Singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe unveils to talk music, performance and how to be brave
It’s 4:45 p.m. on Sunday, August 25, at Los Angeles’ FYF Fest, and the backing band for former Sacramento-, now L.A.-based doom-folk songstress Chelsea Wolfe is orchestrating the mood for the singer’s entrance. As the instrumental music ends, Wolfe walks to the center of the stage, her tan, draping dress blowing dramatically in the afternoon breeze.
Clearly, this is a new Chelsea Wolfe, far braver than the songwriter, who, prone to performance meltdowns, typically performed onstage with her face veiled.
A month prior to this show, Wolfe sat in a downtown Los Angeles bar to discuss her fourth studio album, Pain Is Beauty, and also to talk about bravery.
Wolfe was seated in a booth where a piece of art depicting a tattered American flag hung behind her. It was not quite a Patton moment, or even Springsteen-esque one, but as the woman with the deep-set eyes and jet-black hair talked, it was clear she’d experienced a significant self-confidence breakthrough.
“In the past, I’d play a few songs, freak out and leave,” she said, then paused to laugh at herself. “Which isn’t a good way to deal with things. So, I had to overcome that if I wanted to take it seriously.”
Now, the past is the past. There are old accounts of Chelsea Wolfe onstage flare-ups, most of which happened long ago, but still, the rumors linger.
At a Harlow’s Restaurant & Nightclub show last September to promote the album Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs, Wolfe took to the stage with no veil, no grand costume, and no onstage tantrums. It was a change, possibly unnoticed at the time, but it seems significant now.
“Often I dealt with [anxiety] by dressing up—it started with the veil,” she said. “Then, it was planning an outfit or clothes to dress up in order to fit into character a little bit, but I’m still trying to be myself up there. I don’t want an alter ego. It should be a real experience for me and for the audience, so I’m trying to let myself go completely.”
Pain Is Beauty offers many awe-inspiring moments, such as its pulsating electronic experiments reminiscent of Portishead’s Third record, or the eight-minute orchestral epic “The Waves Have Come.”
The record’s most immediate, striking instance, however, arrives via its cover, which depicts Wolfe’s unobscured face. Here, she delicately recoils in red chiffon; her lips black like her raven hair. Her glare is austere, confident, while the body language suggests caution. Simple at glance, but deliberately arresting.
This is definitely not the Chelsea Wolfe cloaked in lace veils and prone to onstage meltdowns. This is a Chelsea Wolfe who wants to be brave for us.
Each previous album cover bared a chameleonlike timidity to present the songwriter: her signature veil, as though she came to us in mourning; her eyes whited-out to give off an extraterrestrial quality; a photograph capturing a moment of bashfulness like interrupting a nap. And while her music has been described with terms such as “brooding,” “gothic,” “dirge” and “experimental,” when Wolfe talks about herself, she uses words such as “introvert,” “anxiety,” “uncomfortable” and “invisible.”
The new album reflects a marked shift.
“I wanted to portray a sense of being in the spotlight and being uncomfortable,” she said regarding the Pain Is Beauty cover.
Although her personal growth is written into the record in terms of risks taken, this is not an autobiographical record.
“A lot of the songs have to do with how nature affects humans and humans affect nature,” she said. “Nature does its own cleansing, like forest fires that make way for new growth. The intense times are required for a better end. It’s almost like pain becomes beauty.”