Chelsea Wolfe’s road to the divine feminine

In advance of her new album, Birth of Violence, the uncategorizable artist talks about the new levels of depression that the past year has unlocked and premieres a new video for “Deranged for Rock & Roll.”

September 05, 2019
Chelsea Wolfe’s road to the divine feminine Photo: John Crawford  

Chelsea Wolfe has spent her decade-long music career in the in-between. As a prolific tourer, she’s persistently been between cities; as a musician who’s as drawn to Aaliyah as she is to Sunn O))), she veers between the hard and soft. As a clairvoyant and spiritualist — someone who claims to be in contact with the ‘spiritual realm’ — she exists between the films of life and death. And most of all, Wolfe lies between waking and dreaming. Her seven albums to date have been imbued with a hypnagogic affection — as powerful as a dream which impresses itself onto your day. “Dreams of endless landscapes,” she sung on 2015’s Abyss, capturing her sound in words. From a young age, Wolfe suffered from night terrors. She had an extraordinary case of sleep paralysis, and her parents took her to a sleep research clinic to be experimented on — an experience that has seeped into her music and lyrics, the white walls of the clinic as she remembers them provide the backdrop to the artwork for her previous album, 2017's Hiss Spun.

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Wolfe’s new album Birth Of Violence — out September 13 via Sargent House — is an awakening. Her voice is more distinct and present than ever as she takes on the role of the troubadour, singing protrusively over a quietly strummed acoustic guitar while the sparse percussion thuds like footsteps from another room. It’s a distinctly folkier and pared-back approach that enables Wolfe’s words to be heard, rather than letting them liquify in the mix. Where melodies dictated Wolfe’s previous albums, here they’re only given a supporting role, as they’re bent to fit the weight of Wolfe’s words. It’s a deliberate turning point for the musician, as Birth of Violence provides a gentle rupture from a wildly careening, in-between self. It’s Wolfe’s attempt to reroot herself; to become something full and healthy.

We’re premiering the video for the album’s guitar screaking outlier, "Deranged for Rock & Roll" — Wolfe’s love song to the genre that's been the centerpoint of her life for the past decade. It’s a heavy intermission between the album’s title track — which features its most beautiful, stomach-dropping moment as Wolfe’s voice coos somewhere between a scream and a whistle — and "Be All Things," a fingerpicked lullaby which pulls at the tension between wanting to dissolve into the universe and needing to stand on top of it. “I really had to learn to take better care of myself,” Wolfe tells me over the phone from her home in the forests of northern California.

What was the catalyst for making this album?

A lot of it was being on the road for so long and then realizing that I hadn’t had a break in a long time and hadn’t had time to take stock of my own life and my own mental and physical health. That’s where the songs began, and after a while it was clear that I needed to stop the train for a second, stop the constant motion and constant travel, and take some time at home. It’s a simple thing, but it felt like a big awakening of sorts — that I really had to learn how to take better care of myself. In order to find healthier ways to survive as a human being, I had to not play some shows for a while.

How did you arrive at the title Birth of Violence?

Sometimes I write songs and I don’t exactly know what they mean as I’m writing them, and I look back at them and interpret and figure out what it means from there. At first when it was calling to me, it felt very much like an old book title. I used to work at a used bookstore in high school and I would spend most of my time perusing old books for cool covers and titles like Grapes of Wrath [and] Wuthering Heights. Birth of Violence felt very much in that realm to me. So there was that element to it, but [also] Birth of Violence is a personal awakening, a personal strengthening and coming into my own as a woman. When I looked up the word "violence" in my old dictionary, there was one definition that said "strength of emotion," and I thought that was really cool. Again, I try to think of the word "violence" in a poetic way, like looking at a field of bright orange poppies and violent blue. So I guess it’s kind of about claiming a word that can mean very ugly things and bringing it to a more poetic place.

On the title track there’s a very strong image as two owls appear while the narrator’s carried into a waiting room. I might be getting ahead of myself here, but does this draw on your experience at the sleep clinic?

No, actually that story came from a couple friends of mine who had to put their cat to sleep. When they went to the vet there were two white owls and literally the moment the cat went to sleep the power went out in the neighborhood, so it was just a dramatic visual that stuck out to me. I just wanted to honor my friends in that song.

You’re consistently very good at threading the macro and micro. On this album you’re talking about the state of the earth and the state of yourself. What’s the significance in bringing those threads together?

You brought up the sleep clinic, which the macro and micro is very much related to, because I struggled with nightmares and night terrors when I was a kid, and one of the recurring nightmares I would have would take place in a small room. There would be an object in the middle of it, whether it was a book or a telephone or something, and it would grow really large, to the point where it was smashing against the wall, and then it would get really small, to the point where it was a tiny model. It would happen back and forth over and over until I would wake up screaming because it would drive me insane. I think that weird perspective is exactly like the macro and micro — it just became a part of how I think. I do look at everything as a whole and I really hone in and think about one person’s story within that, and that’s usually what I do with songwriting. So, for example, the song "Erde" — erde is the root word for Earth. It means "all dirt." I was thinking about all dirt, Mother Earth, this great being that holds us all up but we each have our own strange little stories on top of. All of us weird humans spending hours staring at screens and on the internet; abandoned cities.

On "Mother Road" you sing “Hallowed by the fruit” — tell me about that line and its relationship to "birth."

I don’t know, that’s another of those lines that just came out. That song is very much about embracing my own personal path as a woman because I don’t have children, and sometimes the world looks at a woman without children as not a real woman, so I guess this is my own journey to find the divine feminine, the goddess within. Maybe I’m trying to find my own fruit, like in song and in music. I’m not gonna give the world a human child, so this is my offering.

You’ve said in a previous interview that you write about death because you’ve never really experienced it. Do you still have that relationship with death?

I’ve had friends die at this point. I haven’t had anyone super close to me die, I’ve still been very lucky in that respect. I don’t know why I’ve always been so obsessed with the character of death. I think part of it was seeing The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman as a child and being so taken by it. And then with my sleep paralysis, I see these shadow creatures which come to me at night. It all feels related. There’s this veil between the physical world and the spiritual world that I’ve always been connected to whether I like it or not. It’s become a huge part of my music obviously.

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How do you access that world?

When I said "whether I like it or not," I meant that it’s just a part of me. I don’t think it’s going anywhere, and I think this year has especially been proof of that because I’ve been taking care of my mind, body, and spirit a lot, and it’s opened things up in a more positive sense. It’s also opened up new levels of depression, which has been really interesting, but I think that’s just part of a healing process — sometimes you have to get darker in order to get past it into a lighter state of being. My grandmother raised me in a way that the channels were very open, she would practice Reiki, and [she] understood that there’s an energetic field that not everyone’s open to, but which I was very much naturally open to. Like the word "empath" has been going around a lot, and I’m definitely an empath. I can sense other people’s energies and take them on, almost to a fault if I’m not careful.

I love that line in "Dirt Universe" where you sing, “I am the daughter of sorrow.” It made me think of the ways in which we might share our mothers’ pain. You were saying how you have this connection to a spiritual realm — do you have a spiritual relationship with the women in your family?

Yeah definitely, I think on Hiss Spun, it was my beginning of understanding that sorrow and trauma is transferred, and there is some real heavy darkness in my family because of my great-grandfather. I don’t usually talk about it very much, but he’s a very terrible man and he messed up a lot of women in my family and I think some of that trauma has definitely transferred to me. I was around it when I was a child as well, so naturally it’s gonna be there. That song was also a bit autobiographical — just accepting my role as this conduit of some heavy energy and trying to transmute that into something more positive while remaining honest about it.

How is your sleep at the moment?

It’s been alright lately. I think taking some type off has definitely helped. When I’m smoking weed I definitely sleep better but sometimes the weed starts to turn against you and have to take a break. I definitely still have sleep paralysis but it isn’t as hectic as it was when I was living in Los Angeles and around a lot more people.

Are you working on anything at the moment?

Definitely. My bandmates and I are already working on songs for the next album. Sonically it’s at its beginnings, but at this point the main element is I just want it to be me and my bandmates. This could totally change, but I don’t think there will be guest stars or anything — just Ben [Chisolm, the multi-instrumentalist], Jess [Gowrie, the drummer] and Bryan Tulao, who plays guitar. We just really mesh well. It’s been really enjoyable playing music with them on the road, and I’d really like to just hole up with them and try writing songs the four of us. I think I’d like to try to capture this lineup because it’s been a really important one for me and we have a really good friendship and musical energy.

Chelsea Wolfe’s road to the divine feminine