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Chelsea Wolfe and the joy of the infinite loop

29 January 2024, 15:00
Words by Steven Loftin
Original Photography by Ebru Yildiz

As she prepares to release her seventh album She Reaches Out To She Reaches Out To She, Californian experimental musician Chelsea Wolfe tells Steven Loftin about taking life and art moment by moment.

Joseph Campbell once wrote: "The cave you fear holds the treasure you seek." In her cave, Chelsea Wolfe found multitudes.

An unfurling kaleidoscope inspired by the shadows most cower in fear from, Wolfe's output is a light in the darkness for her cult-like fanbase. Throughout her solo work – as well as numerous collaborations, including with producer Tyler Bates for the soundtrack to 2022 horror movie X – Wolfe spins yarn, pinning them up against a corkboard of emotional vulnerabilities and fears. Her music feels like staring into a midnight desert. Panoramic sounds – often folk or metal-infused – guide as shapes and shadows manifest around you but within in the daylight, the reality is just your subconscious.

Zooming in from a room surrounded by spiritual symbols, a framed Dolly Parton LIFE magazine cover, and tarot paraphernalia, this multitudinousness is clear to me too. While softly spoken, the vocalist has a commanding presence all with the same genteel might that echoes throughout her work.


Born in California in the early 80s, Wolfe’s first years were spent in a creative and freeing space. Raised with a musical father, then with a stint with her spiritually inclined grandmother, she was also dogged by sleep paralysis which to this day informs as much of her creative output as her more human, earth-based elements. Now on her seventh album – She Reaches Out To She Reaches Out To She, her first for new label Loma Vista – her newfound sobriety also figures into the music. "During the process of getting sober, you have to enter that cave, because that's where the treasure is,” she softly admits. “And, you know, facing your shadows is where you're going to find the sparkle within."

This cave Wolfe enters contains more treasure than she knows what to do with. Like stumbling upon a dragon curled up on a mass of gilded trinkets, the one thing that caught Wolfe's eye was herself. After years of sleep paralysis, she realised that what lay within wasn't necessarily an unwelcome visitor but instead a new layer of herself – a pivotal collaborator in her music. "I've become more…I guess conscious about it," she tells me. "In the past, it was just natural and inherent to who I was and the way that I was and the fact that I was experiencing sleep paralysis almost every night since I was a kid, so it was just naturally creeping into my music and my art. And then more recently, I've been more intentional about it, and putting it into the music and using it as – not using it – but collaborating with it."

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As Wolfe has progressed, she’s allowed the darkness to envelop her. From one of her first musical iterations which came in the early noughties with the group Red Host – a ferociously melodic turn with future Mrs. Piss collaborator and touring partner Jess Gowrie – through to her eventual 2010 debut The Grime and The Glow, darkness has become a key element in her creative process. As Chelsea Wolfe grew into more than just a solo project to a now eponymous band – with long-term collaborator and band member Ben Chisolm, alongside Gowrie and guitarist Bryan Tualo – she found her own distinct sound by channelling disparate metal, electronica and folk.

It’s something that comes naturally to Wolfe: the dark is something she has never feared. "I don't think I've ever really been afraid. I think when I was younger," she smiles. "I was definitely disturbed by my sleep paralysis, and just not understanding what it was or the fact that we all have an energy to us, and that I was kind of a person that was maybe taking on other people's energies too much without realising it. And also not really having any boundaries of my own.”


Wolfe strikes me as the kind of person who keeps her (tarot) cards close to her chest – she’s open but with a considered care. It’s easy to see how someone with these empath tendencies would need to protect themselves. “Learning to have boundaries has been important,” she explains. “Understanding energetic boundaries has been really important and trying to protect myself in that way which also makes me a better person to be around for other people because if you heal yourself, you're a healthier person for other maybe disturbed when I was younger, but I think now I've realised very much that my natural aesthetic and inclination is, I don't know, it sounds silly, but a sort of matching up of darkness and cosiness. Cosiness is kind of a funny word to use but I think it's more just becoming comfortable with the darkness and with the shadow and not being afraid of it – not feeling like you have to run from it. I think that's part of getting sober, too, is not allowing myself to have that thing anymore that I just turned to if I'm feeling uncomfortable, to numb it out, [instead] letting myself feel it."

While Chelsea Wolfe – the artist – goes through her album cycles, morphing between sounds, so does Wolfe the person. She sparks up when we find ourselves discussing lunar cycles. "I really enjoy the end and beginning of things,” she says, “like at the very end of the moon cycle is what we call the Dark Moon, and it's just barely there in the sky. And then the New Moon is when the sky is dark – that’s my favourite time, that end and beginning. That time in between liminal space.”

It’s in this place that Wolfe sees potential: “You can sort of process everything that has happened during that month cycle, and then prepare for the next one,” she says with a wizened reasoning. “Use what you learned in that last one as compost for the next cycles growth. I'm like that with the seasons as well. I really love the transitional times, like winter, into spring. There's these very inklings of beginnings."

"I'm very much into the cyclical nature of things. Part of my healing process is following the cycles of the moon every month, living by the cycles of the seasons every year." The title of her new record – She Reaches Out To She Reaches Out To She – pays homage to this”. "I enjoyed how it could be written in an infinite loop… just be this infinite circle. I also enjoyed that the letter eight is like the infinity symbol.”

Wolfe became active in witchcraft practice a few years back. While she’s always had a hand in this world, it was when she read The Moon Book by Sarah Faith Gottesdiener that things clicked into place, and she fully allowed this craft to envelop her. "When that came out, which I think was 2020, that's when I really started living by the moon cycles,” says Wolfe. “It's kind of a guidebook on how to do that and that's honestly been life-changing for me, because the moon goes full into new again, every single month, which is kind of wild when you think about it. And so using that as a guide every month, and setting new intentions, every new moon has just been a really big part of my healing process – and even my writing process at times."

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Part of Wolfe's personal cave exploration comes from shadow work – the psychotherapeutic process of facing your most inner hidden demons (traumas, resentment et al) and making them your new best friend. Her entire discography features this practice, consciously or otherwise. "I'm definitely leaning into it, for sure," she confirms. "And finding a lot of healing from it. I think letting myself feel all the things whether it’s the high highs, or low lows, like feeling at all, has brought me more joy than ever. If you don't allow yourself to fully feel the grief, then you're never going to fully feel the joy.”

She Reaches Out To She Reaches Out To She is an important entry to Wolfe’s canon: “This album is just such a big energy for me. It almost feels like a being unto itself. So, I'm feeling really good about this album, feeling really connected to it. There's a sense of ease with this album that I haven't experienced before.”

Wolfe’s discography is rich in the concepts of life including idealistic love (Pain Is Beauty, 2013), and anxiety and addiction (Hiss Spun, 2017). These are ideas that transcend music and help us process them. As Wolfe points out, “People who are into the fantasy genre or mythical studies, that kind of thing kind of helps you process your actual life. And I kind of feel like that's part of the process for this album as well. A song like, ‘House of Self Undoing’ is very much this sort of underworld journey, and it's very dramatic and it's just about the process of getting sober but I think that mythical journey-way that I was writing about it helped me to actually do the thing and visualise it.

“I never used to think of my albums as conceptual. But looking back, I see that they were a lot more conceptual than I realised,” she says. Concepts are the scaffolding that allows the real world to exist to us and without proven theories upon which to hoist our beliefs, it can be difficult to surmise exactly what it is we’re going through. It’s in this place that those concepts of hers take shape. Wolfe likens it to sci-fi movies.

"If you don't allow yourself to fully feel the grief, then you're never going to fully feel the joy."


Healing is perpetual, she tells me: "I think that it's an ongoing process. It's a lifelong process really, right? And I think with this album, I know I'm talking a lot about healing but it's not from a lens of like, ‘Oh, I've healed and I'm going to tell you how’ it's from the lens of like, ‘I'm in it right now’. Like I'm also going through this process and even though I wrote and recorded and I'm going to release the album like I'm still going through this shit and you know, there's a line on the album ‘What do I have to do to heal you out of me’ it's like I'm very much feeling that and yeah, I feel like I'm in this liminal space with this album and it feels very much like an in between – like in between two books or in between two chapters, like I'm on the threshold of something new but I haven't quite stepped into the new yet,"

Across Wolfe’s rich tapestry, the story of one person's understanding of themselves is woven – in turn offering the same to any who stumble upon it. She is amorphously contorting the personal from a finely tuned statue to a robustly ready lump of clay for her listeners to imprint their trials against. For She Reaches… Wolfe found herself enticed by the symbolism of an egg. "I think there's just an energy of being okay, with the in-between," Wolfe explains. "I've used a lot of imagery of this egg for this album, this sort of mysterious, large egg that I'm nurturing and protecting. And the idea is that I don't actually know what's in this egg, I just know that there's potential in there, and there's a possibility in there, and I want to take care of it. And, again, nurture it, so that when it hatches, whatever it is, I'm welcoming it and embracing it.

“I think there's a lot of mystery in the in-between. That's not something that's always seen as a good thing. We like to know what's going to happen next, we like to have our year planned out, or five years planned out, whatever. But I'm kind of at this interesting point where I'm like, okay, with not knowing. And it's a really nice feeling, because I think I was always a bit stressed about knowing exactly what I was gonna do next. The energy of this album is being okay, with being in between being okay, with the mystery and the unknowing."

It's the same principle in horror films. The scary part is always the unknown. Once you're presented with the reality, the pragmatic side can take over – which is never as fun. "People love mysteries when they're watching on it a movie or something," she laughs. "So, it's like, embrace that in your own life too.”

Not one to ignore her own advice, she readily explains: "I would write a song for this album and then immediately after, I would find myself living out that same experience that I was writing about. I feel like each song was preparing me for something that I needed to do in my life to move forward.”

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The passage of time inevitably lends itself to reflection. Someone like Wolfe is no exception. While the concepts and realities she’s dealt with are passed, she reflects upon them as if they’re in the room with us, joyously embracing each one as an important factor in her creative output. It’s only when the conversation turns to regrets that she faces them head-on. “When I look back on my work, I see a lot of the…not the flaws, but the ways in which I wish I would have cared for it a little bit more, and prioritised the work over other people's feelings and things like that.” While delving no further – the cards remain unturned – she’s quick to mention that she “[doesn’t] look back very often. There are times when I look back, and I can appreciate this is just where I was at that time and that song was really cool, at least or whatever. But I definitely don't refer back to my old work in order to move forward. I’m just focusing on the present and the future.

Her ability to flow through genres and sounds while retaining the same softly driven mind is a part of Wolfe's superpower. A swirling vortex that spits out metal, folk, and alternative with each release that manifests, there comes an anticipation of just where she'll go next. "I'm comfortable in all of the different sorts of genres and styles that that I tend to explore. I think this one kind of feels like the culmination of all those things.”

Working with producer Dave Sitek, the electronic elements are a core part of She Reaches. Explaining how his studio lent itself to “more like modular synths and old, analog synths and things like that," it led the way for Wolfe's voyage. There are just as many heavier, guitar-driven moments, including sparse closer “Dusk” which eventually features a lightning strike of searing guitar. Wolfe sees She Reaches as a culmination of all her previous efforts; it’s her multitudes meeting. “I was really excited about the transformation that the songs were taking in his studio. It kind of felt connected back to Pain Is Beauty to me and the sort of electronic elements that we were exploring back then. This one feels like a culmination of everything that I've explored. I was ready to put my voice up front and let the voice be a little bit more clean, and right up in the microphone."

Putting herself so high in the mix was a purposeful move. The words Wolfe penned were just as, if not more so: "I spent a lot of time on the lyrics for this album, working on them and reworking them and trying to say what I wanted to say in a clearer way,” she says. This is because she was singing them to, and for herself. Sobriety has been the biggest challenge Wolfe has undertaken. “There's also some moments where I sound tired and I was letting the sort of burnout that I was experiencing fall into the music because I just wanted it to be vulnerable and how it was how I was really feeling at that time, because I was feeling vulnerable and raw and going through a lot of changes in my life."

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It all circles back to Wolfe's spirituality. If you frame it right, there's always a fresh start waiting:. "I think sometimes when we're in a bad moment,” she tells me. “Iit can kind of feel like it's forever so looking to the moon and being like, Oh, well, tomorrow, the moon's gonna be a little bit brighter, or you can feel that within yourself. This isn't forever. I can go to sleep tonight and start again tomorrow. It can be a better day. It’s the simple things really."

What does Wolfe ultimately see at the heart of her creativity and body of work? She gives a long, awkwardly silent pause before she answers as I briefly regret my decision to ask. "I don't know if I can answer," she returns. "If there's just one thing. I think the nature of this album especially is the opposite of that, right? That we have many selves within us. And the whole concept of we contain multitudes. I think that we can be contradictory to ourselves – and I think that that's okay. I think that we can have days when we feel very clear and have this vision of like, 'This is who I am', but I think most days, it's the multitudes and we're just navigating moment to moment."

She Reaches Out To She Reaches Out To She is released on 9 February via Loma Vista Recordings

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