Eyes Burning Like the Sun - A Conversation with Chelsea Wolfe
At this point in time, every last person on the planet has put together some sort of home studio and is feverishly releasing track after track into the ether. Technology, for all of its wondrous enabling, has done something besides simply allowing those who wish to create to do so... it's brought attention to the fact that not every single person who can create is necessarily good at it. And it has done so in a very focused, specific way.
Technology might be giving voice to artists who haven't really found their own yet, but at least bold, unique creativity isn't being brutally checked against a record label's profit-motive any more. The fact that Chelsea Wolfe's album The Grime and the Glow (Read the review here) was produced on a Tascam 488 is significant in that there is an urgent voice found on the album - heralding the end of the world and eulogizing it at the same time. Doing so totally unchecked, unfiltered, undiluted. Her voice is strong and unique, born from apocalyptic dreams and an appreciation for the darkness of the world in which we live.
In an old interview, you cited your time playing in church youth group as a place where you really began to learn the guitar. Can you describe your transition from a Christian worldview/environment to your current one? What was the genesis of this transition?
From that one interview, I learned never to address this topic. I usually don't respond when asked about this, but I'll attempt to answer now, because it implies a lot.
I was involved in organized religion for a period of my life. I actually learned how to be in front of people in church. I hardly played the guitar, sang mostly and got to experiment with harmonies, the norms of which I found boring.
I consider spirituality a very personal thing and have no interest in becoming a spiritual guide. Having experienced evangelism, the idea of pushing one's beliefs on others makes me a bit sick. I didn't have a religious upbringing. I discovered it on my own when I was 13. I have a real interest now in the aesthetic of traditional religion and the similarities throughout all world religions.
You also cite Biblical language as being highly influential. What aspect of Biblical language appeals to you?
Well, I mean, I started on the King James version of the Bible. It's so intense and at times totally absurd. I love Old English in general, the words, the phrasing, the harshness. We can't always explain why we're drawn to certain things... but I've always been drawn to things that are a bit severe.
You have another album coming out shortly titled "Ἀποκάλυψις" (Apokalypsis) in which Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" factors in. How has it inspired you on this album, lyrically and aesthetically?
It is one of the things that inspired me, yes. "Atlas Shrugged" is obviously very idealistic and speaks to the culmination of things and the destruction of society, as well as the glory of holding on to your values and integrity. I read it without any implications of what it was supposed to mean, and that's what I got out of it. One song on the album, "Tracks," is about the two main characters. It's the one sort of 'love song' on this record.
You've cited Don DeLillo's excellent "White Noise" as a favorite book of yours. A central part of the book is the chemical train derailment which results in a toxic plume advancing on the protagonist's house which results in him making peace with death. Does this sense of dread and impending doom factor into both your music and worldview?
Dread isn't something that factors into my music. Doom is a more general term I'd use. That book has a dry humor that I love, especially amongst serious subjects. I love the combination of death and humor. That's what I love about Céline as well.
How did you come to cover Burzum's "Black Spell of Destruction"?
I'm always drawn to music and art that have the ability to transform the headspace you're in. There is an undercurrent to his music that kills. I resonated with the atmosphere of this song. I covered it on a whim. I literally woke up at 7am one day and was like, I'm gonna cover "Black Spell," then spent the next 8 hours learning his song and recording my own version of it.
Burzum's rooted heavily in the National Socialist Black Metal genre with Varg Vikernes being a fairly prominent figurehead in the movement. Additionally, Varg has stated that the album is "a kind of 'spell' or recreation of an imaginary world tied in with Pagan history." What is your process for reconciling an artist's output with the belief system that prompted it, if any?
We're all the same really... our life experiences bring us to where we are at any given time. Burzum's politics have nothing to do with appreciating or interpreting his art. I like to experience things without preconception.
This question is asked partly because of the NSBM involvement of Vikernes as well as the significantly pagan aspect. "The Grime and the Glow" appears to be largely personal, but does incorporate a number of Biblical elements ("Moses"). Do you have an affinity for pagan beliefs/mythology and, if so, how does this factor into your overall sound?
My whole life I have been drawn to the darkness of nature. I had a foggy childhood and felt I was left to my own devices to form my own way of looking at the world. And for some reason, the strangeness of death and the reality of the state of the world always stood out to me, even as a really young child.
What specifically is strange about death to you?
Death is a character and a presence that looms over everything. It's not a bad thing. It's a reminder that we are alive and that life is a mystery and what comes after life is a mystery. We can pretend to understand it, but the truth is we never will until we finally meet death and hear what it has to tell us. That said, we SHOULD attempt to understand life, we should spend our lives building beautiful relationships and doing meaningful work and making thoughtful art.
Can you explain what "Noorus" is about?
It's about falsifications, about pretending you're something you're not to make someone else happy or to make a relationship work. It's about being young and dumb. "Noorus" is the name of a vintage magazine I found in Estonia. It means "youth."
David Lynch frequently uses dreams or dream-like structure as motifs in his output, both film and painting alike. Vikernes also stated that each Burzum album was intended to inspire a trance-like state which should ultimately transports the listener into fantasy or dreams. How do dreams factor into your output and your search for truth?
Do you mean literal dreams or creating a dream-state? I've always been interested in dream-state. I was in it for a year... there were times when I would stop and try to remember if I was awake or dreaming. I think that I was just trying to block out my own existence. I have intense dreams... apocalyptic dreams, totally ridiculous dreams. They all kind of make sense though, and at times they're inspiring in the waking life. I love how dreams can alter how you feel. I try to create a sound that's like watching a movie screen; an atmosphere that you can see in your head while you hear it.
David Lynch's dream structures never seem too surreal to me... that's what life is like... it's bizarre and confusing and full of dark corners.
You've described making music as your instinctive reaction to the state of the world. Given the general disposition of the artists you've cited from Lynch to Nick Cave's fatalist spiritualism to Egon Schiele's brittle, decaying aesthetic, can you specify your view of the state of the world?
Well, the juxtaposition of goodness and horror in the world is constant. I've always had this macro-view of the world. It's so fucking huge... and at any given moment, one is full and one is starving, one is cared for and one is thrown out like trash, one fights for truth and one lies to thousands... that's what The Grime and the Glow is about, the parallels of beauty and darkness.
I'm not some saint trying to fix humanity, I'm just observing and reporting, and it's hard for me not to think about things in this way.
You say that you're not a saint trying to fix humanity, but at the same time feel compelled to observe and report on it. Do you see any redemption for it? Or is the sense of doom found in your music indicative of what you consider world's chances?
The sense of doom feels natural. We're on this planet which goes through cycles, and we have no say in it. Everything goes in cycles.
In your view, what has contributed to the world's condition?
Overpopulation, exploitation of ancient and limited natural resources, carelessness, class structure, human trafficking, materialism, lack of spirituality, loss of connection with the natural world, impatience, and boredom. Boredom is the root of all evil.
Since The Grime and the Glow, you've announced/completed two more albums. Do you intend to maintain such a prolific pace or have these albums been the result of simply having an abundance of material on hand?
It's the timing of things, and finally having the ability, thanks to Pendu, to release these albums in a proper way. I recorded The Grime and the Glow knowing it would be out on Pendu at some point, and proceeded to record Ἀποκάλυψις about 6 months after with my full band, just because. It's a different kind of recording. These are most of the songs we play live as a band. I don't set out to be prolific or not, I just write when inspiration comes, and I take it as seriously as I would any other endeavor.
Where does Russian Karaoke take your sound and lyrical sensibilities? Also, where does the title come from?
This album has been dictated by the title. A German friend once told me stories about watching his Scandinavian and Eastern European friends do karaoke; he described how they took it very seriously, but in a quiet way... they'd clench their free hand into a fist, close their eyes tightly and stand perfectly still or just sway very slightly. It was this intensity that they really needed to let out, but they did it in such a reserved way. That was so beautiful and perfect to me. It fucking slayed my heart, that story. The album so far is a combination of folk songs and minimal electronic songs about simplicity and the beauty of the ends of things. I still have a way to go until I finish this album, though, so it will transform over time.
The title Russian Karaoke dictated the resulting album. Have you ever written in this manner before or plan to in the future? Or, is it important that you approach writing your music the same way you approach others' in that you do it without no preconceptions?
I sometimes write songs like this as well, starting with a title. But it isn't as literal as it sounds. I mean the title gave a theme and a feeling to the album. I'm even using songs I wrote before I knew the title, but they still fit. I don't use the term "magic" to describe things usually, but it's kind of like that... how things can suddenly fall perfectly into place.