A full bottle when shaken never makes a sound. Torii Wolf isn’t sure if that’s the way the saying goes, or who exactly said it, but its meaning resonates with their latest single release “Wash Away,” as well as their debut album, 2017’s Flow Riiot. The song easily brings to mind white-clothed worshipers, dipping their bodies into flowing rivers, allowing their sin to pass over them. While Wolf admits to utilizing religious imagery at times, the exact backstory to their music is left wide open to interpretation.
“It’s not really up to me, what’s happening, but when it comes through it always feels like some form of worship,” Wolf tells Audiofemme on a Skype call. “Definitely very spiritual. You know, the force? The older I get, or whatever we should say, the more I keep doing this, it’s closer and closer to God. Or for whoever, whatever force anyone feels. Which has been this really beautiful experience, to just be open to that. I was not raised with any strict faith in that way, but I feel it all.”
“Wash Away” is a part of a series of one-off releases Wolf plans on debuting this year. They are notably different in tone and shape from their work with legendary NYC producer DJ Premier; their debut album straddled a wide swath of genres, incorporating elements of jazz, hip-hop, spoken word and rock. It was an album made for a NYC blues club: close quarters, cigarette scent, low voices chattering in the background. Their most recent releases, “Wash Away” and “Summon,” are stripped down, intimate, and give off the feeling of being one-on-one, sitting in a chair across the room from Wolf. It may very well be a result of Wolf stepping into the producer’s chair due to COVID-19. The recent worldwide pandemic was the push they needed to set up their own home recording studio. “I got a microphone, interface, the whole thing. Ya know, just doing my best.”
Originally from Long Island, New York, Wolf grew up in a close-knit, Italian Catholic family. Religion sprouted up all around them, but was never forced. “It was never really pushed on me in any way,” Wolf remembers. “It’s kind of like, what you learn as bar etiquette: You don’t really talk about money, you don’t really talk about religion.” They started learning guitar from a local rocker who taught them tabs; they remembered reworking the chords to get their songs out. Their immediate goal back then was to learn the entirety of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and perform it flawlessly. It didn’t take them long, working relentlessly until they had it down.
At 17, they got the itch to leave the East Coast in the form of a quasi-girlfriend. “Being a queer, nonbinary person, I didn’t really feel that much space to feel comfortable in whatever I was feeling,” Wolf recalls. “I definitely felt like I had to drop into some kind of structure, which I didn’t. I was up all night, complete insomniac. And also got caught up in some substances. Just escapism. I had a girlfriend at the time who was like, ‘I’m going across the country. You can come or we’re breaking up.’ I was just like: I’m outta here. I don’t feel connected to this space, I don’t see a future. I was definitely headed down a path that was not healthy.”
They moved to San Diego. It was there that they found a queer community that made them feel more comfortable. While the relationship didn’t last, the love of the West Coast got stronger over time. In 2007, Wolf fell into playing drums with a band called Love Me Anyway. Wolf enjoyed the collaborative nature of the group, playing with words and music, lending their talents to a whole. It was at a Love Me Anyway show that Wolf was discovered by a local record producer who ran her own indie label and encouraged Wolf to come in to work on a solo album together.
And then came the Luau party; Wolf’s mom regularly threw luau parties at her home in Long Island, and at one of them, another woman was bragging about her son, who was an up-and-coming producer working with artists like Janet Jackson. He was also the manager of DJ Premier. All it took was an email with one of Wolf’s songs attached for him to give Wolf a call. He had an idea for a collaboration with DJ Premier. “When Prem and I met, we just hit it off instantly. We were just kindred,” Wolf says of their first meeting. Wolf’s debut album Flow Riiot (an anagram of their name) was a creative success and unleashed a torrent of work in short span of time, including two EPs and thirteen singles.
“Wash Away” is a part of an experimentation phase for Wolf. While they love the ritual of completing a full-length album, of imagining listeners sitting down to absorb to a fully-realized experience, it didn’t feel like the right time. Wolf’s partner, Kayko Tamaki, founder of Memento Mori Productions, has been collaborating with Wolf on the visual aspect of each song, debuting a video with each new release. It can be challenging at times working together, but they consider it a part of the process, the give and take relationship between the two of them. “I have a visual, an entire world I’m building. It’s very visceral for me. And also my lyrics haven’t ever been so straightforward. I like to leave space for people to feel whatever they’re feeling,” they explain.
The song opens with composer and cellist Rumori’s breathtaking solo. As the song progresses, it feels almost as if the listener is inside a cave, scraping to get out. Wolf’s voice is a hand reaching down into the dark, grasping for a lost soul; their voice pulses angelically, creating ripples against the wooden timber of Rumori’s cello. “For me, this tune is about becoming pure again. I imagine being at the gates, I suppose,” Wolf reflects. “Being washed away of all your sin. Coming to that space of spirit and being and realizing that it’s all one. That you’re not better or worse than anybody. To be healed and purified again.”
“You can try and run from me/We’re going to wash away, wash away/Come with me before we wash away/Heal me now, heal me now/I’m no better than he,” Wolf sings softly into the darkness. There is a meditation in the repetition of their words, almost a kind of world building in itself. If the words are said enough times, with the right inflection, perhaps we can be made whole. The song’s echos follow the music of human ritual, incantations spoken underneath stained glass, incense floating on each outward breath.
A video for the song is in the works. Wolf and Tamaki plan to work with a production company called Beta Wave, who will be following the artists as they venture into the White Sands National Park in New Mexico to shoot. Wolf expressed interest in documenting the often unseen work artists do while creating. It’s a part of their ethos to shine light on the people around them, to give them space and a platform on which to create. They hope the music they create allows listeners to be a part of that creation. They want listeners to weave in their own narratives, to take their words and build a hero’s journey all their own. “I’m all about the expansive art, ” Wolf says of their music. “I’d like to leave that space and that challenge for someone”
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