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Despite cultivating an audience that includes both folk lovers and metalheads, the gorgeously downcast songwriting of Chelsea Wolfe has been mistakenly typecast: The stark cover of Wolfe's feral, cacophonous 2011 album, Apokalypsis, showed a portrait of the California native with whited-out eyes, an image she has said was intended to look pure and uplifting, but uninitiated observers missed that as they read a goth sensibility into Wolfe's work.
But there's no mistaking the tranquil, beatific underpinnings of Wolfe's most recent album, Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs, a string- and piano-driven departure that takes her spectral voice out of candlelight and into the sunrise.
Wolfe says the songs were culled from a huge cache of past material, hence her labeling the album a "collection." "[The album] was unique because so many songs were up to five or six years old," she says. "Songs I wrote two years ago I end up falling back in love with."
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That "love" doesn't mean the subject matter, among the string flourishes and delicate arrangements, isn't suitably dark. "Spinning Centers" best demonstrates the album's serenity and empty space, but Wolfe says it's a dreamlike tale of confronting death's void.
"Often the themes of my songs are about death because I haven't experienced it much myself; no one close to me has passed away," she says. "I try to understand what that's like, writing songs about it from different perspectives."
Album closer "Sunstorm," an ominous ballad built on sturdily bare chords, was inspired by a friend who nearly died in a car accident. Wolfe was by his side during his recovery and imagined what it would be like had he not been so fortunate, ending the song with the pained repetition of "I remember everything you said."
"It's about hearing someone's last words before they die and feeling the responsibility that comes with that," she says. "The idea you had a secret to keep for this person that you'd always remember."
This kind of expansion and reimagining of real-life happenings is Wolfe's primary songwriting mode, an approach that is more inviting for audiences, she says. "I don't always like songs to be too specifically about one thing in my life. I don't want to just write a sad song that only I can understand. What would be the point of sharing that with other people?"
Though Wolfe spent a lot of time in her early years exploring her father's recording studio, in which he primarily recorded country musicians, she says she didn't get truly transformed by music and art until after high school. "I finally woke up and started finding artists that really struck me," she says. "I wanted to celebrate that."
She is not shy about acknowledging those influences. Wolfe created a photographic tribute to comedian Bill Hicks, a series of pictures of the infamous rabble-rouser lighting a cigarette with a burning American flag. She also recorded an EP of cover versions of songs by British hardcore punks Rudimentary Peni last year. She is moved to pay tribute not out of emulation but because the works relentlessly haunt her, she says.
Since last summer, Wolfe and her cohorts have been working on a follow-up album that returns to electric instrumentation, one she says is much more stylistically varied. Though it promises to include acoustic numbers, she says she'll be returning to noise elements and heavy tones.
"I go back and forth on how I'm feeling with my energy in the music," she says. "Right now, I'm really enjoying acoustic music and playing it live and having that intimate energy. Some day from now I'll want to play something really heavy and dark. Anything's possible, honestly."