow up watching horror films?
I didn’t really like horror films when I was a kid, actually. I had really bad nightmares and after a while my parents stopped letting me watch them. My sisters would always watch them and I’d be up for four days. People expect me to be really into art that’s really gory or dark or scary or whatever. But I’m interested more in directors like Ingmar Bergman and Werner Herzog, the ones who have a psychological approach to things where it’s very realistic.
Especially Ingmar Bergman, I mean The Seventh Seal is probably the first movie that affected me when I was young. It’s such a simple story really, but so striking and emotional at the same time. Herzog takes something totally random—a science station, and he can reveal so many magical things about it.
I can definitely see the starkness of films of Persona come through in your aesthetic.
A lot of my aesthetic ends up being subconscious, and my impulses are very diverse. Over time, it sort of just melded into this weird thing.
Yeah, you certainly meld those sensibilities to make music for such a diverse group of listeners.
It’s very much a natural progression of things I’ve done. I first started listening to country and folk from my dad growing up, then I got into black metal and then Black Sabath, Led Zeppelin, things like that. Everything just melted together and became whatever the fuck I am.
You know something’s great when you can’t fully describe it, only experience it within its context.
Yeah. It used to bother me when people used to label me something really specific—like “goth” or “singer-songwriter.” It doesn’t anymore because my songs are all really different from one another, and depending on what you listen to first it certainly affects who you see me as an artist. As long as people enjoy it, I don’t really care.
How does the notion of space play into your recording process?
I’m really interested in capturing the vibe of a space when recording. I recorded most of Unknown Rooms at my house in L.A., which is really sort of dilapidated giant old house from the early 1900’s. It was interesting doing that at home—I didn’t really want to go to a studio and it do it “professionally.” I worked with my bassist Ben, who’s a really great producer, and we mixed it together. A whole bunch of people live there, I don’t have the house all to myself. It’s a homey space but it does have its uncomfortable aspects to it. It’s cold and there’s a lot of spiders that creep in. The landlord claims it’s haunted, but I haven’t had that many experiences to sort of back up whether it’s true or not.
Why does he claim it’s haunted?
The previous owner hung himself upstairs. His grandmother bought the house, and she died in the room I live in about ten years ago. He thinks both of their spirits still reside there. I don’t have any experience to back up one way or another.
The possibility’s out there.
Yeah, it’s out there. I mean, there have been a couple of times where plates fly off the wall or something, but it could just be an earthquake. It does have a lot of strange smells that pop up. Sometimes it’s perfumey, other times coppery. I’m really interested in smells and how they bring about memories. It never feels scary to me, though.
Your music often resounds as frigid, though. Are you drawn to colder environments or inspired by temperaments?
I’m drawn to stark landscapes. When I visited Sweden and Norway I fell in love with it, and maybe it’s because of my childhood sensibilities toward Ingmar Bergman. My family heritage is Norwegian, too. I like places that have a harsher landscape, I think it’s interesting that the sun barely comes up for a few hours at a time.
You’re currently touring with a violinist, right?
Yeah. I’ve loved viola and violin for a really long time and I’ve been fortunate enough to meet really talented players. The viola player adds such a natural and raw element to the songs. I wanted that different sound to be there. We also find out that we sing really well together, and I love playing music with her. We also have a synths player, a three-piece, no drums. It’s been really different, but a fun challenge.
What is your creative process like?
Typically starts with lyrics, but more specifically, subject matter. It’s not so much the words but the idea I want to carry out, and the song will carry itself forward from there. For this last album we changed it up a little bit. We wrote the music first, then would inject vocals in there and rearrange. That’s what’s fun about electronic music, you can do that more easily.
What’s the last nightmare you had?
Actually last night I dreamed about being on tour. We played in Amsterdam last year. It was a really busy area near bars. We pulled up to the venue. The guys went inside and I stayed outside with the van. We started unpacking and this group of six like, really drunk guys came up and started grabbing guitars and shit. I didn’t know really what to do, I was yelling and trying to fight them off. It was okay in the end, but I had a nightmare like that. It’s always really stressful on tour, especially when you can’t park right in front of the venue.
Do you ever garner material from your nightmares?
A little bit. The title Unknown Rooms refers to dream interpretation, which isn’t something I’m really into. But it’s supposed to be about how you dream about new spaces, new rooms, things you make up. I always think it’s always interesting when you make up a person in your dreams, and that’s sort of supposed to represent something about your afterlife, a hint into that. Or it can be revealing a part of yourself that you’re not really ready to approach yet. A lot of these were old songs that I wasn’t comfortable releasing until recently, so it represents that.
What’s your greatest fear?
I don’t know if it’s a fear, but I think the reason I write so much music about death—death as a character, or different ways of passing into the next realm, things like that—is because I’ve never really experienced it myself. No one close to me has ever died. I’m not really afraid of death, I’m just a little obsessed with it. It’s always in my head and I wonder about what it’s like to deal with it.