Chelsea Wolfe strips her songs bare

To play the songs on her acoustic Unknown Rooms album, Chelsea Wolfe can’t veil herself behind a wall of sound
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Chelsea Wolfe isn’t making things easy for herself on her New Year’s tour to support her excellent latest outing, Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs. One of the best records that you probably didn’t hear in 2012, the album has the singer revisiting her older work, rerecording material from the beginning of her career.

That the results are often haunting won’t surprise anyone who’s heard Wolfe’s previous two records, The Grime and the Glow and Apokalypsis, both of which have earned her music such descriptions as “art-drone avant-folk with death metal inflections” and “scuzzy, lo-fi and downright demonic goth-folk”, not to mention the comment that she sounds like a “premenstrual PJ Harvey”. Not to be outdone, the singer has come up with her own labels, including “spiritual realm funeral songs” and “Estonian industrial”.

To support those past records, Wolfe has typically brought songs to life with a full band. For her Unknown Rooms swing, though, she’s stripping things down to nothing but herself, a guitarist, and a violinist. And that’s where the challenging part of the shows comes in. That Wolfe often hits the stage wearing a face-obscuring veil gives you a good idea that performing live doesn’t necessarily come naturally to her.

This time out, there’s no wall of sound to hide behind.

“I haven’t really done this in a long time,” Wolfe admits on the line from her Los Angeles home. “I’m not totally comfortable with it, but I’m sure that after a few shows I’ll get into it. It’s a different energy from having a bunch of people on-stage. This is going to be very intimate.”

It won’t hurt that Wolfe will be focusing on a batch of songs that are heart-stoppingly gorgeous. Things begin with the Cat-Power-round-midnight smokiness of “Flatlands”, where Wolfe’s dark-shadow vocals are offset by wavering strings. “The Way We Used To” starts out as a downbeat blues ballad and blossoms into a full-blown torch song, while “I Died With You” drifts back to the cocktail-hazed ’20s on ghostly clouds of white noise.

“Putting the record together was a different process than usual,” Wolfe relates. “When I started working with my new record label, Sargent House, the woman who runs it basically said that some of her favourite songs of mine were ones floating around on YouTube that had never been released. They were folk songs that I play live or I’d done on YouTube that I’d never put on a record. She suggested that I put them on an album. So I started gathering all these old recordings, and in doing that I was also inspired to write some new acoustic songs as well.”

Proving that someone at Sargent House knew what they were talking about, Unknown Rooms has become the most successful record of Wolfe’s career, peaking at number 24 on Billboard’s folk chart. Neither The Grime and the Glow nor Apokalypsis came close to cracking Billboard’s demonic-Estonian-industrial-art-drone-scuzz-metal Top 100.

That raises the question of what Wolfe is going to do next time out: go back to flying her doom-generation freak flag or continue down a low-key path that’s building her a fan base beyond those who dress exclusively in black, right down to their nondenominational face veils.

The singer reports that her Unknown Rooms follow-up is almost in the can, the record featuring a full band and an approach that, unsurprisingly, might best be described as eclectic.

“It’s just about recorded—we’re working on the mixing now,” Wolfe says. “I already had most of the stuff written for the new one while I was working on the Acoustic album. It’s all over the place genre-wise. There are a couple of acoustic songs, but also rock songs and actually a lot of electronic songs, which is probably the majority of the album. That’s a new thing for me, the electronic songs, even though we’ve been playing some of those songs live. They were fun to play, so I felt really good about putting them on the album.”

Best of all, she won’t have to worry about stripping them down in the future, unless she’s planning on hitting the road with nothing but a Casio keyboard and a Mac jockey at her side.

Chelsea Wolfe plays the Media Club on Tuesday (January 15).


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