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Stop what you’re doing right now and ask yourself this question: When was the last time you took a walk, through the woods, without your cell phone? If it takes you longer than a few moments to recall, or!, if you have to Google stuff to remember what woods are, you should probably go outside and climb a tree.
As the lure of social media confines us to our laptops—and the black hole of The Internet detaches us from the outdoors—Chelsea Wolfe, a folk-metal singer-songwriter from Northern California, is unwilling to conform. On her latest album, Pain is Beauty, Wolfe’s love of nature (and nature’s destruction), on tracks like “Destruction Makes the World Burn Brighter “ and “The Warden,” mirrors her affection for hikes over Tweets at a time when Tweets over hikes is kind of a thing.
And with nature being Chelsea Wolfe’s thing, she recently spoke with The Big Takeover about the importance of nature, along with other topics like tsunamis, Black Metal and overcoming obstacles. So read this first, and then take a walk afterwards. Seriously.
Big takeover: I just read The New York Times review for Pain is Beauty. It was amazing. Did you read it?
Chelsea Wolfe: Yeah I did. I was really happy about that.
Are you the type of musician who reads their reviews, or do you avoid them completely?
It kind of depends. Sometimes I’ll read them if someone mentions it to me and sometimes it’s bad for me to read them because I’m sensitive to someone saying something contrived. I’m like, ‘No it’s not!’ like I’m trying to defend myself, which is stupid because you can’t please everyone. I’ve totally come to realize that over the years. So I try to stay away from reading reviews so I don’t get caught up in any trivial opinions.
Do you think a lot of writers have been inaccurate about you?
No, I feel that a lot of the reviews have been nice and that a lot of people totally get it [her music]. I think one of the things that drive me crazy is when someone says I’m referencing an artist that I’ve never listened to before. Growing up, I never listened to much music, and the ones that I did, they never really reference those. They’ll say that I’m referencing people like Kate Bush or Zola Jesus and I’ve never even listened to those artists, so I don’t really know how I can reference them. It’s that kind of stuff that drives me crazy, but it shouldn’t. In the big scheme of things it doesn’t really matter.
That happens a lot with women musicians. It’s weird.
It’s a little strange to me because most of my influences and inspirations are male musicians and artists. It’s weird when people group me with all the other girl artists because I’m like, ‘I don’t really listen to that stuff.’ But I understand. I think that people feel the need to categorize things and put things together. It’s just not my personal way of listening to music. I don’t need things to be categorized.
Do you think that not listening to the past-mentioned artists, and other artists, has helped you?
I’ve never really listened to that much music, to be honest. There’s a few artists online that I love, or that I’ll find online, and I’ll listen to it straight for like, three months. But my iTunes is pretty scarce and I’m not a collector of vinyl, really. I guess I just listen to whatever my band mates are listening to, or I’ll just listen to something on repeat. I really love the new Wardruna album. I’ve been listening to that nonstop lately.
I’ve heard of Wardruna, but I’ve never listened to them. They’re a Black Metal band, right?
It’s actually their take on traditional Norwegian folk music. So it’s not really metal, but it has some Black Metal guys in there. Like the old singer from Gorgoroth, Gaahl, he’s in that band.
Now, to avoid over-talking about Black Metal stuff (because I could for a while), I have to ask about Pain is Beauty. You’ve said that ancestry and mythology, and its effect on our lives, were a few of the themes on the new album. If so, how do they affect us and why?
History and mythology are almost the same thing. Much of history has been passed down through stories and a lot of the album is a connection to the earth and how we use nature. The thing about ancestry—where we come from—and the fact that most of us are never able to set foot on the land that our ancestors came from, maybe that makes us feel unsettled and affects our personality. That’s the thing that I was exploring on a couple of songs on the album.
Have you researched your own ancestry?
I’ve tried as much as I can. My family is all pretty estranged from each other. My great grandma was the only one who would kind of tell me stories, but even she didn’t want to talk about it for some reason. Both sides of my family are from Norway and England, but I couldn’t get many stories out of her about my past like I wanted. But I love Norway and I love Scandinavia. It’s cool that I’ve been able to go there.
What was it like the first time you went to Norway?
It was beautiful. There was definitely a moment when I was emotional because I was excited to be there and excited to be playing. And the audience really loved me and had a great energy. Both times I’ve played there have been really great, but the first time was really awesome. I haven’t been able to play anywhere else in Norway but I keep hoping that I’ll have a chance to do a Scandinavian tour sometime soon.
I’ve never been to Norway, but it looks beautiful. Is nature important to you?
Oh, yeah. One of my favorite authors that I’ve referenced in past few albums is D.H. Lawrence. Typically, I don’t think people view him as someone who writes about nature, but he had a special way of describing nature and using it as a metaphor for how humans are; how they connect and understand life through nature. So that’s a huge influence for me—the influence that D.H. Lawrence has had on my mindset and my way of writing. Also, when I was a kid [growing up] in Northern California, I loved going to the river and the Redwood Forest. I think California is beautiful. I feel lucky to have spent a lot of time in the outdoors growing up. Whenever I have time off from touring, I usually go back [to Northern California] and visit family in the woods. There’s something about the open space and having that time to explore. It’s nourishing for my brain and for my writing.
I think that’s great because now, with all the technology and social media we have—which I kind of go back and forth on in terms of whether or not I like it—I think there’s a lack of connection between people and nature. It’s like we can’t leave our phones at home and go outside without freaking out. You’re not a big social media person, are you?
I use Instagram a lot; I think that’s probably my favorite one. I don’t go on Facebook often because I don’t like it very much, but my manager takes care of it me, fortunately. I think it’s important to keep people updated about what you’re doing because I’m a travelling artist. I definitely like to let people know where I am and where they can see me and get tickets. In the past, I’ve hated that my musical life is so unorganized and confusing, so I just had to streamline things and actually put accurate information out there. But like you, I also go back and forth between hating the internet and enjoying it for my benefit.
I wanted to ask you about the title of the album. I have a feeling that people might associate that with S&M. Would they be right?
For me, it’s about overcoming things, it’s about healing. My initial example of thinking about different things as “devious” is in a forest fire. It’s such a dark and terrible thing that happens, but it also makes room for new growth on the forest floor for the next generation of trees to grow. And this process is also reflective of humanity. Life is constantly throwing us rough situations and we have a choice to give in or let it take us over, or we have the choice to fight and overcome it. I think that the fight is really beautiful; how you can come out the other side stronger, wiser and have a more beautiful outlook on life.
Have you overcome a lot of obstacles?
I think one of the main examples of something I’ve overcome is stage fright. I love recording and writing music, but being on stage is so hard. It drives me crazy. It makes my skin crawl when I think about getting up in front of a bunch of people. That’s one of the examples of “pain is beauty” that I have to overcome because my job now is to be a performer, which is something that’s hard for me to do.
I think I’ve been on stage two or three times in my life, and it was kind of horrible. So the fact that you’re trying to overcome that says a lot.
Yeah, I have good days and bad days; sometimes it’s easier than others. Yesterday I played an acoustic set in a record store to promote the new album, and for some reason, I almost couldn’t do it, which was silly because it was a tiny, simple record store. There was a nice crowd of people, but something about playing in a well-lit store gave me the worst anxiety. I just forced myself to play and it turned out really nice. It’s a constant struggle [battling stage fright], but I definitely feel lucky. I know a lot of people would love to perform for their job.
You’ve made mention that you weren’t a fan of your first album, Mistake in Parting. Are you a fan of Pain is Beauty?
I really love it. I’ve been working with the same group of people for a while now and it’s so exciting to make art and songs together, so we’re all really excited about it. I’m also excited about being able to include other musicians like a violin player, a viola player and a saxophone player. It was fun to bring everyone together and make this album. My band mate, Ben Chisholm, and I have been making songs for like, three years now, because music never happens in order for me. I kind of just wait for the right time to release a song.
I’ve also read that you’re nostalgic for the Depression era. Why is that?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I long for the Depression-era, but during a time like that, art and music become more meaningful because it was the only thing that people had. They didn’t have anything. They didn’t have jobs, money and food on the table, but at least they had music and art and were able to express themselves in that way. If I’m ever feeling bored or uninspired or depressed, I love going to the movies. It takes me to someplace else and gives me a new perspective for a few hours.
Have you seen any movies lately?
I’m a big fan of Warner Herzog and I look through films of his whenever I can. I just watched one [a Warner Herzog film] and I can’t remember the titles of his movies because they’re always so matter-of-fact. It was such a beautiful perspective. I think that’s I love Warner Herzog films, they take something that’s ordinary and put a magical perspective on it. They make viewers look at things in new ways. I’m inspired by his films.
I wanted to ask about your collaboration with King Dude [aka TJ Cahill] last year. I interviewed him like, six years ago in Seattle when he was the singer for [Black Metal band] Book of Black Earth. Any plans on collaborating with him again in the future?
I was actually in Seattle a few weeks ago recording another 7” split with him. He’s definitely someone I love collaborating with and one of the only people outside of my band musicians that I’ve collaborated with so far. He’s almost like my brother. We communicate really well and I think that helps us, musically. I just love him—he’s like a wizard. It’s great spending time with him and making music.
Did you say he’s like a wizard?
Yeah. He’s someone I can go to if I’m ever feeling unsure about something artistically. Like if I had two options of something, like a t-shirt design or a song title, I’ll ask him and he’ll give a good perspective. He guided me with the artwork on the new album. I was really conflicted about the cover, so I asked TJ and he was like, ‘Go with the color version.’ He always gives good advice.
On prior albums, you’ve talked about the apocalypse. How much of this theme is on the new album?
There is somewhat of a sense of that on the album. I’ve always been affected by natural disasters. When the earthquake and tsunami happened in Japan [in 2011] it was so intense. I watched a lot of documentaries about it. There was one documentary where critics and reporters were there and there were subtitles of what they were saying as they dealt with the disaster. It just got me thinking about the intensity of nature. We tend to think that it’s peaceful and tranquil, but there’s such a sense of badness to it that can overtake us. I think that’s kind of the heaviness that I refer to more than a sense of apocalypse. It’s like, if we fuck with nature, nature fucks with us. It’s best not to do that.
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