Surviving the Abyss: Chelsea Wolfe interviewed

Californian singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe is a byword for doom-laden gothic rock. Her new album, Abyss, takes inspiration from such cheery topics as sleep paralysis, extreme drought and exploring the depths of the mind. The Skinny peers behind the veil

Feature by Colm McAuliffe | 28 Jul 2015
  • Chelsea Wolfe

Chelsea Wolfe appears to exist in an enigmatic, liminal space between the aloof and the uncanny; visually, she sporadically performs beneath a veil but musically, her ghoulish, propulsive gothic rock is more blatant: utterly American, structurally rooted in the geographies of her Los Angeles local but also haunted by the pains and pangs of classic Americana country. While fourth album Pain Is Beauty was perhaps best described as a concept album in denial, Abyss, her staggeringly intense follow up, is a rich submersion in sonic intensity, verging on the industrial.

"While I was growing up, I heard my dad’s country band practicing harmonies and I fell in love with layers," she reflects. "I started making my own music soon after and was always adding layers and layers of harmonies and sounds. I’m also a total water person – I love swimming, being in the water… Maybe those things are reflected? For Abyss, I wasn’t thinking about being submerged per se, I was thinking about the mind as an abyss to be explored, contrasted with the universe as a wild and unknown abyss itself. "

Throughout the recording of Abyss, Wolfe admitted to suffering from bouts of sleep paralysis, an affliction in which a person, either while falling asleep or awakening, temporarily experiences an inability to move, speak, or react. The notion that such a state can create mind-altering experiences is borne out by Abyss; the album is unquestionably Wolfe’s bleakest to date, her sonic trajectory reaching some hitherto unexplored tenebrous and arcane territories. Lead single Carrion Flowers is a suitably-titled exercise in gloomy perversion, all skeletal, repetitive percussion and Wolfe’s initially concussed vocals supplanted by multi-tracked harmonies; in fact, the track plays like an evil twin to Portishead’s Machine Gun from their third album and, as the opening track on Abyss, is a punishing announcement of what lies ahead.

"It's really intimate to have someone’s voice in your head, telling you stories" – Chelsea Wolfe

Anyone coming to Abyss and expecting the more comparatively plaintive laments of Chelsea Wolfe’s previous album will be somewhat surprised by the upsurge in, well, pretty much everything. Nevertheless, the contrast is deliberate, according to Wolfe. "Abyss is actually pretty raw in comparison with Pain Is Beauty," she confirms. "That album came from an experimentation with my bandmate Ben Chisholm – we intended to start a side project of electronic music but realised over time that this project doesn’t need any rules. so we started playing some of those songs on Chelsea Wolfe tours."

And does sleep paralysis continue to rupture her nocturnal reveries? "It does still," she confides, "though it’s more off and on these days – it used to be really bad when I was living in Los Angeles. I lived in a big old house near downtown with a bunch of people, but last year relocated to a house in the mountains to write Abyss and ended up staying. My mind is much more calm there. I don’t ever want to live in a city again. I don’t write in that state of sleep paralysis, no, it’s not something I can control and it’s not something I enjoy. When I have sleep paralysis I see shadow figures in my room and there have been times I thought they were real in that confused state. It’s more just that the experience of it creeps into my day, and affects my moods and perspective."

Indeed, the influence and impact of her immediate surroundings also forces a distinct sonic imprint on Abyss. The album was written while her immediate Los Angeles neighbourhood was immersed in scorching heat: the forests ablaze from fires and the lakes entirely arid. Accordingly, the imagery on the album is often parched and torrid, teeming with washed out roads, abandoned canyons and the limits of existence on the very edge of modern day America. "Abyss has a lot more real life samples we’ve taken on the road," she confirms. "Thunder, electricity in the ground, atmospheres – the beginning of the song The Abyss is a sound sample taken while walking through Prague. And almost everything that did come from an electronic place was re-amped or run through guitar pedals. And yes, where I lived while writing Abyss was very reflective of the drought in California. We put most of that inspiration into the music video for Carrion Flowers, but I’m sure the feeling of the area made its way into the music as well. I am inspired by location and different spaces."

Of course, one of the issues with carefully crafting such an opaque and Delphic persona is that people are going to become even more focused upon breaking the spell and decoding the public guise. Chelsea Wolfe has oft stated her interest in truth and honesty through music but does this shed any light on her actual life? The lyrics on Abyss are abstract, if rather standard issue for goth-tinged singers: Grey Days, Color Of Blood, Simple Death and the epic After the Fall (sadly not a rumination on the lives of musicians post Mark E. Smith) all dwell upon the darker side of existence – is this a true reflection of Chelsea Wolfe’s state of mind? "I get asked about this a lot," she admits. "At this point I suppose my music is quite personal, but I still avoid writing directly about my own life. There is plenty of inspiration coming from world news, books I read, and so on. My perspective on these things will always be in my own way of course, and I think of music as something really intimate. I listen to music on headphones mostly, and it is really intimate to have someone’s voice in your head, telling you stories. But this persona is not something I’m crafting – I’m just a private person and prefer to keep much of my personal life away from my musical life."

All of this seems tailor-made to make, at the very least, a sizeable dent in the more mainstream alt-music landscape. But is Chelsea Wolfe prepared for an anointment as a totemic figure of goth-rock? Her response is typically coy. "We are a slow-growing band," she says, "so any increase in audience or listeners has been really gradual and feels natural. I imagine it will keep going in that direction." Certainly their more recent live shows have increased the band’s visibility; this perhaps contrasts with Wolfe’s affirmation that she is not so keen on the live element of her music and far more comfortable amid the more controlled setting of the recording studio. "I’m forced to embrace the element of playing live," she admits, "and I do truly embrace it – I’m giving my all out there, but some nights I’m better at it than other nights."

Listening to Abyss is akin to being immersed in a fever dream. The stream of images conjure a bricolage of unbridled ruin but Wolfe’s own voice is so closely miked and intimate, it serves to provide some re-assurance, some respite from the grimness elsewhere. Perhaps this dichotomy is key to Chelsea Wolfe: the closeness of her voice versus the distance of her true self and the relentless intensity of her music counterbalanced by her stacked harmonies, averting our gaze from the drop into the abyss.

Abyss is released via Sargent House on 7 Aug