The Rumpus Interview with Chelsea Wolfe
California native Chelsea Wolfe has returned, after her first album, The Grime and the Glow, to the aural world with Ἀποκάλυψις, pronounced “Apokalypsis.” Awarded a 7.3 by Pitchfork, Wolfe has received comparisons to nearly every other contemporary purveyor of dark-tinged music, from Zola Jesus to Nick Cave to the Knife. But Ἀποκάλυψις is a work all her own, a work of careful layering, gothy folk, and strategic distortion. Though the album’s title and imagery inspire thoughts of apocalypse, the record proves instead to be a kind of redemption as Wolfe shows herself to be a unique talent, one who refuses to sustain comparisons to anyone but herself.
The Rumpus: I saw a reference in your bio to your father having a studio. Were your parents musicians?
Chelsea Wolfe: My dad was in a country band.
Rumpus: What sort of musical training did you have?
Wolfe: I’m mostly self-taught. I’ve learned from people here and there over the years, took some guitar lessons with this old guy when I was in college. Mostly just taught myself how to play. I don’t know how to play anybody else’s music or anything like that. I just write my own songs.
Rumpus: I read something about a trip you took doing some theatrical performances in Europe. What can you tell me about that?
Wolfe: In the summer of 2009, I went on tour with a group of performance artists. A good friend of mine is a well-known performance artist and invited me along to play music. It was cool. I had a chance to learn a lot from each performer and play in some unconventional spaces, old factories and converted churches and things like that, and the sound in those spaces, the huge reverb and the industrial feel, inspired me a lot.
Rumpus: What did you learn from that trip?
Wolfe: I think it taught me about what kind of performances I’m interested in. It got me out of my shell a little bit. Sometimes I would be put on the spot at the end of a performance and asked to play one or two songs, and I think that was really good from me. Getting away from my normal life for a few months. New faces, new places.
Rumpus: Did you have a favorite city?
Wolfe: I spent a lot of time in Tallinn in Estonia. I really loved it there. It was really cold.
Rumpus: The songs seem like they’re very densely layered. How do you go about creating that effect?
Wolfe: I usually start with an idea and build layers upon it. The songs have a lot of strange vocal layers. A lot of screeching and singing in the background. I wanted it to feel kind of like a film soundtrack.
Rumpus: Did you get any images in your head for what the film might be?
Wolfe: When I’m writing, I try to keep it reality-based, but I’m also trying to tap into other dimensions of reality at the same time. So it’s kind of a contrast. I’m trying to have a grand vision, but, at the same time, a reality-based vision. The book Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand really inspired me for this, a lot of grand imagery for the way things are in the world and the way they could be.
Rumpus: How long did it take you to write and record Apokalypsis?
Wolfe: The writing was spread out over about six to eight months. I don’t typically set out to write a group of songs for an album. I might do that in the future. It just kind of becomes a theme. In this case, end of an era, revelations, hence that title. We actually recorded it in two weeks’ time. I wanted to try and accomplish this in a week.
Rumpus: Where did you record it?
Wolfe: In a studio in Sacramento.
Rumpus: And who produced the album? Did you?
Wolfe: Yeah, it was kind of coproduced by me and my bandmate Ben Chisholm. It was engineered by a guy named Ira Skinner.
Rumpus: I read that you’re an Ingmar Bergman fan. What’s your favorite film of his?
Wolfe: I don’t really choose favorites. But I like The Seventh Seal. The character of Death in that film got to me a lot at a young age.
Rumpus: And you’re also a fan of Selda Bagcan?
Wolfe: She was a Turkish singer kind of like folky in a way. She just had an amazing voice. I don’t know what she’s saying, but the way she uses her voice is incredible, and it really touches me.
Rumpus: What sort of writers do you like to read?
Wolfe: Some of my favorites are Ayn Rand for her grand vision. And also Vonnegut. One of my favorites is D.H. Lawrence. I love the way he describes nature. It’s so intense and dreamy and beautiful.
Rumpus: Did you study music at university?
Wolfe: I took a semester in music theory.
Rumpus: What was your major?
Wolfe: I went to, like, five different colleges. I could never figure out what I wanted to do. Or maybe I was hiding from the fact that I only really wanted to do music.
Rumpus: Do you do any other kinds of writing or art?
Wolfe: No, I’m not very visually talented. Mostly I just tell myself to keep writing, even if I don’t feel inspired to write something on a certain day.
Rumpus: What are your live shows like?
Wolfe: It kind of depends. When I have my full band usually, it’s drums, two guitars, synthesizers, and bass. I try to create a really intense, heavy atmosphere. It’s obviously rock n roll based, but we try to keep it experimental. A lot of the songs have really repetitive feelings to them so it’s kind of like a chant for me.
Rumpus: Are there any social causes in which you’re active or would like to raise awareness of?
Wolfe: I’m definitely a person that likes to be educated about things. One day I’d like to use music and any sort of voice I have in the world for causes like human trafficking and the fact that people don’t have clean water to drink. It’s kind of overwhelming how much stuff there is. If I can help in the future, I’m definitely going to.