To experience a quick slice of Chelsea Wolfe’s storytelling without engaging with a note of her music, just look at her record covers. The front of the goth-folk artist’s second full-length—2011’s Aποκ%u03ACλυψις (an Ancient Greek word transliterated as “apokalypsis” and related to “apocalypse”)—is a soft-focus, shoulders-and-up, candid-style photo of Wolfe that could have been taken with a Polaroid camera. A dense, sullen expression is on her face, Egyptian-esque jewelry fits around her temples, and her eyes are entirely white. “For Apokalypsis, the reason I whited out my eyes was ’cause a lot of it was about having revelations or epiphanies, and to me, the whited-out eyes reflected the moment of realization and the moment of enlightenment in your own life,” says the 29-year-old.
In tandem with this, she found out around the album’s release that one of the meanings of “apokalypsis” is “lifting of the veil,” which she found appropriate. Wolfe used to don a black veil during performances because she wanted to be “invisible on stage”—partially because of stage fright, partially because she didn’t find it necessary for her to “have that role” as someone showing her face. (She has since dropped the veil.) This idea, in turn, ties into her debut record, 2010’s The Grime & the Glow. The cover depicts a figure—presumably Wolfe—cloaked entirely in black, with face hidden to the viewer.
Though Wolfe has flip-flopped with her feelings on receiving attention, music-making itself has been a fixture of her life for two decades. She grew up in the Sacramento, Calif., area with a father who was part of a country band called Eldorado. In childhood, the group and whatever they were listening to (“mostly Fleetwood Mac at the time”) guided her taste in music. When Wolfe was about 9, Eldorado developed a home recording studio that she got a chance to try, too. It was there that she recorded keyboard covers of Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party,” the theme from The NeverEnding Story and other tunes. After that, she started penning her own tracks—output she once described as “Casio-based gothy R&B songs.” In her 20s, she graduated from making music as a quiet hobby to playing publicly and tinkering with different bands and projects. The darkness of her aesthetic persisted, though, and now “Chelsea Wolfe” and “goth” are synonymous in the media—and for good reason.
Her third studio album, Pain Is Beauty, released Sept. 3, features moody folk music that champions principles of 1980s goth rock and post-punk. Her voice has a frail, glass-like texture that gives her music a strange airiness—gloomy instruments stagger and loom—and the album’s production is hollow in a way that generates serious bleakness, with the feel of a memorial ceremony. Along those lines, Wolfe has long emphasized in interviews that her music is born out of using heavy concepts as inspiration. Rawness, honesty, death, intensity, “tormented love” and the power of natural disasters have all shaped her final products.
Pain Is Beauty wouldn’t look like a proper Wolfe record if it didn’t have a cover with some symbolism, and it does make good. On this one, Wolfe—sporting a sharp-looking red dress, perfectly styled hair and purple-black lipstick against a black background—pensively gazes away from the camera. She seems aware that she is getting her portrait taken professionally, but she’s still lost in her own world. “There’s a spotlight on me—a dim spotlight—but obviously, I look a little uncomfortable,” she explains. “Some of the themes of the album are about the darkness of glamour or the idealism of dying young and burning out and not fading away. I was really inspired by the color of volcanic lava, and that’s why I wanted to wear red.”
Considering that she’s already created a narrative so far, what’s potentially next for the fourth full-length’s cover? Wolfe reveals little of interest but does indicate that her body will be back. “I definitely started putting myself on the album covers because I like that other strong female artists have done that,” she says. “I think Tori Amos does that, too—pretty much every album cover as a different version of yourself.”
w/ True Widow
The Urban Lounge
241 S. 500 East
Wednesday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m.
$10 in advance, $12 day of show