Chelsea Wolfe doesn't particularly like to explain her songs. The 30-year-old California musician understands the impulse to ask what a song means, but she feels that anybody else's interpretation is just as valid as hers.
"When I put music out, I like to leave it out there for interpretation," she says. "I know what it means for me, but for someone to take it to mean something else is really good, too. … I don't like to explain it too much, because maybe it kills it for someone else."
Wolfe's songs are often opaque compositions that invite pondering. Over four albums, her music has dabbled in folk, avant-garde distortion, metal, and electronica. Regardless of the genre, her lyrics are often ephemeral and enigmatic. Her fourth album, Pain Is Beauty (Sargent House), was released last year and might be her strongest effort yet, garnering critical praise from The New York Times and Pitchfork. The melodies and production are at turns atmospheric, moody, sultry, and rocking. The opening track, "Feral Love," was recently featured in the trailer for HBO's hit series Game of Thrones. Wolfe was thrilled.
"I really like that show," she says. "It has amazing imagery and costumes. To see my song used in such a beautiful cinematic setting is really great." The song opens like a whisper, with Wolfe softly singing, "Run from the light/Your eyes, black like an animal/Deep in the wander." But a drum machine kicks in to give the song a frenzied fight-or-flight feeling. Distortion and background wailing soon join the song, creating a cacophony that underscores the primal mood. Wolfe says she was thinking about "instinctual love, to keep surviving against all odds, love from an animal's point of view," when she wrote it.
Much of the album flirts with the idea of natural forces run amok, as in the standout track "Destruction Makes the World Burn Brighter." Wolfe says the song was inspired from reading about forest fires and "realizing that it isn't just destructive," she says. "A forest fire is an intense destructive thing, but it clears the way for new growth."
She sees this as an apt metaphor for life's struggles.
"Life is constantly throwing hard things our way and we fight through the fire and come out a stronger person."
But the song defies literal interpretation and invites alternative readings. "Destruction" references fires and running, but on the chorus Wolfe sings, "Ooh, who's that girl/Who's that girl." It's perhaps a playful reference to the Madonna song, and suggests clearing the landscape of traditional feminine imagery to make way for new ones.
Wolfe says she's thrilled to be opening for Queens of the Stone Age at the Tennessee Theatre next week. Aside from being a big fan of the band, she says opening gigs are easier for her.
"There's a freedom of knowing there will be a ton of people there every night and you don't have to worry about whether or not people show up," she says. "We know that there will be tons of people there. We definitely feel very lucky to be on this tour."
In some shows with QOTSA, Wolfe's noticed the presence of her own fans, which she says is a thrill. She also confesses to struggling with stage fright, another benefit of an opening gig.
"A bigger audience is less scary than one that's more intimate and everything is so tense," she says. "There's more room to breath and move around." Wolfe used to cope with her stage fright by wearing elaborate clothes and veiling her face. She's tried to resist this impulse in recent years.
"I didn't want that to be my gimmick," she says. "I had to find other ways to express myself and make eye contact with the audience, so that I'm not completely hiding myself."
After her current tour, Wolfe will finish up a film project with director Mark Pellington, who is known for his music videos with artists like Public Enemy, U2, Nine Inch Nails, and Moby. Pellington began by working on a video for Wolfe, but the two decided to turn the project into a longer film featuring five songs from Pain Is Beauty, all connected thematically. "Feral Love," one of the five songs, will be released first and serve as a trailer for the project. But Wolfe isn't quite sure how or when this project will be available.
"We're working on that," she says. "We're trying to find the best way to get it out there, so people can see it."