Originally published Aug. 21, 2012
Chelsea Wolfe doesn’t like the sun. When we meet in a downtown Los Angeles cafe to discuss her excellent new album, Pain Is Beauty, the spot is packed despite it being a Thursday afternoon—either a great sign for the economy or a terrible one. The only place for us to sit is outside, in the summer heat, where neither of us will be particularly comfortable. On the exposed patio, middle-aged women boisterously squeal, helicopters pass overhead and the world seems particularly conflicting, which is fine, because that’s the way the world is.
“I’ve always been interested in reality, and the two sides to any story,” Wolfe says, speaking about her lyrical interests. “When I was a kid I would watch the world news because I wanted to know what was really going on. So, it’s always been this macro view of the world versus the micro view, which is like a relationship or the torment of being in love. A lot of the concepts on this album come from nature. The intensity of nature; tsunamis and floods. That nature could take us over in a second. And that can be really beautiful or really scary.”
Small and large, beauty and fear, a song on her new album titled “Destruction Makes the World Burn Brighter;” Wolfe’s two sides to every story permeate not only her language and music, but also her history. Growing up in Sacramento, her childhood was characterized by a duality of fundamental needs like home and family.
“I kinda bounced around when I was little,” Wolfe explains, not speaking of trauma but of what sounds like an upbeat, happy childhood. “I spent time at my grandma’s house, but then would go to my dad’s on the weekend. He was in a country band, so that was influential to me in the way he had a home studio. That was really my first introduction to music, watching them practice in there. Eventually when I was 9 years old, I begged him to teach me how to record. So, my dad set me up with this little Tascam 8-track and I’d make Casio beats and sing over them and write songs.”
Though Wolfe began her music journey at a young age, it wasn’t until her 20s that she pursued it in a more serious manner.
“I never really took it that seriously because I didn’t really consider myself to be a performer,” she says. “I loved writing songs and I did it all the time, but it wasn’t until my early 20s that my friends would hear me play or practice and encourage me to start playing shows. And even then, I felt really uncomfortable on stage and didn’t feel like that was where I belonged.”
This shy young woman is now a slightly less shy young woman that performed at FYF Fest this past weekend, in front of a large sea of eyeballs that saw Wolfe and her band deliver a confident and engrossing set right in the middle of the hot August afternoon. At the time of our conversation, the set is approaching with dread from Wolfe.
“They are punishing me, man,” Wolfe says, smiling because she knows it is a great opportunity. “I saw the set times today and I’m playing in, like, the direct sunlight. I’m excited about the festival, but playing in the sunshine is nerve-wracking to me right now. I don’t do well in the heat. Festivals are tough because there is so much going on and I’m used to it being dark and having the mood right.”
Wolfe’s aversion to performing in light corresponds to her music, particularly with how she came to public attention and her association with black metal.
“I did a cover of a Burzum song for fun and put it on Youtube and sort of forgot about it,” she recalls. “Brandon Stosuy, who was at Stereogum at the time, posted it. That’s how a lot of people first heard about me, through that cover. So that is the black metal association. I like black metal, and there is this white noise that is in black metal that I also like to use, like a grayness, even though it is very different stylistically than my music.”
Chelsea Wolfe’s fourth album, Pain Is Beauty, is due out next week on her new home Sargent House. The album is her most broadly appealing work to date, with the recording incorporating electronic elements and what she calls a “softness” to her increasingly refined dark folk compositions. This difference is immediately noticeable on album opener “Feral Love,” a stunning electronically tinted, ritualistic banger. And though she clearly had more resources with an actual label backing her, the sound of the album is not something plotted out in advance.
“I don’t really go into albums with an idea of what I want it to be,” Wolfe says. “It’s more sounds and concepts coming together in a meaningful way. It usually happens pretty naturally. The electronic songs on the album actually came together two or three years ago when I was working on what I thought might be a side project. But then I realized I don’t usually put limits on myself, so why am I putting limits on myself? So I incorporated them into the album. I also tried different ways of singing, using my voice as an instrument in a song.”
Beyond revealing her general interest in both relationships and larger world events, Wolfe wants the music to speak for itself.
“I try not to explain songs too much,” Wolfe admits. “I’d rather have people find their own meaning. But, if anything, I want my music to be a healing thing for people. I want it to be a positive experience. A lot of people think of my music as really dark and heavy, and it is at times, but I think there is a lot of hope in it, too. And that’s how I want it to be, I want there to be a contrast.”
On stage at FYF, that contrast is in full effect, with the singer’s delicate sonic moments changing instantly to thunderous rushes of sound. Even her physical appearance blends both the soft and hard elements found in her music, with her tattoos, dyed dark hair and gothy makeup shades enriching her natural beauty. Still, she survives the August heat with some new fans smart enough see Wolfe play. It’s only fair that Wolfe and her audience endure the same discomfort together.
Still, she knows the sun and Los Angeles and the crowds of people everywhere are just a temporary situation. Her dream is to move back near Sacramento, to a small town she refuses to name. Her career is defined by sharing personal emotions through song, but some things remain hers and hers alone. For Chelsea Wolfe, it is all two sides of the same coin.