Chelsea Wolfe walked a personal and creative tightrope in 2019. She began by recording Birth of Violence, an album of songs dark and dreamlike, spirited and spiritual, built from acoustic ideas and the searing examples of singer-songwriters Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and Nico. The music was elegant and austere, the lyrics evocative and complex, as Wolfe revealed a bit more of her inner self.
It was a step away from the noisy rock guitar of 2017's Hiss Spun, but somehow carried the same force of ideas and temperament, balancing the dark and the light. "I'm kind of an apocalyptic person," Wolfe tells Revolver. "I'm either really calm or I'm overly stimulated or overly emotional or feeling wild. I just have these two extremes and many of my songs have both."
On the U.S. tour that followed, Wolfe appeared mostly alone onstage, standing with acoustic guitar in a small circle ringed with the gnarled branches of Manzanita trees, as if presiding over a mystical ceremony in the woods. On the table beside her were a crystal ball and goblet, contents unknown. In the shadows for part of the show was longtime collaborator Ben Chisholm, adding accents of bass and synthesizer to Wolfe's songs of the natural world, women's lives, rock & roll and a life traveling the Mother Road.
One of her stops this summer was at the Pasadena Daydream Festival, curated by Robert Smith of the Cure. It was there that she finally met in person Deftones singer Chino Moreno, another Sacramento native, who had recruited her to sing for his Saudade project, recording the haunted, explosive track "Shadows & Light." The song was typically intimate and forceful, and another step in Wolfe's evolution of the shadowy and deeply felt.
"In the songwriting and the performing process, there's an element of channeling something from a different realm," she says. "When that happens, it just flows and it happens really naturally and I'm open to it."
At the end of her just-completed U.S. tour, Wolfe spoke with Revolver of her current album, plans for new music and her ongoing embrace of witchcraft. Just ahead is her European solo tour and the beginning of work on her next album, which will be a full band project, set to begin early in 2020.
THIS WAS YOUR FIRST SOLO TOUR IN SEVERAL YEARS. HOW DID YOU APPROACH IT THIS TIME?
CHELSEA WOFLE I saw Neil Young play a few years ago in Los Angeles, and it was just a solo show. He basically had the stage set up like a living room, with a couch and a lamp. I think there was even a coat hanger or something, and it just felt like you were stepping into his home. So for me, I wanted to create this little magical world where I felt really comfortable onstage, but I also felt like I was inviting the audience into this really unique space. I had this vision of creating a circle to stand in that was visually jagged but also protective.
IS "THE MOTHER ROAD" FROM THE NEW ALBUM CONNECTED IN SOME WAY TO THE AMOUNT OF TIME YOU SPEND TRAVELING?
"The Mother Road" is a nickname for Route 66, which of course represents being out on the road, being on the highways and traveling the United States and the world. But there's also a moment in there where I'm talking about not being a mother. As a woman sometimes, society expects that eventually you will have a child, but that's just never been my path. My music is my children, and it always will be. So this is my personal Mother Road. A lot of this album is really me connecting with the divine feminine and accepting my own unique path as a woman in this world.
IN THAT SONG, THERE'S A LINE THAT GETS REPEATED: "I GUESS I NEEDED SOMEONE TO BREAK ME/I NEEDED SOMETHING TO SHAKE ME UP." IT SOUNDS LIKE FINDING PURPOSE FROM ADVERSITY.
I actually wrote that line at the end of a seven-week run. We had done the tour with Ministry last year and then another few dates on our own. We did a radio show during the day and then a special museum show one night that just ran really long and I was exhausted. After the show, I just laid in the back of the museum on this concrete floor, and those lyrics came to me. At the time I was just like: I'm so tired, I hate this, I feel so broken right now. But those are the times when some of the most meaningful lyrics come to you.
It's also a reflection of adversity and when someone really fucks with you and it's really difficult, but once you get through it, you're such a stronger person. I can see so many examples of that in my own life. It really sucks when you're going through a hard time with someone. But afterwards, if you can come out of that feeling stronger and more on top of your shit, it's really empowering.
ALSO ON THE ALBUM IS "DERANGED FOR ROCK & ROLL," WHICH SOUNDS LIKE YOU'RE DESCRIBING BEING CAUGHT UP IN SOMETHING AND NOT REGRETTING IT.
I've had some people ask if "deranged" is a negative thing, but I never thought of it like that. This is more of a love song to rock & roll and me owning up to the fact that music is what I was put here to do. It did take me a long time to, like, admit that because I've always struggled with feeling like I'm not good enough to be doing what I do and have the audience that I do. But it was time to own up to it. Music belongs to me and I belong to it and this is how it was just obviously meant to be. I'm not really good at anything else.
"DIRT UNIVERSE" IS A MIXTURE OF POWER AND LONGING.
I had the line of "living in dirt universe" for a long time and I didn't really know what it meant and I kind of still don't know what it means, except that my whole life is a little bit gritty. You can pretend life is beautiful, but it's always a little bit gritty and with some underlying darkness. Someone once called me "daughter of sorrow." At first I took offense to that, but over time I thought it was kind of a nice title, so I'd wanted to own up to it — and accept the side of being a woman with teeth sharp and snarling and waiting for someone to fuck with me.
THE NAME OF THE U.S. TOUR WAS AMERICAN DARKNESS, NAMED AFTER ONE OF THE SONGS. WHAT DO THOSE WORDS MEAN TO YOU?
For the song itself, I had this vision of this war widow in my head, alone in her cabin in the mountains dancing with the ghost of her lost partner. There's definitely references to the painful history of America and the ugly history of America, but also the fact that so many little stories live within that — even a love story. At the end of the song, I'm alluding to couples that have been together for their whole lives. One of them dies and then soon after the other dies 'cause they just can't live without each other. Like Johnny Cash, who died just a few months after June Carter Cash. I always felt drawn to that phrase "American Darkness." So much of my music is on the darker side.
ARE YOUR FANS JUST AS ATTRACTED TO THAT DARK SIDE OF EXISTENCE?
"Darkness" sometimes isn't even really the right word for it. I feel like this is reality music and I'm maybe approaching it in a more mystical, magical way. Much of my music really just reflects the reality of things and trying to show two sides to every story or trying to show that little tiny stories live within these big ones — the macro and the micro. One of the most beautiful responses that I've gotten on this tour is people saying that they felt like they really needed the relief of the show. It's almost like a healing night for all of us, and it is for me, too. I feel really blessed that I can help other people have this night where it's just, "OK, I know it's going to be heavy and I know it's going to get dark" — in witchcraft we call that shadow work. It comes from Karl Jung as well: It's going into the shadows in order to start the healing process. It's really cool to have so many people that are willing to go through that with me.
DO YOU FEEL LIKE THIS PARTICULAR SHOW THAT YOU'RE DOING IS EVEN MORE OF A RITUAL THAN OTHER TOURS YOU'VE DONE?
Yeah, for sure. Part of it has to do with naming witchcraft and being more open about it. I'm a really private person, but I think with each record I'm opening up a tiny bit more. So this one, on the record and on the stage show, everything has a little bit more to do with me opening up more about being into witchcraft and finding this sort of spiritual path for myself that I've been on for a long time but never really had a name for. That's been really cool.
WHEN DID YOU REALIZE WHAT PATH YOU WERE ON?
It's been there for a few years. It's probably been there my whole life really. I was raised by my grandma, who was a very spiritual person and would practice aroma therapy and herbal healing. I also think that my dealings with sleep paralysis over the years have also opened me up to this spiritual realm that I might not have known was there — there's an in-between state that you're in when you have sleep paralysis that opens you up to something and you've got to try to figure out what it is.
I've been reading tarot cards for myself for a long time now — from my early Twenties, but then that came back into my life during the Hiss Spun era. I brought tarot cards on the road and found it was a really good way for me to center myself and get grounded and get perspective when things were getting to be too much. Whether it was pulling a card each morning or just pulling one when I was feeling down or confused about something, tarot brought me back into this path.
DO YOU STUDY THIS VERY DEEPLY OR JUST TAKE WHAT YOU NEED?
This year at home was really nice because I actually had the time to see the seasons change. Witchcraft is very nature-based and very based on cycles. It's all about birth, death and rebirth, really. It's this constant cycle and the different moon phases and what they mean. When I'm at home, I definitely feel more connected to it and it's a bit easier to keep up with everything. I have a whole shelf in my little personal library that's dedicated to all of this, so I'm studying more and more as I get older. On the road, it's more about taking 10 minutes a day just to meditate or pull tarot cards or do some sort of candle work just to stay connected to it and feel centered before I go on stage.
DOES THE SPIRITUAL SIDE OF THINGS COME INTO YOUR CREATIVE LIFE MORE FOR AN ALBUM LIKE BIRTH OF VIOLENCE, OR IS IT ALL THE SAME?
I'm sure it's connected to everything I've been doing. I definitely put a lot more of it into this record than I ever have before. Part of that was just really connecting with my own version of femininity, wanting to explore that. In the past I didn't really have as much of a name for it. There's still certain elements of it that I'm private about and always will be because I think that's important.
ARE YOU THINKING ABOUT THE NEXT RECORD YET?
Yeah, thinking about it in the sense that we're going to get together and jam. I'm really happy with my current live lineup, which is Ben and Jess [Gowrie] and Bryan [Tulao], who all were part of Hiss Spun. I would to start by just having the four of us write together and see what happens and then go from there. There's not a ton of specific ideas, just a few things that I have in mind — getting together as this musical family who really gets along musically and we all really love each other. We're going to spend a week somewhere together and start writing. I think that'll be a really special energy.
OVER THE SUMMER, YOU PLAYED THE PASADENA DAYDREAM FESTIVAL CURATED BY ROBERT SMITH OF THE CURE. HOW WAS THAT?
That was such a fun day. I hadn't played a show in eight months and I felt really rusty and weird, but just being there and being part of that was really great. And seeing the Cure was amazing. His voice sounds the same as when he was younger. It's so beautiful.
DID YOU HAVE ANY CONTACT WITH ROBERT SMITH?
He came and watched most of the sets that day, which is really cool. He watched our set and said hi. And then after the show, I was hanging out with him and Chino for a little bit, which was a trip for me. Mostly just me watching them talk. But it was definitely really fun and cool to feel like they were down to talk to me. Not trying to be too fan-girly, but Chino was really sweet and brought me back there with him to talk to Robert. And that was a really cool conversation.
YOU AND CHINO RECENTLY RECORDED SOME MUSIC TOGETHER AS PART OF HIS SAUDADE PROJECT.
Yeah. The festival was actually the first time we've met in person, so that was really cool because we had done songs from afar.
DO YOU FORESEE DOING MORE THINGS WITH HIM?
I hope so. Definitely with that project. I'm hoping to do another song or two with them. I would love to do more with Chino, if he's ever down.