When we walked into Cafe du Nord just after 7pm, I have to admit I was a little nervous. What started out as one of my weekend trips back to San Francisco to visit friends and check out a couple shows ended up morphing into something more. Chelsea Wolfe, an artist from Sacramento whom I’ve had on constant rotation since I discovered her music back in December, agreed to an interview and an impromptu photo shoot. This would be my first interview of this kind and I didn’t realize I was nervous until I was descending into the little club on Market Street. It turns out I wasn’t the only one with feelings of apprehension.
The place was pretty desolate this early in the evening, so Chelsea wasn’t hard to find. In fact, she wouldn’t have been hard to pick out if the place was at capacity. Standing at around 6 feet tall, dressed all in black, with alabaster skin and piercingly beautiful blue eyes, she is quite the striking figure. She might have been raised in Sacramento, but she definitely has a European look to her; possibly genetics passed down from her Norwegian ancestors. And those eyes, not just blue, but the blue of glaciers protruding from the Arctic Sea. You have to be careful not to drown in them. Once you get past those eyes and her unique beauty, you can’t help but notice how soft spoken she is. For a girl with such a powerful singing voice and physical presence, you can’t help but be taken aback at how soft and tranquil her speaking voice is. I had expected to break through some of the barriers and solve some of the mysteries behind this artist, figuring it would be hard for her to be so elusive when standing face-to-face, but after only 5 minutes I felt she had actually taken me deeper into the rabbit hole and I was going to leave here knowing Chelsea Wolfe even less than I did when I shook her tattooed hand.
One personality trait she could not hide, behind a veil or otherwise, was how nervous she was. If I understand it correctly, she drove up from L.A. with the band, went to Berkeley to practice and then straight over to du Nord for soundcheck…an exhausting day for anyone, but add to all of that your first performance at Noise Pop, a person (me) coming at you with a list of questions and others pointing cameras in your face and it can be unbearable. Chelsea Wolfe has been making music for quite some time, by herself and with various bands and collaborators, but it does seem the external element that goes along this form of artistic output is a little overwhelming for her. She says with confidence that she enjoys performing live, and I don’t doubt she’s telling the truth, I’m just not sure she feels the same way about interacting with the crowd. At one point, over a smoke, she let it slide that she’s ‘somewhat of a hermit…only really hung out with one person’ while talking about her days growing up in Sacramento before making the leap to L.A.
On the flight to California earlier that morning, I suddenly realized I didn’t have any questions prepared. Chelsea answered most of them through e-mail and I had forgot to prepare the follow-up material. So I jotted down questions about her interest in film-making based on her videos, what we could expect from her live set, her SXSW plans, why the decision to veil herself, and even some hard questions about her influences and something I read about Jewel, of all people, being an inspiration. But as soon as I met her and realized hammering her with questions would actually distract her further and maybe even affect her performance, I decided the continuation of an interview was secondary to getting some good photos and enjoying what I had really come here to see…Chelsea Wolfe and her band perform these amazing songs I had fallen in love with.
So I took the interview off the table, at least for the time being, and Chelsea seemed to be a little thankful and relieved. One thing less to think about before her set. Instead of an interview, we had a shot of Jack (usually it’s vodka, but I’m in a whiskey mood tonight), a quick chat about the blog, growing up in Auburn and how grateful she is for the ‘kind words’ this blog, as well as others, have shown her. The photos were supposed to come next, but my photographer had problems with her camera, so there went one more thing off Chelsea’s plate…she was now free to focus on her set and we had to make do with a point-and-shoot camera for the performance.
At promptly 8pm the time had come and Chelsea Wolfe and her band took the stage. At first I thought we might be the only ones there because the area in front of the stage was deserted, but once the music started and her voice soared to the back of the venue, everyone gravitated to the front of the stage to see who this veiled woman was. Being as early as it was, the crowd was still pretty light, but Chelsea and her band performed as if the place was packed and for the rest of the night I heard people explaining to the late-commers what they had missed, creating envy through word of mouth.
Like some sort of mourning superhero, the shy, nervous girl I was speaking to earlier transformed herself into the hollow-eyed demon on the cover of Ἀποκάλυψις when she shrouded herself in a veil and picked up her guitar. Confident in herself and her excellent band, a band that complimented their mistress without ever trying to overshadow her, she proved that she could recreate her recorded sound on stage. The music sounded exactly like it does on my headphones and her voice proved to have more range than I even thought possible. At one point I couldn’t help but mistake her acapella voice for a recording on “Movie Screen”.
Cafe du Nord isn’t known for it’s amazing sound and the radio noise from the kitchen was distracting during some of the quieter parts, but Chelsea used what she had been given to create a set that exceeded my expectations. For 30 mins of material from The Grime and the Glow and Ἀποκάλυψις she played guitar, tambourine, and maracas (on “Advice & Vices”) and sang in dual microphones like it was the end of the world.
I did find it interesting that she left out “Moses”, the one song that exists on both albums. I also found it interesting that she didn’t focus more on the album that was for sale at the merch booth. Outside, after the set, when a fan asked her about the other material, she didn’t even point him to bandcamp to download it. I think I actually told him as he was walking away. So does this make her a true artist who doesn’t even think about the financial consequences of this? Or just someone still naive about how to promote herself when it’s up close and personal? I think it’s probably a mixture of both and something that only experience will remedy. Experience that’s right around the corner.
Chelsea leaves for France in a couple weeks for a string of solo dates. At one point in the night she talked about how this would be something very different for her because she hasn’t performed solo before. I think this trip with help her gain a little confidence in the place she needs it most, off the stage. But what’s really going to open her up is SXSW. She will be performing at the Stereogum Unofficial Party with the likes of Zola Jesus, Liturgy, Altaar, and other artists on the ‘darker side of rock, punk, pop, metal, folk, etc.’ I think it will be a popular event and if she sticks around after her set, she’s going to interact with a lot of people who are going to have a lot of good things to say about her.
So what did I learn about Chelsea Wolfe? Well, let’s list it out…she’s never been to Mexico, Thailand or Cambodia, her dad is into motorcycles, she’s really stoked about her band, she likes to use the word ‘rad’, she doesn’t like photos of her face, but she does like Vodka and Jack Daniels. She’s very shy, somewhat of a hermit, and isn’t so good at promoting herself in a live setting. I’m guessing she’s in her early to mid-20’s, she’s got tattooed fingers, and her voice is even more amazing live than it is on record. She smoke filter-less cigarettes, prefers to light them herself, and is looking forward to the Southern Lord showcase in Austin. She’s sweet and appreciative but also shy and guarded. I also learned that you can learn more about someone just by hanging out with them than you can with a list of predefined questions, and if Chelsea Wolfe doesn’t want to be known, just let her be, because the music and the voice coming from behind the veil is all you really need to know…