With album titles like Apokalypsis and The Grime and The Glow, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that the music of singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe is almost universally described as "dark." The Sacramento native, who currently resides in Lala, recently completed her third album, Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs. But, this time around her music is as beautiful as it is bleak. Unlike her first two LPs, which mixed industrial elements with folk, pop, and more, Unknown Rooms features a spare assortment of songs she had previously shelved and later decided to revisit.
We caught up with the raven-haired crooner at her home to discuss the new record, her ultra-edgy fashion sense, and what inspires her, artistically. In our colorful landscape of a town, sometimes it's refreshing to see things in black and white.
Photographed by Mike Rosenthal
Can you tell us about Unknown Rooms? You've referred to these songs as "once-orphaned." Why did you decide to dig them up again?
"When I started working with Sargent House earlier this year, Cathy Pellow told me that some of her favorite songs of mine were ones that weren't on any albums. You know, the old acoustic or folk songs that were on YouTube, and the live performances and demos that hadn't been properly released. So, she asked if I'd be interested in gathering those songs into an acoustic album. As I was going through the old recordings, I felt inspired and wrote some new folk songs and re-recorded some of the older songs with new energy."
ASOS Top, Weekday Ring, Deena & Ozzy Shoes
Did you run into any constraints making an acoustic record?
"I didn't put constraints on myself, really — I just tried to keep things acoustic in vibe. There are analog synths on the album, actually, plus electric piano and bass. I made my own definition of acoustic, I guess."
Is there a song on the record that has a deep personal meaning?
"One of my favorite ones to sing from the new record is 'Our Work Was Good
' because it's a song about hard work, love, and simplicity."
The sound on Unknown Rooms has this really brittle, haunted quality. How did you achieve the sound in the studio?
"I recorded this album at my little home studio and mixed it at a family's place up north in the woods. I wanted it to be an intimate experience for me and hoped it would translate into the recordings. I worked with some brilliant players who added a lot of raw emotion to the songs, as well."
You've been known to play in cathedrals, basements, and even nuclear plants. How do you think an offbeat venue effects the overall vibe of your performance?
"I've certainly had the opportunity to play in some really strange and amazing spaces, but not often enough! It has taught me a lot about my own voice — hearing it in those big rooms, in different types of space. And, each building has its own energy that also plays into your show and into your mood and creates something unique."
What gets you in the mood to write music?
"Sometimes when I'm reading or watching a film I have to stop because something I read or heard struck a nerve inside me and gave me a song or some words. I have to write things down or record things right away or I'll forget — I have a terrible memory!"
What are your most prized possessions?
"My acoustic guitars. I have a '70s Guild Guitar passed down to me from my father that I've written a lot of songs on. But, I currently play a beautiful Taylor 716ce, which I love."
What's the earliest musical experience you can remember?
"My dad was in a country band when I was growing up, so I remember him playing shows and recording songs. He would always listen to Fleetwood Mac and I loved Lindsey Buckingham's voice. I started writing songs when I was nine years old and recorded them in my dad's home studio."
Who have you been listening to lately?
, King Dude
, John Jacob Niles, Tricky, and Neil Young."
Michael Lopez Top, Weekday Ring
Do you have a favorite city or venue to play?
"We had a great show at Magasin 4 in Brussels, Belgium. It's always a combination of audience vibe, sound, and having a quiet place to focus before you play. The people there were really good to us, as well."
What made you want to record the cover of "Boyfriend"?
"I discovered this tape a few years ago with 'Walker' painted on it, and found myself listening to it over and over on long drives in my old van. It turns out it was a guy named Karlos Rene Ayala
from my hometown. He has a strange and interesting language and I was most drawn to 'Boyfriend.' I planned on covering it for a while and the acoustic album was the right time for it."
What's the most important thing you consider when you're putting an outfit together?
"It's all about what mood I'm in — I hate to feel restricted, so I wear things that I can still move around in. The looks from this shoot are outfits I'd just wear around L.A. to practices or meetings or whatever! Onstage, I like to dress up."
L.A. is a bright and sunny place, but your music and aesthetic plays with some pretty dark themes. How do you think living in L.A. effects the music you make?
"There's still a lot of darkness hidden in a bright and sunny place! I've always been drawn to write about the secret side of things — the truth and reality of things and the parallels between hideous and beautiful."
Vintage Coat and Top, BloodMilk Necklace
How would you describe your look?
"My style, like my music, has a multiple-personality disorder. I don't like to stick to one thing, I go with my mood and experiment. Typically, it's something like white trash meets classic Victorian goth, meets minimal. If that tells you anything!"
Do you ever work with a stylist?
"I've worked with Jenni Hensler on a few projects, and she really helped me figure out what I like to wear onstage. She has also taught me about great designers who are doing beautiful work. I'm working on a music video for 'Flatlands' with her at the moment. Jen Hanley from Gnarlitude
has also sent some great things my way like a faux-fur jacket and a rad leather fringed biker vest. Plus, she turned me on to K/ller Jewelry
Carly Hunter Dress, Vintage Jacket, Laura Lombardi, K/ller Jewelry, and Bevel NYC Necklaces, Aoi Kotsuhiroi Ring
If you weren't in L.A., where else would you be living?
"I've met some really amazing, beautiful people down here — like my drummer, my manager, and many great friends and artists. So, I feel lucky and happy for that. But, I don't particularly love L.A. — I'm from Northern California and have lived in L.A. for about two years. I miss winter and cold weather. I wish I could live in Seattle, it's one of my favorite cities!"
Do you have any interesting stories of being approached by fans in the street?
"We were just in Japan playing a show on Halloween, and this couple of great guys were waiting outside our hotel with every record of mine and posters. They wanted me to sign everything, which I found really sweet. I wore this old lab coat that night onstage, and when I saw one of the guys outside after the show I gave him the coat as a souvenir."