Sacramento-via-Los Angeles songwriter Chelsea Wolfe is a mere three years into her solo career, yet she's made strides that other songwriters would hope to see in a decade. Wolfe's early recordings incorporated elements of noise and black metal. She wrote bleak songs and sent her rich voice through jarring effects, but last year's Unknown Rooms shed the elaborate production and offered unadorned acoustic songs. It affirmed Wolfe's skill as a vocalist and songwriter without extraneous effects and stylistic nods. While latest album Pain is Beauty returns to an eclectic palette of synthesized and live sounds, they're met with the maturity of finely tuned lyrics, painstaking vocal delivery, and thematic song structures. It has atmosphere to get lost in and a lyric sheet worth pondering. Ahead of her show at Great American Music Hall tonight with True Widow, we spoke with Wolfe about literary revisionism, nature's power, and the time she scrapped a pop album of "break up songs and all of that bullshit."
Can you tell me more about the theme of ancestry on Pain is Beauty?
I started thinking about the idea of American people feeling unsettled because we're not on the land that our ancestors walked on. It's stolen from people who were native to it. I was also thinking about how much of our ancestors' personalities are translated over years through the bloodline. I don't know my extended family very well. I could only get a few things out of my grandmother, but it's hard to get any clear information.
What inspired the song "The Waves Have Come?"
I watched a couple documentaries about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan a couple years ago. One of them had a lot of first-hand footage. It was heartbreaking to see them all losing their homes and loved ones. I wrote the song shortly after that, thinking about loss and nature and the intensity of it. It can be so beautiful and take so much away. On the other hand, we do some horrible things to nature, too.
That cyclical idea courses throughout the album.
For sure, and the process of healing does, too.
The album feels deeply personal, but when I'm looking at the lyrics it's difficult to tell whether you're writing about characters or yourself.
I typically write about characters, though it's from my personal perspective. I don't write about specific instances in my own life generally.
Is that just a matter of privacy?
When I first started playing music, when I was young, I worked with a group of producers who guided me into a very clean, pop-oriented sound with all of these personal songs, break up songs and all of that bullshit. I recorded an album and I felt so uncomfortable. I didn't like singing about my own life. I didn't like the pettiness of singing about three-month relationships, so I just trashed it. I found the things I did want to write about, with a broader view of things. I'm also a private person who doesn't like to talk about my personal life. So many interesting things happen in the world, and there's so much history that it's better to find stories to write about and do my own take on them.
That song "The Warden" was inspired by reading 1984 again, and being so frustrated at the ending where he's being tortured and gives up the name of his true love instead of fighting for his true love. So, I decided to make it go the other way and wrote a song about being tortured and tormented but not giving up the one you love. It's pretty idealistic but I like it better that way.
Why did you move to L.A.?
Sacramento is a good place to be quiet, take your own time, experiment, and fail, which I did. I actually made two albums that I threw in the trash. Eventually, when I did release an album I liked, I felt like I wanted to take things more seriously and start playing live outside of the small town. I like to work and get things done so I decided to move to L.A. It wasn't any kind of thing like I was moving to L.A. to get big. That's not my style. I just knew I needed to be in a bigger city.
Your fashion has gotten a lot of attention. Did you ever imagine a music career spilling into that field as well?
I've always loved fashion. Well, in my daily life I'm a utilitarian, but when it comes to shows I like the idea of getting dressed up for the job. A lot of it started when I first started to play shows. Many songs dealt with mourning, so I decided to wear a black veil and a black dress. I had some stage-fright issues and the veil actually helped with that. Eventually I decided that I needed to be brave and get over that so that it wouldn't become some kind of gimmick. It wasn't. It really helped me feel more invisible on stage, which was good. Finding designers and dresses I'm drawn to also helps overcome my stage fright. Luckily, I started working with this great stylist who makes me a lot of the stuff I wear onstage. I've always thought of a fashion collection as an album -- a great designer can translate themes and concepts into a collection.