Wolfe now creates skeletal songs that are sparse and soulful on the piano or guitar, all of which make a nice complement to her intense voice. She's at the Jackpot this Sunday, August 26, and we recently emailed with her about teaching herself how to perform, what she learned while performing in a nomadic dance troupe, and what fans can expect to hear on her October release.
The Pitch: Has the tour kicked off yet? If so, is this the first time you're touring with this particular configuration of musicians?
Chelsea Wolfe: I've been playing with this group of musicians (Ben Chisholm - bass/synths/piano; Kevin Dockter - lead guitar; Dylan Fujioka - drums) for over a year now and we've done a few small tours around the West Coast and Southwest. We toured through Europe for a month earlier this year. This tour is bringing us to a lot of states we haven't been to before. Pennsylvania, Florida, Alabama. We're having a good time.
Your father introduced you to music — he was in a country band, correct? Did that influence you to start storytelling, and did you start learning on one of his instruments?
My father was in a country band while I was growing up, yes, so I saw him out playing shows and playing guitar around the house. I think the most important influence on me was his home studio. I'd make beats on the Casio keyboard and write songs over it. I started with covers of "It's my Party" and the theme song from the The Neverending Story when I was nine years old, then I started writing my own jams. I was listening to a lot of R&B radio and whatever my parents were listening to. Fleetwood Mac. Bonnie Raitt. Crosby, Stills & Nash.
What's the most important thing you took away from your time with the nomadic performance group? I would assume that type of experience would test one's limits, beliefs and comfort, as well as enrich.
It brought me out of myself. My good friend, artist Steve Vanoni, invited me along as the resident musician for this yearly tour of performance artists from all over the world. We started in Estonia and went around eastern Europe and Scandinavia. I'd just play a few songs after all the performances were done so I got the chance to play in some unconventional spaces in front of really open audiences. It helped me to understand my own singing voice, and it helped me learn to be vulnerable and how to connect with people through my music.
You taught yourself how to play and how to sing, but did you channel any artists when self-discovering, and who inspires you now?
I imagine my earliest influences were bands like Fleetwood Mac, who I heard most often around the house. I loved Lindsey Buckingham's voice, and male voices in general were more appealing to me and in my vocal range. I've always loved choral music and instinctual harmonizing. I was in a traveling choir/musical for a bit in high school and I'd always get in trouble for doing my own harmonies and sliding notes around.
When you sit down to write, do instrumentals or words come to you first?
Typically I like to write alone so I start with something skeletal. Just guitar or piano and vocals. Melodies and words come first and then we build upon that.
Much of your work seems emotion-driven. The grit and distortion are balanced with soul. Do the songs reflect your state of mind when writing, or you in general?
I'm always interested in the macro and micro views of any subject or situation. The state of the world at large and the world close around me. Something outside of myself mixed with something more personal.
Do you incorporate visuals or atmospheric elements in your performances? And do you think of yourself as a performance artist, too?
Being a performer isn't something that came easy for me, and it's still strange for me to be in front of people. I like to experiment with visuals at times and music is kind of physical for me so I do feel it in my body. I don't know if that translates live or not.
What types of sounds can people expect to hear on your upcoming works?
I have an acoustic album coming out this October on Sargent House. I started putting together some old orphaned acoustic songs to release and ended up writing a lot of new ones. I did new recordings for the album with a viola player, violinist, bass and minimal drums. My bandmate Ben Chisholm has become my main collaborator for this project. He recorded the acoustic album and wrote a lot of the electronic songs that became incorporated into our next full-band album, which will be out in 2013.
See Chelsea Wolfe on Sunday, August 26 at the Jackpot. The door time for the 18-and-older show is 9 p.m. Support from Torbin and Faultfinder.