We’ve Got A File On You: Jenn Wasner
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
For almost 15 years now, we’ve known Jenn Wasner as the frontwoman of Wye Oak. We’ve known her as the person with the haunting, gorgeous voice singing their songs, the person who once made their songs erupt through her guitar and later remade them from the ground up with synths and bass. Once upon a time, it seemed like a big deal that Wye Oak changed so much between their breakthrough Civilian and its successor Shriek. But in the years since, we’ve really just come to know Wasner as more and more different versions of herself. Her career is becoming one of constant little transformations.
In just these past couple of weeks, for example, we’ve heard her as Flock Of Dimes, her other project that just signed to Sub Pop and surprise-released an intimate, sparse EP called Like So Much Desire. Soon after, Wye Oak announced their latest project, too. Following some standalone singles and the JOIN tour — which sought to combine Wye Oak with the other projects of Wasner and her longtime bandmate Andy Stack, while expanding Wye Oak’s lineup onstage — they’re returning with the No Horizon EP at the end of this month. It finds Wye Oak once more expanding, or undoing, the definitions of their own music, collaborating with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus on music that is celestial and reflective.
Along the way, Wasner’s not only started a handful of different bands for her own music. She’s appeared on other people’s albums, she’s collaborated with other musicians in new ways, she’s taken over the producer chair. Between Like So Much Desire and No Horizon, she’s embarked on a 2020 that shows just how prolific and rewarding a songwriter she has become over the course of her career. So, on that occasion, we caught up with Wasner about her past, present, and future endeavors.
Wye Oak – “AEIOU” (2020)
STEREOGUM: Obviously this EP has this hook, Wye Oak collaborating with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. “AEIOU” is my favorite on the EP, and sits in this perfect middle to me, between something that could be a Wye Oak song otherwise and the songs that lean harder into arrangement with the Chorus. How did this project come about?
JENN WASNER: I’m glad you picked that one, it’s my favorite too. The road that led to this collaboration happening is sort of a long and convoluted one. We made that Spiritual America record with my friend Bill Brittelle, and the BYC is also on that record. Performing those songs was the first time that Diane [Berkun-Menaker], the director of the BYC, mentioned to us, “Man, this is so great, we should do more stuff together.” Judd Greenstein, who’s sort of in the new music community, he curates a festival called the Ecstatic Music Festival and he approached us about commissioning us to write some music for the BYC as part of the festival.
Neither of us really had any experience doing anything like that, but generally speaking we’re the kind of people where if something kind of scares us and feels a little bit out of our comfort zone, we want to do it more. So we ambitiously decided, “Sure! Absolutely!” and we agreed to write the pieces for us and the BYC and then… I embarked on one of the most challenging writing experiences of my life. I severely underestimated how difficult it would be, and I kinda lost it a little bit, had a little bit of a meltdown.
In the end, it turned out to be extremely rewarding and I’m really happy that I pushed through it, because I learned a lot. But it was really hard. I was sort of so accustomed to writing from my own perspective and using my experience and my feelings to channel ideas and concepts to words, and this forced me to get out of that mindset and be more intentional about like, conceptually what is this about, or what do I want these singers to say.
I wrote “AEIOU” right around the time where there was all this talk — the major act of evil we were focusing on in that moment — was that the Trump administration was trying to strike the word “transgender” from the dictionary. So I was doing a lot of reflecting on the power of language and the meaning of why certain words serve a greater purpose than just words, and the reduction that happens when you try to distill humanity or these larger, broader concepts into more specific and limited language. Language in all of its meanings but also all of its limitations, I guess — that’s what that song was about.
STEREOGUM: I know this EP is more of a standalone project theoretically, but I was also thinking back to something you said to me when I interviewed you a little before Tween, that the point you wanted to make with Shriek was that Wye Oak could be whatever you wanted it to be in the moment. So with something like this, is that still an active goal you need to keep refreshing? Like now Wye Oak can include other voices, now you can write from other people’s perspectives.
WASNER: I feel like more than anything that’s sort of become our unofficial-official mission statement. It’s weird, because even — especially — now, the definition of what constitutes being in a band is so loose. It was already loose and a weird anachronism to be like, “We’re a band!” Like, sometimes we play shows but often we’re just making these weird things and sharing them and they’re all different and it’s sort of a reflection of where we’re at. We’ve always struggled with the idea of how to convincingly and successfully lump all that weird, disparate stuff under that same umbrella, being in a “band.”
Some people are bands. Big Thief, that’s a band. They play music together as the group that they are and the music that comes out of that is a band. But for us, we never fully existed that way. We’ve always sort of been a writing or recording project that pretends to be in a band. Now, even playing shows, it’s so rare — that’s impossible, that’s off the table. I’m just really not super interested in trying to limit ourselves to anything based on what a quote-unquote band should or should not be doing.
It’s a complicated thing to do, because the more nuanced the idea the harder it is to explain in a marketing capacity, like what the fuck something is to people to try and get them onboard and be interested in listening to it. So we’ve also sort of given up on that too. [Laughs] We think of it now as this sort of collective. We get to chase these ideas and these creative opportunities and we use the name Wye Oak as this signal to people who may have cared about things we’ve done in the past like, “Hey, now we’re doing this. You can check this out.” To me, that gives it this potential for longevity that I maybe wouldn’t have imagined was possible at a time. We’ve evolved past the thing that we were when we started, so we could either quit or figure out how to keep going as something new. This is sort of another step in that process.
STEREOGUM: One of the last shows I went to before quarantine was your JOIN tour, which feels of a piece to this new era to me — the fact that you did that tour and then the rest of this year you’re putting out a Flock Of Dimes EP, a Wye Oak EP that changes the format. Earlier this year I was like, “Oh, this is great, we’re getting these new standalone Wye Oak singles” before the tour. And then I realized that meant it could be until like 2022 before a new Wye Oak album…
WASNER: [Laughs] Those singles were meant to be standalone singles, that was an experiment with that. A sort of, “Hey, what if we get out of the record-making format for a while?” Thinking about just releasing songs into the world if it wasn’t shoehorned into this album cycle way of existing. It was never intended to be a lead-up to anything other than itself, it was just the songs we wrote. There’s a part of me that would be very content with the majority of our output operating similarly. We make songs and we release them as they are created and we don’t have to wait, we don’t have to go through all these steps and all this build up. In many ways it’s sort of the ideal.
With that said, I’m still someone who’s romanticized the album as a format. But I feel like there’s a specific purpose to grouping songs together as a record. Not all songs necessarily need to be a part of a record. I feel like the best answer I can give is, we’ll make a record when it feels like we have something to say where the record format would be the right format.
Pre-COVID, I would’ve agreed with you. I would’ve said it’s going to be a while. I’m making this Flock Of Dimes record and it’s been the product of many years of work and I’m really excited about it. That’s where my focus is when it comes to making a record. But now all of this has happened. I was expecting to do a hundred shows this year with Bon Iver and others. If that’s not happening, I have a lot more time on my hands.
So maybe there will be a [Wye Oak] record! I just don’t want to write a bunch of songs and say “Look, I have 10 songs, it’s a record.” You have to have the grander purpose of… why are these songs related, what are you trying to say. I always use the novel vs. short story comparison. Now I don’t really know. I think once I finish making this Flock Of Dimes record I’m going to be pretty bored and lonely again. So, maybe there will be a chance to make a full-length with Andy, or maybe we’ll just make a bunch of songs and put those out. We’ll just have to wait and see how it goes.
Spiritual America With William Brittelle (Performances Starting In 2015, Album In 2019)
STEREOGUM: You already mentioned this as an early influence on this new EP. Tell me a bit about how this came together. How did it impact your thinking about songwriting at the time?
WASNER: William Brittelle, he cold-called us when we were making Shriek. We were working at the Rare Book Room in Greenpoint and he was like, “Hey, I work at New Amsterdam, I work with these artists, I like your music, and I think you could be a good fit for this thing I do.” Again, we have a tendency to say, “That sounds curious, why not.” The music he did have for us to listen to was extremely weird and we thought, “Cool, let’s see what he’s up to.”
I can’t say enough good things about that guy. He’s such a special person. He has such a strange mind and wild ear for aesthetic choices. We hit it off and he pitched it as an idea of uniting the sort of new music classical world and the pop world but in a way that’s not shitty. A way that’s not just slapping some string arrangements on songs that already exist. He was like, “It’s all about reimagining your compositions completely,” and that was a very intriguing thing to us. The first thing we did together, he rearranged a lot of songs on Shriek to be wildly unrecognizable and, in my opinion, absolutely stunning and beautiful. We did that, and it was a blast, and he said he wanted to write this record and that he’d like us to be a part of it.
I would say that the absolute takeaway of working with Bill, outside his friendship, is that… you know, I went into this process thinking, “Oh man, I’m going to walk into the room with all these so-called ‘real’ musicians and they’re going to think I’m a talentless hack and I’m going to be real intimidated.” At this point, we’ve done this music with five or six symphony orchestras, a bunch of really legit ensembles. If anything, it made me feel more confident in my inherent musicality. My approach is different from their approach, but I find it weirdly — most of the musicians I’ve met in those scenarios are just as in awe of what I can do as I am in awe of what they can do. They’re just like, “Wait, you’re memorizing this!? You’re not using sheet music!? How is that possible?” I went in expecting to be humbled and it was in fact a really encouraging confidence-building experience, to sort of prove to myself we’re capable of hanging with people like that.
Flock Of Dimes’ Like So Much Desire EP (2020)
STEREOGUM: You have a busy summer. A new Wye Oak EP, plus this surprise Flock Of Dimes EP. I didn’t really know what to expect from this EP, although I guess it’s getting harder to know what to expect with you these days.
WASNER: Well, I’ll take that as a compliment. I’ve heard that from my friends, as well. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: See, the chronology is kind of funny, because I remember thinking of Flock Of Dimes as your synth project, but it really kinda falls around Shriek, the album where Wye Oak pivoted to synths too. But then there’s always these bleeds going on and then you get to the JOIN tour and everything’s getting crashed together.
WASNER: Exactly. It’s almost like none of that mattered in the first place. [Laughs] It’s just songs!
STEREOGUM: [Laughs] That being said, I was surprised how spare the EP is. So, right, as we’ve talked about, these projects are fluid. But is there any difference for you as you’re working like, a song making sense for Flock Of Dimes or for Wye Oak, or you’d want to say something different with each.
WASNER: It’s hard to answer that question because it always has to do with intuition. It also has to do with where my head is at at any given moment. The Wye Oak stuff is easier to pin down because often the songs I’m writing for Wye Oak are based on pieces of music Andy and I are building together collaboratively. Right off the bat, we made this together.
To be honest with you, I do feel as though — it’s all songs. The difference between Wye Oak and Flock Of Dimes is that Flock Of Dimes is something I’m doing on my own or with other collaborators. But there aren’t really aesthetic rules. I don’t like putting aesthetic rules on myself when I’m trying to make things. The thing I was musically excited about exploring when I first made that first Flock Of Dimes record were these electronic, synthetic textures, expanding my skill set in that area. But that’s only one kind of thing I’m interested in. That’s an interesting universe for that record to live in, but that certainly doesn’t mean that becomes the be-all and end-all of that project’s output.
The main reason behind all these different outlets and alter-egos, to be honest with you, is because it allows me to release more music. It’s a big part of it. I want to make as much music as I can and I want to share as much music as I make. There are real hard limits to how much of that you are able to do with one band. I just have always felt kind of stifled by that. For me, music is more than just a job. It’s a purpose, it’s the closest thing to a spiritual practice I have. It’s a two-step thing. You get to make the thing, and making the thing is a very precious and important and significant thing. The second part of it, that completes the circle, is being able to give it to the world. And not in the way of “Look at me I did this thing it’s so great!” But more like “This is what I do, this is what I have to contribute.” I don’t complete the circle on that until I give it to someone other than myself. In many ways, it’s not really about how many or who — it’s the fact that it’s out there for people to find and connect to.
That, to me, is way more why I feel like I keep showing up for this fucking press cycle rigamarole album release thing rather than just putting it out on the internet and not feeling the pressure of it. Because I don’t really like that part of it, and I don’t really crave attention the way some people I know who do this do. I also feel like it wouldn’t be — I wouldn’t be completing the sense of feeling significant that it’s outside of just something I do for me, if that makes sense. But yeah, that’s why I have all these fucking bands. It really isn’t about, “This is where I do my pop music.” It’s all going to be all over the place, because that’s just the kind of person I am. [Laughs] But the real reason is to allow myself to get as much music out in the world as I possibly can for the people who are paying attention and want it and are looking for it.
STEREOGUM: So you’re in the studio working on a new full-length Flock Of Dimes album. Is the EP indicative of the headspace you’re still working in? Or did you start to chase another side of yourself.
WASNER: I would say yes and no. There are definitely some very spare and sad pieces on the new album, but there’s definitely some more straightforward pop songs, some more full-band rock songs. It’s a little all over the map, but I also think it somehow weirdly hangs together. At least so far, it’s not done. I’m making it with Nick Sanborn, half of Sylvan Esso, we’re co-producing it. My friend Bella Blasko is engineering. And Matt McCaughan, who plays drums in Bon Iver with me, plays drums on it, and Meg Duffy from Hand Habits came out to play guitar on some stuff. Otherwise it’s just me. I’ve had a lot of moments thinking, “Man I can’t believe this song is on the same album as this fucking song.” But I do feel like it hangs together in this way, but I also feel like I’m maybe the least qualified person to tell you what my music sounds like. So who knows!
STEREOGUM: Are these the songs you were just writing in quarantine?
WASNER: Some of them are older and some are very new. The first track on it is a song I’ve had for years and when I wrote it was like, “And this is the first track of my next record.” But some are brand fucking new, weeks old.
Producing Madeline Kenney’s Sucker’s Lunch (2020)
STEREOGUM: This is the second time you’ve worked with Madeline. What drew you to her as a songwriter?
WASNER: First I’m gonna say, Maddie and I have become — she’s one of my closest friends. I’ll work on her music for as long as she allows me to. She is an absolute wonder of a person and she is unquestionably one of the most gifted artists I’ve ever encountered. She is able to create the most beautiful things, and she works at such a pace. You can tell when someone’s creative practice is just a part of who they are. She’s constantly making things and thinking about how to create new, interesting things and not just music. She’s the whole fucking package. I have such a tremendous amount of respect for her.
Besides our friendship, it’s also been rewarding for me to be able to support someone who’s at an earlier stage of their career and empathize with them, because she struggles with a lot of the same things I do, and have for a really long time. I get a lot out of it, aside from just really loving her music. Even people who are musicians and artists, you don’t meet too many people whose experiences align so closely with your own in life, and it makes you feel a little bit less crazy and more seen and more heard and more understood. She’s one of those people to me, and it’s such an honor to get the chance to get better at what I do and help her bring her ideas to life.
Her new record, I shit you not, is just one of my favorite records. There were so many times where I was working on it with her where I was like, “Damn, I just can’t believe I get to work on this music!” I’ll say Andy was a big part of it too. This time we brought him into the mix. We actually tracked basics for it in one day at Tiny Telephone in San Francisco. That wasn’t by choice, it was a limitation we weren’t super thrilled about, but it forced us to approach it in this light, effortless, non-perfectionist way. Andy and I were in our little rhythm section and he played drums and I played bass and we did it all in one day. Then we went back and the rest of it was piecemeal. I was out there with her for a while, and then she came to North Carolina with me. It’s such an incredible record, she’s such an incredible artist, and it’s made me better at what I do. I’m still learning as a producer. I mean, I think everyone’s still learning. But I’m still figuring out how to get better at all these things, and to do that in the context of working on something I like this much, it feels like a real gift.
Touring With Bon Iver (2019-Present)
STEREOGUM: These shows are quite a production. So far we’ve talked about all these kinds of situations you’ve wanted to try out, but this is another scenario unique from those.
WASNER: I’ll start with how it came about. About a year and a half ago, I was fucking living my life and minding my business, and Brad Cook reached out to me and asked if I would come down to Sonic Ranch and hang out for a couple weeks and work on the record which later became i,i. I was like, “Yeah, shit, of course I’m going to do that.” So I went down to Texas and hung out for a while, and we all just really hit it off, and it was sort of instant family vibes. I was there just thinking I’d contribute some stuff to the record. While I was there, Vernon asked me if I would officially join the band, which was a huge surprise. I was not expecting that. He was great about it. He was like, “We don’t want you to stop doing any of the things you do, we want to work with you to make it possible, we’d really like to have you. We don’t tour that much, there’s plenty of other space, we want to support and encourage all your other endeavors.”
It seemed like it would be a perfect situation, and it kind of was a perfect situation, and sort of the best time ever and a total fucking blast, and then… you know, live shows stopped being a thing. I really did start this year like, “Wow! 2020’s going to be the best year of my life!” And then everything fucking fell apart. But yeah it’s a joy. There’s a lot of things I could say about that experience, it’s been pretty life-changing. I love Justin, I love all those guys so much. It’s really fun, it made me a better musician. Again, it’s made me more confident in what I’m capable of.
I think something that’s interesting especially about it is: The first tour we did, I was out in California working on Maddie’s record and I played an impromptu basement show with her, me and Andy and her for 30 people in a basement in Oakland. It was a fucking joy. And then two weeks later I’m playing in arenas. I feel not many people get the chance to inhabit all of the areas on that spectrum of what playing music can look like. The takeaway for me that I’m most grateful for is that the size and location of the show is an interesting experience to have but has very little bearing on the experience itself. Some of the most rewarding shows I’ve played have been for almost no one. And some of them have been for thousands of people.
There are so many people I know that do have this achievement-based, quantity-based mindset of like, “If I could just get here, if I could just play this kind of place, to this many people, then I would feel good, then I would feel successful and validated and real.” It just feels really good to understand from actual personal experience that the value of performance, it can be such a holy and sacred thing and it doesn’t really have a whole lot to do with where it is or what it is or who it’s for. What happens between the audience and the people on the stage is very precious and it can be so special and so powerful but it can have that power at any number of levels. I feel like it takes me out of this mindset that I need to change anything. I get different things from all those different experiences and I feel really lucky to have all of them as my creative ecosystem, because I wouldn’t just want to play shows in basements and I wouldn’t just want to play shows in arenas, you know? They’re very different.
Future Islands – “The Great Fire” (2011) And “For Sure” (2020)
WASNER: I actually just did another song with Future Islands which is going to be on their next record, which was cool because I hadn’t seen those guys in a while, and I was able to hang out in the studio in Baltimore a little and catch up. But yeah, I absolutely love those guys, I have such fond memories of going absolutely fucking apeshit in weird dingy venues in Baltimore, dancing around and screaming at the top of my lungs to their music. Those will always be such treasured memories of my youth and also what was really, truly special about the Baltimore music scene. Which I still miss and think about a lot. But yeah, it was great. I think I probably sung [“The Great Fire”] three times. I just went in, I had never heard it, I sang it through, and that was that.
STEREOGUM: Another old Baltimore connection I was thinking about was when you did the Gene Clark thing with Beach House. There’s this whole Baltimore scene you all came out of, and now you’ve been part of this other thing, this loosely connected North Carolina thing. Do they feel like totally different chapters to you?
WASNER: I have such fond memories and feelings for our formative years in Baltimore. A lot of people who were there have scattered to the winds, and a lot of people are still there. I think a lot now about what it actually means to be a part of a musical community. It did used to be so location-based. There’s still something to that, but now it feels like — and this is something I think is a good thing — many of my collaborators are scattered across great distances. I like that we live in a world where I’m not limited geographically, where I’m able to work with the people I feel the most creatively connected to and inspired by no matter where they are.
But I’ve also been thinking about it because, you know, if touring becomes obsolete — which I certainly hope is not the case — if global travel is less accessible or morally correct, there’s going to be a lot of thought put into rebuilding these communities in physical spaces and reestablishing those limitations again. I think good things can come out of both. I don’t know, I’m happy to be in North Carolina. I don’t know if I’m going to live here forever. I like to stay open to going where life takes me. That means I think of community a little differently. It exists in an emotional space instead of physical space for me.
Sharon Van Etten – “Serpents” (2012)
STEREOGUM: I actually had no idea you played on Tramp.
WASNER: I did! I played guitar and sang harmonies on “Serpents.” Sharon’s been a dear friend for a very long time. Our friendship predates either of our careers, which is cool. The first time I met her, I was working at this restaurant in Baltimore called the Golden West Cafe that a lot of musicians worked at, and it had shows in the after hours. I had worked a long and exhausting and filthy serving shift. Generally speaking when I got off work I wanted to go home and shower and get the fuck out of this restaurant.
So the show was starting and I was on my way out the door, and Sharon started — it’s corny, but it literally stopped me in my tracks. [Laughs] I sat down and watched her whole set and it brought me to tears. I remember specifically she was playing “Consolation Prize,” and at first I thought she had a really good voice, and then I started really listening and was like, “This is an exceptional song. This is just better than most people, so I should probably stay and watch this.” That was the night we met. I couldn’t even tell you the year. It was early. Wye Oak maybe was still Monarch. But I admire her tremendously, she’s a beautiful person and incredible talent.
The Beat Babies Football Instructional Song (2013)
STEREOGUM: So this was a big deal, that Baltimore was in the Super Bowl this year. But this is still… quite a curious endeavor. What prompted it?
WASNER: [Laughs] Well, first of all, I’ll say this: I am a huge football fan. This song sort of predates a realization that the NFL is a horrible organization that I cannot morally support in any way. So I’ve sort of fallen off from watching football except for the rare guilty pleasure moment, but I do fucking love the game. My friend group in Baltimore, we all loved football — it was a bunch of musicians who resented the idea that there had to be some sports vs. art competition or paradigm. It was like, “We like football and we make songs about our feelings so… fuck you.” We’d get together and watch games and get really into it.
But in particular my friend Chris Freeland, who has a studio in Baltimore called Beat Babies, is a huge football fan and in many ways is much more knowledgeable than I am about the game. So me, Chris, and my friend Jon Ehrens — who I made that Dungeonesse record with — we were just dicking around one day in the studio. The joke came from the idea of the zombie instructional song genre. That whole [sings in vaguely commercial jingle melody] “Here’s a thing and I’ll tell ya how to do it and it goes like this.” That is already such a funny premise in of itself but then the idea of the joke being, applying that to something as extensive and esoteric and arcane as the game of football.
The rules of football are endless and in many ways ridiculous and almost impossible to keep up with even if you try to follow the game. So the idea is that it would be an instructional song which is already a funny concept, but then it would just increasingly get more and more ridiculous as it became clearer how absurd and overly complex the rules of football actually are. It was really just a joke that we made for ourselves and our own entertainment and we shared it because we thought other people might think it was funny. Sometimes we still play it for people before a football game.
Receiving Flowers From Papa Roach (2012)
WASNER: Oh my goodness, how could we forget.
STEREOGUM: I know you’ve told this story but it’s so funny to me. This all started because you talked about hating one of their songs in an interview, and then they sent you flowers backstage.
WASNER: I’ll tell you the whole story. The Onion, A.V. Club, they’ve been a wonderful advocate for things that I’ve done over the years, so I’ll generally be open to anything they ask me to do, I’m a big fan. They asked me to do this thing they had at the time called Hate Song or Hate List or something like that. Basically the idea is you get a musician to talk about their least favorite song, and kind of what they’re looking for is a little light, funny snark. So, I pick this Papa Roach song. It was making the rounds in my friend group as the most ham-fisted song imaginable. But — I don’t know exactly what it’s about, but it’s about trauma and healing and recovery. [The interview] starts out with me trying my hand at casual snark but failing because it’s not really in my nature. Like “These metaphors are really heavy-handed, but, you know, if it helps someone in their journey to health and wellness there’s no harm in that.” It fell apart. It was just me being like, “Taste is really subjective. Who am I to say?” It’s just not really in my nature to be like, “Fuck this song!” But I tried.
I moved on and didn’t really think much of it. We played at Music Hall Of Williamsburg, and someone walks in asking for me. I get this bouquet of flowers and the card says: “Compassion’s in my nature. Sincerely, Jacoby Shaddix of Papa Roach.” Which is a line from the song. My immediate reaction was, this is a prank one of my friends is playing on me. Because of course it is. There are so many people I know who would do something like that. I think I tweeted about it and he got back to me, he confirmed that it was him, Jacoby Shaddix of Papa Roach, with a tweet that I’ve never forgotten, which is: “all good girl…. Take care and good luck in this crazy biz we call show!”
Which I will say, on record, this is a classy move. I feel like this is a funny and kind of cool thing to do. I’m shocked that he gave a shit. I’m shocked that he found out about it. I’m shocked that anyone cared about what I thought about anything. But anyway, it didn’t end there. At that point, I was tickled by it. But then I guess some more mainstream alt-rock blogs picked up the story and they framed it in this like, “Fucking bitch Jenn Wasner is talking shit about Papa Roach.” So then for like two solid weeks, it was nothing but death threats and “You stupid idiot, who do you think you are, Papa Roach for life.” It turned into this very brief window of getting exposed to all of the rage of the — for lack of a better term — butt-rock community directed at me. And then they forgot about it and it went away and now it’s just a story that I tell to people sometimes because it’s really funny and weird.
STEREOGUM: Did you ever wind up in touch with Papa Roach again?
WASNER: No… I think I’m good. But like I said, classy move. Nothing but respect for that. And it taught me… talking shit is never worth it. I didn’t even manage to talk shit with all of my heart because I knew it just wasn’t worth spending the breath on. If people like it and it helps them, who the fuck am I to tell them that they’re wrong.
Wye Oak – “Sight, Flight” (2009)
STEREOGUM: This is one of my favorite Wye Oak deep cuts.
WASNER: We did bring that song back. We played it on tour in more recent years. I think it’s when we were doing weird shows at like City Winery and shit. I’m happy that that one is high on your list. I still think fondly of that song as well. It’s a breakup song, and — I’m actually going to look up the lyrics to it. [Searches lyrics online.] Oh, they’re not right at all. Shit. Oh God. The lyrics that are online for this are not correct. [Laughs] I was such a bitch about like, “Lyrics are meant to be heard and not read” and now I realize if I don’t put them on the internet myself someone else will and they will be wrong. But, yeah, it’s a breakup song.
STEREOGUM: You said something in the beginning of our conversation — that you guys evolved past where you started. I know we’ve also spent a lot of time today talking about eroding these borders between songs and projects, but the first time I interviewed you was for Shriek, when there was still a bit of PTSD from the endless Civilian tour. I guess I’m curious with a few more years, albums, some more distance, how you look back on those early days now.
WASNER: My feeling is that I’m really happy that those things exist and I’m grateful for the experiences I had, but I hadn’t fully come into my own yet as an artist or a person. It was a very strange time to be trying to figure those things out. I didn’t have the experience that I have now, I didn’t have the capacity to understand some of the things I know about myself and what performing and existing semi-publicly asks of you. I did a lot of shit wrong. I did a lot of shit I would do very differently now. It’s easy for me to sometimes be like, “God, I wish I had started down this path of building a career when I was 30 instead of when I was 20 because I would have my shit together and know what I wanted to say and how I’d want to do it and I’d have boundaries.” But also, you know, how else are you going to learn those lessons?
It’s just one of those things, you don’t really get to choose how and when you go through it. It’s an earlier version of myself, certainly, without question. I think everyone has complicated reactions to thinking about, reflecting on earlier versions of themselves. Not everyone has these very literal reminders of it the way people who make art or create songs. You have these documents of who that person was and how they were thinking and feeling. It’s more abstract for a lot of people. It’s very uncomfortable to have these things, because I’m not that person anymore. It’s especially uncomfortable to attempt to inhabit those spaces. That’s something I’ve really struggled with. I think that’s one of the reasons it hit me early on that I’m not cut out for a career as a capital-P performer like a lot of people are. I think a lot of people really enjoy performing and inhabiting these things they’ve created over the years. For me, if it’s not directly relevant to where I’m at personally and emotionally in that moment, it gets harder and harder with every passing year to do it.
I think knowing that about myself has changed the way I make choices about what I can do and how I think about this ecosystem of my career. It feels very important for me to stay nimble, stay on my feet. That’s why I feel like all these different collaborations, different bands, different aliases, it’s all a way to keep it from turning into this juggernaut that becomes more of a burden than it is a joy. More of a responsibility than it is an outlet for free expression. I feel really lucky that I was able to intervene and save Wye Oak from feeling like a burden, or feeling like a barrier to free expression, but it involved in some ways taking it back from people and making it into the thing I wanted it to be rather than this thing people expected it should be.
For a people pleaser such as myself, that’s a difficult choice to make, but it was a self-preservation choice. I think a lot of people saw it as self-destructive, but it was actually an attempt to save myself and protect my relationship to that project and what it could be. So yeah, of course my feelings about the things we did in that time when I was still figuring those things out are complicated. I’m just like, “Man, I wouldn’t do that today,” or, “I hate that now, that video sucks.” And it’s all out there and still associated with me. I do my best to let go of that and let go of my perfectionist thinking to only project the most flattering version of myself to the public. But it’s hard. I’m just as insecure as the next person. It’s weird to have things out in the world that you don’t really feel like yourself, or identify with. But it’s part of the immense privilege of having a career that spans decades, and that’s something I wouldn’t trade for anything and I’m really, really grateful for it.
Flock Of Dimes’ Like So Much Desire EP is out now via Sub Pop. Wye Oak’s No Horizon EP is out 7/31 via Merge. Pre-order it here.