Carl Jung once claimed that “nights through dreams tell the myths forgotten by the day.” Chelsea Wolfe remains only partially convinced.
“I don’t really believe in dream interpretation. It just depends on how much stress is in your life, and your mind will work that out in its own way,” says Wolfe, L.A.’s reigning high priestess of permanent midnight music. “But even sometimes when things are going really well and calm, I’ll have crazy nightmares. It doesn’t really make any sense. The mind is a wild place.”
Wolfe’s songs skulk at the crossroads between dream and nightmare. Stoner metal riffs confront folky hymns; porcelain melodies weather gothic guitar tempests. They are myths remembered slightly too well.
Her new album, Abyss, features song titles to make the heads of therapists swivel: “Carrion Flowers,” “Iron Moon,” “Maw,” “After the Fall,” “Simple Death,” “Color of Blood.” The lead single is based on the suicide of a Chinese poet whose soul was crushed by sweatshop factory labor. Another was written after Robin Williams took his life. Her fifth album title comes from a passage in Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
“One of his dreams really resonated with me. Its first line was, “I let myself drop,’ and then it details an epic journey of him traveling through a cave,” the Sacramento native says. “I thought about how you could drop into your own mind and explore things that you don’t really think about or you don’t want to think about.” Jungian inspiration eventually led to the album’s title song, “Abyss,” which plays out like PJ Harvey laced with a poisonous string section.
It’s probably important to point out that Wolfe, the daughter of a country musician, isn’t nearly that bleak in person. Her occult fixations aren’t artificial, but neither do they reduce her to a dark-queen cliché.
Of course, she isn’t traipsing around in town in day-glo colors, either. This afternoon, sipping a Moscow mule at a bar in Highland Park, Wolfe wears a silver choker, matching rings and an oracle pendant. Her skin is pale; her gown is Morticia black. Many tattoos are visible.
“My white-trash background,” she jokes.
But given her Jungian interests, it’s difficult not to interpret the tattoos as ripped from a deeper collective unconscious, making her an archetype in her own right: a dagger, a trident, a moon, a raven, the Scorpio constellation.
A coiled, woodcut image of a snake looms most prominently on her forearm. For Jung, the serpent dream represented “the danger of the newly acquired consciousness being swallowed up again by the instinctive psyche.”
Wolfe’s fixation with liminal states isn’t a recent obsession, but rather an attempt to reconcile a longtime struggle. She mentions a form of sleep paralysis, where she sometimes sees phantom figures in the room, usually around 3 or 4 a.m. Chronic nightmares formerly plagued her.
“There were times that I would wake up literally thinking someone was in the room, and I’d grab my knife,” Wolfe says. “It was dangerous.”
But a move from Pico-Union to the mountains north of the city seems to have pacified the condition. Her music remains sepulchral but slightly less claustrophobic. Still, it’s heavy as deep-lidded sleep, ideal for when the fuses are blown and you’re forced to navigate by shadows.
“Sleep and dream issues have plagued me my whole life, and I think this was my first album where I’ve confronted it and things inside myself — the things that are difficult to deal with,” Wolfe says. “Some of these songwriting sessions were really intense. I’d be writing lyrics and find myself physically shaking. I really felt like I had some sort of prophetic experience.”
An L.A. native, L.A. Weekly columnist Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com, follow him on Twitter and also check out his archives.