Interview: Chelsea Wolfe

The latest record by California’s Chelsea Wolfe – titled Hiss Spun, released on Sargent House – often illuminates the physical burden of living. Fuzzed out guitars are dragged along by a lethargic rhythmic drive, like a body driven down by the weight of organs and skeleton and contemplation, pushing forward through a will that just barely overpowers the desire to stop. Yet this album is also ecstatic, explosive; radiating far beyond the limits of corporeal self, channelled through Chelsea’s voice as it bursts upward through the chorus of “16 Psyche”, or evaporates into whispers during the verses of “Vex”.

As a listener, I’m still wrangling with the paradox at the centre of this beautiful record (a fact likely reflected in the rambling detours taken by my questions). Below, we discuss the natural beauty within Northern California, writing music within intense quiet and the relationship between escapism and the body.

Your comments accompanying this record have referred to the idea of “opening up”. I’ve seen you talk about it being a very personal work as well. As a listener, I’ve always felt a connection to what I perceive to be a very rich emotional sincerity within your music. Perhaps I’m mistaken in this feeling. What is it about Hiss Spun that has warranted a greater focus on the “personal” in contrast to your previous records?

Last year I moved back to Northern California, not far from my hometown, so I was spending more time with family and old friends. That naturally dug up a lot of memories for me, and without really realizing it I started writing a lot of lines for this album that referred to those very personal memories, and dealt with the more daunting ones in that way as well. But I’m always emotionally tied to my songs, whether they’re about my own life or not; I give a lot of myself to each of them.

I’d love to know more about the guest contributors to Hiss Spun. Aaron Turner makes an appearance during a particularly intense section of “Vex”, while Troy Van Leeuwen contributes guitar to the record. How do you know these musicians, and how and when did the idea arise to bring them into the creation of the album?

I met Troy when my band and I opened up for Queens of the Stone Age for a couple tours in 2014. On the first night of the tour, Troy came to our room with Hutch and started making us mixed drinks. We fast became friends. A couple years ago I reunited with my friend, drummer Jess Gowrie, after a period of years apart. We started writing some songs together along with my bandmate Ben Chisholm, and the raw nature of these songs made me think of Troy. We sent some songs over for him to hear and he sent back his ideas, which were perfect and just what the songs needed. After we had a few, I felt it was a shame for these songs not to get played live so I proposed that they become the next Chelsea Wolfe album, and there it went. Aaron Turner and I met when I played some shows with Mamiffer, and I’m a big fan of his band Sumac. I felt like his voice was a good grounding element for this album.

Your vocal delivery on this album is wonderful. The opening section “Twin Fawn” is playing as I write this question, the swoops and quivers of which seem so deliberate and exact; almost like a finger tracing the sides of a ceramic sculpture. Over the years, have you noticed any particular changes in your relationship with, or utilisation of, the voice within the context of your music?

As I’ve learned what my own voice can do and pushed it further, I’ve used it in more tactile ways and yea, I think you can sense that on “Twin Fawn”. There’s a line in that song about being in a long distance relationship: “I feel you, phantom touch, although you’re far”. These are really intimate songs so I wanted to capture that sonically as well.

How and when do your songs initially come to you? I know that some artists generate their music through the physical process of playing; others are struck by songs as conceptual ideas that are later realised through instrumentation. What does it look like for you, and does it vary between tracks or albums?

It does vary. Sometimes the music dictates the melody, sometimes the lyrics guide the songs.

On a similar note, do you have a special place or environment – say, in your home – where these songs are initially written and nurtured into being?

I do write a lot at home because for the past few years I’ve set up a home studio wherever I’m living. Last year, while I was between houses, I stayed with family for a while. I didn’t have much space to myself so my liberation from that was to write or listen to music in headphones often – I was reminded of the beautiful escapism of music.

You refer to what I perceive to be a paradox of sorts, where you mention that you “wanted to write some sort of escapist music; songs that were just about being in your body, and getting free”. When so many of the narratives around escapism is leaving the body behind, how do you perceive this reconciliation between bringing an awareness to the body and this bid to escape?

There are stories on this album about addiction, sex, relationships – those can be very physical things while still providing escapism. Escapism isn’t always the healthiest way to quell anxieties. I’m not glorifying it, just trying to be honest about it.

I understand that this record was recorded in Salem with Kurt Ballou. How did you find the experience of working with Kurt and recording the album?

I was already a fan of Kurt and how he records, drums especially, and I knew this was going to be a very drum-heavy record, featuring Jess. That was a big factor in wanting to work with Kurt, but I also had a chance to visit his studio last year while working on a project with Converge and I fell in love with the space. The studio is three levels: the basement dungeon, the main studio, and the upstairs apartment and vocal room. I liked the different realms you could escape into. As a bonus, I have some good friends in Salem and was able to collaborate with them on the album artwork.

I’ve seen you talk about writing “psychedelic love songs to nature”. How does nature feature in your life? Do you spend a lot of time in nature? If so, are there any places that you particularly enjoy visiting?

California is diverse when it comes to natural beauty and I’ve been lucky to live in different areas over the years to enjoy the different landscapes. I grew up in Northern California near mountains, rivers, giant trees, and not a far drive from the ocean. When I moved to Los Angeles I was able to spend more time in desert landscapes. I love to visit Joshua Tree and I love to visit the giant sequoias. I moved out of Los Angeles four years ago and into the high desert for a while, as a test to see if I could handle living outside of a city, and found it was really great for me. Less distractions means more mental space to work and write, and something about how intensely quiet it was made me want to fill the empty space with new sounds.

The album ends in an abrupt and incredibly powerful state of harmonic discontent; that last chord feels like it’s been sucked into a black hole, and I’m left feeling like as though the record has trailed off mid-sentence. Why did you decide to end the album in this way?

I have an affinity for cinematic moments like that. You know, sometimes you’re watching a really intense, dramatic scene in a film and they’ll suddenly cut to something that feels more calm…well, I try to translate those kinds of contrasts into music. That song “Scrape” is written from the perspective of a woman having surgery for a disease that stems from a past unhealthy relationship, so she’s forced to lay still in this clinical, white room but her mind is raging, full of memories and anger.

What records have you been listening to recently?

The Wardruna Runaljod trilogy. I’ve just asked for them on vinyl for my birthday from a dear one so I look forward to listening to them in that form soon!

What else is on the horizon for you?

I’m already working on my next album, and I’m slowly turning my garage into a recording space!