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Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner talks touring, improving, and coming to terms

Photo: Frank Hamilton, License: N/A, Created: 2009:07:21 22:45:05

Frank Hamilton

Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack go it alone, together.

Wye Oak, Callers

2640 Space, April 16

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After all the salty rockers and aggressive noiseniks and hard-hustlin’ MCs who have tried to bust out of Baltimore over the years, it’s ironic that the bands repping the city hardest right now are indie-rock bands with a pretty streak, chief among them Wye Oak. The duo of singer/guitarist Jenn Wasner and drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack got signed by indie benchmark Merge Records for the formative If Children but quickly became an altogether less tentative endeavor, writing, recording, and releasing the accomplished The Knot in 2009, the My Neighbor/My Creator EP in 2010, and last month the ever more mature Civilian (see review), filling in the spaces between with relentless touring. The duo is on the road right now, in fact—Wasner answers questions by phone from Detroit before yet another gig—but is coming home for a show at 2640 Space on April 16, her 25th birthday.

City Paper : Since this is Baltimore, I have to ask: Where did you go to high school?

Jenn Wasner: Andy is an alum of Catonsville High School, and myself I went to private school. I went to McDonogh. I was a boarding student there. It doesn’t exactly give you a lot of cred on the street, as it were. I was a very happy, very content, very nerdy high schooler. I really entirely enjoyed my experience there.

CP: And you two met during high school, right?

Jenn Wasner: We did. We met when I was about 15 years old.

CP: And you played music together first around that time?

Yeah, we actually started playing music together the day we met. I met Andy because I was joining a band he played in in high school—to play keyboards of all things—and I showed up to practice and that was when we met and within five of meeting each other we were playing music together. And it’s been nigh on a decade now.

CP: And what were you trying to do back then?

JW: I won’t get too deep into that, but we basically spent our youth and our teenage years cutting out teeth and figuring out how to write, how to arrange, how to record, all the trappings of being in a band. I started playing guitar around that time, so that was a pretty important time for me. And I started writing songs around the same time I started learning to play guitar, so things are pretty linked for me.

CP: Moving on a bit—in fact, up to about a year or so ago, I guess—The Knot was a good record and people seemed to like it. When making a new album, many musicians will say, “Well, we did this last time, let’s try that.” What is it you set out to do differently with Civilian?

JW: To be quite honest with you, this record is the first time I’ve felt comfortable and in control and that I had a direction and that I knew what I was doing. I know I’m not supposed to say this sort of thing, but I do consider all the records we’ve made up until this point as learning records, as growing records. I was definitely still figuring some shit out as a songwriter and a musician. I felt like I was grasping at straws with those earlier records, maybe sometimes successfully, and other times unsuccessfully.

I certainly don’t like to obsess over what I regret or what I would have done differently, but I will say going into this record I felt like I had written my strongest, best songs up to this point, and most of that is I realized a couple of things. One is that songwriting is a skill you can improve upon with time and effort and work. In the past I had taken these ideas that could have been stronger songs and just accepted them as gifts from the universe. Because my songwriting process is so linked to my emotional state and instincts and feelings, I always kind of viewed it as this mystical, magical, unknowable thing. But past that, there are ways you can improve. Whereas before I would have taken an original draft and accepted it and it would have gone on the record, this time I sat down and thought, how can I more perfectly, more carefully, more concisely say what I want to say?

But part of it was that I was just caught up in my head and in a very hermetic, insular place, so I had a lot of time to think and obsess over the songs. So going into the process I was more confident in a way I’d never been before with the songs themselves that I’d distilled them down into exactly the way I wanted them to be.

CP: Was that different headspace deliberate, or was that just sort of how circumstances worked out?

JW: The circumstances of my life at the time were just a period of really intense introspection and a lot of abrupt change, just feeling really displaced. A lot of aspects of my personal life had shifted really quickly all at once, and I responded to that by withdrawing really deeply into myself and isolating myself. And it took a while. I pretty much holed up and spent all of my time working on these songs and on myself as a person.

It’s great to hear them and play them now, because I’m in a much better, much more content and stable place, personally and emotionally, but I think it’s healthy to have these relics of the time that I spent and of the things that I hopefully learned.

CP: I was curious about how you navigate the confessional aspect of songwriting versus the abstract aspect of songwriting. You’ve mentioned in interviews that you don’t like to push the lyrics forward, and yet when one can decipher the lyrics, like those on “Civilian,” it turns out you write what seem like fairly straightforward songs. How much do you try to put things out there and how much do you try to leave things out, or leave them vague?

JW: Well, the references in my songs are really specific to certain people, places, and things, and to me it makes perfect sense, and maybe to some people who really know me. It’s not as a privacy thing or a shielding thing so much as it is I’m attracted to ambiguity and mystery. I think that people can relate to songs when they can see themselves in them, so I’m always trying to walk that line between complete specificity to my personal situation and an openness that allows people to interpret them and hear whatever it is they want to hear. So I make attempts to shroud things, but it’s not necessarily always out of trying to protect myself or my privacy.

CP: I reposted a YouTube video somewhere online of the band performing “I Hope You Die”, and a friend messaged me and said, “Wow, I love that song. That was so totally what I was feeling last year when my mom was dying.” But I thought about it afterward, and what that song is “about” could be something totally different.

JW: I’ve heard things like that before in regards to that song. It’s definitely not what the song was about for me initially, but it’s an entirely valid interpretation and I’m glad. That song is supposed to be confusing, and what it means to me is incredibly specific, but it’s great to hear that people can relate to it and adapt it to their own situation.

CP: The album’s called Civilian, and in prepping for talking to you I read an interview where you were talking about the idea of totally committing yourself to what you’re doing now, maybe along the lines of separating yourself from “civilian” life. And indeed, you’re kind of road dogs at this point. Was that idea a conscious part of making this record?

JW: That’s a big part of the record, and the themes and the title of the record do have a lot to do with the fact that we have spent the better part of the last three or four years away from home. It definitely is a feeling of displacement. It often feels like everyone in the world has this good, happy, stable, comfortable existence with their infrastructure and their home and their family and their friends, and that we’re in this other world where we just kind of float along and enter other people’s realities for an evening or a day and move on.

For a while I really struggled with that feeling of displacement, ’cause, of course, the grass is always greener. Turns out I’m really happy on tour, and I’ve learned to appreciate it and enjoy it for what it is, and thrive in it. But the struggle to get that to point and not always be constantly longing for the life that I don’t have and that I imagine other people have is a big part of what this record is about.

. . . When we started playing music together, we had no idea what the hell we were doing, but we got the offer to work with this label pretty much right off the bat with Merge, and from the very first day we both were in complete agreement that that was what we always wanted to do and that we were going to go as hard as we could out of it and pretty much drop everything else in our lives to see what we could make out of it. We’ve both been on the same page from the get-go, and it’s pretty much taken precedence over every other aspect of our lives. (laughs) And in a lot of ways it has to.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful, because I do realize I have the best job in the world, but there’s no other job I can really think of that when you are working as hard as you have ever worked in your entire life, everyone pretty much assumes you’re at a party or on vacation, you know?

CP: Many bands, when they get to a certain point, start adding pieces for touring, especially when their music gets more complex. It’s still just the two of you. Have you ever thought about adding more people?

JW: We haven’t added more people, but we have added more devices, that’s for sure. I thought about this a lot, and I genuinely think the duo setup has shaped so much of who we are. . . .

One of the things that keeps us interested is that constant challenge. How are we going to do this? How are we going to distill this song down to the essentials? And what are those essentials? And how are we going to make them translate with just the hands that we have onstage right now?

I know for a fact it’s made me a better guitar player, a better songwriter. It’s made me a more creative arranger. It’s made us both think differently about music in a way that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

I think we’re both interested in working with other people and getting into some different creative situations now that we’ve been doing this for as long as we have. But for this band, I don’t think we’ve really exhausted what we’re capable of with the two of us, and until we feel that we have, we’re going to keep on with it.

CP: Have you started thinking about what’s next, after Civilian?

JW: We’re going to be out with it for the next year, I think. The one thing I think we’re going to do differently this time . . . pretty much every time we’ve finished a record we’ve immediately started on the next one. That has been exhausting, because pretty much for the last four years we’ve either been recording or touring. So I think there’s gonna be a little downtime to regroup, to try to work on some different projects. I’m working on a solo project that’s just getting on its feet, and I know Andy’s trying to play with some other people. We kinda want to take a step back and make a new record when we’re ready as opposed to just acting out of our own personal drive and ambition. We’ve gotten to a place where we’re going to be comfortable with some downtime instead of jumping back in right off the bat.

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