Music Interview: The Liminal States Of Chelsea Wolfe

In Her Music The Singer Bisects All The Bullshit And All The Beauty

Maggie Grimason
6 min read
The Liminal States of Chelsea Wolfe
Chelsea Wolfe (Shaina Hedlund)
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It was the summer of the height of my tumblr obsession (and swishy shorts and cut off t-shirts for that matter) when a trail of feminist blogs and clicks led me to the audio-only YouTube post of “Pale on Pale,” the ghostly, washed out track on Chelsea Wolfe’s second studio album. The whole of Apokalypsis was instantly in my music rotation for the remainder of that marginally employed summer. The voice of Chelsea Wolfe on that 2011 album is quite different than the one on her most recent album, Abyss. Abyss equals much more than the sum of its fuzzed out guitar and thudding industrial synth, and it’s Wolfe’s confident voice that is the album’s spine. More expansive than ever on this, decidedly the heaviest of her five studio albums, Wolfe’s vocals dovetail with her guitar, reaching powerful heights on tracks like “Iron Moon” and “Dragged Out.” Abyss echoes Wolfe’s earlier work, but in every track a new, broader sound is evident—alternately dense and minimal, the lyrics reveal vulnerability while Wolfe’s voice never loses its power. Despite all the distance I have from that summer when I was first introduced to her music, Chelsea Wolfe remains an unfailingly captivating musician. Imagine the fluttering of my heart when I had the opportunity to speak to her in anticipation of her April 26 show at Sister.

Alibi: What was the first music you made like?

Chelsea Wolfe: I recorded my first song when I was around nine years old with Casio keyboard beats and sounds, plus my voice. My sisters [sang] backup.

You’ve said that, to some degree, Abyss is about your sleep and dream life. What do you dream about?

Nobody wants to hear someone else’s dreams! … Abyss was written during a time when I finally had a name to put to the strange sleep and dream issues I’ve had since I was a kid—sleep paralysis. My version is basically waking up from a dream in the middle of the night and my eyes are open, but the figures from my dreams are still in the room with me, coming towards me. So, in some songs on Abyss I was giving a nod to that hazy in-between state and things I’d experienced there. After the album was done, I was talking to my friend Brian Cook ([of] Russian Circles) about it. He pointed out and reminded me how much … sleep paralysis had inspired my past music.

Your fashion sense is quintessential. Can you talk about what your personal style means to you?

I’ve always loved clothes and shoes. My sisters and I would take … “band photos” with matching outfits when we were kids. One outfit I remember is overalls with one strap pulled off, [a] purple crop top and [my] hair pulled back with a single curl in front. I’ve gone through a lot of style phases but one thing I’ve always come back to is black. It’s more suited to me as I have an affinity for clothing with special details but also I don’t like to stand out too much. I don’t think of wearing black as “goth” though. [Designer] Yohji Yamamoto gets it—he said, “Black is modest and arrogant at the same time. Black is lazy and easy—but mysterious. But above all black says this: I don’t bother you, don’t bother me.” You can wear a black Yohji Yamamoto dress that’s cut just right, and maybe the sleeves are extra long and the bottom is slightly flared—it doesn’t scream “Look at me!” but when you notice those details you realize how great it is. I love wearable designs that are a little off in some way. I also love wearing color sometimes, and red is something I go back to a lot. My personal style heroes range from Marilyn Manson and Sunn O))) to Chloe Sevigny and Janis Joplin.

You’ve visited New Mexico in the past. Do you remember any impressions of the place? Or the desert in general? What landscapes resonate most with you?

I think New Mexico is a magical place. I always like driving through that part of the country, [seeing] the giant rock formations. I look forward to coming back! I grew up in Northern California, so I’ve always felt most connections with trees, rivers and mountains. But I’ve lived in Southern California for years and now live in the high desert above LA—its so different and striking for me so I’ve played around a lot with photos and videos in the desert and mountains there because of that, especially in the music videos I made for “Kings” and “Carrion Flowers.”

“Iron Moon” was inspired by the poetry of Chinese Foxconn worker Xu Lizhi, who committed suicide. You’ve also responded to the 2011 tsunami in Japan in your music in “The Waves Have Come” on Pain is Beauty. Is your music a way of confronting tragedy or a way of coping?

It can be overwhelming to consider the world as a whole, so then I’ll focus in on an individual. I watched a documentary about the … tsunami and a lot of it was home video footage—people experiencing and recording great loss as it was happening. So there were these huge shots of the wave coming in, destroying so much at once, but then you’d see a clip from a man who couldn’t find his wife and was distraught … It was so personal and so heartbreaking. That’s where “The Waves Have Come” came from … It’s so important when you connect with someone, whether they’re alive or passed, and whether it’s in person or from reading something [they] wrote. When I read Xu Lizhi’s poems after they’d been released, I felt the full weight of them. The way he wrote was very palpable and heavy, and so intoxicating. I wanted to write a song that would be a tribute to him and what he went through, so the lyrics for “Iron Moon” are that. The world is full of so much bullshit and so much beauty all at once—I’m trying to confront it and cope with it at the same time.
Chelsea Wolfe

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