Photo by Ben Chisholm
Since her first album, 2010’s The Grime and the Glow, Californian singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe hasn’t slowed down. She has explored different sounds during her 10-year career, built on five studio albums and long tours between Europe and the U.S. In 2019, Wolfe returns to her solitary origins and the intimacy of her own voice and guitar with Birth of Violence, out via Sargent House on Sept. 13.
“I definitely feel like there’s some kind of breath of relief with this album,” Wolfe admits. “I was really pushing myself for a long time to keep going and keep going. I think that’s what you have to do in this industry, just keep staying on the road and keep playing shows. That’s how people find out about you, and that’s how you can make money, but there was something really nagging in me last year that I needed to take a break or I was going to burn out.”
“This album is meant to really feel like home,” she continues. “I think I’ve always been sneaking out to places that felt like home when I was on the road. I finally moved back home to Northern California a couple of years ago, but I haven’t really been able to spend much time in the house I moved into. So, making this record was a way to settle in and really get to know the house and get to know this area I’m living in in the mountains.”
Birth of Violence is reminiscent of Wolfe’s debut album and the reclusive nature of her earlier recordings. “I write alone a lot, but [2017’s] Hiss Spun, my last album, was more like a group or collective effort where we were jamming a lot together,” she says. “I wanted all of these songs for Birth of Violence just to be able to be played on an acoustic guitar and voice if needed, just totally stripped-down. So, that’s kind of the basis of the songs. Maybe one of them is a piano song, but most all of them just began on acoustic guitar and just my voice, just alone and really stripped-down.”
The album came to life during the long hours of waiting Wolfe spent on the bus traveling between one city and another. “I’m always writing lyrics down, and when you’re out in the world and meeting a lot of people and seeing a lot of new places, it’s really inspiring,” she says. “Even when I was on the road, I was always searching for a feeling of home, always trying to make the bus feel like home and make backstage feel like home and bringing my own candles and incense and music and just trying to create this feeling of home on the road. So, I was always writing lyrics when I was out, maybe daydreaming of this time of being at home and focusing on healing and things like that.”
This need explains the choice to record Birth of Violence at her home studio in Northern California. “When we went to record—I invited Ben [Chisholm] to help me—we did sit down for about a week or so before we started recording, and I would just play the songs for him and we would talk about how we could adjust the structure to make it more of a well-rounded song,” she explains.
“There is a rawness in the album,” Wolfe notes. “Sometimes, recording vocals can be really hard for me, because I’m really tough on myself and I really want things to be captured in a way that feels very raw and very honest. If I don’t feel like I’m capturing that, I get very frustrated. In the end, this album was about taking the time away from everyone and everything to make sure that I’m capturing the right moment and also the feeling of this place. Sometimes, I would leave the door open when it was storming outside just to capture the outside elements or I would have the fire crackling in the background because it was comfort to me, and that would kind of help me get to a good place.”
“I’m becoming more comfortable with my voice in general, and I think being at home just allowed me the time and the space to feel like I could just be myself,” she adds. “I was trying not to think too much about the fact that the album would one day be out in the world. It was more like, ‘Let’s focus on the here-and-now and this moment.’”
The help of Chisholm, Wolfe’s longtime collaborator, was crucial for the creation of Birth of Violence. “He’s really good at creating these soundscapes,” she says. “It was almost like I would present this song to him that was almost like a skeleton of guitar and vocals, and he would create a sonic landscape for that song to live in. It’s like I was building the house and he was building the field around it and the mountains behind it and things like that. He gave it a really beautiful place to live.”
The result is an album that sounds like a cry of pain and a protest against American cultural shifts, the brutality of the human being and patriarchal society. “There’s a heavy sense of things turning backward in my country and wanting women not to have the rights that they’ve gotten over all these years, wanting to turn that backward. It’s really frustrating,” she says.
“‘Violence,’ for me, is such a beautiful word for something that is so ugly,” Wolfe confesses. “Our society is really obsessed with violence, and it’s becoming more and more commonplace and people are less and less affected by it. A lot of people think that I’m into horror films and things like that, but actually, I can barely stand to see violence. I don’t watch movies that have a lot of violence in them. I think I kind of wanted to reclaim that word a little bit, and when I looked it up in my old dictionary, I saw the phrase ‘strength of emotion’ as one description of the word ‘violence.’ That instantly gave me this visual of women, who are emotional beings, really rising up and accepting their own strength and fighting back against all the shit we have to deal with—and also, like, Mother Earth, she’s starting to shake us off a little bit. The climate is changing so much because of the way we treat the world and we treat the Earth. So, I think there is a really feminine feeling in Birth of Violence. I mean, birth is obviously something that only women can do, and we’re, like, birthing this new strength and we’re starting to rise up and speak out against things.”
In Birth of Violence, Wolfe addresses diverse topics inspired by the old American songwriters, the modern world, and her personal life. “Every song is different,” she explains. “I always thought it was funny that all these old country musicians I listen to had their quintessential song about being on the road, being on tour, the classic road trip or tour song, but over time, I wanted to write a song like that, that really captured that feeling of playing shows night after night. So, ‘Highway’ was my version of that classic tour song.”
She writes about the same topic in “The Mother Road,” which she says “is an old nickname for Route 66, which was the original highway through America where people would first explore a new side of it for themselves.”
“In ‘Little Grave,’ the verses are written from the perspective of a child who has died in a school shooting, and the choruses are more from the perspective of the parent who has to wake up every day, go to bed every night with this absence of their child who was killed in a school shooting,” Wolfe continues. “There’s actually a line in there as well, ‘You can’t fight guns with guns,’ because our president was saying we should just give teachers guns and that was going to solve the problem, but I don’t think adding more guns to the equation is going to solve anything.”
“Dirt Universe” and “Birth of Violence” weave together specific references from Wolfe’s past into an overview of the state of humanity. “I’m still kind of uncomfortable about talking about it specifically in this kind of setting,” she admits, “but when I’m writing songs, I’m definitely putting a lot more of myself and my own life into them as I get older. So, yeah, ‘Dirt Universe’ is definitely autobiographical. I think I’m getting sharper. If you look for me, you’re going to find me with teeth ready, sharp, and snarling. I’m also rising up.”
In Birth of Violence, there is certainly no lack of references to nature, starting with the cover art. “I asked Ashley [Rose Couture] to make me a sort of baptismal dress,” Wolfe tells. “It has some symbology for me, because I was baptized a couple of times. I was into different religions, and then, when I moved on to being just kind of more pagan, I wanted to be baptized in nature. I wanted to have my own sort of ritual in nature. So, I asked her to make me this dress so that I could go down to the river that I love and have my own pagan ritual baptism. I also brought that dress with me to Iceland when I went to shoot with Nona Limmen, and we were sent to this spot that had this ancient crater. There’s this steam coming out of the ground, and by the end of the photoshoot, I was basically soaking wet with steam from the Earth. So, that was also kind of like a nature baptism. So, this dress has a really strong symbology for me, just spiritually and where I’m at.”
“I’ve definitely become more and more connected to nature since I moved out here,” Wolfe continues. “I live in a very small town where there is mostly just trees and birds and, you know, beautiful plants around me and not a lot of people. So, I’ve kind of had to become more connected and learn what it’s like to live out here, but it’s always been a strong influence on me and something that’s brought me to a really good place. I did explore religion as a younger person, but I never really felt like I belonged anywhere. When it comes to nature and paganism and even witchcraft, that’s a place where I feel much more at home and much more like myself finally.”
“I think this album is really reflecting almost like a new beginning for me,” she concludes. “I finally stopped to really take stock of who I am, [who] I want to be as a person for the rest of my life, however long that might be, and who I am spiritually and give myself the time to really explore that.”