I had the opportunity to chat with Chelsea Wolfe over cocktails at Sonny’s Hideaway, about her new album and life as a Downtowner. Her fans have no doubt been reading the heaps of glowing praise for Abyss, released in August (her 5th album in as many years), likely agreeing it’s the band’s best release yet. ‘The best’ claim, however, does her earlier albums a bit of injustice, as each album tends to be equally remarkable as the next. Wolfe somehow gets better with each album. She can shift genres completely or sometimes offer a culmination of what came before, but with new ground unearthed. Described as 'goth-folk' to 'metal', she's simply too gifted a singer and songwriter to be pigeonholed that easily. The ephemeral Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs from 2012 was both intensely beautiful and heart wrenching, a duality Wolfe touches upon and evolved sonically in her most widely recognized album, Pain is Beauty from 2013.
On Abyss, the dynamics are pushed even further, as she explores the murky realm between sleep and consciousness, light and darkness, the serene and the terrifying. “The range of dynamics I lean toward naturally, I’ve always been obsessed with contrast”, Wolfe explains, “how the dark parts of the world interact with the light.” For years she suffered from sleep paralysis, the dreamlike state of being half asleep, able to move but unable to wake, her dream’s lingering apparitions still visible in her room. Wolfe conjures this terror by pairing ethereal, sorrowful rests against violent crescendos of distortion and descending chord progressions. The results are disquieting; sometimes tender, others frightening.
The band worked for the first time with producer John Congleton, (SWANS, St. Vincent, Earl Sweatshirt), who helped bring an immediacy to the vocals as well as a noticeably heavier, Sabbath-like, drop-D tuned guitar sound. The band is formidable here, and stars longtime accomplice Ben Chisolm, who hammers the deep, ominous bass and keyboard arrangements. Ezra Buchla returns on viola, and Dylan Fujioka is once again spectacular on drums, seamlessly ranging from acoustic to electronic sound without ever sacrificing the raw and often brutal emotion of the songs.
Pressed on black splattered, ice-blue vinyl, the new record closely resembles the singer’s bright, preternatural eyes. Statuesque and draped in black, Wolfe cuts a striking figure, but onstage connecting her very personal work to the crowd was difficult. “When I first started, I was so painfully awkward about going on stage, I had to wear a veil, I just couldn’t face the audience. Since the second album, I’ve been making a lot of eye contact. Now at shows, I feel like we’re having an experience together. I want it to be intimate.”
Raised in Sacramento, Wolfe had musical and creative parents that turned her on to the likes of Hank Williams, Joni Mitchell, and Johnny Cash early. She started playing and recording music as a child. This lends to her range of sound from album to album. She made her move to the Pico/Union area in her 20’s, frequently using DTLA as a backdrop to three of her albums, but some of her worst nights’ sleep. “I lived in a house with seven people. The song Feral Love was inspired by infusing my love of nature with the sounds of Downtown.” Since moving to the high desert, her sleep paralysis has mellowed, “but I’m charmed by Downtown, which is surprising, I’m not really a city person. I really love Pattern Bar. I love fashion, so it was always a lot of fun for me. Then we’d go to Pizzanista which was amazing, and I love The Last Bookstore. I liked to walk Skid Row too, I met a lot of fascinating people there.”
Chelsea Wolfe returns to DTLA this month to play The Regent Theater, her first time playing here as a headliner, rather than one of many bands on the all too frequent ‘festival’ tours. “It will nice to have our own show, for our fans to see a full set. It will be our vibe and mood.”
For the uninitiated, well, your time has come. “What we’re doing is definitely what I want to do. I like that we’re growing slowly. We’re playing to the people who are in our realm, understand our music and appreciate it. It’s like making friends”, says Wolfe. Her show is opportunity to see a truly brilliant artist on the rise, as the venues will likely only be getting larger in the future. It may be premature to say she’s at her peak though, the next album could likely be her best.