When Chelsea Wolfe signed on to tour as the opening act for alt-nation veterans Eels, she probably didn’t know that she was getting a ringside seat for the comeback of a onetime rock ’n’ roll giant. Eels leader Mark Oliver Everett coaxed his friend Steve Perry out of his two-decade retirement, and the former Journey frontman joined the band on-stage for a number of songs on several of the tour dates.
“He was a really nice guy,” Wolfe says, reached at her Los Angeles–area home. “He did, I think, three or four of the shows. The first night, he watched our set and said he really liked it, and said that I should make music for movie soundtracks, because it sounded cinematic. So it was a really nice compliment.”
It was also a bang-on assessment of Wolfe’s approach, which fuses the dark-side-of-midnight dramatics of gothic rock with inspiration drawn from everything from apocalyptic folk to black metal. It is indeed cinematic, and in fact Wolfe recently collaborated with filmmaker Mark Pellington (whose CV boasts videos by Nine Inch Nails and Foo Fighters, as well as features including The Mothman Prophecies and I Melt With You).
The project began as a video for the song “The Waves Have Come”, but as Pellington and Wolfe kept exploring new ideas, this expanded to a 52-minute film featuring five selections from the singer’s 2013 album Pain Is Beauty.
The film, which bears the title “Lone”, isn’t a story so much as it is an unrelenting stream of surreal imagery. “We both wanted it to be nonlinear, kind of dreamlike,” Wolfe says. “I’ve always kind of struggled with memory and dreams—not knowing which is real, and having a really bad memory, so forgetting important things. So I kind of wanted there to be that feeling in there, like you don’t really know what’s a dream and what’s real, and what’s a memory and what’s actually happening.”
Throughout “Lone”, recurring symbols offer vivid clues as to the overarching themes. The strongest of these are a man whose hands have been amputated, and a statue of a horse, depicted in a full gallop but frozen forever in place.
“A lot of the album was inspired by natural disasters, and the way we think we have our lives under control, but in a second the forces of nature could take that all away from us,” Wolfe explains. “I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s reality for a lot of people in the world. Things like that happen every day. I definitely think that those two things were indicative of wanting to be able to move forward but having to overcome things that come into your life unexpectedly.”
Pain Is Beauty takes Wolfe’s sound in a more electronic direction, a development she attributes to the influence of Ben Chisholm, who handles synthesizer and bass duties in her band. Mind you, numbers like “House of Metal”, with its creeping-doom trip-hop groove, and the beat-driven “The Warden” will likely sound very different when Wolfe performs them in Vancouver. The shows on the current leg of her tour are primarily acoustic affairs, with strings.
“It goes back and forth,” Wolfe says when she’s asked if she prefers playing unplugged to rocking out with her full band. “I change my mind a lot about what I like better. And sometimes I’ll be in the middle of a tour where I have a full band with the drums and guitars and everything like that, and I’ll just wish I could go back to an acoustic set with me and a violin player. And sometimes I’ll be on an acoustic tour and all I’ll want is to be loud. So it’s always a little bit back and forth.”
Chelsea Wolfe plays Electric Owl on Saturday (June 21).