Steel For Brains: This Menacing Melody - An Interview with Chelsea Wolfe
Chelsea Wolfe is an indefinable force in the music world. Critics and writers and fans alike have tried their best to place her in some genre, but the art and artist seem to transcend those barriers - much like the other musicians Steel for Brains has interviewed. Concerning so many things like the DIY movement as well as the resistance to be labeled, here’s what Chelsea had to say:
The first question I have has to do with your approach to music in general – as it ties into the DIY movement. I know a lot of people throw that term around today as a kind of catch-all, but where do you see yourself in that spectrum as an artist?
CW: I don’t really consider DIY. I’ve just always done things my own way without labeling it as anything, so I guess if someone considers me “DIY” I guess I am, because I do a lot of things in my own way as I want to do them, but I’m also at a point where I have the support of a great label. I don’t really know what DIY is anymore.
When I hear a Chelsea Wolfe track, the thing I find is that you can’t compartmentalize it, and I’m wondering what your process is when you go into the studio to write a song or create this piece of art, what’s your guideline, as it were.
CW: It kind of ties in with the first question. Thinking about it more, in a sense, I have to have my hands in everything that happens with this band. I’m not the kind of artist who’ll let someone else take over for me or take artistic direction of my project. To me it’s like “my art,” as cheesy as that sounds, so it’s important for me to have a hand in every aspect of it – every step of the way. During recording it’s really hard for me to let go and let someone else step in and take over, and I think that’s why my impulse is to have a hand in everything – and sometimes those things are out of your control. Sometimes people assume in interviews, and things with the press, and with music videos, that those things are reflecting the artist, but sometimes the artist doesn’t have control over those things – you just kind of have to hope for the best. I guess I just try to make sure it’s me and what I represent that’s being seen.
Well, on that note, how do you see the evolution of music as it is now – I mean, with the artistic freedom you and so many other musicians are sort of “taking back,” where do you see the music industry and how things have, from your perspective, evolved concerning the music industry?
CW: I genuinely feel like I’ve always sort of been an outcast, and I really don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s just that, I guess, I don’t fit in anywhere very “neatly.” People label me rock or pop which is sort of all over the place, because people like to have their categories you know?
Absolutely, yeah. To a fault.
CW: I don’t know. Sometimes I just feel like I’m on the outside of things, and if people want to accept my music that’s great, and if not, I’m totally okay with that too, because I totally understand not liking a band or musician.
Well, that’s the whole thing of labeling and not being put into a genre. I think anytime you have any kind of art that sort of transcends the dividing lines, as it were, you have a sort of aversion to that from the general public.
CW: Oh absolutely.
Well, on another subject – do you read on tour? Do you have time?
CW: Actually, I just finished the last page of Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. Have you heard that one?
No, no I haven’t. And now I feel ashamed having a background in teaching English. [Both laugh]
CW: No, no. But you should definitely read it. It’s entertaining – in it’s most important parts, but it’s sort of defines my worldview. It’s always cool if you find a song or a book that sort of resonates with your own belief system – there’s a lot of views and stuff in there – specifically dealing with the sense of smell, and I have an incredibly acute sense of smell which dictates a lot of the decisions I make – the way I think about things. It’s definitely one of the best books I’ve read in really long time.
Well now I have to read it. [Both laugh]. Talking about other art forms, as far as other music, do you listen to any other music while touring?
CW: When I’m writing new music I tend not to listen to anything, because I just want to focus on what’s in my own head, but when I’m touring I definitely do listen to other stuff – it just depends. Like right now I’ve been listening to a lot of choral music – I don’t know, I’m sort of getting really feel inspired by things like Gregorian chants and older hymnal music. I got this album from the last Castrato…
Yeah, uh…Alessandro Moreschi.
CW: Yeah! That’s it. It’s very beautiful in its own way. It’s got a kind of menacing quality to it, and I’ve been listening to a lot of stuff like that lately to sort of inspire what I’m doing and new ways of thinking about music.
You use the word “menacing,” and I think that’s fascinating, because when I hear your music, and when I describe your music I use the terminology “menacing beauty.” It has that dark undertone which evokes emotions which no other music really does outside the spectrum of the kind of bands and musicians I interview. How do you tap into that? That has to be difficult to sort of hold the balance between this quiet, beautiful sensibility and this sort of dark and foreboding undertone.
CW: I guess I like finding things that are contrasted. I like the things that don’t make sense, essentially. I’m definitely inspired by the things which are on the dark side of life. The fucked up things in the world. That’s real life. Those are real stories. Taking that and trying to bring some light into it – and not in a too obvious way. I just try and create a spiritual experience for myself, and I hope live that it’s a communal experience as well.
As far as venues go, what do you value as far atmosphere – of course going back to what you value as an artist in what you’re trying to accomplish?
CW: Well, I think it kind of depends. Sometimes a good sound system is important to me and, honestly, sometimes it’s not important at all. Somewhere like this is perfect because they take care of the artist. They give you a place to stay, they feed you, they take care of you. There’s so many types of places that can be great. This definitely has a good atmosphere, and you can tell it’s going to be a good show.
How do you feel being associated with the metal/folk genre? It think a lot of critics and writers alike are perplexed and don’t have a “spot” to put you in, but why metal? Why this tour with Russian Circles?
CW: You know, I’d much rather be grouped in with the sort of black metal or metal genre. My frustration is when I’m grouped in with these female artists simply because I’m female – whether or not if what we’re doing is on completely different planets. And I totally respect all of these artists – Lykke Li, Fever Ray, etc. That’s stranger to me than the metal alignment. At least I get the association there.
As far as contemporary artists who you listen to you and respect, who are they?
CW: I played with this band called Survive – they’re from Austin. It’s really cool because it’s this sort of triumphant music. It’s really different than anything else I’ve heard in the synth realm. It sounds sort of like a movie soundtrack. It’s definitely incredible.
I’ll definitely check them out. That’s the greatness of the Internet.
CW: [Laughs] I think the Internet is a blessing and a curse at the same time.
Oh, absolutely. As far as where you started out making music to where you are now, what was your goal? I know it’s a loaded question, but still.
CW: Honestly, I’ve been making music since I was really young. My dad was in a band and had a home studio, and I was always trying to create songs. It was probably about thirteen or fourteen years before I shared it with anyone. I just didn’t see it as viable career path. I mean, right after I graduated high school I went to college to become a massage therapist, I tried several things and nothing ever really felt right except for the music. Eventually, I sort of found my own voice and felt comfortable with it.
Well, I’m glad the massage therapy thing didn’t work out. Can I say that?
CW: [Laughs] Me too. Thanks for supporting me. [Laughs] I’ve been playing music my whole life. It’s just nice when you decide to do what you love for a living. There’s a sort of liberation there.
It was an absolute pleasure to sit down with Chelsea before what turned out to be an incredible show by she and Russian Circles.