Chelsea Wolfe: "Magic and science are sometimes the same thing"

a portrait of chelsea wolfe
Chelsea Wolfe tunes in to the far reaches of the human psyche (Image credit: Muted Fawn)

Every once in a while a musician comes along who has the rare ability to unite people from the most different fields of interests and walks of life, addressing primal feelings and ideas – often dark ones – that lie hidden in us all. One of those musicians is Chelsea Wolfe from California. It’s hard to put into words what exactly created the spark that made neo-folk, metal and electronica fans alike catch fire, the reason for that probably being that her music resonates on a level far beyond the conscious mind and rational thought. Chelsea’s eerie and atmospheric songs come from a more visceral, archaic and elemental place that you’ll instinctively feel connected to. They have the ability to sound comfortably familiar and disturbingly strange at the same time. It’s not least this passion for contrast and opposites that makes Chelsea Wolfe fascinating, and it courses through the current release, Hiss Spun, her sixth album in only seven years.

(Image credit: Muted Fawn)

On the record Chelsea quotes Dylan Thomas as well as Walt Whitman, two characters that could hardly be any more different from each other. Asked about the background of this choice, she simply answers: “I’m not sure I have a fascination with them as much as with just those passages and how they were connecting with my life at the time.”

Looking at works of art for what they are rather than at the people who created them is somehow ingrained in the singer’s DNA. It’s the same unconcerned mentality that made her record a Rudimentary Peni cover album just because she liked the lyrics of the anarcho-punks, without even having heard all of the originals. And it is just the same unbiased mentality that allowed her to cover Burzum songs and then appear genuinely surprised that Varg Vikernes’s twisted worldview made that a taboo for many people, reducing the art to political agendas and something trivial. For Chelsea, music should be above that, so she picks up the bits and pieces that appeal to her along the way, a lot of times wilfully ignoring the greater picture, to take them out of their preconceived context and into her one of her own.

This kind of open-mindedness also applies to the 33-year-old’s perception of music and stylistic boundaries, bringing her unique and hard-to-grasp sound into being. Having grown up in a country and folk household, Chelsea swam in the muddy waters beyond industrial, singer/songwriter, ambient and metal for the last couple of years. Her sonic approach for Hiss Spun wasn’t based on certain genres or styles but on atmospheres and feelings, soundscapes that embedded and mirrored her thoughts.

“I wanted it to feel almost sickening at times,” she explains with regard to the sound of the new record. “I wanted to translate that feeling of the word ‘spun’, when you get too fucked up and you are spinning around. I wanted to translate some positivity like lifeforce, the instinct to survive and push forward. And I also wanted to capture the fucked-up atmosphere of things in the world, things in my own life, things around me.”

As a result, it became one of her goals to make the guitars on Hiss Spun sound cold and metallic like motorcycle engines, while for example the song 16 Psyche, named after an asteroid (fittingly, a metallic one), was supposed to sound like an asteroid hurtling through space.

When the singer moved on from her intimate and neatly produced debut album, Mistake In Parting, that she had disliked since its release in 2006, she decided to put up some walls around her, distancing herself from lyrics that hit too close to home and instead channelling her feelings through other people’s stories she tells in her songs. Hiss Spun is her attempt to let those guards down and face some things she ran away from for a big part of her adult life. Part of the reason for this shift of perspective was her relocation from LA back to a more rural area of Northern California, closer to where she grew up. Spending more time in her hometown with her old friends brought back a lot of memories and old turmoils began mixing with current ones as the singer tried to move past a rather self-destructive lifestyle on the road.

“Without getting into too much detail, there were some stressful times”, she explains. “The record was my way of finally processing those things or coming to terms with them. Everyone has things in their past that are dark or shameful or whatever it is. Sometimes you just want to repress that but I’m always trying to approach things head-on when I write songs, even things that are difficult to face within myself or about the world. I still don’t think I’m ready to talk about specific stories outside of the context of the album. But I definitely put a lot of myself in there.”

The change of scenery was not only an important part of the confrontational process of writing her new record; it also helped Chelsea heal and recover from years of residing in the city, constantly surrounded by energies that gave her no rest. Living in the woods now gives her the ability to take time for herself when she’s not on tour, as she says, regaining control over sleep problems like insomnia, sleep paralysis and epic nightmares that she dealt with all her life and that only got amplified by the constant buzz of LA.

Exploring more of herself and the world surrounding her, Chelsea got involved with the work of famous astrophysicist Carl Sagan and the idea that all beings are made of the same matter as the world and the whole universe surrounding us, that all inner and outer ills are linked to each other. Hence it comes as no surprise that Hiss Spun is full of abstract metaphors of physical phenomena illustrating the forces at work in our cosmos.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m kind of an alien who’s exploring this world”, Chelsea says. “I’m obsessed with white noise and I find it really comforting. I was reading about how 1% of it, like TV static per se, is relics of the Big Bang. Everything is connected to this universal theory and I thought this was really beautiful, so I explored it in different ways. The static, the hum of the oceans and the magical sounds throughout the earth. I think magic and science are the same thing sometimes.”

This occasional inability to separate reality from fiction and dreams from wakefulness traces back to Chelsea’s sleep paralysis, being stuck in an in-between realm with shadow creatures, not being able to tell if she’s asleep or not. Whereas 2015’s Abyss stared down the bottomless pits opened up by this condition, Hiss Spun seems to focus on four words that develop their own magical dynamic: ‘flux’, ‘hiss’, ‘welt’ and ‘groan’, inconspicuously and yet constantly repeated throughout the record.

“At first it just started happening. When I noticed that there were a few words that I was repeating in the songs, I started to think of them as a key or a spell,” Chelsea states. “‘Flux’ is representing movement and flow, ‘hiss’ is this white noise and lifeforce, ‘welt’ is the brutality of life and ‘groan’ represents sensuality and, also, death.”

For her listeners, this repetitive phrase can not only work as a spell but as a mantra-like reminder of the cyclical nature of life and a source of inspiration that has the power to help people cope with it.

“For me, the realisation that the world was, is and will always be fucked up is pretty overwhelming. Thinking about trying to make things change…we should all be trying to make things change for the better, always, but sometimes it feels like a losing battle because as humanity starts to move forward, there’s just always so many things that are trying to pull it backwards”, she says about her own struggles. “But I’ve always just embraced the shit because there’s no sense in fighting it. I have this outlet, I’m able to write songs and play guitar and sing about it. It helps me come to some sort of understanding about things.”

Hiss Spun is out via Sargent House on September 22

Trailer sparks

Three film and TV trailers enhanced by the music of Chelsea Wolfe

Game Of Thrones (2014) - Feral Love

GOT is known for its merciless depictions of battles, sex and spilled blood, but it’s also a series about social revolutions and political turmoil. In the show’s season four trailer, Chelsea’s Feral Love (from 2013’s Pain Is Beauty) captured this spirit of change, of the breakups, downfalls and rises of the peoples of Westeros and Essos, and a world preparing for war.

Fear The Walking Dead (2015) - Carrion Flowers

The atmosphere’s tense, dread is in the air: when the trailer for Fear The Walking Dead was released in 2015, Chelsea’s Carrion Flowers (from 2015’s Abyss) provided the perfect soundtrack for the collapse of society and the dangers waiting around every corner of this post-apocalyptic reality.

Live By Night (2016) - Survive

Although the Ben Affleck-directed movie itself turned out to be a box office flop, Live By Night’s final trailer seemed rather promising, not least because of Chelsea Wolfe’s Survive (also from 2015’s Abyss album). Sounding both tragic and seductive at the same time, the song seized the appeal of the forbidden addressed in the crime drama.