"The path of witchcraft has brought me so much joy." We explored LA's weirdest and most wonderful book store with goth-doom queen and practising witch, Chelsea Wolfe

Chelsea Wolfe
(Image credit: Future (Photos: Stephanie Cabral))

Chelsea Wolfe knows her way around a bookstore. Just watch as she moves quickly down the aisles and up the stairs, a mystery woman in layers of gothic black in search of something spiritual and witchy in the most eccentric literary establishment in downtown Los Angeles. She hasn’t been to The Last Bookstore in years, but has suggested it as a good place to meet and browse the shelves while she’s in town preparing for the release of her seventh album, She Reaches Out To She Reaches Out To She. Over the last few years, the singer and guitarist has been increasingly open about her interests in the spiritual realm.

“In the witchcraft community we get excited when someone who’s either an artist or a creative is open about it – an open witch basically out of the broom closet,” she says, standing tall on laced-up boots, a quartet of dark braids draping over her shoulders. “It’s actually exciting. We want to support each other, because it’s not always easy to be open about that kind of thing.”

Upstairs is where things get weird. There are bookcases organised not by subject or author, but by colour – with entire shelves filled with red books, another for blue books, another for yellow. She glides through a tunnel made of old books glued together like bricks, past a bank vault filled with true crime and horror, and a sign that warns: ‘You are entering the labyrinth above The Last Bookstore.’

Chelsea lived in Los Angeles for more than six years, in a neighbourhood just outside downtown. The Last Bookstore was a frequent destination for her back then. We’re now standing in the ‘Religion And New Age’ section. Right beside her is an Egyptian sarcophagus made of plaster, looking rather more like a movie prop than a beloved mummy’s solemn pathway to the afterlife. The surface of the sarcophagus is painted in regal shades of purple, white and gold. Just steps way is an old birdcage inhabited only by a brass human skull and a metal statue of a raven.

“I worked at a bookstore when I was in high school, so I got really used to just looking at the spines of all the books and intuitively pulling one out and often it being something that I was actually drawn to,” she says happily of her teenage years in Sacramento, California, sliding a book off a shelf. “I loved it. It was just a messy little old bookstore.”

While the witchcraft selection here isn’t as big as she had hoped or recalled, there are shelves filled with a range of esoteric titles old and new. There are books on magick and the occult, cosmology and modern sorcery. One shelf includes A Modern Guide to Heathenry and a copy of Initiatic Eroticism, a collection of occult writings by the Satanic high priestess Maria de Naglowska. Occultist Aleister Crowley stares balefully from the cover of another book. The volume already in Chelsea’s arms is a copy of Pronoia Is The Antidote for Paranoia by Rob Brezsny, an astrologer and musician based in Northern California. The subtitle reads: How The Whole World Is Conspiring To Shower You With Blessings. The cover image depicts a maze leading to a flaming heart in its centre.

“I’ve been following this author on Instagram,” she explains. “Looking through the spirituality section, I wasn’t recognising a lot of the authors they have here. So I closed my eyes for a second and I was like, ‘Please show me the right book,’ just asking the spirit universe,” she adds with a laugh. “And then I saw this one – I was like, yes. I wanted to pick this up.”

Chelsea Wolfe reads a book

(Image credit: Future (Stephanie Cabral))

She has always been interested what she calls “the spiritual realm”, picking up books and getting into tarot cards when she was in her early 20s. But it wasn’t until her 30s that she got serious about “different areas of study of witchcraft” and other corners of the spiritual. “I would say that my path is more nature-based, earth- based – animism,” she says, aligning herself with the metaphysical belief that all things – animals, plants, the earth, etc – have a sentient, spiritual essence. Walking the aisles, Hammer mentions a book of photography by William Mortensen, whose evocative work in the 1920s and 30s ranged from Hollywood portraits to demonology, and included feral images of witches in the classic mode: riding brooms in the nude and being burned at the stake. We can’t find a copy, but she looks up Mortensen’s ancient pictures on an iPhone, and notes that the women tried for being witches in the 1600s were often “just midwives who knew about herbalism and could cure people better than doctors at the time. They weren’t calling themselves witches. They were mainly women who knew these old folk ways.”

Her first experience in this world came from her maternal grandmother, who was herself just learning about herbalism and aroma therapy, and experimenting with Chelsea during visits together.

“I remember we sat cross-legged on the floor across from each other. She had all of her different flower essences in the middle, and she would put a hand on my knee to connect with me energetically,” she recalls, smiling at the image. Her grandmother would run her hands over the various flower ingredients between them, and intuitively choose the blend that little Chelsea needed to reduce anxiety. “That was a good memory,” she smiles. During the 2019 tour behind her mostly acoustic Birth Of Violence album, she stood with her guitar inside a ceremonial circle, as if she were leading a ritual in the forest, with a crystal ball and a goblet beside her, tree branches at her feet. Just as important is what was happening offstage before each performance, as she pulled tarot cards to get herself grounded in the moment.

“I’m using my spiritual practice as a way to prepare myself, but I don’t feel like my show is attempting to present some ritual or something like that,” she insists. “It’s still more about the music. The path of witchcraft has brought me so much joy and healing in my own life that I do want to share it a little bit. I don’t want to be overbearing with it and make anyone weirded out or uncomfortable who’s not into it. That’s why I do it in a subtle way.”

Her gothic sense of style was established in adolescence when she lived in Sacramento, Northern California. “Even in high school, if I went to a dance, I would wear all black. My friends thought I was weird, but I’m drawn naturally to things that are a bit witchier,” she explains with a laugh. “Like boots with lots of laces and things that are a little bit more flowy.” In her music videos, she is often seen in exotic natural locations that play into that image. For the videos for the new songs Whispers In The Echo Chamber and Tunnel Lights, she travelled to Colombia to shoot high up in the Eastern Andes. On camera, she strolls through the scene in billowing layers of black, dark hair blowing in the breeze, the good witch at the centre of the storm.

“We were literally just wandering through these mountains with a crew, which was a really fun experience,” she says. “It felt very Lord Of The Rings.” After Birth Of Violence, Chelsea’s plan was to make a full band album, but everything was delayed by the pandemic. A European tour was cancelled, and she returned home. In the woodsy isolation of her house, she got sober. Vodka had been her social lubricant of choice for years, and when she toured things could get reckless.

“There were actually times when people would throw edibles onstage, and I would stupidly eat them – then be on the bus at two in the morning questioning my entire life,” she says, laughing. “There was just dumb shit like that that didn’t need to happen after a while.”

Things shifted creatively and personally as songs began to emerge for what would become She Reaches Out To She Reaches Out To She. The album was recorded with producer Dave Sitek (of art-rockers TV On The Radio) at his studio in Glendale, California, in a house intriguingly close to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory – an institution co-founded by Jack Parsons, the rocket scientist and follower of Aleister Crowley.

“This album thematically is so much about transformation and rebirth,” Chelsea explains. “You can still be a musician and be totally sober and it’s not going to end your life. That’s why I’m trying to be more open about the things that have helped me find more peace and groundedness and healing. I’m a 40-year-old woman now. I hope that I can sort of influence younger people who are maybe thinking about the same things.”

For Chelsea, it’s been a busy few days in Los Angeles. Last night, she hosted a listening party for the new record that went on long into the evening, and now as the afternoon rolls onward, she feels her energy dropping. By the end of the week, she’ll be back at her house in the woods, about a two-hour drive from Sacramento. She’s lived out there for years now, but she has notions of one day moving overseas. “I think it would be really hard to leave. But I feel like at some point I’m going to need a change of scenery.”

Chelsea Wolfe holds a book

(Image credit: Future (Stephanie Cabral))

For now, you can feel her connection to the wilderness in a series of iPhone videos she’s posted online, featuring her playing a few of the new songs alone, acoustically. Stripped of the album’s postmodern production, the songs are raw but gorgeous, and in harmony with the nature around her.

“Where I live, the four seasons are very present, and during the pandemic, I had that time at home to really be present with each of these seasons,” she explains. “When my beloved cat passed away last April, it was just at the very beginning of spring, and something about her passing made me spend a lot more time outside and paying attention to the growth and the new life. It’s a real gift for me to be able to live somewhere quiet and up in the mountains. It suits my natural inclinations very well.”

As a practising witch, she’s connected to like-minded women near and far, but she’s not part of a coven. “I think there’s a lot of solitary witches. I guess I consider myself a solitary witch, but I also have a community.”

Part of that community emerges at her shows on the road. At home, she reads regularly, focusing on the witchy and esoteric during the day, the fictional and relaxing at night. Right now she’s reading Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic series. She tends to have a few books in progress at any one time.

“I like to have books as a research tool, especially when I’m writing,” Chelsea says. “It’s a little more interesting to just think about what subject I’m writing about and go to my bookshelf and intuitively pull what feels right, than to just go on the internet to look things up. I love having this sort of mini library.”

In 2021, she added a new volume to her shelves: the lavishly illustrated history, Witchcraft, part of arty publisher Taschen’s Library Of Esoterica, co-edited by her friend Pam Grossman, a self-described “teacher of magical practice”. Chelsea contributed a short essay to the book, another step in her increasingly public practice in the larger occulture. But her interest in the language of magick and alternative forms of spirituality has been there all along.

A few years ago, she collaborated with filmmaker Virginie Khateeb on a short film set to her reading of a poem that previously lay buried beneath layers of sound in the song Erde. In a breathless whisper, she recites: “I am the mother of the forest / I want to be wrapped in ivy...” and then unfurls an evocative list of natural herbs and fauna like ingredients for some mysterious purpose, an animist through and through. “Mandrake & Blessed Thistle/Butcher’s Broom & Flame Azalea... Orris, Red Fescue/Sumac, Hemlock/Rose Hips, Striped Violet/ Velvet Ash & Golden Aster.”

“It’s part of my creative process now to be a lot more intentional about how I write and creating a sacred space for myself,” she says of how her interest in the spiritual and esoteric has impacted her life, on and off the stage. “And it’s taught me a lot about energy. I got even deeper into it once I got sober from alcohol. I just feel like in my mind and spirit, so much space was opened up.”

She Reaches Out To She Reaches Out To She is out now via Loma Vista. Interview originally published in Metal Hammer #385

Steve Appleford

Steve Appleford is a Los Angeles music journalist who has also written for Rolling Stone, Revolver and the Los Angeles Times. Over the years he's interviewed major artists across multiple genres - including Black Sabbath, Slayer, Queens of the Stone Age, System of a Down, KISS, Lemmy, the Who, Neil Young, Beastie Boys, Beyonce, Tom Jones, and a couple of Beatles.