Chelsea Wolfe is a dark, mysterious chanteuse who's last record caught a lot of people's ears with its delicate gradient shifts from burning white to pitch black. She's about to get a higher profile with a series of works coming in the next several months, and her penchant for offbeat covers is a fine complementary strength to her own original material. I had a chance to sit down and chat while she was on tour with Russian Circles.
I understand you’ve got a new acoustic record coming out. Is it just you, or are there others on it?
There are other people playing on it. I started off with a bunch of old songs that were floating around on Youtube that I never really did anything with, and when I was doing new recordings of those I ended up writing a bunch of new songs. I brought in some other players too; a viola player called Ezra Buchla, a violinist Andrea Calderon, my friend Daniel playing bass, and Ben was playing drums.
Same people as the touring band?
Different, but Ben is my main collaborator and is in any project that I do. But yeah, mainly different people.
Would you consider Mistake in Parting your debut, or was it more like a bunch of demos that you were trying to feel your way out before making a proper recording?
I usually try to bury that. It’s like my deep, dark secret. I was 21 years old and wrote a shitty singer-songwriter breakup album. I didn’t even really want to be a musician back then, but a lot of my friends were like “let’s do this, I’ve got some producer friends” and they helped me make this over-produced, terrible record. <laughs> I think I threw 200 copies of the cd that I made too. “This is shit.” I sort of took a break from music for a while since I wasn’t happy with what I was making.
There were about four years between that and The Grime and the Glow. On that record, there were a couple of songs that you re-recorded for Apokalypsis (“Demons,” “Moses”). What was the thought process behind that decision?
As soon as I put The Grime And The Glow out, I formed a live band and we started playing those songs as well as the ones that eventually became Apokalypsis. When playing those songs live, they took on a new life. The original recordings were super sparse, “Demons” originally was just me doing everything. I wanted to record the more live version of the song. Apokalypsis to me is capturing the live band more. It’s not really a live record, but it’s a bigger sound.
It captures the collaboration between the band members?
The LP cover for Apokalypsis is rather striking and it seems like you put a lot of thought into the design, the font choice, the Greek symbols, even your stage wear. How important is the visual aesthetic to you? Does it evolve over time, or is it in one place?
I think it definitely evolves. That cover gets misinterpreted a lot. To me, it’s a sense of epiphany, like the eyes opening up in a good way, but a lot of people saw something dark, or blank. I like the fact that it’s open to interpretation. I’m into fashion and visuals to a degree, but I’m not too crazy about live visuals as you’ll see. I like to keep things basic so it’s not too distracting from the actual music. I’d rather have someone close their eyes and have visions in their head.
I saw you at Roadburn earlier this year. Where you surprised when Walter extended the invitation to play?
I wasn’t really surprised but I was surprised that there was a full room, I was really excited about that. I wasn’t sure if anyone was going to want to see us.
Were you able to see any other bands the night you played?
I caught Om and thought they were really awesome. Unfortunately we missed Michael Gira’s set, I was so mad. We got there a little too late, just after he ended. We really wanted to catch him because we all love Swans.
During my research for this interview, I found out that you’ve recorded an EP of Rudimentary Peni songs. I’ve never seen this, can you still get it?
It’s actually not out yet, but it’ll be out later this year. I did a solo version of it, just for fun. I like doing covers of bands that are very different from my own music. I got a little obsessed one night and did five songs. Some of the songs I haven’t actually heard the original version of, because I don’t have a lot of their records and some of them are really hard to find. I looked up the lyrics and did my own interpretation of them.
Those are usually the best version, instead of some slavish reading of what someone’s already done.
Yeah, I guess it depends but it was definitely fun. When we were on tour in the UK, Southern Studios asked us if we wanted to do a session so I figured that was a perfect opportunity to do a better recording of that. And it was amazing because we ended up working with the engineer Harvey Birrell, who had actually recorded a lot of Rudimentary Peni’s original recordings. So it was fate! I’m really excited about it.
You've also covered The Strokes, Burzum, and Nick Cave. Are there other artists would you like to cover in the future?
I don’t know, probably. I get obsessed sometimes. The Strokes thing wasn’t something I did naturally because it was a project for Stereogum who asked me to contribute. At first I wasn’t sure, but then I thought of it as a challenge. I’m sure I’ll do many more covers.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I’ve got this acoustic album coming out. And then we’ll be doing an electronic, full band album that we actually just finished recording that’s coming out next year. I’m sure we’ll be touring, and doing more albums. I really want to do make music videos because I love them but have only been able to make one real music video so far.
Which one was that?
It was for Mer.
There are a few out there.
I used to make my own, but I really don’t consider those to be proper music videos.
About influences, sometimes I hear some PJ Harvey, Cat Power, Marissa Nadler in your songs. Do you listen to any of those artists?
Not really, to be honest. I totally understand the comparisons, well I don’t actually know what Marissa Nadler sounds like but I’ve obviously heard Cat Power and PJ Harvey. I don’t really consider my music like that. I think there are a few songs that are in the realm of PJ Harvey, like the rock and roll kinda stuff. My influences are all over the place. I love old folk and country, Hank Williams is one of my favorites, Tammy Wynette. From black metal I like Burzum and Gorgoroth…Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, it’s all over the place and I think that shows sometimes. I’m either minimal or crazy. I think I’ve got a pretty wide range of genres I like.
You live in LA. To me, your music tends to evoke darkness and mystery, whereas when I think of LA I think of Sunset Strip and tons of sunlight. Do you find a dichotomy in where you live and the music you play, or is my reading way off?
I think I would be inspired by the same things no matter where I live. I’m from northern California, big trees and mountains, so it’s a bit of a different energy. I think Los Angeles has it’s own strange darkness. It’s a little different but it’s inspiring in its own right.