L.A.-based singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe just gifted the world with one heck of an album. Abyss, her fifth full length release, is a beautiful, intricate tangle of dark, dreamy folk-metal. We chat with Wolfe about growing up in her father’s studio, the dark influences behind her songwriting and how she learned to find her voice.
How long have you been writing songs?
Since I was around 9 years old. While I was growing up my father was in a country band and they’d record and practice at his home studio. I was mesmerized by the harmonies and the recording process. My dad taught me some basics and set me up with a Tascam 8-track and I recorded songs on that thing for years. I still have it.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Yes. I was listening to a lot of R&B at the time, and got really into Lauryn Hill, and my dad introduced me to bands like Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin, while my mom showed me artists like Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell, so I think my first songs were a sort of blend of all those influences. I was writing really straightforward songs about things I knew nothing about, like love and relationships. I had a big imagination for simple subjects.
How did you get started?
I wrote poetry first and then decided to set words to music. Over the years I just kept writing and recording, but never imagined that I could actually be a musician or be up in front of people playing shows. Eventually, though, friends and family encouraged me enough to give it try. It was rough for many years – it took me a long time to feel comfortable and keep my head together onstage. That was in my early 20’s. Around the time of my first album release, The Grime and the Glow, that’s when I started taking things more seriously and focusing on music over anything else.
What’s your typical songwriting process like?
Typically I write alone and then bring demos to my co-producer Ben Chisholm or the rest of the band to work parts out together. Ben also writes songs for this project, and I also sort of curate songs from outside at times. For this album, “Iron Moon” was co-written by our friend Karlos Rene Ayala who wrote the song “Boyfriend,” which I covered on my acoustic album Unknown Rooms. I also do a cover of another friend, Jesse K. Phillips’, song “Arteries,” but gave it new lyrics, melody and title: “Color of Blood.”
Several of your songs were written about world events, like the suicide of a Foxconn worker last year. How often do real events (ones you haven’t experienced yourself) inspire your writing?
They’ve always been an influence on why I write. The first time I wrote a poem when I was a kid was when I realized how things connect – sounds, situations, people. The realities of the world immediately surrounding me juxtaposed with the realities of the world as a whole; this macro vs. micro perspective has always haunted me, even in my dreams.
How much do aesthetics play into your songwriting?
I write in an instinctual way, letting the ideas come as they come. Image and aesthetic don’t have much to do with songwriting for me. It’s what comes after. While I’m writing it is very visual for me, but it’s behind closed eyes. I wrote most of the songs for Abyss in a big empty barn at my manager’s property out in the high desert, and the rest in my little studio at home, surrounded by colorful Steve Vanoni paintings, but I almost always had my eyes closed no matter where I was. It’s the feeling of a space or a moment I’m trying to capture, not the look of it.
Which of your songs – on any album – was the most difficult for you to write?
“They’ll Clap When You’re Gone” was a really personal and emotional song. The end part is a bit separated from me – I was alluding to sparkling people, musicians, actors who die young and sort of live on forever because of it, but the verses had some lines that cut really deep. I almost didn’t put the song on the album because it was so dark and personal, but I also felt like it was important to keep being brutally honest. “The Waves Have Come” was equally as brutal. I was watching footage from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, including home videos from people who lost their loved ones and homes and I wrote the song based off of that. I sometimes come out of songwriting sessions physically shaking or with my heart beating almost out of my chest.
Which of your songs do your fans react to the most?
I often hear requests at shows for “Halfsleeper,” one of my older songs.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
Abner Jay, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams.
What bands or artists are you listening to at the moment that we should check out?
Lately I’ve been listening to Screature, John Fahey, Aphex Twin, Wardruna, Scientist, Fetty Wap, Röyksopp & Robyn, Sumac, Russian Circles, True Widow, Flying Lotus, Brody Dalle, Wovenhand, and the Scott Walker + Sunn O))) record Soused.
What is the most perfect song ever written?
“Vietnam” by Abner Jay.