When listening to the macabre melodies of Chelsea Wolfe, one might not immediately jump on comparisons to country and western tunes, but as a songwriter, Wolfe believes a lot of the pain and longing for which she’s renowned to spill on her records is due to the old country crooners she listened to growing up.
“Old country is so honest, simple and emotional,” she says. “Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Patsy Cline. Honesty is what drew me to playing music in the first place.”
Indeed, honesty is something that Wolfe has in spades. Her sprawling albums of dark, droning and silky songs are riddled with personal anguish and a palpable honesty that makes your spine tingle. There’s also Unknown Rooms, the collection of acoustic songs she released back in 2012 that shed a bit more light on her folkier side, a side that Wolfe says she’d love to return to at some point.
“Unknown Rooms was a collection of songs I had written over about five or six years, so it’s not that I sat and wrote an acoustic, minimal album out of nowhere. Once I started compiling the old recordings and reworking them though, it did inspire some new songs in that vein and I’ve written a lot since then,” she says.
Her latest album, however, the aptly titled Pain is Beauty, is far from a stripped-down folk record, pairing whirling, grinding electronic with doom- and black metal-influenced atmospherics. It’s a strange and eclectic combination of sonic worlds and Wolfe says that a lot of what ended up on the record was initially intended to just be a side project.
“About three or four years ago, before I began making this record, I started this kind of side project with my bandmate, Ben… these electronic songs that I didn’t think fit with the other stuff I had done. But, at some point between then and now I was like, ‘Fuck it, this project shouldn’t have boundaries,’ so we decided to start incorporating these electronic songs into our set and they felt good and right. When I began working on the new album, I knew it’d begin around those songs and from there it just came together as it wanted to.”
Wolfe is renowned for her unbridled honesty in songs, shedding light on the often ignored facets of the human condition that can be rather uncomfortable to bring to light. Themes of death, pain, sadness and depression are present throughout her entire oeuvre, lending even more of a morose tinge to her already shadowy aura. While Wolfe believes that a large majority of us do ignore the more macabre and negative aspects of our emotions, she also understands why that is.
“As much as I understand human sadness, I understand escapism,” she says. “I do think our society has a problem with escapism. I’m guilty of it, too, of course. It’s also a shame that more kids aren’t raised to learn how to channel their anger, sadness or confusion into something positive or creative, or at least something that isn’t harmful to themselves or others. Boredom is the root of all evil.”
She’s not one to think that all is lost, however, and as much as a lot of her songs might feel dark and hopeless, Wolfe says there’s a point to it all, and that point is very positive.
“I always try to inject a little hope or light into a song whether it’s in melody or lyrics because I also want my music to be about overcoming and never giving up. It’s reality music. The world is a beautiful, magical, horrible, fucked-up place.”
When all is said and done, Wolfe is nothing if not a realist.
In Calgary during Sled Island, Chelsea Wolfe plays Commonwealth on Thursday, June 19th. In Vancouver, she performs at the Electric Owl on Saturday, June 21st.
By Nick Laugher
Photos: Kristin Cofer (top), Charlotte Patmore (middle)