Beyond the Boys’ Club is a monthly column from journalist and radio host Anne Erickson, focusing on women in the heavy music genres, as they offer their perspectives on the music industry and discuss their personal experiences. This month’s piece features an interview with singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe.
Chelsea Wolfe connects with a spectrum of musical dynamics, from the heavy, distorted guitars of metal music to the intimate, sparse instrumentals of folk. On her upcoming album, Birth of Violence, Wolfe embraces her folk side with acoustic songs and themes that embrace her womanhood and strength in the world.
With Birth of Violence set to arrive on September 13th, Wolfe spoke with Heavy Consequence for the latest “Beyond the Boys’ Club” column, discussing the inspiration for Birth of Violence, the female musicians who inspired her, the rise of women in rock, and more. Read the full interview below.
On the title of her new album, Birth of Violence, and its origins
I used to work in a used book store in high school, and I spent time cruising the back rooms, coming across these big, intense looking titles, like Grapes of Wrath. That really stood out to me. So, I wanted something that when you first looked at it, it looked like the title of an old book. I didn’t want it to be misunderstood, but for me, the word “violence” is such a beautiful sounding word, and that phrase came to me in a state of mind where I was almost channeling it from something else. It helped explain the album.
On how Birth of Violence relates to womanhood
I was thinking of the word in a more poetic way and claiming it as a woman. I have this old dictionary, and one definition of violence is “strength of emotion.” The world views women as these overly emotional beings, so I wanted to kind of claim it for myself. “Birth of Violence,” for me, is standing up and claiming your power, and it’s very connected to the album cover, which is a nod to Joan of Arc. It’s about standing up for something, whether it’s your art or vision as a woman.
Before Hiss Spun, my last record, I felt like I was writing and experiencing music in a very androgynous way. When I entered into my 30s and was writing Hiss Spun, there was a shift in me, and I felt connected to being a woman more physically and started exploring that more. I put a lot of that into Hiss Spun and even more into Birth of Violence. It’s about navigating the world as a woman. As I started to write, I had a vision of this character as a Victorian woman who the world saw as a maiden but she very much wanted to be a warrior. It’s about balancing that soft and strong energy.
On the change she’s noticed since the #MeToo movement took shape
I’ve noticed that the presence of women changes the way some older men will act who are maybe used to thinking of women as the groupies. I definitely see a shift when we’ve done opening tours where you can feel that they are aware that they need to speak differently and in a more respectful way, and that’s cool. It’s nice that I don’t have to say something about it, which I would, if I had to. But, I’ve worked on surrounding myself with people who are respectful of all genders. I have the coolest, most respectful band and crew who I’ve never heard say anything that I would question.
On which female musicians most inspired her growing up, and when writing Birth of Violence
I think for this record, especially — I grew up on Joni Mitchell and Fleetwood Mac, so there’s a lot of Stevie Nicks in here. My mom listened to a lot of Bonnie Raitt, so I had a lot of female influences early on, and I came back to that a lot on this record. But, there’s also the very rock ‘n’ roll side, like L7 and the Distillers.
On recent statistics that suggest more young women are learning how to play guitar
I definitely see a lot more young women playing guitar and starting rock bands. It bothers me when I hear someone who has been around a while say rock n’ roll is dead. Rock ‘n’ roll is not dead — you’re just looking in the wrong places. There are so many people playing really rad, new rock, especially women.
On her music being influenced by both the metal and folk genres
I’m definitely inspired and influenced by metal, and I think I inject a lot of that into my music. On this record, it was intentionally more held back and acoustic and focused on my folk side, but throughout my entire life and career as a musician, it’s been about balancing heavy and light, soft and strong. That’s been a big theme for me. Sometimes I lean more toward playing heavy, distorted electric guitar, and sometimes I want to withdraw and play these quiet, acoustic songs that feel intimate. I guess some people in the heavy music community can relate to that, as well.
On Birth of Violence marking a new era for her music
I think this record feels very much like a personal awakening and a new era. I decided last year that I really needed to take a break from the road, so I started saying no to stuff. I needed to take a good chunk of time off this year to be at home and figure out how to take better care of myself mentally and physically and spiritually. We had been on tour eight years, and we’ve had so many amazing experiences, but it doesn’t give you time or space to create your own habits and rituals. I wanted to have an extended period of time at home to settle into this house that I moved into a few years ago and hadn’t had time to settle into. This record is a reflection of being on the road, and it’s about finding a place to call home, which is where I live now, in the mountains of northern California.
On her decision to record Birth of Violence at her northern California home
I didn’t want to immediately get on a plane and fly to someone else’s studio, and also it was a DIY vibe where we thought, we actually have the tools and gear and knowledge at this point where we can make a record that sounds pretty good. At the end of the day, for me, it’s about the songs and conveying the feeling of the songs, and I wanted to capture that atmosphere of where I live. It was snowing a lot of the time, so it was really quiet and insulated. Then, the sky opened up towards the spring, and there were thunderstorms. I would leave the door open behind me sometimes when I was recording vocals and capture some of the sounds around where I live.
On her start as a guitarist and finding her musical voice
I was definitely intimated as a young person by guitar players who could really shred or were really technical, because that just wasn’t my style. So, when Fender featured me on a new guitar video series they were doing, I thought that was really cool, because I’m not a super technical player. I thought it might be cool for a younger musicians to see someone like me who is a bit self-taught to see that you can create your own style of playing guitar and that it doesn’t have to be this cookie-cutter trained thing. Training is very valid and I adore people who are super technical, but that’s just not me.
On the advice she would give young people who are getting into the music world
Know that the thing that makes you feel like a weirdo or outcast or like something is wrong with you is probably the thing that is going to set you apart when you’re older and have been doing it a while. Follow whatever weird intuition that you’re getting from playing music. Be yourself. I was super shy when I started out and would wear a Victorian mourning veil over my face and try to put some kind of barrier over myself, because I was so afraid of being onstage in front of people, but somehow, people still accepted me and were so open to hearing my music. So, as long as you are truly being you, no matter how weird it feels at the time, just follow that.
Our thanks to Chelsea Wolfe for taking the time to speak with us for this month’s “Beyond the Boys’ Club” column. Pre-order her new album, Birth of Violence, at this location, and see her upcoming tour dates here.