City: Los Angeles
Chelsea Wolfe is a singer and guitarist who has released four albums. Her most recent being Pain is Beauty. I talked with Chelsea while she was touring with the Queens of the Stone Age.
Interview by Emma Kathan
What are some central themes that continue to inspire your writing?
I guess I’ve always been obsessed with the macro and the micro view of the world. I look at everything as a whole and see how massive everything is: big issues, natural disasters, and things like that. Then, adversely, I focus on the really small, the micro: our everyday stories, our love lives, our family lives, our survival. So, yeah, that’s one theme that is constantly in my songs, the macro versus the micro. Also, I think about contrasts: the world is really beautiful and it’s really horrible, and its all happening at the same time, which is kind of overwhelming.
And in your personal life, what are some things that you feel passionately about, that you might say you align yourself with—such as political viewpoints and other issues that may or may not show up in your lyrics?
There are so many things that disgust me in this world, and I sing about them as my own little pathetic way of doing something when there’s a lot more I could be doing. I feel like I shouldn’t even talk about such things when there are people out there who are actually doing something about them. But I’m really against human trafficking, people being held as sex slaves—just slavery in general, and all the abuses perpetrated against children and women. I guess I always feel like it’s just too much for me to do anything about, personally. But it is something that I often approach in my songs.
Do you prefer to be at home working on your music or on the road playing live shows? Or do you have no preference?
I like both, they’re just totally different vibes. I do love to be able to write and record and I do love being on the road, but I struggle with stage fright and just not feeling comfortable on stage. I guess I prefer writing, recording, and making music. I’m not the type of person naturally inclined to be a performer, so in that way it can be a challenge. Touring can also be exhausting: your time is often crunched, but then you’ll have a day off to sleep and rejuvenate, and then you can’t wait for the next show.
You’ve been touring pretty steadily for the last couple of years, right?
Yeah, we started touring a lot as soon as we signed with our new label Sergeant House. They’re really good about getting bands out on the road because it is important.
This spring issue is focusing on the season as a time of rebirth in the sense of plants coming back to life, animals mating, and crops beginning to grow again. It’s easy to see how humans adopted earthly regeneration and adapted it to their own lives; human cultures have symbolically celebrated this time of year with festivals honoring deities who have died and been reborn. Do you have any belief in spiritual reincarnation, the idea that we can be reborn time after time into other physical bodies, or do you see it as more of a fantastical symbolism on the part of humans, relating themselves to what they see in nature?
Reincarnation isn’t something I’ve ever subscribed to, but I don’t negate anyone’s beliefs. It’s just not something that I’ve thought much about, at least not yet and maybe one day it will be something I’ll look into more deeply.
Another metaphysical take on reincarnation is that it’s possible to inherit traits of our ancestors strictly through our DNA, and that there could possibly be some “cellular memory” of theirs which is passed down to us that makes us feel like we’ve been places before, or have an affinity with a certain era, etc. Do you think there’s any truth in that?
Yeah, I explored that a little bit but didn’t come to any conclusions. I just have this theory that certain traits of our ancestors can travel down to us, which might explain why a lot of people in the U.S. feel unsettled inside, because we come from all over. Maybe there is still a sense that we aren’t living where we’re supposed to be living, where our ancestors are from.
That’s neat. Well, there are scientific theories to support that we inherit certain traits, such as the way we react to things and whether overall we’re happy people or prone to depression. Then, there are the theories that we may inherit a predisposition toward a behavior—everything from alcoholism to how we react to stress. This theory claims that when we react to a traumatizing event how we react to it is encoded into or learned by our DNA; this certain way our bodies reacted to the stressor can be learned by our DNA as the best way to react in order for us to survive. For instance, though it seems silly to think that getting drunk or doing drugs is a good way to deal with stress, actually, at the time it does help the person get through whatever he or she is going through, so it’s learned as a survival mechanism for the species. The good thing about DNA is that it is pliable and we can re-learn better ways to deal with stress in our lives. In that way we can pass down to our children better behavioral reactions. So, yeah, in that way there might be what some term “reincarnation”: traits of our ancestors replaying on our unbroken DNA record—until we work on getting the whole thing re-grooved!
Who were some singers who inspired you growing up?
When I was in high school I remember buying the first Jewel album and I really loved how honest it was. I think I felt a connection to her because I always wanted to find truth in music and so it was really inspiring to see someone who did that, especially a woman. Another favorite was Lindsey Buckingham. I have a lower range so I was always more attracted to male voices because it was easier for me to sing along with them. I could sing in his register the best and loved his style, so I think he may have had the most influence on my style of singing.
Where do you find beauty most?
I’d have to say in nature. When I was growing up in Northern California, one of my favorite places was the giant redwood groves. Being around ancient, thousand year old trees, was really beautiful. I feel they have an energy they transmit to you—like they have a soul.
Have you found some places on tour that really resonated with you, where you may have thought, “I need to come back here when I have more time?”
I really loved the Scandinavian forests and I’d love to go back sometime and explore them more. But, I also feel really lucky to have toured the U.S. so much, because it’s a diverse country. As strange as parts of it are, it’s also really beautiful. Florida is a strange and beautiful place: everything is so green and the swamps drip with vines like a jungle. Yeah, so I think our country has a lot of beautiful nature to offer.
Does being on tour and seeing all of these different places inspire you to write new songs?
I’m always writing lyrics and I definitely get inspired on the road. Being on this tour with QOTSA, and just being around new magical people really kickstarts something inside me. Josh Home is so positive and has such a great way with words it kickstarts something inside your head.
Do you have recurring dreams that you remember?
Definitely when I’m on tour, I’ll have stressful dreams about performing. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, because I’m really happy to have the opportunity to tour but subconsciously I’m still dealing with stage fright issues. So I’ll have dreams about being an animal in a zoo, or being trapped in a glass cage, or that my house is made of glass and everyone walking by stops and looks at me. So, yeah there seems to be that same theme in my dreams while on tour. I remember on my last tour, I had dreams about being trapped in an attic, and people could come and open the door and see me but I could never open the door and get out. I don’t know how people who are actually famous deal with it. (Laughs). I’m not even that well known and I already have performance issues, so I don’t know how someone like Lady Gaga deals with being that much in the public eye.
One thing I do really enjoy about performing and touring is meeting new people and talking with them after the show about their lives and how important music is to them.
Since you have been touring so much these last years, have you noticed that you are getting more confident or comfortable on stage?
Oh yeah, when I first started playing live, I played with a veil kind of covering my face. I just wanted to be invisible on stage and so tried to hide myself. But I’ve overcome that because I didn’t want it to seem like a gimmick, you know? One thing that helped me was fashion and clothing; instead of wearing a veil I covered myself with designs I liked that made me feel confident or strong. That really helps me get through shows.
Like a coat of armor.
I’m sure a lot of performers do that. There’s definitely strength in dressing in something that gives you confidence.
Yeah, I also have to give credit to my stylist, Jenni Hensler. She’s been with me since the beginning and helped me overcome the whole veil thing. She’s made a lot for me and helped me figure out what I feel comfortable in. She’s been a great styling partner over the years.
Also, I’d like to go back to the reincarnation question you asked earlier. I don’t mean to sound like I’m against the idea of our having a spirit or a soul. I definitely think there is something more than the physical realm. I do believe in something greater than the physical self, whether or not its a soul I can’t say but there’s some kind of spark and when a person dies that spark or light goes out. It must go somewhere, but I don’t know where. I also accept that when the body dies it goes back into the Earth, that’s a beautiful thing. So, I didn’t want you think I was like, ‘reincarnation, whatever.’ I definitely believe there is a spiritual realm from which comes guidance for my life.
Speaking of spirits, have you ever experienced what you would consider a ghost?
Well, probably the closest thing to a ghost story I have concerns a Casio keyboard with the sampler to record songs that I had in the 7th grade. I was never a good piano player, nor was anyone in my family, but I made up a simple four-note piano pattern that repeated over and over and recorded it into the Casio. I forgot about it and left it there for a long time. When I returned to it and hit play it had turned into a very strange, dark, and beautiful piano piece based on my original four notes. So, that was weird, and then I recorded it and turned it into an MP3. I still have it.