Chelsea Wolfe, a native of Sacramento, California, released her debut album in 2010. Over the years her recordings have embraced more folk-oriented sounds as well as the dark and dynamic electric currents the charge her newest release. Photo by Bill Crisafi
Chelsea Wolfe’s music has morphed and evolved within a sonic realm of her own design—an artistic space that houses everything from intimate acoustic-guitar-driven sounds to bludgeoning industrial assaults to doom-tinged heavy metal. She’s armed with a voice that is inexplicably as delicate and powerful as it is haunting, often floating above the din and clang like a ghost over a battlefield. With her dynamic take on fingerstyle guitar and enough fuzz-drenched 6-string and synthesized filth to satisfy even the most desensitized sonic masochist, Wolfe’s musical cauldron has produced a unique stew of disparate sounds that is absolutely enchanting.
With her latest, Hiss Spun, the often self-contained and artistically mercurial siren has returned to making music with a band. The album was engineered and coproduced at GodCity Studio by tastemaking metal and hardcore producer Kurt Ballou, who’s also the extremely influential guitar monster of metalcore heroes Converge, and who enlisted Wolfe and Cave In’s Stephen Brodsky for 2016’s Blood Moon collaboration. Hiss Spun marks a reunion for Wolfe with drum powerhouse and longtime friend Jess Gowrie that influenced the album’s direction as Wolfe found inspiration in Gowrie’s deft drumming. Completed by Wolfe’s trusted right hand, coproducer, and multi-instrumentalist Ben Chisholm, the trio pumped out songs that flex with a distinctly more robust, (nearly) rock-oriented vibe for a Chelsea Wolfe album—something further driven home by the healthy dose of lead guitar that Queens of the Stone Age’s texture whiz Troy Van Leeuwen [sidebar with TVL on page 3] laced the songs with. However, make no mistake that while this may be what Wolfe describes as her “rock” record, Hiss Spun retains all of the bombast, nuanced melody, and meditative depth—underpinned by Ballou’s inimitable power and dynamic complexity—that have made the songstress a darling of the music press and her growing coterie of fans.
The album bristles with her varied collection of influences. As inspired by esoteric blues pickers and Fleetwood Mac as she is by drone-metal and British trip-hop, the layers that create Hiss Spun are rife with guitar fiber that includes passages of fragile nylon string butted-up against roaring, distortion-addled leads, and mock electronic pastiche inspired by and created with some of today’s coolest effects pedals.
While Wolfe’s songwriting has received its share of accolades over the years, her relationship with the guitar is something discussed less frequently—despite the fact that the instrument has been an ever-present element of her songcraft. Premier Guitar sought to rectify this situation by talking with Wolfe as she prepped for the first leg of a tour supporting Hiss Spun. She spoke about her identity as a guitar player, the songs that live in pedals and guitars, and the collaborative experience.
I’ve always been a big fan of the albums that Kurt Ballou works on with artists that fall a little outside of the world of metal and hardcore. Tell me about working with him.
The reason I chose to work with Kurt is because I’m a big fan of how he records drums, and this is a very drum-heavy album. I reunited with an old friend in Jess Gowrie, who I used to be in a band [Red Host] with around 10 years ago. So her and I reuniting was really the catalyst for a lot of these songs and this record. Jess is a great rock drummer and I wanted to work with someone who could really capture her playing in its best light.
I also spent some time at GodCity in Salem [Massachusetts] last year when we did the Blood Moonproject, and I really fell in love with the space. It’s a really cool building and Kurt has some incredible gear—especially amps and guitars that I like—so it came together really naturally that it would be the right place to make the album. I knew the record was going to be heavy, especially on the guitars and drums, and I knew Kurt could capture that in the right way.
It’s really a self-produced album, to be honest. I went into the studio with everything demoed out to the point of completion. So working with Kurt was really more about us finding the right tones and atmospheres together, and counting on him to have the right instinct for those tones.
TIBIT: Hiss Spun was recorded by Converge’s Kurt Ballou at his GodCity Studio in Salem, Massachusetts, using mostly his collection of guitars, amps, and pedals. Overdrive and fuzz stomps were key.
The electric guitar plays a stronger role on Hiss Spun than on any of its predecessors. Was it your main writing tool this time around?
Yeah! It was a lot of Jess, our bandmate Ben Chisholm, and I getting together and just jamming—where I’d come in with a riff or idea, or just let Ben and Jess play and hit record and then go back to work and build off certain parts from the jamming to build a song. Once we had songs together, we’d send them to Troy Van Leeuwen, to write lead parts for. The intent was definitely to keep it more of a band album and more of a rock album.
I caught the tour you opened for Queens of the Stone Age and I really love that a creative relationship spawned from it. Can you tell me what it is about Troy’s playing that made him right for this record?
That tour with Queens was really important for me. At that time, I was thinking about going in a more acoustic direction again, and as soon as I was with those guys, hearing them play some of my favorite rock songs night after night and just seeing how much fun and energy they have, I decided I wanted to make heavy music and rock again. It sent me back on that path. Queens has been one of my favorite bands for a long time, and Troy is one of my favorite players, and we really hit it off on that tour. Troy and Ben kept in touch after that tour as well.
So once a few of these songs came together between Jess and I, Troy immediately came to mind as the right player for them. I really wanted to have some big guitar leads on it, and I left space specifically for him to do so—like on “16 Psyche,” there’s a big chunk of space that was left for Troy, which I’d thought about when I initially wrote the song. These songs also have some really twisted emotions in them, and I knew that Troy would understand that and where I’m coming from and channel it the right way. And he did!
Where are you coming from as a player?
I tend to say I’m self-taught because, for me, that speaks to a certain style of playing that’s sort of wild and weird, and more intrinsic and not necessarily something that can be learned. When I was younger, I was envious of people that were classically trained on an instrument, but I just picked the guitar up to write songs and I taught myself to play really by writing songs, and I didn’t really learn songs by other artists or anything like that. So for me, it was about finding the right sounds to my ears and moving things around in a way that simply felt right. That really guided the sound of my project for years. I’ve been blessed to play with a lot of other really talented guitar players over the years, but I like to always make sure there’s a lot of my own guitar playing on the records as well, because it’s something that comes from deep inside me and is instinctual.
A lot of the stuff I play on guitar is very circular. I tend to trip out on a pattern for a while and I meditate on it and go from there. I don’t really know how to define it easily. I don’t think anything I do is very easily defined—unfortunately for the rest of the world, because I know the world likes to put things in categories, but it doesn’t seem to work very well for me.