Chelsea Wolfe talks roll n'roll escapism and her new album Hiss Spun...
California native Chelsea Wolfe is hard to describe. A singer-songwriter, absolutely, but a totally unique proposition. Half neo-folk, half crushing gothic metal, she blends pounding drums with searing guitars and ethereal, elegant vocals that sit ornately on top. It works every time, beautifully.
We sat down with Wolfe to talk about her new album Hiss Spun, working with Troy Van Leeuwen from Queens of the Stone Age and why moving home played a big part in making the album...
How did you want this album to move on from you did on Abyss?
“I didn’t really have Abyss in mind while I was working on Hiss Spun. But the catalyst for this new album was my friend and drummer Jess Gowrie and I reuniting, so a lot of it was about us and my other bandmate Ben Chisholm jamming together, really spending time working things out and just making a lot of noise.”
“Abyss was born more out of isolation and a lot of back and forth, but Hiss Spun feels more like a band project. Some people have been asking me if this album is a continuation of Abyss and at first I said no, but I think maybe it is kind of finishing a thought.”
Did you enjoy things being more collaborative?
“Jess and Ben are two people I’ve known for a long time and feel really comfortable sharing new ideas with, so it was really a lot of fun writing together.”
You did the album with Kurt Ballou, what was he like to work with?
“I got to know Kurt and his studio GodCity last year while I was working on a project with Converge called Blood Moon. Kurt’s a great guy and Ben and I have been fans of his recordings for a long time as well, especially how he records drums, so once I fell in love with the studio space and knew this was going to be a drum-heavy album, I knew he was the right person to record with.”
“We came into the studio with the songs fully fleshed out and demo’d, so really it was about finding the right gear and tones for each song. I wanted a really metallic, cold sound for the guitars, almost like a motorcycle engine, and Kurt helped guide me there. The mixing process was tedious because I am very particular, but he was patient through that aspect as well.”
From what other bands have told us, he works quite quickly and directly, was that the case with you?
“We are similar in that sense because once I’m in the studio I’m very utilitarian and just hyper-focused on making sure every little sound has its place and nothing gets forgotten. But at the same time we had booked out a whole month to record and mix, so we weren’t rushing things.”
You've got Troy Van Leeuwen from Queens of the Stone Age on the album, is he someone you've known for a while?
“We opened for a couple tours with Queens Of The Stone Age in 2014 and on one of the first nights Troy came backstage and started making us mixed drinks. I knew we’d get along then! He’s also a great person and him and Ben and I have remained friends over the years. As the first few songs for Hiss Spun came together, I had the idea to ask Troy to play lead guitar on them. I knew he’d understand the kind of twisted emotions the songs needed and he totally did.”
You've got Aaron Turner making an appearance too…
“He’s on one song. I am really into SUMAC and his deep growl. It felt like a nice earthy, grounding element amongst all this chaos.”
What kind of album do you think this is lyrically? Would you say there's a theme? Or are the songs quite separate from one another?
“Overall it’s a very personal album, stemming from my return to Northern California, reuniting with an old friend who was very influential in my musical life. that's Jess, who I mentioned earlier, spending more time with family and old friends. All of that dug up a lot of memories for me - some good, some strange and some dreadful. Without overthinking it I was putting a lot of that into the songs. There are some more abstract moments on the record, like 'Offering' for example, but even that one, I was singing about the Salton Sea but creating this sort of female character that I could relate to and I think many other women could relate to - the world wanting more from you than you can always give.”
“While I was in-between houses last year, I was staying with family and I didn’t have very much personal space so I set up a little bedroom studio and was writing a lot of vocals and lyrics in headphones. It reminded me of that state of mind of being a teenager and using music to escape from your surroundings, so I wanted to write some escapist songs - some dirty, sexy rock n roll songs that you could lose yourself into.”
What kind of lyricist are you? Are you always writing things down? Or do you need the music to be there before you work on the words?
“I’m writing things down constantly. My family inspires me a lot so if they use some old-fashioned phrase I like I’ll stop and write it down, or if I’m reading a book and some line stands out I’ll write it down, or write down what it makes me think about. I keep journals and text files of lyrics and notes so that once musical inspiration comes I have much to pull from.”
“I start to see patterns in what I’m drawn towards. That’s when I know an album is starting to come together. But sometimes I’ll start with a blank slate and let the music pull something new out of me, just creating melody lines, using my voice as an instrument and create lyrics from there.”
When did you decide on Hiss Spun for the title? Was it there for the recording or did it arrive later on?
“I was struggling with the name for a long time actually. I knew I wanted it to be something cyclical or circular and had decided on Spun, but it felt like something was missing. There were all these keywords throughout the album; small words with big meanings that pulled everything together: vex, hiss, swarm, spun, scrape. There are a lot of nods on the album to my affinity for white noise as well, and for me, the word “hiss” represented that, this comforting white noise that exists in all of nature. So I put the two words together to create a new abstract meaning. Hiss is the life force, and Spun is the hangover and the withdrawals.”
You've got a few records now, is it going to be hard to decide what goes in your live set? What to leave out?
"It is difficult, yes! I think I’ve come to a deciding point, which is good because I only have a couple weeks before I leave for my North American tour. We’re doing much of the new album of course, but also adding in some older songs we haven’t played for a while.”