Chelsea Wolfe summons up her power from the interzone between life and death—and sensitive and severe and easy and difficult—and makes songs that sound like PJ Harvey stuck at home in a lonely room overlooking a graveyard, which is strangely close to where Chelsea grew up. (You actually had to look over the fence to see the graveyard.) Her newest album, Apokalypsis, sounds like the long-lost sister of Stevie Nicks and Carla Azar asked Steve Albini to help make a record about what is hidden and what is here. She speaks now about self, spirit and the ghost that played her Casio. This interview by Kristina Benson.
You’ve said you sometimes prefer white noise to music. Do you know about Electronic Voice Phenomena—where people hear the voices of ghosts in radio static?
I’ve heard you can pick up certain signals when you record in a space that’s haunted.
Have you had an experience like that?
Yes. I think I was in seventh grade and I had this Casio keyboard that my dad had given me and it had three different places where you could record a song—three different tracks, three places where you could store a song. When I got it, I erased everything that was on there so that I could record all my own songs and on the first one I recorded a simple piano pattern, and on the second one I recorded some beat and like some ocean sounds. And on the third one I hadn’t done anything. I kind of just left it for awhile. Then I came home from school and I had an idea for a song and I was going to record it in the third place, so I hit play just to make sure I wouldn’t record over something I forgot about. I hit play and it was the piano part from the first place, the first track—just the first four notes—and then it went into this dark and beautiful variation on it, with harmonizing parts and just little delicate things that I would never think of. No one in my family could play that well. In the end it went back to my original theme. I don’t know what it was but at the time I felt like a spirit of some sort had taken my idea and made a song out of it.
Did you keep it?
Yeah—I recorded it and I found the tape a couple years ago and put it on my computer and I still have it. Pretty crazy. It gives me chills. The kind of cheesy part of it is that at the time, the house we were living in—our backyard basically went into a graveyard. So I was always peeking over the fence and watching the funerals. It was kind of eerie. I’d go out and look out over the back fence.
That’s kind of morbid. Did your parents worry about you?
No. I don’t think they noticed. The ones that were right behind my fence—the graveyard was in sections, by religion or something—and there were Indian funerals, from India. And they had cool chanting and singing and I definitely felt that was strange because I had never been to a funeral. And everything on TV was traditional Christian funerals. So it was really strange to watch that.
Why do you perform with a black veil? Is that connected?
Occasionally, I’ll put together a performance in a theatrical way. A while back I had a solo show where I wanted to look like I had stepped off a funeral march. I wore a long black dress and a lace veil and I realized—onstage!—that it helped me get over any nervousness and let go a little more than usual. So I kept wearing it from there. It’s partly symbolic, and partly so that I can be a better performer. For now it’s a part of what my music is. When I started putting the songs on The Grime and the Glow together, I was trying to have a sense of mourning for like … like the way the world is but also accepting it. I wanted to look like I stepped off a funeral march. That kind of imagery is very beautiful and kind of striking.
What are you mourning about the world?
I think a lot of people would agree—I think that the way things are isn’t a beautiful thing but you can find beauty in it. It’s the acceptance of horrible things with beauty being juxtaposed.
You said once you’re drawn to things that are ‘severe.’ Why?
I think severe in that I think things aren’t always supposed to be easy. I try to make my music slightly difficult to listen to—with length, repetition, with the notes of the voice. In that way I mean severe, I mean something that’s not so gentle. I do think that spirituality can be really severe sometimes. I’m also really drawn to that. And I’m interested in traditional religion, and the ritual. Not being involved but as an observer of the expression. I do think of spirituality as a personal thing. Everyone has their own interpretation and it can be very concrete or something abstract. I think there are many different names for the same thing—some call it ‘magick.’ I think it’s trying to tap into different dimensions. For me, it’s interacting with the spiritual realm, seeking it out and being open to it. Trying to let go of my own restrictions and allowing something deeper to move through me. It’s that way for music, too. When we’re writing or when we’re onstage, we try to lose ourselves—to become vulnerable, but still strong. I want to be vulnerable and open up to everyone but I want to be strong and feel strong. It’s not a weakness. It’s yeah—it’s an attitude. I think I can be vulnerable just by giving my all on stage. And not holding back vocally or musically. It’s a study in contrasts, I guess. I’m always trying to create a contrast and I think there’s a contrast in my head and it comes out in the music. A lot of it’s really simplistic and I want it to be simple and beautiful and understandable—and sometimes I want it to be severe and sometimes really dark and evoke painful emotions. I just try to keep it all kind of real and yet reaching out into different dimensions. It’s just a constant contrast within myself and the music.
Hank Williams had a sort of alter ego named Luke the Drifter, and David Bowie had Ziggy Stardust and Beyoncé has Sasha Fierce—do you have an alter ego?
No. I’m more bold and outgoing in my music than I am in every day life and I don’t consider it an alter ego. I think you can be a sane and happy person and still explore dark and strange things in your art and music.
Why do you think so many people fail at separating the two? They explore dark things and then they become dark.
I just finished this book called Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch and it seems like inspiration for artists. There’s a part in there where he says the whole thing about being a suffering artist—I don’t know what word he used—not ridiculous, but it’s not always right. You don’t have to constantly suffer to make good art and I don’t know why people can’t separate the two. I think it’s possible and I understand when people can’t separate it because some people need to get into a dark place to make a certain type of music and maybe it’s hard to get out of that.
You said you took a break from music because you weren’t happy with what you’re making, but that now you’re satisfied. What can you do now that you couldn’t before?
I know myself better. Then I was really naïve, and let a lot of different people dictate what I would do with my music. Now, I’m the one who does it—I record alone a lot. It helps me with the initial writing process. I like to do it alone so I can get it out without anyone else’s ideas interfering. But I was allowing different people into my musical world—letting them tell me what to do, almost. I had a lot of producers and things and I needed to step back from that, and really just do it myself. For a while I was really unhappy with the music I was making. So I took a break from it for a good amount of months and just didn’t listen, didn’t play, didn’t try to write … just took a break from everything. In 2009 I went on a three-month tour with this performance artist and that kind of opened me back up again. Playing one-off, spur of the moment shows at art galleries, factories, wherever we were—that fueled something inside me to try. To follow that sound, the industrial reverb. That feel. Raw in-the-moment emotion. I’m kind of a shy person—a hermit in a way. I spend a lot of time alone. I need more practice. Once I’m interacting with other people, I’m not the best at articulating what I want. It has gotten better with time. Once I admitted that I wanted to do music as my calling, and follow music as my calling, I instantly started to take it more seriously and spend more time on it. I don’t know if it was just calling myself a musician, or if it just happened as I became more confident and felt I was in the right spot—or if I gave up on trying to be a normal person.
You’re super shy and soft-spoken but then you make all these crazy feral noises!
I do use the word ‘shy,’ but maybe what I mean is that I have a hermitic tendency. ‘Antisocial’ seems like too negative of a word for what I’m talking about because I don’t dislike people. I’m just really sensitive to others’ energies and haven’t really learned to control it yet. In that way, it’s not difficult for me to let loose and create feral sounds or screams—but it is hard for me to carry on a normal conversation at times. Most of my pictures end up as self- portraits, cuz I get really awkward. It’s hard for me to do photo shoots.
I read an interview where you said you thought you were an alien when you were little—is that the same feeling?
When I was young, the first poem I wrote was called ‘The Blackened Seed’ and I always felt like I was this blackened seed that got thrown out with the rest of the seeds and wasn’t meant to grow. Alien just refers to a sense of displacement. It’s just about not knowing where to fit in in the world.
CHELSEA WOLFE WITH THE BLACK HEART PROCESSION AND DIRT BIRT ON SAT., DEC. 3, AT THE SATELLITE, 1717 SILVER LAKE BLVD., SILVER LAKE. 9 PM / $15 / 21+. THESATELLITELA.COM. CHELSEA WOLFE’S APOKALYPSIS IS OUT NOW ON PENDU SOUND. VISIT CHELSEA WOLFE AT CHELSEAWOLFE.NET.