Chelsea Wolfe’s The Grime and the Glow dresses folk music in a black cloak
Ravens perched on bare branches, snow falling on tombstones, wooden shutters clattering against cloudy window panes in a strong gale–these are just some of the visuals The Grime and the Glow, the latest fulllength album from Sacramento songwriter Chelsea Wolfe, may conjure in the imagination of the listener. Songs such as “Cousins of the Antichrist,” on which Wolfe intones “All in vain” in a steady refrain as the song ends, reinforce descriptions of her music as dark or goth folk. Wolfe herself describes another selection from the album, “Halfsleeper,” as “a slow-motion painting of what it’s like to die in a car accident with your loved one.” Wolfe, however, admits that The Grime and the Glow isn’t necessarily all doom and gloom–not that she’d mind if it were. She says that songs “Advice & Vices” and “The Whys” are more playful lyrically than she’d normally write. Wolfe describes the latter as “a song making fun of myself for taking everything so seriously.” But these concessions aren’t in hopes of lightening the album’s dark mood.
“I don’t mind it getting too dire,” Wolfe says in a recent interview with Submerge.
From the album cover, to the videos made for the songs, to the music itself, The Grime and the Glow seems born from a single cohesive vision. Wolfe says that the theme for the album came to her once its title was in place. She says the title is taken from the introduction to the novel Death on the Installment Plan, by French author Louis-Ferdinand Celine. The darkly humorous novel had quite an effect on Wolfe, even though she wasn’t able to finish it.
“I…read most of [it], but had to stop because of the dark place it puts my head space,” she explains. “I didn’t really need to dig any deeper into understanding that much of the beauty in the world is crawling with worms beneath the surface.”
To get the dark and distant sound that permeates the album, Wolfe took a much more stripped down approach compared to that of her previous release, Soundtrack VHS/Gold. For that album, Wolfe says she went into a nice studio in order to create a “tapenoise- sounding” album, but she “eventually realized how illogical that was.”
“It’s a very different album,” Wolfe says of her previous effort. “I wanted to get an eight-track sounding record in a nice studio. Didn’t make any sense, but we did mix it down to tape.”
Wolfe says she wasn’t unhappy with the results, but instead with the lengthy recording process leading up to the release of Soundtrack VHS/Gold, which was released in an extremely limited run of about 50 CDs on Chicago-based indie label Jeune Ã‰tÃ© Records.
This time, Wolfe took a more “logical” approach to making an eight-track sounding album by using an actual eight-track machine. The Grime and the Glow was recorded by Wolfe on a Tascam 488, a handme- down from her musician father, that she says she’s recorded on for years. Wolfe says that doing the album herself, on a familiar machine, “made it sound exactly the strange and special fucked up way I wanted it to sound.”
Strange and fucked up are excellent adjectives for The Grime and the Glow. Though the mood is consistently dark, songs range from the wildly dissonant “Deep Talks,” which grates Wolfe’s bittersweet voice through layers of noise, to the aforementioned “Advice & Vices,” a catchy piece of dark pop that’s as tuneful as it is morose–and she sure doesn’t skimp on the reverb.
“I also like clean, straightforward vocals sometimes and will experiment with that someday,” Wolfe says, “But for these songs I wanted to capture my voice or the instruments, whatever, inside a certain soundbox, so when you have your headphones on listening to it you feel like you’re in a tiny, claustrophobic echoroom or a parking garage cathedral.”
Adding to the eerie, almost antique sound of the songs is the album’s format. The Grime and the Glow will be released some time in June–pushed back from the original May 18 release date–on limited edition vinyl by New York-based label Pendu Sound. Wolfe says that it was the label’s decision to release the album on vinyl, but it’s a decision she’s happy with.
“I don’t think this album would work as solely a CD release,” Wolfe says.
In addition to the music, Wolfe has also been busy working on visual companions to the songs. The Pendu Sound Web site for The Grime and the Glow features a series of four videos created for “Advice & Vices,” “Moses,” “The Whys” (featuring camera work by local horror filmmaker Jason Rudy) and “Bounce House Demons.” The videos for “Moses” and “Bounce House Demons” star Wolfe’s friend, writer Jessalyn Wakefield, whom Wolfe calls, “a perfect visual muse.” At the time of our interview, Wolfe also mentioned that she was working on a video for the song “Widow,” which will feature a “goth-glam girl lip-synching the song in a dark studio.”
“I like the element of darkness mixed with a bit of silliness,” she says.
This mix of music and film comes as no surprise as Wolfe states that movies had a big influence on her in the making of The Grime and the Glow.
“The Seventh Seal is my long-time favorite film,” says Wolfe, who also listed David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Jean Rollin’s French vampire movies as sources for inspiration. “The character of death in that film has forever been an influence in my creative life. Ingmar Bergman in general is a big inspiration for me. The portrayal of life in his films is so honest and desolate but rich at the same time. Another favorite is The American Astronaut (Cory McAbee), a dark space-western with hand-painted special effects and a pretty low budget that manages to get such a defined feel across, haunting but still silly, like so much of the folk art I love.”
In fact, Wolfe finds inspiration from most forms of art–but not so much with other music.
“Throughout my life and for this album I’ve been very inspired by authors, poets, painters and filmmakers, more so I’d say than any band or musician,” she explains. “In fact, for many years I wouldn’t allow myself to listen to music because I didn’t want to infuse anyone else’s sound into my own–I wanted to see what would happen without that influence.”
The Grime and the Glow is a solo project, but it was still a collaborative effort. Andrew Henderson of G.Green, Ian Bone from Darling Chemicalia and Ruven Reveles all made appearances on the album. Kevin Dockter, Drew Walker and Addison Quarles (collectively known as The Death) and Ben C. also played parts and have come together to form Wolfe’s band. Wolfe, Dockter, Walker, Quarles and C. will be heading into a proper studio in June to record a fivesong EP. Wolfe says her past experience working on Soundtrack VHS/Gold will inform her decisions on her upcoming trip to the studio.
“I’m much more focused, and I’m also giving this recording a deadline,” she says. “I’m going to try and finish up five songs in about a week and a half, which will mean lots of late nights and hard focus. This project will also be with my band mates–all five of the songs will have the same five people on them, which is a first for me. But I’m very excited about the challenge of finishing something on a fixed time limit.”
Until then, The Grime and the Glow should sate those with appetites for dark music, as long as they don’t mind the worms.
The Grime and the Glow is available for preorder through the Pendu Sound Web site. Go to pendusound.com/releases/psr-0040/. Those who pre-order the album will receive four free bonus songs for download.