Chelsea Wolfe embraces her demons

An interview with the mistress of the netherworld.

Chelsea Wolfe. Photo by Shaina Hedlund

Chelsea Wolfe’s music has often sounded as if it was summoned from a netherworld of inescapable nightmares, but even by the California siren’s standards, Abyss is all-consuming. Released last year, Wolfe’s fifth studio album and career zenith is sonically and emotionally devastating — far heavier than the spectral dirges of her earliest albums, but drawn from the same nocturnal purgatory.

Abyss’s corrosive shock waves and pervasive dread weren’t diluted at Wolfe’s sold-out show at Théâtre Fairmount in September, and she’s back to embrace her demons at the same venue on Monday. A new seven-inch featuring two ethereal outtakes from Abyss proves those demons don’t always dwell in a roiling void, but whatever shade of black her confessions and incantations take, honesty remains paramount for Wolfe. “I try to let go and let something flow through me when I’m having writing sessions, so I’ll come out crying or shaking sometimes,” she wrote by email last week. “It’s almost like waking up from a dream.”

Here are some excerpts from my email exchange with Wolfe.

Jordan Zivitz: Were you yourself shocked by the heaviness of Abyss, or did you know you were going to venture so far in that direction?

Chelsea Wolfe: Nah, I mean, I go back and forth between heavy songs and quiet songs, and it just started leaning that way. I knew it was coming. My band and I had been touring a lot with heavy bands for a few years, like Queens of the Stone Age, Russian Circles, True Widow — watching them inspired me to have some songs that were heavier and would be fun to play live. But I had also just moved to the mountains after living in Los Angeles for a few years. It was quiet and more isolated and I felt like I could be free out there — like I could scream into the open space.

JZ: Why were “Hypnos” and “Flame” held back from Abyss? Was it simply down to them being quieter songs?

CW: To me, “Flame” didn’t fit. Even though the lyrics were related, the mood of the song felt like its own thing. “Hypnos” was supposed to be on the album, but I wasn’t happy with the mix initially — it took a long time to get it where I felt comfortable releasing it. Sometimes I think I should have just released the demo, because an intimate song like that should be more raw. But I felt close to both of those songs, so I knew I’d release them eventually. A B-sides seven-inch seemed like the best place for them.

JZ: What drew you to work with John Congleton (who produced Abyss and has worked with a long list of artists, including Swans, St. Vincent and Montreal’s Suuns)? I’ve always loved the textures and innovative sounds he seems to encourage; did that attention to detail play into your decision?

CW: Since I’m pretty much a self-produced project, I go into any record with the songs demoed out almost to completion. And I don’t have a long list of dream producers, just a few who really stand out to me that I think would be great to work with at some point. John was someone who stood out, and he reached out to me at the right time, when I was figuring out where to record Abyss. I visited his studio in Dallas when I was on tour and thought it was an interesting space with great equipment, and he was an interesting guy. We had an instant tension, which at first made me second-guess the whole thing, but then I thought about it and sometimes tension can be a good thing for a recording situation. It makes for raw sounds. I wanted the album to have a rawness and vulnerability, and John pushed it even further in that direction. We kept it weird and heavy together.

JZ: Pretty much every article I’ve seen about Abyss has mentioned your battles with sleep paralysis. Did you want to make sure listeners understood the personal context of some of these songs?

CW: To be honest, not really, but when I was sending notes and inspirations to my friend Brian Cook as references for the bio he was writing for the album, I sent one last email that said, “By the way, I deal with this thing called sleep paralysis and have struggled with sleep and dream issues my whole life.” He wrote about that and helped me realize how much that had actually played into my music for years, and especially for this album. Looking back at the whole writing process, I saw that I had been putting a lot of that battle into the songs, so it all made sense.

JZ: Are you looking toward the next album yet? Do you envision it continuing along the path you tread on Abyss, or do you have completely different sounds in mind that you want to explore?

CW: Yes, I do this thing every few years where I try to start a side project because I feel the new music I’m writing is too different from the world of this project or something, and then I get really into it and just turn it into Chelsea Wolfe songs! The same thing happened recently — I was making songs with Ben (Chisholm, longtime collaborator) and Jess (Gowrie, drummer) and a couple other players and realized, shit, we should just make this the next record so we can actually go out and play these songs live. So the new album is about halfway written, and I’ve been writing a lot of acoustic songs as well. We’ll see what comes first.

JZ: I’ve read about your stage fright, and how dire it used to be. Do you feel more comfortable performing live now, or is the prospect still distressing before you walk out in front of an audience?

CW: I do feel more comfortable now, just from practice. I’ve toured for a few years now and have learned how to pull myself together in order to fall apart onstage. I always want to be real with the audience, so I stay focused on that instead of focusing on being “perfect.” I think that was part of my problems of stage fright in the past — I thought every song of every show had to be played perfectly or people would leave disappointed. Which is so silly, because I’ve of course gone to shows where the band fucked up or got too wasted or there were technical issues and it was always interesting and endearing! ■

Chelsea Wolfe plays with opener A Dead Forest Index at Théâtre Fairmount (5240 Parc) on Monday, May 16, 9 p.m., $18/$20