(photo: Bill Crisfari)
Words by Erin Lyndal Martin
Chelsea Wolfe loves heavy metal. So much so that in 2015 she made a Spotify playlist featuring some of her favorite metal songs. Though Wolfe’s own work encompasses many genres, she feels at home in the metal scene. “I’ve definitely found community and friendship among other bands who may not fit neatly within a specific genre, like Neurosis, Russian Circles, Converge, Sunn O))), Emma Ruth Rundle, True Widow, King Woman, Earth, Deafheaven,” Wolfe lists off. “I enjoy the heavy, comforting white noise mixed with extreme subjects and exhibition.”
Heavy white noise is an uncredited collaborator on Wolfe’s newest album, Hiss Spun, released September 22. “Carl Sagan said that 1% of TV and radio static is relic sounds from the big bang, and I loved that relation to our origins. The album kind of revolves around this white noise hiss as a life force,” Wolfe says. Wolfe has a gift for tapping into ancient life forces, be they found in radio static or bodies of water. One of the new songs, “Offering,” was written after the Salton Sea made a powerful impact on Wolfe. Wolfe visited it and fell in love with its spirit, but only after 200 earthquakes occurred beneath the sea over a couple days last year. Wolfe recalls her first visit there and how it entered her music:
“On a trip to a place I adored from afar for a long time, Salvation Mountain, I stopped at the Salton Sea and was taken by it. I instantly wanted to know more, it has a visceral pull like that – a history you can feel.” The song is written from the perspective of the Salton Sea, personified as a female character. “The world at large asked too much of her and she couldn’t be what they wanted her to be — she could only be herself, which in the end was a strange and formidable creature.”
Wolfe keeps herself in a constant state of creation by recording found sounds around her. She and her collaborator Ben Chisholm record sounds while at home or on the road, and Wolfe often integrates them into her music. She recalls a specific memory of that, perhaps more vivid given her love for the Robin Williams movie What Dreams May Come: “The night Robin Williams died we were in Amsterdam on tour and there was an epic thunderstorm. Ben had his field recorder with him so I asked him to record the storm and we captured some thunder that was 17 seconds long! A piece of it ended up being on our album Abyss, on ‘After the Fall.’” The found sounds also help Wolfe to make her music more personal. “On ‘Particle Flux,’ on Hiss Spun,” she says, “I was reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and noticed the sound of my fingers running over the pages, so I recorded that and used it as a sort of percussion element. Whitman inspired some lyrics on that song as well, so I felt it made the connection more tactile.”
Whether Wolfe is taking inspiration from Carl Sagan, Walt Whitman, or personifications of the Salton Sea, her ultimate raw material is herself. When she finished making Hiss Spun, she found herself exhausted. “I put more and more of myself into each record I make, and for this one, I was digging into my own past and memories as material for the lyrics so it was daunting at times, but also felt like there was a lot there that others could relate to,” Wolfe says. In the past, she has worked through some of her struggles very openly. When she first began performing, she was so seized by stage fright that she would cover her face with a black veil. Wolfe has also spoken about her experiences with sleep paralysis, complete with hallucinations of shadowy figures in her bedroom. Her sleep paralysis helped define the sound of Abyss.
While Wolfe no longer dons a veil and says her sleep troubles are much improved, she finds demons in herself to expunge every time she makes an album. For Hiss Spun, Wolfe “wanted it to be real and deep-rooted, not just scratching the surface. There were some exorcisms along the way. I had to be honest about the mess of myself, and embracing that in order to become stronger.”
Erin Lyndal Martin is a writer whose music journalism has appeared in Salon, Bandcamp, The Week, No Depression, and elsewhere.