An Interview with chelsea wolfe
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl and John Lachausse
Chelsea Wolfe is the singer-songwriter behind The Grime and the Glow (2010), Apokalypsis (2011), Pain Is Beauty (2013), Abyss (2015), and her latest release, Hiss Spun (2017). Uncut calls Hiss Spun "a beautiful paradox of angsty noise and beguiling craft." Wolfe first began working with music around age nine, when she would sneak into her father's home studio to record song covers and, eventually, original material. She's toured internationally, and has been associated with acts such as Russian Circles, Converge, and Queens of the Stone Age. Visit Wolfe on Twitter at @CCHELSEAWWOLFE, and for more information, visit chelseawolfe.net.
TMR: You've referenced Sylvia Plath as one of your influences, which has been made evident through your lyrics and music videos. What was your first encounter with Plath?
CW: In my early 20's, a friend gave me a book of Sylvia Plath poetry before a trip, knowing that I was into her, and a line in the poem "Widow" really resonated with me: "Death is the dress she wears." I have that tattooed on my ribs in fact. That poem as a whole is so visual and visceral—it's like watching a short film in your mind. On my first album, The Grime and the Glow, there are definitely some Plath influences, like using the line "Blue Mary's angel" in "Halfsleeper."
TMR: In some ways, your music sounds like the embodiment of fear. You sing and play with such a power, however, it feels like each song is a tale of overcoming.
CW: I've dealt with pretty extreme anxiety plus a plethora of sleep and dream issues since I was a kid: insomnia, sleep paralysis. Those things create a pretty dramatic mental landscape for anyone, and as an artist I channel a lot of that into my songs. I'm also a Scorpio, a sign known for a calm exterior contrasted with a seething, raging interior, and I think that's pretty accurate for me.
I'm always writing songs as tributes to those who are going through or have gone through hardships and injustices.
I'm always writing songs as tributes to those who are going through or have gone through hardships and injustices. Sometimes I feel helpless against the huge amount of bullshit in this world so I try to focus on one person or a community of people and write something for them. But on this album I'm writing a lot about my own memories, past and ill health and trying to offer a more personal side of myself, while also reflecting the escapism I seek as well.
TMR: You endured an intense bout of stage fright during the onset of your career. How did you win the war—or at least the battle?
CW: It's an ongoing war. It's just not natural for me to want to be up in front of people. I've dealt with it in various ways over the years, like wearing a Victorian mourning veil to cover my face and covering my body in head-to-toe black, but I graduated from that at some point by getting into fashion and finding things to wear onstage that made me feel strong. At times I've needed a bit too much to drink to get onstage, and at times I've forced myself sober. Now I'm mostly able to go into a kind of trance to overcome it. I lose myself into the songs and focus on the music instead of overthinking the actual circumstances.
TMR: What is the musical process like for you?
CW: Sometimes it's like a revelation of sounds and words that come all at once, and sometimes it's more like a collage of ideas that I have written down or recorded over a period of time. I write a lot of lyrics while I'm on the road, experiencing many different people and places, having some time to read or stare out the window, just thinking. Much of Hiss Spun came about through band jams though, which is somewhat new for me. I'm playing with a group of people now that I feel very comfortable with in that setting, so it was very natural.
TMR: What was the inspiration for Hiss Spun's cover art?
CW: There is some anger on this album that I needed to let out; some moments of exorcism. The album is about embracing the mess of yourself and becoming strengthened through that, so the hair dress I wore was meant to represent something messy, feral and aggressive, contrasted with this clinical white room.
When I was a child I had such bad night terrors that my parents took me to a sleep research center to try and figure out what was wrong with me. I was taken into a small white room with two-way glass and I had to sleep in this hospital bed while being monitored with sensors placed all over my head and chest. That memory also influenced the music videos for "16 Psyche" and the upcoming video for "The Culling."
TMR: What writers have changed your life?
CW: Haruki Murakami. And Werner Herzog. I know he's mainly a director but he has some written stuff too like A Guide for the Perplexed. Both of them have this way of shedding light on the strange magic of everyday things, and I really appreciate and resonate with that perspective.
I appreciate a great story of long-lost lovers who have an intense connection but there's much to overcome for them to find one another or be together.
I appreciate a great story of long-lost lovers who have an intense connection but there's much to overcome for them to find one another or be together. I had read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged in this way before knowing any actual context of her writing, and don't worry—the internet put me in my place! But a better example of that is 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, which has a more mystical, almost sci-fi quality and is more my taste. I got lost in that book and it's one of my favorites. Celine's Death on the Installment Plan influenced The Grime and the Glow a lot. The imagery of the Book of Revelation inspired Apokalypsis. I was reading Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass while writing Hiss Spun.
TMR: Lastly, align yourself with one vice.
CW: Much of Hiss Spun is about excess, addiction, and escapism. I'm not proud of my vices, but I felt that writing about them would be the first step in overcoming them.