For the release of her new video collaboration, we talk environmentalism, Witchcraft and love of giant sequoia trees with American singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe.
Elisabeth Krohn: What does the word Witch mean to you?
Chelsea Wolfe: On my personal journey, I’ve been asked in one way or another if I am a Witch since the beginning of my career as a musician. At first I would brush it off, not feeling very connected to this word. But as I got older I realized that many of the rituals and habits that I was already doing actually aligned with Witchcraft and it slowly starting coming back to me, like a memory clouded over that I could finally remember. I’d been reading tarot for myself for many years after a friend gifted me a deck in my early twenties and as a child I spent summers at my grandmother’s house who practiced Reiki, aromatherapy and herbal healing on me. Looking back I see that those years opened me up to a connection with the spiritual realm that wasn’t always nurtured over the years, but did remain in me to help guide my intuition. My friends knew I was a Witch before I even did! I’ve been gifted so many tools over the years by people close to me that ended up furthering my “education” without me really realizing it: a pendulum, tarot decks, herbs and crystals and books on spirituality and Witchcraft. It’s pretty cool to look back on. For me, in essence, to be a Witch is to live in instinct, intuition and intention, following the cycles and seasons of nature in order to raise energy, create and connect with the self and our ancestors!
EK: What prompted you to write the this poem now? How do you relate to its themes personally?
CW: I wrote the poem as something to speak underneath the song “Erde” on this album. It’s there, hidden beneath the music. “Erde” is the root word for “Earth,” meaning all-dirt. Over my career I’ve written certain songs as love letters to nature and this is one of them. It’s a sort of conversation with Mother Earth, talking about all the strange things happening on her soil, all our strange ways that parallel her ancient wisdom. When my dear friend Virginie Khateeb, who filmed this video, reached out about wanting to collaborate on something, this poem came to mind because she’s really wonderful at capturing natural environments in her photo work. Virginie and I have known each other for almost fifteen years now, connecting when we can in different cities, and it’s always a blessing to be around her and to work with her. So, last December, a couple hours before I was playing the SSE Arena at Wembley in London opening for A Perfect Circle, we met up. I was road-weary as always, but very happy to see her face. Armed with her Super 8 camera, we wandered around the area to find as many bits of nature hidden in the high-traffic area of the city as possible, dodging cars and shielding the camera from the rain under our coats. Virginie had a vision in mind: she would capture as much of me as possible in that short time, then she’d set out on her own to capture visions of natural spots outside of the city — raw and open, as she does so well. The video would be set to a poem I’d written after an annual winter visit to the Berkeley Botanical Gardens as a sort of secret message to the new songs I was working on – which would soon become Birth of Violence. As I was wandering the Berkeley gardens on this particular visit, the names of poisonous and healing plants lingered on my tongue and I started repeating them like in some kind of trance or as an incantation. I thought about Mother Earth giving us these beautiful plants to be used in magick and it sparked a new curiosity for me into these herbs and flowers. I’ve never had a green thumb but really admire those green Witches who do!
EK: Are Witchcraft and environmentalism connected concepts for you?
CW: Witchcraft opens your eyes to nature and the environment in a new way, and, at least for me, I feel so nurtured by plants and animals and trees that I want to send that love and nurture right back. You start to care more where your food and herbs and crystals come from — were they grown and harvested in a sustainable way? I’m not saying I’m perfect by any means — I have a lot to learn, but I do think that Witchcraft and environmentalism are deeply connected and I see that more and more of us are beginning to educate ourselves on how to do our part and put in more effort, large or small.
EK: In your poem you write “I am the Mother of the Forest” — how do you relate to the term Mother Earth and the maternal aspect of nature?
CW: Mother of the Forest is the name of a tree I’ve visited since I was a child. She lives in a giant sequoia grove in Northern California. After she was “discovered” in the gold rush era, some men stripped her of her bark and sent the pieces around the world to be reassembled as an exhibition. The tree died but still stands in the grove. It’s shocking and sobering after wandering around these ancient, thriving, green trees to then encounter her, stripped bare and covered in saw marks. I’ve seen other visitors experience this same sort of moment of silence for the tree, whether they’re realizing it or not. The first time I experienced The Mother of the Forest as a grown woman, I of course instantly understood the connection between the way this tree was treated and the way women have been treated over time: no autonomy over their own bodies — seen as property, or something to show off and then thrown away when it no longer serves. This tree is a personal deity in a way, and I always imagine her in her power, watching over the forest and rivers and flowers around her. I feel really connected to giant sequoias. I actually came upon one while on a walk in the woods not far from my house. It’s younger and smaller, but still has that ancient energy to it. This tree felt really in synch with my path: having such close access to one of these trees to come commune with or visit when I was feeling lost. One day I hiked down to it after a particularly intense wind-storm and noticed that it had lost one of its large lower branches. I was stunned — how could this powerful tree break? They survive thousands of years through fires and storms of all kinds! But then I understood: this just happened to be the day after I’d had a biopsy and was awaiting the phone call to tell me whether I was ok or whether I’d need surgery to have a part of me cut out. Seeing this tree with the missing limb and knowing that it would keep growing despite this break was such a powerful parallel and lesson for me.
Video by Virginie Khateeb featuring words by Chelsea Wolfe. Edited by Clementine Bartaud and music by Ben Chisholm, created on a Prophet-600.
EK: In what ways do you think we can work to create more actual change and less apathy around issues like climate change?
CW: Of course our vote counts a lot. When we support a candidate who cares and has actual proactive plans around issues like climate change, that means a lot more than being apathetic during an election. We need large shifts on a governmental level at this point. I’m no saint, I hop on tour buses and planes a few times a year which are gas monsters, but I do think that educating ourselves on how we can make small changes to help the environment around us, whether it’s just using less single-use plastics and putting those things into action as much as we can is meaningful, while also inspiring an effort to live a mindful life.
EK: Do you have any magical natural experiences you’d like to share with us?
CW: The simple things do it for me. Finally being home for a length of time this year to witness the seasons change and celebrate the Sabbats has been really healing. I’ve been in constant motion and on tour for a long time, typically I’ll only be home just long enough to shovel the snow in the driveway so I can get to the airport for the next tour or festival and then the next time I’m around, the flowers have already bloomed and gone. Before this year I haven’t had much time to settle in and appreciate the cycles and to watch things grow and pass. The winter and spring were truly magickal, but I’ve always struggled with summer. I’ve had the Sun card on my altar since Litha as a reminder to try to appreciate this season which has always felt so dry and dull for me. But of course it makes the relief of Autumn so much sweeter. Waking up to grey mornings brings me such a sense of calm.
Chelsea’s new album Birth of Violence is out now on Sargent House and she is currently on tour in North America.