By Rich Hobson
At its core, music is a reactive force. It seems that as the world outside grows ever more tumultuous, the music world explodes with great art and artists ready to encapsulate the zeitgeist of the here and now. But where many might draw upon external forces and narratives for inspiration, genre-bending US visionary Chelsea Wolfe has turned the search inwards for her sixth album Hiss Spun, due for release September 22nd.
“Every album I’ve released, there’s always been songs that kind of reflect what’s going on in the world. Whether it’s natural disasters or political bullshit, you can’t ignore it; every time you turn on the TV you’re bombarded with all this awful news about the world. For this record I didn’t want to waste my creative energy on any of that hate. Hiss Spun is more about my own life – my past, relationships, family and friends. It was dealing with things I hadn’t really before, embracing the mess of my own life.”
Speaking a month to the day before the album is due for release, the band’s mastermind and namesake is excited about the road ahead, itching to head out in support of the album. It’s a big change from the project’s early days, when she would wear a veil onstage to mask the fact she suffered from extreme stage fright. But then, a lot has changed in the past seven years.
“In the past, there were times when I would separate the art from the artist,” she admits. “These days we need a lot more accountability than that. I used to enjoy not being totally open about myself, but I realised I needed to let people know what I’m about.”
On Hiss Spun, Wolfe has drawn inspiration for the first time from her personal experiences and anxieties. Sonically, the album is drenched in tones of upheaval and chaos, capturing a sense of doom and foreboding which is indicative not only of personal adversity, but also the upheaval of the outside world. Though she has avoided overtly politicised messages with an inherent expiration date, the odd lyric has still snuck through.
The poignant ‘Particle Flux’, for instance, contains the lines: “Made it through oblivion then they close the door/On a lonely road again we’ve been on before/mothers tell their children ‘we’re going home” clearly evoking images of the refugee crisis. “There are lines through the album that reference the refugee crisis, Syria, some angry lines against my own presidential situation,” Wolfe says. “But, I didn’t want to waste creative energy on hate. Fuck that guy, I’d rather focus on stories about me or my friends.”
The end result is an album which feels at once enormous and intimate. The listener is consumed by walls of crushing heaviness, peppered with white noise to create an almost suffocating experience, yet the airiness of Wolfe’s vocal melodies and the stark honesty of the lyrics transforms the listening experience into something almost like imploding exorcism. So is it fair to say, on both a sonic and lyrical level, that this is the heaviest Chelsea Wolfe album to date?
“I think so, yeah. I shied away from writing personal stuff in the past, but it hits pretty close to home this time. The lyrics are pretty personal and even though I don’t want to get into what each song is about in conversations with people, I put a lot of myself into the album and decided to be more open, to speak for myself. A lot of times, when an artist leaves things open to interpretation, people start trying to put words into your mouth, telling you what they think you mean or what you were inspired by. But I know who I am and what I’m inspired by.”
Wolfe’s influences are far-ranging and spread much further than just music, having cited – amongst others – Ingmar Bergman as a key influence to the project. “The Seventh Seal is one of my earliest inspirations,” she says. “The whole black and white aesthetic, the shape that death creates within the film and the fact he is a presence, that really spoke to me. That imagery seeped into even my earliest recordings and it’s something I’ve recreated many times”.
Imagery and aesthetic aren’t just things Wolfe can brush aside when creating music – they are an integral part of the package. For her, the idea of being just another band wearing t-shirts and jeans doesn’t appeal. “A lot of my aesthetic influences have come from the fashion world” she notes. “I’ve always had an affinity for certain designers – Alexander McQueen, Martin Margiela… These artists who create a whole world when they do a runway show.”
The idea of metal and fashion working together may rankle the sensibilities of the general metal community, but Wolfe sees it as something which is ingrained into rock music’s DNA. “Rock n roll has been inextricably linked to fashion over the years. I know that in the metal world, a lot of people don’t take fashion seriously. But I really just enjoy the fact that these designers create a whole atmosphere and dream world you can immerse yourself in. In that respect, it’s just like music.”
And there are certainly advantages to curating a strong aesthetic and atmosphere to complement your music. The success of projects like Ghost and Creeper prove that artists who come into this with a gameplan can be rewarded highly. This commitment to the band aesthetic is also helps Wolfe to retain total ownership of her art; to ensure her vision isn’t compromised along the way.
“I definitely made the mistake of allowing people to control my visuals in the past,” she admits. “There are things that I don’t necessarily hate, but because I wasn’t a strong enough person yet to push for what I wanted, I ended up with things I didn’t want. I’m trying to put my foot down now and say what the songs mean to me where in the past I might have gone along with it. I’m not going to do anything that doesn’t feel like me. It can be difficult though – being a woman, sometimes people can see it as you being a diva or a bitch, but it’s nothing like that. I’ve gotten this far on my vision and I want to continue on that path.”
The current line-up of the band also had a strong impact on the outcome of Hiss Spun. “I worked really close with my drummer, Jess Gowrie on this album,” Wolfe explains. “This is the first album we’ve made together, but we were in a band together ten years ago. When we reunited a couple of years ago it was clear that the musical chemistry was not finished, so much so that I knew instantly I really wanted to work with her, which was the catalyst for recording this album.”
In a way, her renewed partnership with Gowrie also allowed Wolfe to bring her musical journey full circle. Perhaps appropriately, for an artist with such an inherent knack for bucking convention, the partnership had something of an inauspicious beginning – initially teaming up to open for, of all things, a Dolly Parton tribute act…
“There’s no major story behind me and Jess, really,” she says. “We were both from Sacramento – I was playing around doing a bit of solo stuff and there was some kind of Dolly Parton tribute show that had a slot going. I knew she was a drummer, so I asked if she wanted to go with me – that was the first thing we ever did. Jess taught me how to be in a band and what makes a good frontperson.”
This cyclical element isn’t just incidental to the recording of Hiss Spun – it is an integral factor to the whole album, something which has also been reflected in Chelsea’s personal life. “Last year I moved back to Northern California, closer to my hometown,” she explains.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time where I grew up, with old friends and family. That sparked a lot of memories, things I haven’t dealt with. I started to write about them for the first time, which produced a lot of intensity in the lyrics. Jess was there for a lot of those weird times in my 20s and it was really hard when I realised I needed to follow my own vision and do my project – especially because she was a good friend. It’s a lot easier to play with people and feel like that responsibility is shared, but I had this weird music inside me that didn’t fit that band and I needed to explore it for myself.”
Exploration is the one key constant in Chelsea Wolfe’s musical journey, no two releases ever quite following the same blueprint. Cycles might have played a large part in the story of Hiss Spun, but musically the album still pushes forwards to new lands. In the past, she has immersed herself in everything from folk to electronica, always tinged with doom tones and a sense of otherworldly transgression. This genre-fluidity is a reflection of Wolfe’s own expansive musical tastes, and a key ingredient in the formula which gives the band such cross-genre appeal.
“It’s what defines me, in a way,” she admits. “When I first started out, I just wanted to make the music I wanted to listen to. I wanted something which was a natural reflection of my emotions and my moods. I wasn’t aiming to sound a certain way – I just wanted to make honest music. That’s always been important to me, finding the most honest music I can find. A lot of that comes from listening to country when I was growing up – Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, with really honest songs about heartbreak and life.”
Country music is a far cry from the world in which she now immerses herself, but that spirit of honesty is prevalent in every note of Hiss Spun. “I knew I wasn’t going to become a country musician so I just put that methodology into my own sound. For Hiss Spun, a lot of the writing came from old school jams with people in a room. It would be me, Jess and Ben (Chisholm, who plays multiple instruments throughout the album), a bottle of vodka and some riffs we could play with. That’s how ’16 Psyche’ came about – I had this riff that I was messing around with, but then the drums came and the bass came and it all came together. This album is a little more reflective of a group, bandmates writing together.”
Despite this more democratic nature, Chelsea Wolfe (the band) is still very much the realisation of Chelsea Wolfe (the artist). Beyond the music, she takes pride in aligning herself with people that allow her the freedom to realise the project as she sees it. The final product is so impressive that some may be fooled into believing that Wolfe enjoys the fruits of a slick big-budget marketing campaign, but truthfully she owes a great debt to punk and the spirit of DIY.
“Musically, punk isn’t one of the genres that influenced me most, beyond the likes of Rudimentary Peni and Bad Brains,” she says. “But I definitely took on the DIY approach of punk; a lot of people might not believe that, but it’s just because I’ve worked my ass off! I do have a record label and a manager, but she knows that we as a band are very much into doing things our way, our own visuals and our own music videos. We’re not looking to let somebody come in and do the work for us while we sit back and do nothing.”
This DIY ethic not only allows Wolfe to maintain absolute agency over her work, but also works in its own cyclical way to tie back into the inherent honesty she so admired in country musicians when she was younger. Hiss Spun is the reflection of this honesty, reconnecting with her roots to produce her most candid and personal work to date. Where once Wolfe’s performance was dependent upon a veil which separated her from the audience, she is now working to lift that veil and connect.
“I think a lot of my female fans will be able to identify with this album more,” she tells me. “I usually tend to write from a genderless perspective and consider my music to be pretty genderless, but there are definitely songs on Hiss Spun that offer a uniquely female perspective and a lot of anger for what my female and gender-queer ancestors have had to deal with”.
Despite this enhanced personal perspective, she ultimately wants people to find peace within the chaotic noise of Hiss Spun. “Everyone should relate to what I’m singing about, because a lot of it is just trying to navigate this chaotic world and find yourself,” she explains. “It’s about embracing the mess of yourself and facing the chaos of the world with your own chaos”. It’s a unique take on the adage ‘fight fire with fire’, but it’s one which should resonate with everybody listening in 2017. After all, there’s plenty of chaos to go around.
Hiss Spun will be released on September 22nd through Sargent House.