Photography: Vince Aung
When it comes to Chelsea Wolfe, there are some things that are too personal—in fact, most things are. But you’d never be able to guess that after listening to Hiss Spun. On her seventh album, the Sacramento-based artist delves into her own experiences with anxiety and addiction, laying bare all the emotions that come with growing up. And in a world where all we see are sun-drenched selfies and pics of girls on what feel like perennial vacations, Wolfe details the feelings of an endlessly bad day. That unapologetic honesty, coupled with the 33-year-old’s dissonant yet dreamy howl, makes Hiss Spun more than a rarity—in showing her own bruises, Wolfe unearths ours.
BULLETT caught up with the singer to talk exorcisms, empathy and how she’s evolved. Read our interview, below.
Tell me about the new album. What inspired you to make it?
It really began with kind of a culmination of people in my life—musicians in my life. I used to have a band with my friends and drummer Jess Gowrie about ten years ago, in my hometown of Sacramento. At a certain point, I knew that I needed to do my own thing and follow my own vision, and write songs that didn’t fit within that realm. So I left the band, and it was a hard decision at the time, but I knew it was what I needed to do. Afterwards, Jess and I didn’t talk for a period of seven years until we reunited a couple of years ago. When we did, it was clear that our musical journey together wasn’t finished, and that the chemistry was still there. We decided we wanted to write some songs together—I started a side project basically just to write songs with her, and we had my bandmate Ben be a part of it, and Troy from Queens of the Stone Age. We were really digging the songs we were writing and I was like, ‘Why don’t we just make this the next Chelsea Wolfe record?’ Everyone was on board, so I moved forward with it in that way, and it was great—it was really low pressure, we were just writing to write, just for the joy of it. That was the catalyst for this record.
How do you think Hiss Spun compares to your previous work?
I’ve been asked a lot if this record is some sort of continuation of my last record, Abyss. At first, I was like, ‘No, I don’t think they’re related.’ But in a way, they are. In the Abyss era, I knew I wanted to write heavy songs. I’d been touring with a lot of heavy bands like Russian Circles, Queens of the Stone Age, True Widow—that really gave me a desire to write heavy songs myself. That was kind of my inspiration for Abyss. And I think when I rejoined playing music with Jess, that’s the kind of songs we like to make together, as well. So I continued that journey, it was just with a different group of people. And at a different time in my life.
What were you able to do with this record that you weren’t able to on Abyss?
I think for this album, I’ve been able to be a lot more open and honest. I’m 33 years old now—I’m becoming more comfortable in my own skin, with my own musical abilities. And I think this album reflects that—it’s very open and honest. It’s also kind of more in your face and unapologetic than things that I’ve done before.
Right. Were there any specific themes you really tried to touch on?
I mean, each record and each song has multiple stories within it. So sometimes, it’s hard for me to pin down in a conversation exactly what it’s about, or exactly what a certain song is about. But for this one, I think the word ‘spun’ really encapsulates the feeling of the album. There’s a lot of stories about self-destruction and dealing with anxieties, and I haven’t always dealt with those in the healthiest ways. So the album deals with addiction, or talking about relationships that I’ve been in, being in love with an addict and things like that—I’m approaching some subjects that really fit within this world of being spun out, or just feeling like you’re spinning, like a really long hangover. It’s a lot about the chaos of the world and meeting that head on with the chaos of the self, and embracing the mess of yourself and finding strength in that—showing that to the world instead of pretending that everything’s okay. In this era of social media, everyone is really expected to present this perfect version of their life. But the truth is, most of the time, life is really messy—I wanted to reflect that.
Also, the word ‘spun’ references a sort of loss of control. In a way, writing music can be a way to reclaim that by creating your own narrative. You mentioned anxiety, addiction and unhealthy relationships. Is writing music your way of processing emotion?
Yeah. Music has always been my way of processing either my own troubles, or the things that I see other people dealing with in the world. Because I’m an empathic person, I can’t just watch the news or hear a story about a friend going through some shit and just feel nothing. So I guess music is just my way of dealing with things that I find really sad or distressing—when I feel like I can’t do anything about it because it’s so far away, I end up writing a song about it. It’s a personal way of reclaiming control—whether it’s about your own life, or whether it’s about the world.
It’s interesting, because a lot of people say they write music for others—for their fans. Of course, you want people to like what you do, but it seems like for you, music is more about therapy, or catharsis.
I wouldn’t say that I’m writing for other people, but there are certain songs that are definitely dedicated to a person or a situation. Still, a lot of it is for myself—it’s like an exorcism. And there’s a lot of exorcisms on this album, especially the last song, “Scrape.”
What’s your writing process like?
I’m always writing things down—I have tons of text files and notebooks that just have either one line, or paragraphs, or full ideas. And then once I’m inspired musically, or once my band and I get together and jam, I’ll just look through those lines—almost like a collage, or a poem.
When you’re writing about traumatic experiences, can making a record feel draining?
It does, actually. And I think each album gets more and more draining as I’m writing it, especially because I want to put more and more of myself into the songs—I really want to dive deeper and deeper into those emotions and memories and stories because I don’t want it to be half-assed. I jump in all the way. Sometimes, I’ll use the aid of psychedelic mushrooms, or some weed to help open me up, because it’s a process that’s not easy to dive into and I don’t always want to do it. But again, I want the songs to be an honest reflection. So it’s a hard balance—sometimes I come out physically shaking when I’m writing because it’s such an intense experience. But there’s also songs on this album that were more about escapism—just like, ‘Let’s write a rock song that’s fun to play and that we can escape into—let’s get out of our heads for a little bit.’
Is it the same with performing? It’s like you’re having to revisit this dark headspace every time you play a song.
I don’t really think about it so much as I’m having to revisit that headspace, because it’s already there, and since it’s already out in the world, it’s a little bit easier. Being in the studio and recording those parts is a little more difficult because you’re really putting it down in a concrete way—you’re like, ‘Here’s this thing that I went through,’ and you have to try to really express it in the right way. Once you do it live, it’s a little bit more loose, and you can reinterpret it or do things with your voice—that’s probably what helps me through the fact that it’s really heavy subject matter to keep reproaching every night. And when you’re on the road, all you’re really focusing on, is keeping yourself physically well enough to be able to perform night after night—that distracts me a bit.
What was the hardest part about making the album?
What we’ve been talking about—just diving into my own memories and really writing about my own life for the first time. With each album, I’ll inject a couple of lines here and there that are really based on my own experience. But on this one—I moved back to Northern California last year, not too far from where I’m from, and started spending a lot more time with old friends and family. It brought up a lot of memories and I really had to face some things that I’d avoided for a long time. Just being able to put that into songs was something I knew I needed to do, but it was not the easiest thing to start.
Why did you decide to open up so much on this release?
I’m just getting older, and it just started happening naturally. I started spending more time near my hometown and with friends and family from my past, and that was right around the time when we started this side project.
Earlier, you said you started writing these song as a side project. Why’d you end up deciding to keep them for Chelsea Wolfe?
We were all really into the songs that we were writing—it just would’ve been a shame to put out a record, but never be able to tour on it, because we’re all busy with other bands or whatever. It was like, ‘If we make this the next Chelsea Wolfe record, we can actually continue the train and play it.’ So I think it was just wanting to play these songs live that was the catalyst for that.
How would you describe the sound?
We have so many different types of songs on each album—I’ve done acoustic music, I’ve done rock ‘n’ roll, I’ve done electronic. I guess I just don’t feel like it’s that important to define my music. It just comes from me and it comes from the collective of musicians that I’ve been lucky to work with over the years—it’s very us.
Were there any specific records or artists you were listening to when you started writing the album?
Definitely. I was a teenager in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s—there’s a lot of music there that I’ve loved since then. A lot of rock, a lot of trip-pop—Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden. There’s definitely a lot of influence there. But there’s also a lot of influence from Ozzy and Black Sabbath—naturally, a lot of his influence creeps into my music.
I would never guess Ozzy, but now that you say it, I can totally hear the influence. I was listening to the album this morning and reading some of your old interviews. It seems like everyone is quick to call you ‘dark’ or ‘goth.’ Does that ever feel limiting? Like, if you wanted to write a happy song, you couldn’t?
Some of my songs have been a little more light-hearted and hopeful, and people have accepted that. But it’s funny, because I don’t really think of myself like that at all. Maybe my aesthetic choices and the designers that I’m drawn to—it’s a lot of black, like Ann Demeulemeester and things like that, but I don’t really think of that as goth. I’ve just always wanted to fade into the background a little bit. Even though my career choice has brought me to place where I’m onstage night after night in front of people, I still have that desire to hide a little bit. But other people will define me however they want.
What do you get out of being a solo artist that you didn’t get when you were in bands? I mean, why did you decide to go solo, in the first place?
The bottom line is, I don’t want to compromise for anyone else—I don’t want to compromise my sound. So while I’m working with a lot of really talented musicians, I’m able to still kind of be the curator, the dictator of this project. That’s really all it is—I don’t want to compromise. I have a vision for my music, for my sound. I respect everyone I work with so much. But at the end of the day, I need to like everything I do so I can keep the vision moving forward.
How do you think you’ve evolved since you started this project?
I think I’ve learned to communicate a lot better. In the past, I would’ve had a hard time telling someone, ‘This is what I want you to do,’ or ‘This is what I think we should do for the band.’ But now, I’m more able to say what I want to say to make sure I’m on the right path. I’ve also learned to edit myself better—trying to not put too much into the songs, to put just enough. But maybe a question someone else should answer. Being the center of this project, I’m not always examining myself or my process—I’m just looking towards the future, always.