Black, mantilla lace shrouded Chelsea Wolfe’s eyes as she peered into the intimate glow of the Crocker Art Museum on Thursday. A projector poured black and white film negatives onto the screen behind her, shimmering a cool light through her florid veil. I wondered if she could see the audience, a small gathering of family, friends and loyal fans, if their faces were recognizable or just anonymous shadows in a naked theater.
She introduced herself in a subdued voice, along with her boyfriend and longtime bandmate, Ben Chisholm, who stood at her left, wired and amped into his black keyboard. A golden toy and two small, antique music boxes glistened at her feet, along with a tambourine, a bracelet made of small bells and a loose bundle of amplifier cables.
The room’s silence soon shifted to an echo of stripped minor chords and her pristine voice, like a siren, harmonically corralled through a cloud of souring notes and distortion. Her first wave of songs were a dedication, "for those with unnamed sorrows, dark knowledge, waiting to be remembered” and served a montage of melodies consciously chosen to set the mood, an ambiance just as beautiful as it was black.
In addition to a select number of songs from her EP "Ἀποκάλυψις", her new LP, "The Grime and the Glow," and several songs from her latest project "Russian Karaoke," she also performed an iconic cover of the folk tune "Sunshine," which Wolfe reinvented by looping intricate layers of vocals.
"I have never felt so dead inside. I have never felt so alive," she spoke as the twinkling of music boxes and vocals fade, one layer at a time.
Thursday’s performance in Sacramento was Wolfe’s first homecoming since she relocated to Los Angeles in early fall. She now lives with Chisholm, who works in the film industry, in “a big, old and haunted house in a shitty neighborhood.”
“But I love it,” she said. “I can be loud and make music there.”
It is in this “vast, red stretch of sunburn,” called Los Angeles, at a place called Show Cave, that Wolfe will hold her LP release show in January. Self-recorded on a Tascam 488, “The Grime and the Glow,” which “explores the relationship between death and humor” will officially be released by the independent New York music label Pendu on Dec. 28. Next March, Wolfe will also tour France in support of her new record and songs from “Russian Karaoke.”
While the enigmatic Wolfe has many exciting travels, projects and moons ahead of her, it was here in Sacramento, at the age of 9, that she made her first home recording. And she has not stopped since.
“I had a rather strange and foggy childhood, and it shaped the way I view the world,” she said. “Making music has always been my instinctual reaction to the dark state of the world and everything around me."
Catharsis sure paid off. Since her childhood, Wolfe continued to grow her film and literary-inspired music, played several local venues such as The Hub, backwoods festivals like KDVS’ Operation Restore Maximum Freedom, Midtown house shows and is now heard worldwide.
And so there she stood, present-day Wolfe – under a museum stage light shaded by sheer black – her voice singing out for all the "truth seekers" she makes her music for.
“I saw the widow in the widow….I saw the bird circling above me,” she sang the soft yet intense lyrics from “Widow” off of “The Grime and the Glow.”
An unnamed woman walked slowly down the aisle of the room. She also wore a black veil like Wolfe's, and carried a small, sad bundle of dead flowers. She seemed to pay no notice to the audience as she walked just inches in front of me. With each eerie step, Wolfe crashed her tambourine against her hand and hip until the widow disappeared, like magic, from the room.
Photos by Steven Chea