Pale on Pale: a Chelsea Wolfe Retrospective

Chelsea WolfeOne of Chelsea Wolfe’s earliest memories is of sudden rainfall. While standing in the backyard of her house, her neighbourhood was instantaneously struck with a blow of heavy rain. At the same time, she recalls an ambulance speeding past, and all the dogs down the road beginning to howl in unison. This medley of unrelated events was a portent of something greater, a lexis of the weird and uncanny which inspired Wolfe to write her first poem, then and there at the fragile age of 7.

What Wolfe experienced was an omen, foreshadowing the vast palettes of contrasting sounds and moods that she would soon explore throughout her musical oeuvre. Over 6 studio albums, a handful of EPs and 7”s, and a relentless globe-trotting touring regime, Wolfe’s music has captivated legions of devotees for the better half of a decade. Her singer songwriter blood along with her growing penchant for sound, texture and atmosphere continue to revitalise the long festering genres of goth and post punk, shaping some extraordinarily expressive compositions that are as ruthless as they are vulnerable.

Songwriting runs in Wolfe’s family. Her father played in a country band while she was growing up, and owned a home studio at their house in Sacramento, California. Caught in the eye of an already unrestrained local music scene (which would soon give birth to a stream of modern alternative icons from Deftones to Death Grips), Wolfe was free from an early age to tentatively explore the boundaries of art. Even before the age of 10, Wolfe had recorded handfuls of songs in her father’s studio, describing them as “Casio-based gothy R'n'B”, which through either childlike naivete, or pure premonition, foreshadows the moody experimentalism of the work she would later become revered for.  

Though songwriting was an early talent for Wolfe, she almost never carried on with her career as a musician. At 21, she released what would reluctantly be considered her debut, Mistake In Parting. A self-released CDr, Mistake In Parting was released at a time when music wasn’t her priority. Wolfe’s friends convinced her to make the record, the end result being an 11-song breakup album that she now considers an embarrassing secret. Its lyrics wear out the faithful poetic idioms of many romantic songwriters as Wolfe sings about her then-lover’s familiar tastes and their whiskey breath. But her auteur touch appears throughout tracks like "Sleeping", managing to channel the foreboding, haunting atmospheres that would pervade her later work.

Wolfe’s dissatisfaction with Mistake In Parting led her to self imposed creative exile, unsatisfied with her art as a whole. However, she emerged from her cocoon four years later as the matriarch of a new, blisteringly raw sound. The Grime & The Glow, released in 2010 on Pendu Sound Recordings. Understandably a reaction to the sterile, overproduced nature of her debut, the sound of The Grime eschewed clean sound for murky, foggy lo-fi. Cymbals echo through cavernous spaces, guitars crackle and fuzz, and the ghostly hum of tape 8-track tape hisses through the whole record. But the most noticeable difference is her lyrics. Mistake In Parting’s lyrics featured long, winding passages of Joni Mitchell worship. The Grime’s lyrics often featured less than a sentence for each verse, often vague, open, and archaic. “I was a boy, I was whore, I would take in anything you'd give.They convey a vast amount more than the pigeonholed romantic diatribes she had written years before, and were made all the more intense by her sinister new sound.

Compared to Mistake In Parting, The Grime was a form of expression that came more naturally to Wolfe. Despite finding her own unique voice in the music sphere, and moving towards a contentment with her own art, there were still many anxieties that hindered her career. While touring in North America and Europe, Wolfe would often suffer from terrible stage fright during solo performances. She looked to a variety of methods to remedy the situation. Full band performances helped, as well as the use of cannabis. The most recognisable however was an eerie black veil that would mask her face during shows. She quickly began to turn heads at shows, appearing in support slots as a funereal, anonymous figure draped in elaborate black clothing, exhaling sets full of wounded ghost folk. Aesthetics quickly became a large part of Wolfe’s art, with fashion and visuals working in tandem with her music.

The cover to her second full length album, Apokalypsis, fully embodies this. A sepia-toned close up of Wolfe’s face, no pupils in her eyes, her mouth hanging agape; an illusory image that haunts the listener throughout Wolfe’s next collection of songs, further exploring atmosphere and texture, while channelling mystic bayou spirituals alongside equal parts love and murder ballads. The Chelsea Wolfe that appeared on the front cover of Apokalypsis was one that would frequently appear in the collective conscious of journalists, commentators and listeners throughout 2011. The woman with the veil and the soulful voice, Wolfe was now an instantly recognisable figure in the musical underground.

Wolfe’s burgeoning success with Apokalypsis and subsequent touring led her to sign to Sargent House, rubbing shoulders with like-minded experimentalists such as Emma Ruth Rundle, Marriages and Deafheaven. As she continued to tour her ethereal visage across the world, Wolfe quickly began composing material for her next full-length record. But before that, she took a brief sabbatical in California to record her first album on Sargent House, Unknown Rooms. A short collection of home and studio recordings, Unknown Rooms was Wolfe’s first studio foray into acoustic music since her renounced first album. At odds with the chaotic nature of the rest of her studio material at the time, songs like "Flatlands" and "The Way We Used To" employed a greater use of melody and space. Much of the songs are far more accessible at first listen, but subtle uses of dissonance, distortion and occasional haunting baritone vocals aligns Unknown Rooms with the rest of Wolfe’s eerie output. Her next studio foray would continue to expand her breadth as a songwriter in a far grander sense.

Throughout the previous two years, Wolfe began to build a closer relationship with musician Ben Chisholm. Chisholm, as well as assisting with production duties, provided extra instrumentation and detail to Wolfe’s songs throughout Apokalypsis and Unknown Rooms, most often percussion, keys and synths. The two also embarked on tours together with Chisholm as part of her band, and Unknown Rooms showcased the two’s first studio songwriting collaboration with "Boyfriend".

Chisholm’s influence on Wolfe’s songwriting would continue throughout her next record, and boldest artistic statement yet, Pain Is Beauty. Written over a period of three years, Chisholm’s midas touch imbued Wolfe’s ever-more daring songwriting with the blossoming sound of thumping drum machines and icy electronic palettes that injected a postmodern vigor into the sepulchral death marches and heady ballads present throughout. Pain Is Beauty was a culmination of all the songwriting techniques Wolfe had explored over the years, with some of the most affecting themes she had explored at the time. In an interview with The Fader, she explains how the record deals with themes surrounding how tragedy is a necessary step in personal growth. “There’s always gonna be situations that we go through that are really hard [...] and if we get through to the other side, then we become wiser people and our lives become more beautiful. [...] There’s an honesty to this album that comes from somewhere inside of me that I wasn’t ready to expose in the past.

Pain Is Beauty earned Wolfe her highest critical acclaim yet. The greater degree of cinemacy saw her gain the attention of television executives and directors, namely Mark Pellington. In the months following the record’s release, Wolfe and Pellington collaborated on and released Lone, her first foray into film. Part long-form music video, part goth-tinged acid western, Lone provided nonlinear, striking visuals to a selection of material from Pain Is Beauty. As you watch Wolfe sing to the viewer, adorned in the fiery red dress that appears on the album’s sleeve, you are reminded of the manifold ways in which Wolfe’s music operates; film, performance and aesthetics all co-operate to cultivate the vast, hyperbolic world of melancholia which Wolfe creates.

In the years since the writing process for Pain Is Beauty began and Wolfe began collaborating closer with Ben Chisholm, her performances have shifted from her veiled singer-songwriter persona to a full band. With the addition of further collaborators such as percussionist Dylan Fujioka, Wolfe’s compositions have departed somewhat from her singular style of country-influenced doom ballads, and instead grown more cinematic. Chisholm’s concrete bass hits that open Wolfe’s latest record, Abyss, portrays Wolfe’s fearsomeness in a far more primal way. Wolfe’s previous songs are laden with imagery and lush instrumentation to evoke emotion; the pounding, percussive metallic structures of Abyss are more architectural. This influence was partly drawn from producer John Congleton, known for producing Swans’ mammoth records. The gargantuan, cavernous loud/quiet dynamics of material like "Iron Moon" demonstrates Wolfe and her bandmates’ tremendous control over volume. Enduring the themes of Pain Is Beauty, Wolfe’s lyrics continue to exorcise personal feelings. How many years have I been sleeping? Nobody ever said I was alive, Why does everything feel so unnamed? The poison inside helps me along.” Every reverberated snare hit feels cathartic, with Wolfe digging deep into human instinct for the cheerless, swallowing moods of the record.

When Chelsea Wolfe took that brief hiatus from music ten years ago, she wasn’t satisfied, or even comfortable with the art she was producing. Many artists do. For a long time, Mistake In Parting was an embarrassing secret that haunted Wolfe throughout her career. However, dissatisfaction can be a valuable gift to artists. For the years that followed, Wolfe endlessly reinvented herself through boundless modes of art, and extending it to her own public image. Wolfe was lucky to discover a passion for art early on in her life to create music that not only challenges listeners, but challenges herself as an artist. For that reason, records like Apokalypsis and Abyss feel so much more honest with their shoelace-thin lyrics and sparse instrumentation compared to Mistake In Parting’s picturesque retellings of female heartbreak. She’s grown a lot from the girl writing poems against the rain in her backyard, but still expresses the same effortless artistic flourish.

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