If you had to pick a reason why Chelsea Wolfe’s songs are so spellbinding, the inspiration behind her most recent record would be a great place to start. The dream-focused narratives on Abyss intertwine historically distant but philosophically related ways of understanding the human psyche: Greek mythology and Carl Jung. Since her debut LP, The Grime and the Glow, Wolfe’s fascination with sleep has manifested into a thematic collision between the realm of myth and psychology, and a consistent production style — ambient reverb, brooding bass, and haunting vocals — make her songs feel like many instances of the same recurring dream.
For Wolfe, solace is found in the dark. “To be honest, it’s not so much that I was inspired by Jungian theory, [as much I was by] a book by Carl Jung that became the catalyst for the album’s title and themes,” she explains. The text that influenced her earliest songwriting sessions for Abyss was Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, published posthumously in 1962. The book surveys everything from Jung’s daily experiences to in-depth self-analyses of his fantasies and dreams. “I picked it up after I decided to start researching sleep and dreams more,” says Wolfe. “I’d had issues my whole life within that realm and had recently learned that there was a name for one of the things I experienced: sleep paralysis.”
The condition, in which a person becomes physically paralyzed while falling asleep or waking up, has been suggested as the explanation for a number of sleep-related mythologies from succubi to alien abduction. Coming to understand it spurred Wolfe to use it as the genesis for Abyss. “[In the book] there’s a dream Jung recalls experimenting with [and] the first line of the section is ‘I let myself drop’ ” says Wolfe. “That became the goal of my writing sessions: to drop into deep parts of myself I’d been avoiding. I was thinking about the mind as an abyss; as something very internal.” That sensation of descent and the psychosomatic aftermath of sleep paralysis is woven throughout the record, and listening to it feels sometimes like lucid dreaming, each song bleeding into the next.
Abyss was recorded on the Sargent House Farm, a music compound owned by Wolfe’s label and situated an hour outside Los Angeles, between the mountains and the desert. Holed up in a steel barn on the edge of the property, Wolf found inspiration in the unusual environment. “It was great to sing in that space as it felt very isolated and private so I could get free, but also it carried sound with a great natural reverb,” she recalls. It was a crucial break from her then-home of Los Angeles and had specific influence on the record — the beat for “Feral Love” and “Fight Light Gods” mimics the sound of the helicopters she heard nightly outside her window.
“The area I was living in before that was a chaotic, noisy neighborhood in a big old house with a lot of housemates,” she says. “My sleep paralysis got [really] bad in that living situation, but it also inspired me. Once I moved out to the middle of nowhere, [my mind] was finally quiet and the sleep paralysis stopped happening [as] much…. Then I was ready to fill all that quiet space with loud songs.”
As the frequency of Wolfe’s sleep paralysis episodes lessened, she turned her writing to Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, who became the namesake of the album’s B side. “‘Hypnos’ was written for Abyss and record[ed] during the same session, but in the end it didn’t quite fit the flow of the album,” says Wolfe. “It’s a dream within a dream…about being willing to take on the burden of someone else’s darkness — a child, or a lover.”
Released this past March, the seven-inch’s title track sounds almost like a lullaby. Although dark, its atmospheric reverb and crisp chords illuminate Wolfe’s lyricism. Paired with “Flame,” “Hypnos” mirrors her own experience with false awakenings and recurrent dreams, which she considers the source of her fascination with oneirology.
“When I was a kid I had this recurring nightmare-dream that was just a white room, and there would be an object in the middle of the room, like a telephone or a notebook, and the object would grow really, really large and fill the room, and then shrink extremely small, over and over like some Alice in Wonderland shit,” she explains. “It drove me mad. But maybe that’s where that perspective comes from.”
Chelsea Wolfe plays Music Hall of Williamsburg on May 8. Click here for tickets and more info.