Chelsea Wolfe's latest album, Birth of Violence, was informed by years of touring — time the singer-songwriter cherishes and counts as critical to her growth as an artist and individual. But that time was also exhausting —mentally, physically and spiritually. On the road, Wolfe longed for the serenity and stability of home, often seeking solace in quiet moments when she could tuck away, alone with her guitar.
Birth of Violence, Wolfe’s seventh album, now out via Sargent House, grew from these escapes from the road. Finding a path home became a thematic cornerstone of the record, anchored by songs like the lead single, “The Mother Road."
Westword caught up with Wolfe a few days before the start of her 25-stop North American Birth of Violence Tour to discuss how environment affects live performance and its reception.
Westword: Your current tour supporting Birth of Violence is billed as an acoustic”tour. What will this look like? Will anyone be on stage with you?
Chelsea Wolfe: Because it’s an acoustic tour, I think everyone is like, "Oh, cool, so you'll just hop in a car and go play by yourself!” But that's not how I do things. I always like to complicate stuff and make it a little bit weird. So it’s my version of acoustic. I will still have my bandmate Ben (Chisholm) with me doing electronics and some backing guitar, and I have commissioned a metal worker out of the Bay Area to make this really cool wreath kind of thing that I will be standing in. I really tried to take care with the stage setup and find ways to create a scene, even just for myself, a kind of protective circle that I could stand in. I feel like in this past year, I have created rituals for myself that have really helped me overcome a lot of the exhaustion that I experienced while touring heavily, that have helped me as I try to step into this new era of my life. Future tours will take a much more calm mindset. I wanted the stage setting to reflect that.
You’ve said that you were really looking for interesting settings for shows on this tour — old theaters and places with character and good acoustics. Were you more involved in selecting the venues than you’d normally be for a tour with the full band?
I think I have been given the option before, but in most cases I was just like, “Whatever works best.” A little more nonchalant about it. This time I was definitely more involved. If there were three different venue options given to me, I looked them all up to see what they would look like with the set that I had in mind.
I was actually not aware of that connection until my booking agent brought it up to me. I had told them that I wanted to try and play in special spaces so that people really felt like they were coming out to a special evening. To make it different than the rock tours. He brought that spot up to me, and at first I was like, “Are you sure people are going to go out there?” because it seems a little bit out of the city. But it does seem like something worth people's time, because it has that cool history and it looks like a really beautiful space. I am super-excited to check it out and play in a space that has this really interesting energy to it.
Are you a big horror fan?
No, but I do like a movie like The Shining that is not as gory, that’s more psychological.
Did you come across any other venues for this tour, either on the North American leg or the European one, that are especially notable or exceptional in some way?
There is a spot in Leipzig, Germany, called UT Connewitz. I can't remember exactly what it used to be. It’s definitely got an interesting history — I don’t know if it's the brightest history — but the building itself is amazing. The ceiling is this kind of crumbling dome; I like spaces where it feels like the walls might crumble at any second. Obviously in Europe, that is the case more often since it's a lot older, and I am definitely playing a lot of old churches and convents and places like that. In the U.S., I think I ended up playing a lot more clubs than I would have liked to, just because of availability. Everyone is touring at this time, and I don’t think I'm like top priority for most of these venues [laughs]. There is a spot in Toronto called the Queen Elizabeth Theatre that I’ve played before and really love. I love playing theaters, obviously, because they are just ready for you to set the scene.
Other than the obvious difference of not having the support of a band behind you, what do you find most different about acoustic and electric shows, in performance or preparation?
As I was putting this set together — I'm doing quite a few older songs as well as much of the new record, I think, at first, even though I am doing part of the set just me and the acoustic guitar, I was really digging in and trying to make it sound like the album. It wasn't sounding very good to me, and one night I had this revelation of sorts and started playing one of the songs extra soft and extra slow and moody. It felt so much better like that. Just make it what it is supposed to be for a solo performance, and for this mood that I am in right now, which is a lot more calm. I think even some of the songs from this new album will have a little bit more mood and a little bit more of a slow-motion feel, because it seems like that is what’s right for the set.
In what ways can a venue and its attributes affect your performance on stage? Are there things that you take into consideration based on the way a space feels?
For sure. It's not something I can always explain, but when you first step out onto the stage for a sound check and the lights are all on, you kind of get this feel for the space as a whole. And then you envision it with the lights down and what it looks like for the show setting. Sometimes there is a sense like, "This song isn't going to work tonight. I am going to do this one instead." The set list starts to shift and change. It’s about connecting with the space and following my intuition on what is going to work best there, and hopefully the audience will feel the same way with whatever changes need to be made. I am really into energies. Sometimes spaces really don't have a lot of energy, and sometimes they have a ton of it. You just kind of listen to it, feel it out and go from there.
Can you think of a particular show or venue where a performance you’ve given or watched wouldn’t have been the same had it taken place elsewhere?
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We played this festival called Oya last year near Oslo, Norway, and it was basically our second show of the day. We’d played another show at like two in the morning somewhere in Sweden and driven straight to this festival to play around 6 p.m. We got very little sleep. It was an outdoor festival, and a storm was really starting to brew right as we were about to play. The sky was gray, and you could hear the thunder. I think it was just this perfect atmosphere. I find myself being really energized by storms. It was kind of like trying to draw down that energy into the live set, and something about this culmination of being outside and being in this place that I really love — I love going to Oslo — and the storm. Everything kind of came together, and it was a really good set; it felt really powerful and strong.
You wrote and recorded Birth of Violence at your home in Northern California. Can you describe an element or aspect of the album that was fostered by this environment?
It was really important for me to make this album at home, because much of the inspiration for [it] was just being in constant motion and how it was starting to drive me a bit mad. I really didn't want to get home and then immediately get on a plane and go to some studio in another state or something. Basically, in lieu of album budget, I just got some nice microphones and a few pieces of gear for my house and had Ben help me out engineering it. It was actually really special, because I got to take that time to sort of settle into my house by making this record there. There was a lot of snow outside, which gave it this nice insulation, and once springtime came, the skies opened up and there was a ton of rain and storms outside. I would leave the door open behind me sometimes and capture that environment as well. This album is kind of about finding a place called home, so it was really cool to do that in my home.