Watch Chelsea Wolfe's full performance on KCET-TV. Click here for future air dates.
Onstage, it's clear that without stage banter or rock theatrics, Chelsea Wolfe holds the attention of audiences like a zealot priestess. It's this inherent strength and enigmatic charisma that has charmed critics, landed her on the cover of LA Weekly, won over legions of black metal fans, and will accompany her on a spring tour with desert rockers Queens of the Stone Age. Despite her heavy metal fans and past typically male-centric music tour support - including cinematic rockers and Sargent House label-mates, Russian Circles -- Wolfe is the antithesis to the ubiquitous hard rock posturing. She is an introvert from Northern California, a singer/songwriter with folk and country roots, and a strong connection to the elements and nature. Touring with heavy acts and strong personalities like mercurial QOTSA frontman Josh Homme, demands courage and bearing the intense audiences attuned to frenetic rock presents a challenge too. Wolfe has that strength, but performing has been a life-long process for her; an evolution not easily attained.
"I've always loved writing and playing music, but I've always hated being the center of attention or standing up in front of people," confesses Wolfe. "I never imagined that I would be onstage and touring. At first, I just couldn't handle it. I would do two or three songs and my skin would just start crawling and I would leave the stage. So I started wearing a veil and tried different ways of being invisible up there, but still being able to perform." On her acclaimed, breakthrough third album Pain Is Beauty, Wolfe literally, and figuratively, lifts the veil, bravely exploring a spacious, electro-folk sound while tackling themes of empowerment and battling those persistent demons of crippling self-consciousness. "The themes of the album are about trying to fight to be brave and to be a better performer because music is my job. I love writing songs, and I love making albums, but sometimes getting onstage can be like pulling teeth."
Wolfe's journey as a musician can be traced to her country musician father's studio, where childish experimentation led to what Chelsea dubs "Casio-based Gothy R&B." "My dad was in a country band when I was growing up and he would sing harmonies and play guitar," says Wolfe. "He's a really great guitar player and I think the thing that mainly influenced me was that they had a home studio where they would practice and record and work on covers. Hearing them do that really made me want to do it." While her father's country influence can be felt subtly in the music, a sense of 1970s California folk colors the mix, from the moodier moments of Fleetwood Mac to the gentle, guitar-based harmonies of Jackson Browne. There are also dark elements at work. On her 2010 debut, The Grime & The Glow, Wolfe chalked her outline between the darkness and the light. Along with a string of like-minded, empowered female performers -- namely the theatrical songstress Zola Jesus -- Wolfe boldly incorporates elements of atmospheric black metal, sullen dark wave, and cinematic performance art into something entirely original and celestially uplifting.
"I definitely have folk roots and I love country, especially old country and some of my first influences were people like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash," says Wolfe. "That real story telling, honest way of writing. The first thing that drew me to music was honesty, and people being able to express something lyrically and in sound that was very honest and very emotional."
In 2011, Wolfe relocated to Los Angeles and recorded her well-received second album Apokalypsis. In 2012, she signed with L.A.- based Sargent House and released the aforementioned Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs, which was less about going traditionally unplugged than peeling back some of her trademark background noise, hinting at a lush, delicateness that acted as a natural precursor to 2013's Pain is Beauty. The album is a self-described "love letter to nature," and the Northern California upbringing that still defines and influences Wolfe's songwriting and sharply tuned ear, one naturally tuned to the drifting of a stream, or raindrops hitting leaves.
"I love California and I think it has a really wide range of beautiful things to offer," says Wolfe. "Being from Northern California, we would go camping a lot and being close to the river and the mountains and the giant redwood trees has always been a favorite place of mine to go and still is." Surrounding the inherent humanism of Pain is Beauty lurks the destructive forces of nature, and the icy synths, layers of cacophonous drone and perpetual rhythmic beat speak of entropy, and the knowledge that our time is finite, and love is an emotion forever linked to pain as much as elation. By embracing the chaotic and bucolic, the pain and the ecstasy, experiencing Chelsea Wolfe, be it in a live setting or on record, is a cathartic experience. "It's been a healing process for some people," says Wolfe. "It helps them heal. And that's all I can really ask for as a musician is to bring some sort of understanding or healing or something positive into someone's life."
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Wed, Feb 3, 2016 - 2:30 AM - KCET-HD
Wed, Feb 24, 2016 - 2:33 AM - KCET-HD