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Apocalyptic Blues

CVLT Nation Interviews: CHELSEA WOLFE

You directed the video for “Carrion Flowers.” While your music has always complimented visual mediums, what was it like to be more hands on in this process?  And since your music has a surreal, cinematic quality to it, do movies provide inspiration for you? And if so, which ones brought creative sparks to the making of “Abyss”?

CW: I was basically just inspired by my new surroundings – I moved out of LA last year into the mountains and it’s really intense out there; dry lakes and washed out roads next to beautiful green mountains and lots of trees. We just went around to different spots and tried to capture the mood, really. But I felt like the harshness of it, the reflection of the drought in California right now, was an interesting way to reflect the lyrics of that song, which are about anger and revenge. I directed it with my bandmate Ben, and he did all the editing. Films are always inspiring to me. If I’m ever feeling down or uninspired, I’ll go to the movies. I like to be transported to another world.

What was it like going to Texas and working with John Congleton, who has worked with everyone from Swans to St. Vincent?

CW: The first time I met him, I could tell there was going to be tension – we both have our own approach to music and are very different; but in that way, it became harmonious. This album needed tension. It was great to be in Dallas for a month, making music and hanging out with True Widow, and John’s studio is full of great vintage equipment and endless pedals.

On “Pain is Beauty” you took the spotlight, despite still being uncomfortable, and as a result on this album your voice seems more confident – there are less effects on your voice, giving it a more organic quality. Was this conscious on your part? In what areas, vocally, did you find yourself growing during the making of “Abyss”?

CW: I definitely wanted Abyss to feel more raw and vulnerable. I knew that going into it, and John pushed me further in that direction. It was uncomfortable at times, but I felt like I shouldn’t perfect the songs to death.

CW - Kristin Cofer - hi res 11 mirror

Photo by Kristin Cofer

It’s no secret your music attracts a lot of metal heads, and the rumor circulating before the album title was even dropped was that this was going to be your metal album. How did it feel to step closer in that direction and embrace more sonic extremes, like some of the loud, distorted guitar or the hammering industrial beats?

CW: I don’t personally consider it my metal album, but I did make a conscious decision to write and gather heavy songs for this album because of the live element. We’ve been touring so much the past few years, and this is the first time I’ve considered how the songs will be played live while still in the writing stage. I wanted to have some guitar-heavy songs that would be fun to play live and have a lot of energy.

This album also blends the juxtaposition of acoustic folk-like elements with varied forms of electronica, ranging from trip hop to more experimental industrial. In what ways would you say this marriage of genres differs from previous work?

CW: For Abyss, it felt like a curation of songs… there are covers, songs that I don’t even play guitar on, etc. I’m 100% involved with everything, but I wanted to set this album free in a way, to open up to outside sounds. It was a collaboration with a lot of great people.

With this album, you address your struggles with sleep disorders – things like lack of sleep bringing out inner demons, the frightening submersion of sleep paralysis and in contrast, how sleep can be an escape from depression.  What did you walk away with from this exploration of those themes, after having time now to listen back and hear things that might have slipped from your subconscious?

CW: I walked away with the songs… they’re the ones who make sense of things. Some of them didn’t make it onto the album and might be b-sides or songs on a future album, but I definitely felt reconnected with the idea of space, with inspiration coming from location. I had a couple weeks of writing sessions in this big empty barn on the Sargent House farm in the desert, and it had amazing reverb and a quiet energy; I was able to really pull some heavy emotions out of myself and put them in songs. After that was when I moved to the mountains and set up a studio there. I slept better there and I felt more free there, to write and be loud and weird.

Carrion Flowers Still 1 - dir. Chelsea Wolfe and Ben Chisholm

Carrion Flowers – Carrion Flowers – Video Stills

You have said that you believe dreams, rather than having deeper meaning, are the way the mind works out stress; so what were some of the stressors that impacted the making of “Abyss” to give it such dream-like qualities?

CW: Well, I’ve had strange dreams, sleep issues and the like since I was a child. So when I started experiencing a version of sleep paralysis as an adult, it didn’t seem out of the ordinary and just went on for years before I even told anyone about it. It got worse while I was in Los Angeles, though – I was near downtown in a noisy, bright area with a lot of housemates in a supposedly haunted, dilapidated house, and there was just too much going on all the time, too much energy and too many sounds; I was having sleep paralysis almost every night. Honestly, it influenced songs on Pain is Beauty and Unknown Rooms as well, but during the writing of Abyss I channeled it a little more specifically into the songs and started learning more about the mind at night.

One word that gets thrown around in conjunction with your name is “goth” – fashion sense aside, are you into any of the old school 80s bands or any of the current wave of “post-punk revival” bands?

CW: I hope this doesn’t disappoint anyone, but no not really. I don’t know which current bands you mean, though, so I can’t speak to that. I never claimed to be goth in the musical sense, I always attributed that word to like, Victorian gothic, gothic architecture. And going into the fashion aspect, I wear a lot of black, sure, but there are other elements to black that I adore beyond “goth.” One of my favorite ideas about wearing black comes from Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto: “Black is modest and arrogant at the same time. Black is lazy and easy – but mysterious. But above all black says this: “I don’t bother you – don’t bother me”.” My friend Kristin Cofer, who takes photos of me often – we used to be roommates, and she did turn me on to Cocteau Twins and Depeche Mode, though – I think she sometimes brings out that element of my goth side when we take photos together. I’m also into Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, were they considered goth in the 80’s?

The music industry seems to only know how to handle female artists who are sexualized, and a metal magazine even put you in their “hottest chicks in metal” issue. This seemed odd to me, since lyrically on songs like “Color of Blood,” there is a Morrissey-like outsider view of the emotional interaction that obstructs the physical element. So what role do you see sexuality playing in your music?

CW: That “hottest chicks” thing was gross. I like to think of my music as genderless. I do feel like sometimes we channel sexuality, movement, curves in our music, but I’m not writing he-loves-me, he-loves-me-not songs – its something harder to define than that. And if I show a lot of skin in a photo or something, I’m definitely not trying to cater to anyone’s idea of “sexy” or anything, I’m just trying to be myself, and hopefully encouraging other people to do the same. The lyrics of “Color of Blood” were inspired by an interview I saw with Stevie Nicks where she says that she sacrificed starting a family for her music career, but I wasn’t attempting to write from her perspective, just exploring what that might be like to look back at.

Carrion Flowers Still 2 - dir. Chelsea Wolfe and Ben Chisholm

Carrion Flowers – Carrion Flowers – Video Stills

Do you ever plan to re-visit any of the songs from “Mistake in Parting” and give them a darker treatment, or throw something like “Winter” into your live set?

CW: Oh no… those songs were from a different era and I choose to tune them out.

The song “Carrion Flowers” was inspired by the suicide of a Chinese poet, Xu Lizhi, who had his soul crushed by factory work.  You took many paths before becoming a musician; which of those paths were the most soul-crushing and how do you see this reflected in your music?

CW: I can’t compare my experience with his, but for me personally, trying to be a college student was not right. I had been writing and playing music since I was 9 years old, but for some reason when I graduated high school I felt like it was time for me to grow up and become “normal” or something, so I pushed music aside and tried to find a new path. I went to college overseas, went to university, got my massage therapy license, and then finally found myself working an office job, which I was horrible at. Honestly, I think the owner of that company allowed me to work there so I could support myself as a musician, or out of kindness. But yea, working there gave me some freedom to pay the bills while starting to play music in a more public way on my own time.,. I slowly started playing shows and making albums.,. it was all pretty bad at first, but I knew I just needed to keep following this thing, and eventually when my friend (painter and performance artist) Steve Vanoni invited me on a European tour, it was the catalyst to leave the day job and focus on music. I don’t know why I denied music for so long, but it makes sense now, I think I needed to take that strange path to get to where I am now.

We are midway into the summer of 2015 – what new releases have been getting the most play time so far?

CW: Kendrick Lamar “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Aphex Twin “Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt2 EP”

For the last album, you toured with Queens of the Stone Age, and Rolling Stone Magazine recently recognized you – so for someone who once found the spotlight uncomfortable, how does it feel to have it placed on you in more mainstream avenues?

CW: I feel like Queens of the Stone Age are still kind of outsider artists even though they are huge, and I think we were able to fit into that sort of world pretty easily. It was cool to have Rolling Stone feature the first new song of Abyss, nice to feel the love from a classic music mag but also funny to be considered a new artist since this is my fifth album to be released. Vice and Noisey, you guys – there’s a group who have always shown me love and I’m grateful for y’all too.

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