Gear Guide: Chelsea Wolfe on Tone, Songwriting and Preference
Chelsea Wolfe has forged a sound that draws from a plethora of styles including heavy rock, ambient, folk, metal, and more, stripping them down to their basics and seeking out the commonalities between them to fuel her rich, textured songs.
Over five albums (most recently Abyss in 2015), she’s become internationally celebrated for her far-reaching music, soulful voice, and charismatic performances and while her merging of darkness and ambiance have often been described as “haunting,” or “otherworldly,” she can pinpoint the origins of her love of genre-fusions to a familiar source that every musician has experience with: the playlist. “I’ve always created playlists (or in earlier days, mixtapes and mix CDs) and gotten them from friends, and I’m just able to hear the connections in different types of music,” she says. “Something will resonate for me in trip-hop that I’ll also find in an old folk/blues song, or I’ll find the same comfort in a 60s folk song as in a black metal song. I like music that has soul to it, soul that you can feel. Some music out there feels very sterile but fortunately there’s so much good, real music to block that out!”
With such far-ranging influences, some artists may find their personal vision gets a little lost in the shuffle, but Wolfe’s sound that unmistakably her own. “I think all the different stuff I’ve listened to over the years eventually melded into my own weird thing,” she says. “One of the main reasons I’ve kept this project under my own name, even though it’s full band most of the time, is that I didn’t want to have to compromise on the sound. I wanted to always be able to follow my instincts in writing and allow the music to morph into what it needed to be.” She sites her ongoing collaborations with Ben Chisholm as an essential component of the project, especially in regards to its electronic components, but as always some of her best songwriting starts with the basics. “I’ve always gone back to writing on acoustic guitar though.”
Chelsea Wolfe by Kristin Cofer
For Wolfe, one particular acoustic guitar—her mother’s classical model—had a special and long-lasting influence on her music. Although it was missing a tuning peg, she used it to write her first two records, and its unusual, “imperfect sound,” became a cornerstone of her aesthetic. “I still write on that guitar!” she says. “Sometimes an instrument has just got the songs in it. I also write on a 70s Guild acoustic that my dad passed down to me.”
“I have a few nice guitars and I prefer to tour with those for their tone and reliability but at home I tend to go for the older ones. The older instruments have a more mystical quality. Playing and writing on my mom’s classical in the early days was really key to my sound. That missing tuning peg and my lack of a guitar tuner caused me to tune the strings by ear to that string—turns out it was pretty much D standard. Over time I realized that tuning is much better suited for my voice so I still go low for the majority of my songs. “
This fall, Wolfe will release her sixth album, Hiss Spun. Recorded by Converge’s Kurt Ballou and featuring guest spots from Troy Van Leeuwen (Queens of the Stone Age) and Aaron Turner (SUMAC, Old Man Gloom), the album reportedly deals with the concept of scouring inner emotions to make sense of a chaotic world, and contains some of her rawest and heaviest compositions to date.
Check out “16 Psyche,” the first single to be released from the album below, along with a selection of Wolfe’s most essential gear. Hiss Spun is available for pre-order now.
“I think finding some unique gear is important to a musician’s sound, but also it’s like, if you’ve always dreamed about playing a Fender Mustang then by all means save up for the Fender Mustang! If you can though, I think it’s really important to play the guitar in person first—go to some music stores or pawn shops and see what you’re intrinsically drawn to and what feels good in your hands. That’s how I found the first electric guitar I ever bought for myself, a simple satin brown Fender Jaguar.”
“I do have a lot of pedals at this point, but I always try to get pedals that I’ll actually use. I know I’m probably not going to use a tremolo or chorus pedal so I won’t get versions of those just to try. I go for the weird fuzz, distortions and delays most of the time. When I’m making a new album I’ll try out different pedals that are in the studio I’m working in and usually end up getting a couple of those after the record is done. For example, the Death By Audio Apocalypse pedal was my jam on Abyss and it still lives on my board.”