The Cover Story

Chelsea Wolfe: “This feels very much like what I was put here to do”

When Chelsea Wolfe began work on her seventh album, it didn’t take long for the California cult hero to notice things weren’t feeling quite right. After “cutting cords” with past versions of herself and making a big lifestyle change, though, she rediscovered her gift for songwriting – and is determined to keep sharing it with the world…

Chelsea Wolfe: “This feels very much like what I was put here to do”
Nick Ruskell
Alexis Gross

Chelsea Wolfe once binned an entire album, rather than release something she wasn’t comfortable with. This was years ago, “aged 20, 21, maybe”, and she’d recorded a collection of what she calls “shitty singer-songwriter” material, her first proper go as a solo artist.

Much as this was a matter of taste, it was the lyrics that were the real stumbling block. Having poured her heart into it without knowing when to say when, when she stood back and looked at the finished article, the results were, she remembers with a wry smile, “way too much diary-rocking”.

“I recorded it, and immediately after I realised that it was way too personal,” she says. “I realised, ‘Oh, I don't actually feel super-comfortable with this yet.’ So I trashed that album.”

Though this story may seem a curious thing from a musician who has since become such a respected and highly praised cult figure – partly on account of the emotional realness and depth of her music and lyrics – it’s also relevant to the recent past. When it came time for Chelsea to put lyrics to the songs on her new album, She Reaches Out To She Reaches Out To She, her seventh, she recalls a similar feeling about what she’d be sharing.

“I was slowly working on lyrics and melodies, but for some reason, just wasn't committing to them,” she says. “I think maybe deep down there was a part of me that wasn't quite ready yet to say The Thing. Because then I knew that I would have to live for these things that I was saying…”

Broadly, She Reaches Out… is an album about cutting ties, moving forward, and change. Its songs deal in purging toxicity, in drawing a line under what was, and leaving it behind as you move into what is and what will be.

More specifically, The Thing to which Chelsea is referring is getting sober, something she did three years ago. If you say The Thing, you have to live The Thing. You commit, or as before, you throw it.

“I wasn't quite ready to talk about it openly, I think until I felt like I was really solid in my sobriety and like it was going to really stick,” she says. “Writing about becoming a sober person required me to really live the songs, and I'm totally okay with that. I feel like the songs became guides for me to do so.”

Drink had come into the picture as a pre-teen. Into adulthood, it was around a lot as a touring musician, often used as a creative and social key, a helping hand on getting into the right space or getting to the temperature of a situation. Eventually, the feeling of lousiness that makes up the price of all this becomes a drag unto itself, especially when you’re under pressure anyway.

“Physically and mentally, I just felt drained,” she says. “I was using alcohol to sort of push myself past my own energetic limits, and just do too much. And that came from other areas of my life as well – feeling like I didn't have the support that I needed in my career, and I was doing a lot on my own with my bandmates. Piling being hungover on top of that was just not right for me anymore, and it really wasn't helping at all. Getting rid of that factor really cleared up my energy, my mental capacity.”

At eight o’clock on a warm California morning, Chelsea is recounting this to Kerrang! from her home, under the watchful gaze of Dolly Parton peering out from a framed 1970s People magazine cover. Though quiet and considered, as well as being a natural recluse, she will talk at length about how much of herself she’s put into the record. As she does, she will say she’s worried about sounding “judgemental” (she doesn’t), but such is the case sometimes with such openness about one’s own path.

“I started the record in 2020, and I didn't get sober until January of 2021,” she explains. “That's when I really started digging in, and taking all these lyrics and sort of pulling the right things from them. And they started really reflecting the changes that I was making in my life, from sobriety to other things.

“It wasn't something that I was talking about in a very literal way,” Chelsea continues. “I think I was putting a mythical bent on things, like using the metaphor of the underworld journey as the journey of getting sober, because it had been something that I wanted to do for so long – I kept trying and I could see that light at the end of the tunnel, but I couldn't quite get there. Once I finally got there, and was on the other side of being sober, and learning how to be a sober person, it eventually became natural, and also important, for me to put that into the new songs.”

“I could see that light at the end of the tunnel, but I couldn’t quite get there”

Hear Chelsea discuss putting her sobriety into words rather than hiding behind metaphor

Those who know Chelsea will also know that speaking from the soul has always played a key part in her music, albeit often (by her own admission) enveloped in metaphor and innuendo. On her last album, 2019’s stunning Birth Of Violence, a need to take time from an overly-busy world found voice through up-close, acoustic songs in which you could feel the hermitage that surrounded their creation. For 2017’s Hiss Spun, meanwhile, lingering anxieties and dark parts of Chelsea’s past were articulated through heaviness and sludge, beautifully wielded to create something with an astonishing emotional weight.

Here, the music is awash with lush electronics. Chelsea points to Depeche Mode’s 1990 album Violator as a big inspiration, as well as name-checking Nine Inch Nails and Bristol trip-hop legend Tricky. As is her wont, the music weaves between isolation and a more intimate closeness, all atmosphere and feeling as much as it is beautifully-crafted songs that caress one moment and scratch the next.

One of its most articulate expressions comes in its opening throw, the slowly rising Whispers In The Echo Chamber. Not by melody or lyric or performance, but through noise that is often the enemy of recording. As the song’s looped, electronic beats and increasingly heavy guitars build and the dense atmosphere thickens, things begin to overload. It clips and fuzzes and distorts in your speakers. Much like the ASMR techniques elsewhere, the implosion of sound communicates just as much as the lyrics: ‘Bathing in the blood of who I used to be / Offering up all my imperfect offerings / Become my own fantasy.’

“The nature of the song is about cutting ties, cutting cords from past versions of yourself or things in your past that have been really toxic for you,” she says. “So I think that crumbling apart of the production reflects that really well.

“I wanted to express all these things I was feeling, however that might come out.”

Chelsea has been making and playing music for almost as long as she can remember. When she was literally a child, aged seven, she began writing poems. Her father was a musician himself, playing in a reasonably successful local country rock band around Northern California. Somewhat inevitably, the young Chelsea quickly became interested in making music of her own to go with her words.

“My dad had one of the bedrooms in the house converted into a little home studio, where he and his band would practice,” she recalls. “I was listening on the outside and eventually asked my dad to show me how to record a song, because I already had, essentially, lyrics. So he would set me up with a beat on this basic Casio keyboard, and I would start making little patterns and writing lyrics to it. And then sometimes my sisters would sing harmonies and stuff like that.”

Chelsea took some tutelage from her old man, but mostly she was self-taught. The music program at school, meanwhile, wasn’t much help, even if she had been a willing student. “One year I had guitar class, but the teacher didn't even know how to play guitar.”

Better musical education came from growing up near Sacramento’s Tower Records. “A lot of kids would go there after school, just kind of peruse around and I was one of them,” she says. One of the first records she picked up there as a teen was Tricky’s debut album Maxinquaye, “a life-altering moment for me”. Another discovery was U.S. singer-songwriter Jewel, who in hindsight, she says, provided a lot of “songwriting energy”.

MTV, meanwhile, exposed the teenaged Chelsea to a now-legendary live performance by Fleetwood Mac. In particular, she remembers guitarist Lindsey Buckingham’s solo performance and being taken by the raw power of his playing.

“I’d never seen anything like it,” she recalls. “I watched it endlessly on VHS. Seeing Lindsey Buckingham playing, it was crazy, the concept that you could do that. It was so powerful. I remember being really inspired by that.”

Post-high school, Chelsea attended community college and took up English and women’s studies, “but nothing ever really stuck”. Instead, she qualified as a massage therapist and began work, but the natural pull towards music soon made balancing time between job and art impossible.

Though college had been something of a bust, one thing that came out of it was spotting a flyer calling for a bassist for a band in the vein of Boston alt.rock supremos Pixies. Her CV wasn’t exactly the right fit, but that’s just details. Figure it out later.

“I didn't play bass, but I went and bought the cheapest bass I could find and figured it out so I could join this band,” she smiles. “That was the first band experience that I had. It taught me a lot about experimenting with other musicians and writing weird songs and not having to be, like, verse-chorus-verse-chorus. We were writing these puffed-up, weird songs. It was fun.”

Soon, though, Chelsea felt the urge to go it alone. Having relocated to LA, she began taking things more seriously. After the bump in the road of the abandoned album, she released her debut album The Grime And The Glow in 2010, to warm applause. This was quickly followed by Ἀποκάλυψις the next year, to even greater acclaim. By 2014, though still not entirely comfortable as a live performer, appearances at shows like The Netherlands’ Roadburn Festival were firmly those of a rare talent, and her stock had risen to the point of being invited to tour with no less a band than Queens Of The Stone Age. Indeed, for Hiss Spun, Chelsea collaborated with that band’s guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, and was becoming in-demand herself, eventually racking up partnerships with, among others, Myrkur, Russian Circles, King Dude, Deafheaven, and with Converge on the brilliant Bloodmoon project.

When you’re that good, though, change can bring questions and worries. Things like: will I still be this good if I’m not doing the same things I am now, like drinking?

“I think that when you're someone who drinks quite often, as a creative person, you can worry that you won't be as creative anymore,” Chelsea says. “When I was trying to get sober, I was looking for other musicians and artists who had already done it, literally Googling sober artists and looking for articles and music and stuff. I was finding people like David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails and others who had talked about getting sober. And that was really helpful for me to see, like, ‘Oh, it can be done, and you can still have a career and you can still write music.’

“All alcohol does is portal you right into the place where you feel kind of confident and ready to go,” she continues. “But you can do that without alcohol, it just takes like a slight bit longer and a bit more intentionality. And I find that when I get to that place, with intention, and just my own presence, and putting that time in, it feels a lot more rewarding as well.”

“When you’re someone who drinks quite often, you can worry that you won’t be as creative anymore”

Chelsea describes how she realised she wouldn’t lose her creative essence

One place on the album where this is particularly true is the song Everything Turns Blue. An account of seeing someone else removing themselves from a negative place and moving on, it speaks to the universal theme of making the move to shed skin and leave it behind. ‘I’ve been living without you here and it’s alright / I’d been looking for a way out a long time / I’ve been living without you here and I can fight / I’ve been living softly my whole life.’

“I wrote that song about a person in my life who had left a very toxic relationship of, like, 30 years,” she says. “Seeing them go through that separation and learning how to be on their own again, I started writing that about that. As soon as I finished it, it was clear to me that I was also in a form of relationship that was also very toxic and that I needed to move forward from if I wanted to live my most authentic life. My most joyful life, full of more possibilities.”

Joy, but also everything else. Which is why getting sober can be so hard. Frank Carter recently told K! that the best thing about it is you get your feelings back. The worst thing is, he said, is that you get your feelings back. When we mention this, Chelsea nods.

“One of the things that I've enjoyed about this process is really giving myself that space to feel it all,” she says. “It's not fun to feel grief. But when you allow yourself to feel that, the times that you feel joy are more sparkling and amazing than ever, because you're allowing yourself to really feel the spectrum of all things and not just kind of like numbing it all out and staying in the middle. I feel like I was at that place for a long time.”

The place Chelsea says she’s in now is “the between space”. One part of her life is behind her, but the next bit is still coming into focus. And that’s fine. In getting here, she hasn’t lost anything, only gained. “I feel like there was one book of my life so far, I haven't quite started the next book yet,” she says. “I know that I can't go back, but I haven't fully stepped forward yet.”

It’s been an adjustment. She’s discovered that, “I’m not as social as I thought I was,” and she’s fine with that. Asked if she feels exposed about sharing all this, rather than veiling it up, she shakes her head and says that these things are universal and that “other people go through this shit, too.”

“This little niche of the musical world is mine, and I just want to put as much love into it as I can”

Hear Chelsea on why making music is her true calling in life

The experience has also confirmed that art comes from within. It may work well aided by other stimulants, but when it’s as genuinely innate as this, it can’t be washed away so easily. The first show sober was “a little weird” for maybe two songs, but then it became natural again.

“It's very obviously my purpose,” she reflects. “As someone who started doing it so young, it’s always been intrinsically part of me to process the world, process my own life, through writing lyrics, and through writing melodies, and ultimately, through writing songs. It feels peaceful to do it, especially now as a sober person, knowing that it's just very intrinsic to who I am. Not saying that I'm like, the best at it or something, it's just this little nook, this little niche of the musical world, is mine. And I just want to put as much love into it as I can.”

As Dolly Parton continues to look over the scene, Chelsea sums up with a smile.

“This feels very much like what I was put here to do.”

As ever, they’re words Chelsea Wolfe can stand completely behind.

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