Chelsea Wolfe Talks Embracing Synthesizers, Creating New Album ‘Pain Is Beauty’
There’s a tender bent to the music of Chelsea Wolfe, a Sacramento-born musician who turns her empathetic tendencies into haunting tracks with vignette-like lyrics. Drawn to music at an early age, the daughter of a country singer has been writing and composing for years, and this week, she released her fourth album, ‘Pain Is Beauty,’ via Sargent House.
Awash in synthesizer sounds, the new record marks a departure from Wolfe’s 2012 album ‘Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs,’ a set of “once-orphaned” tunes from early in her career. Despite the electronic elements, she’s called ‘Pain Is Beauty’ a “love letter to nature,” and speaking with Diffuser.fm via phone from Los Angeles, Wolfe discussed finding the right balance between digital and analog. She also talked about learning from her dad, the benefits of a steady band and drawing inspiration from literature.
You’re heading out on tour in support of ‘Pain is Beauty.’ What have you been up to in the meantime?
I’ve been really busy, actually, just getting ready for the tour and doing a bunch of press, working on a film. Last night [Aug. 29], we had a listening party for the album. It was interesting. It was something I’d never done before, nor had I really thought of doing. I have a few friends who run Kill City that were very supportive and suggested it. They hosted it, and I tried it, and it was weird. It’s not something I’d do again. I feel like people didn’t really listen to the album but sat there talking. I mean, I didn’t expect for them to just be quiet while the album played, but it was weird. We ran a contest for fans to win invitations to the event. It was different and a little terrifying.
Your father’s a country musician, and you got your start at his recording studio in Sacramento. There’s quite a country and bluegrass scene there. What was that experience like, having music at your fingertips at such a young age?
There was a huge scene in that greater Sacramento area, for sure, but a lot of places have closed. My dad actually complains that there used to be so many more places to play. There’s one in particular — it’s an old honky-tonk bar on the outskirts … I wish I could remember its name. I grew up around music. My parents were divorced, but I’d see my dad on weekends, and he’d be at his home studio practicing or recording with his band. They did a lot of Fleetwood Mac covers. I think that’s where I really learned about harmonies. He eventually taught me how to record and set me up with a Casio 8-track. I did a bunch of covers — Fleetwood Mac, too — and I haven’t really stopped. I didn’t imagine music as a career. I love making music, and I love writing and recording, but playing live has been a bit more of a challenge. I suspect it probably always will be.
Let’s talk ‘Pain is Beauty.’ You’ve said the album is inspired by and a love letter to nature, and yet this is a more electronic record than your previous works. Would you say that’s incongruous?
I liked seeing the two come together, the electronic and the acoustic. There’s such a contrast to them. I love that contrast and fitting two things that really shouldn’t fit together but somehow make sense in my mind. I’m always experimenting with different sounds and genres. I like to push the limits and constraints [of my music]. I actually haven’t been asked about that in a while. The songs came to me, and it really just fits together on its own as more of an album than a theme. It’s definitely a love letter to nature, the past and ancestral bloodlines.
What’s your writing process like now that you’ve incorporated electronics compared to when you first started?
I usually write alone with this classical guitar that was passed down from my mom. It’s missing a tuning peg, so it’s tuned down. Writing on that guitar taught me to sing on a lower register. I’m typically writing on that. With ‘Pain is Beauty,’ I added a lot of electronic elements. The album was written around the acoustic album, ‘Unknown Rooms.’ I’ve been writing lately with my bandmate Ben Chisholm. He’s far better with technology than I am and has kind of an expertise with synthesizers. He actually taught me how to use a synth. I like writing and collaborating with him because it’s really effortless.
Do you see that process continuing with Ben?
Oh, definitely. And with the whole band. These feel like people I’ll be playing with for my whole life: Ben, of course; my drummer, Dylan Fujioka; our guitarist, Kevin Dockter; Ezra Buchla and Andrea Calderón, our violinist and violist who played on the acoustic album. When they’ve been with you for different styles like that, it means a lot.
Quite a few tracks on ‘Pain is Beauty’ are inspired by literature, including ‘The Warden.’ What other books have inspired your music?
‘Sons and Lovers’ by D.H Lawrence has definitely inspired a few songs. I love his take on love and relationships through nature. I wrote ‘Feral Love’ and a few the acoustic songs based off that.
What are you looking forward to most about this tour?
It’ll be fun to have so many new songs to play live. We’ve been just touring on ‘The Grime and the Glow,’ ‘Apokalypsis’ and ‘Unknown Rooms’ for so long. This should be good.