Chelsea Wolfe never intended to become overwhelmed with the crippling force of self-preservation. After all, the singer/songwriter has struggled with coming to a peaceful resolution of vulnerability, anger, self-destruction, and dark family history for many years now. At points, Wolfe found herself progressing towards disappearing altogether. This unnerving sensation has been dominant throughout Wolfe’s discography, along with her brooding melodies that are filled with darkness and punishing textures.
With the September release of her latest effort Hiss Spun, Wolfe vowed to make this collection of songs as a way of refuge. Escaping from the darkness that surrounded her mentality, Hiss Spun in a lot of ways is the long-awaited exorcism, cleansing the soul with blunt force. Instrumentally, Wolfe pushed harder than previous albums. Resounding bass lines, heart-pounding drums sit atop longtime collaborator Ben Chisholm’s collages of sound that has been accumulated. The howl of a coyote, construction being done on the streets of Prague are just a few distinctive noises found within the songs that accompany Hiss Spun.
Although there’s still work to be done, Wolfe is seeing the positivity clearer than before. “I know already that some people will roll their eyes at this, but I’m honored to be able to make albums and play shows around the world to people who want to hear it and experience it with me,” she said during our email exchange. “It took me a while to even accept that this is my life. I feel so lucky to be able to dive into music and art and ideas for a living and connect with people in that way, and that’s a very positive thing.”
What inspired you to get into playing music? I saw that your father was a country musician.
Still is. That had a lot to do with it, yea – seeing him practice, play shows and record. But I was writing poetry from a young age and had journals full of poems that I eventually had a desire to set to music. My dad taught me the basics of songwriting and recording when I was around 9 and I took it from there and never really stopped, even though I didn’t share it with the world until much later.
You mentioned on Twitter back in February that the new album was “trying to swallow me whole & I like it.” What were you experiencing that was leading you to come to that line of thinking?
This album has a very physical energy to it – visceral, and fucked-up and sexy. I felt like it became a living being at times and so I interacted with it in that way. I’m 33 now and accepting myself as a feral creature. I sometimes have the tendency to deny my body, to try and disappear… Maybe because I feel I take up a lot of space, and that’s something a lot of girls grow up being told not to do, but through some of these songs I wanted to channel the opposite of that and be very present and forthcoming.
Hiss Spun will be released on vinyl in a unique way. Three sides will be music while the fourth side showcasing an etching. How did this idea come about?
It was too much music to fit on one vinyl, and not really enough to fill four sides, so when we were left with the fourth side empty, my bandmate Ben (Chisholm) suggested the etching. He’s more of a vinyl collector than I am, and he’s also really great with design work. I had been working with designer John Crawford and artist Bill Crisafi as well, and throughout our talks of where to go with the design of the album artwork John brought up that he’d noticed I’ve done quite a few things in the past using my hair as shapes or textures and I decided to follow that further as it seemed to make sense with the feel of the album. Bill spelled out “HISS SPUN” in hair and took photos of it, John shaped it into a circle, and that became the etching.
The past few albums have showcased a slow march towards being engulfed with heavy distortion and metallic components. Listening to Hiss Spun, it sounds you finally jumped in all the way. What is it that propelled you to go explore this new terrain?
My way of translating it is intuitive. I mean the song “Scrape” literally sprung from a sample of a tractor claw scraping against a concrete floor at a factory my friend Travis was working at. It had a rhythmic element to it that the song was built around. On “16 Psyche” I wanted the guitar tone to sound like a motorcycle engine. The lineup of this record was very key to the sound as well. A couple years ago, I reunited with my old friend Jess Gowrie, who is a truly great rock drummer. We had a band together in the past in Sacramento which I actually left to pursue my own project, and we didn’t talk for 7 years. It was a difficult decision at the time but I knew I had to follow my vision. When we started hanging out again it was easy to remember how much chemistry we had together not only as friends but with writing music. So I started a side project with Ben called Das Welt just to write songs with Jess on drums, and asked Troy Van Leeuwen to play guitar on it as well. After a few songs came together, I knew deep down that it should be the next Chelsea Wolfe record, and everyone agreed. I was falling in love with the songs (Spun, Scrape, Vex) and didn’t want to not be able to play them live. So then I had yet another difficult decision to switch up the lineup, but playing with Jess, who is my OG and really helped me become the front-person I am today, was really important to me.
You have mentioned that at one point you were tired of trying to disappear and you wanted to open up more. If it’s possible, where do you see yourself at this point in overcoming that feeling?
I guess I’m being more honest in the moment, instead of just trying to be friendly or something. I’ve stayed quiet a lot in the past but that leads to people putting words into your mouth on the internet, which I’m sure will still happen. I’ve always wanted my music to speak for itself, but now I also want to speak for myself.
The climate of the world today for some tends to have them worried. With the amount of destruction and devastation that the news circuits air minute by minute, do you find yourself needing to speak out on the issues?
I put how I feel about the fucked-up nature of the world into my songs. I always have.
You have said that the world has been in dire straits dating all the back from the beginning. What do you feel needs to happen in order for the world to become what it should be?
It will probably always be this way, until the end, unless the singularity occurs, and maybe humanity starts over on a different planet. I’m sure that’s the way evolution will go for us. When you look around the world, it’s easy to see how little compassion there is. We are broken, glitched.
During the recording sessions, I read that you began coming to terms with yourself; years of bottled up frustrations were released. Looking back now, do you feel that it was necessary to become that open? I can imagine that there was some apprehensiveness.
That was more during the writing of the album actually, which I did mostly at home. I moved back to Northern California last year, not to Sacramento but also not too far from it so I’ve been spending more time there. Naturally, I was thinking back to when I lived there, as a child interacting with my disjointed family, or in my 20’s with all the relationships I had, mistakes I made, and also the good times – the few times I enjoyed my “youth.” It inspired new lyrics.
Once I was in the studio re-recording the vocals for these songs, it was a little tough to sing these intensely personal lyrics in front of people. But I just wanted to service the songs the best I could, so when I was feeling particularly energetic on a certain day I’d record some vocals, and then take a break or go back to working on something else. I knew I couldn’t leave them all to do at the end or I’d just be spent.
On the latest album, decided to work with Kurt Ballou (Converge). What made you choose him to record the new album?
Last year, I went out to Kurt’s studio in Salem to practice for a short tour I did with Converge as Blood Moon, doing reworked versions of their songs. I liked the feel of the studio and got on well with Kurt, and as Ben and I were already fans of many of his recordings already, he became the obvious choice. I knew the new album would be drum-heavy, and I’d loved how Kurt recorded Dave Turncrantz’ drums for the last Russian Circles album. Ours came out different of course, as the album was co-produced by myself and Ben Chisholm, and I was particular about the mix.
Recording with Ballou, you spent some time up in New England during the end of winter. What did you take away from that period of time?
I visited Salem a few years back after a Boston show on tour and fell in love with it. I’ve made some great friends there over time as well and was able to collaborate with them on album artwork and a music video. Ashley Rose made the dress from hair that I’m wearing on the cover, and Bill Crisafi shot the photo. Working with artists from the area made it all the more special, but I would have wanted to work with them anyway because they’re so talented and fun to be around!
With Hiss Spun being your sixth album, what is that you are still looking for within yourself as a musician?
I’m always interested in following my instincts with music and staying honest in my lyrics. As I’m writing songs for a new record, I let them come as they come… Some get set aside for the future, and the right ones get culled for the current time. I want to become a better songwriter and a better performer, always. That drive doesn’t stop just because you’ve released a certain amount of albums. I’m learning more about myself and my own artistic process each time and putting that back into the songs.