The Story Behind Every Song On Flock Of Dimes’ New Album Head Of Roses
Last year, Jenn Wasner announced the revival of her solo project Flock Of Dimes in exciting fashion: Newly signed to Sub Pop, she reappeared with a surprise EP called Like So Much Desire amidst details that she was already in the studio recording a new Flock Of Dimes album. Once upon a time, Flock Of Dimes was viewed as a synthier, poppier counterpart to Wye Oak; but then, that wasn’t all that removed from Wye Oak’s own turn in that direction with Shriek. In the years since, Wasner’s proved that both of her projects are malleable, that neither is about certain stylistic constraints. Like So Much Desire suggested we were in for a very different Flock Of Dimes — it was an intimate, reflective, spare collection of songs.
In that sense, Like So Much Desire was a fitting introduction to this new era of Flock Of Dimes. Wasner’s new album Head Of Roses arose from great heartbreak, processing that loss within the isolation of the pandemic, and the resulting seismic shifts she felt in her own perception and identity. Wasner’s music has never shied away from delving into the deepest and most mysterious corners of human emotion. But something about Head Of Roses feels different. In an effort to speak more openly, Wasner’s come out with perhaps the most direct set of music she’s yet released.
That is not to say Head Of Roses is all one mood. In tracing the arc and decline of a relationship as well as stages of grief, it makes room for seething yet matured rock songs like “Price Of Blue” alongside strange yet infectious pop songs like “Two.” There are moments of transportive, dreamlike melodies. But along the way she does lean into a comparatively stripped-down approach, singing over guitar or piano with only a few accompaniments or embellishments. Head Of Roses presents a slightly older, ever so slightly wiser Wasner, a woman exiting a strange and tumultuous time with a completely altered idea of herself. The album is — as you might expect — strikingly beautiful throughout. But what makes it so powerful in the context of Wasner’s work is how she is now grappling with elemental, eternal human struggles through music that is emotionally raw but aesthetically subtler than some of the great cathartic Wye Oak moments of the past. She’s writing about the quieter ways storms can visit our lives, and all the destruction and renewal that comes with that.
Ahead of the album’s arrival, we caught up with Wasner, who walked us through the inspirations and themes of each song on Head Of Roses. It’s a rich, complex album that unfolds more with each listen. Now that you can hear the whole thing for yourself for the first time, dig in and read along below for Wasner’s stories behind how Head Of Roses came to be.
1. “2 Heads”
To me this song is this sort of disembodied hymn, a slow intro to the album. You actually wrote it back in 2015 before the first Flock Of Dimes album had even come out. Why was this a piece of music you knew, even six years ago, you wanted to hang on to as the opening track for the next Flock Of Dimes album?
JENN WASNER: That’s a question I actually had to ask myself in the making of this record. There’s something that can intuitively happen in writing where you know instantly that it’s either an opener or a closer, just based on the quality that it has. I think the opening line, “How can I explain myself?” — it’s a lyrical throat-clearing moment or something. I had this song, like you said, for quite some time, and I had accumulated quite a bit of material that could have gone on Head Of Roses. I pared it down to the 10 tracks that it is, but “2 Heads” still made the cut.
It’s impossible to get into that without getting into the essential themes of the record, so I’ll give you my elevator pitch for that just to start us off. This record is about having your heart broken and breaking someone else’s heart at the same time. It’s about the avoidance of painful truths and embracing that duality — it may make it more difficult to protect yourself from pain, but in the end it is a path towards growth and healing. So going into the record it was important that it tells a story.
I had to dig back into where I was at and what I was thinking about when I wrote “2 Heads.” That song is from a completely different time of my life and it’s about a completely different thing. That song is about unintentional self-sabotage, and the ways in which choosing a path of healing and growth can often lead you away from people and places and things you care about very deeply. At the time I had been writing “2 Heads” it was more about my relationship to my family and my upbringing. But I liked it so much as an introductory statement. In thinking about it, I realized it does make sense — I think when I wrote that song it was a moment in my life when I was just starting to pull the initial threads of a lot of the larger themes that came into play [for Head Of Roses], that I was sort of forced to contend with in a different way and to a deeper extent, with the combination of pandemic and heartbreak and global and personal crisis combined. Chronologically speaking, I think “2 Heads” was the beginning inkling of me taking some of those ideas apart, acknowledging a painful truth but trying to hold it and embrace both sides of it, embrace the love I have for where I come from but the desire to grow and change and evolve, and the space that exists between those two sometimes conflicting realities or choices.
I don’t think I would’ve realized that there was a connection unless I was forced to justify to myself, “Why is this going on this record? Why is it the first track?” But in that way, when I listen to it with a fresh set of ears, in the context of making it an introductory statement, it works perfectly. It was a wild thing. I couldn’t have come up with a better introduction if I had written this yesterday. That’s what I fucking love about songs so much, too. If you’re doing it right, they can really expand to fit so many different scenarios and circumstances. They’re sort of designed to be these beautiful little containers for whatever a person’s specific life experience might be. And it even works for me sometimes, if I wait enough time between writing and releasing a song, I get to have that moment of thinking, “Oh, I am in this thing.”
You brought up that introductory line, which did immediately strike me as a mission statement in terms of the image of two heads in your mouth and all the different angles on identity later on in the album. You didn’t tweak these lyrics at all since 2015?
WASNER: It’s exactly as it was written in 2015, yeah. This shit gets weird. You get addicted to it, I think, or at least I do. Because you start to learn things about yourself that you wouldn’t otherwise when you start to bring your subconscious to the party, you know? That’s the freaky shit. That’s what happens with songs so much. You get into this intuitive channeling headspace. You’re like, “I don’t know where that phrase came from, I don’t know where that idea came from. I don’t know what that means, it just came out of my mouth.” Sometimes you don’t have an idea of what it meant — or you have a new understanding of what it meant much later. It’s pretty cool when you learn things about yourself that you never realized you knew all along.
2. “Price Of Blue”
In a way, “2 Heads” is a prologue, and then “Price Of Blue” is this big, intense six-minute thing that really feels like the curtain rising on the album. I was actually thinking about this recently when Civilian turned 10 — after that, you were talking about how you just couldn’t write on a guitar again. So all these years later, what is it that draws you back to that rock sound? What leads you back to that place of thinking, I need this instrument to convey this moment?
WASNER: There’s an easy answer to that, and there’s an easy answer to why the second song is “Price Of Blue.” The record sort of unfolds in a semi-chronological way. “Price Of Blue” is an angry song, and in the stages of grief, anger is one of the first because anger anesthetizes us to our pain. I’m really proud of this song, but I have a lot of complicated feelings about it now because anger tends to be the stage of grief I move through most quickly. I have a hard time really sitting with my anger, and I think I have some embarrassment around it.
But, I don’t think there’s an instrument that can embody that emotion as effectively as a loud, distorted, fucked-up sounding electric guitar. It’s just a matter of being like, this is the tool that is needed for the job. I didn’t expect it to get quite so gnarly. In my mind I was thinking of it more as a wall-of-sound Cocteau Twins kind of thing. Sometimes you have to let go and let something turn into what it’s becoming rather than hold on too tightly to the idea of it you had in your head.
It does have this very ragged, weathered quality to it.
WASNER: It comes from a place of exhaustion, and confusion, and that feeling of having gone around in circles over and over again in your mind, trying to make sense of what’s happened to you. It’s a moving target. You’re second-guessing everything you thought you knew. Whatever person you used to use as an anchor for your experience has now vanished, leaving you alone with having to figure out how to make meaning of your own story by yourself. I don’t think it’s the deepest song on the record, I don’t think it’s as complex in meaning, and I don’t think it’s as far along in unpacking as a lot of the later songs, which deal with more of the complexity of entering into forgiveness. But there’s a time and space for feeling one’s anger, and it can’t be avoided, and it certainly can’t be repressed. Everything that’s repressed comes back tenfold down the line in some horrible, destructive way. That’s really what the purpose of the song is on the record, and what the purpose of writing a song like that can be.
Being that it’s an earlier song and this emotional space you don’t necessarily like to spend a lot of time in, do you feel more distant from this song than the others?
WASNER: Not yet. I haven’t played it nearly enough. It’s a hard song to sing. I’m still wrapping my mind around that. But no, I love this song, I’m proud of it as a composition. It’s kind of a perfect example of… I’ve said this before but I think it’s very apparent in this song especially. Sometimes there’s this cognitive separation between mind and body for me, where when I’m writing I’m trying to reverse engineer a feeling from the place of having an idea of a feeling first. That starting place of “This is the idea, this is what I want to express, these are the words, how do I reverse engineer a piece to fit that?”
A lot of the songs on this record came into being in a very different way. I was much more in my body because I was in a lot more physical and emotional pain. My higher brain wasn’t entering into the picture yet and I was able to bridge that gap. I honestly wasn’t aware that gap even existed, that ability to sort of numb out to my own pain. This is all to say, when you’re angry it feels good to play loud guitar, and this song emerged from trying to feel a certain way in my body.
When we spoke last year, you were saying it a bit more sardonically, but you were referring to having gone through a quarantine breakup. Did all of these songs originate from that period of time?
WASNER: Not all, but most.
When you’re talking about being very present, it’s a grief state in a lockdown.
WASNER: Yeah, the majority of these songs were written between March and June 2020.
There’s one sentiment in here that stuck with me, the idea of even when a person’s not in your life anymore, there are pieces of them that you carry on with you or that are sort of tattooed on you. In the context of this being an angrier song, is that something “Price Of Blue” is trying to burn away, or coming to a moment of acceptance that these people who are part of our past selves are always going to be a part of our current self too?
WASNER: I think I spent a lot of this year thinking about the parts of our selves and maybe trying to shine some light on the parts of my self that I have ignored, or haven’t been aware of, or that I’ve been ashamed of. It’s important to mention the difference between “burning off” — which to me sounds like a different way of processing — vs. avoiding and repressing. I think so much of what I learned about myself and what I’d like to think I’ve learned about people has to do with the pain that can be caused through avoidance, through an attempt to avoid one’s pain.
I think this is actually more of an invitation to sit with it and acknowledge it and embody it, rather than blow through it and rush past it. Because that’s what I generally do, especially when it comes to anger. I have tended in the past to deprioritize my emotional needs in the face of others’ emotional needs, and often that means not acknowledging when I’m angry or forcing myself to get through it more quickly than is healthy. That’s the way pain is actually worked through in a healthy way — forcing yourself to get over something before you’re actually over it just results in more pain and confusion down the line. I would say “Price Of Blue” is less about trying to exorcise it and more about trying to sit with the more uncomfortable parts of the emotional experience.
What does the phrase “Price Of Blue” mean?
WASNER: I’m trying to decide if I want to tell you… It was inspired by something very directly but I changed the wording slightly. I’ll just go ahead and tell you because why not? One of the books I’ve read many, many times in times of heartbreak is Bluets by Maggie Nelson. In it, she uses the words “Prince Of Blue.” I decided I wanted to change it. It’s more of a loose inspiration. Sometimes you see a pairing of words and you really like how they sit together and sound together and look together.
I think it would be tempting to read into it as blue being interpreted the way it usually is — a sadness, having the blues. That’s probably the obvious read on it. But if you read the book Bluets so much of it is about the narrator’s passionate, almost irrational love of the color blue in all its wonder and complexity. And it’s also the story of a great loss, a great heartbreak. To me, that couplet “Alone with you/ The price of blue” — in that context I think about blue less as sadness and more the depth and beauty and richness of experience. The loss — the anger, the pain, the grief, and the shock of it all — is the price that’s being paid for choosing to open yourself to the wonder and beauty and joy and complexity of connecting with another person.
In terms of the chronology, this one feels earlier to me — like the part of a relationship where you are falling for somebody but you get defensive about maintaining your individuality. Then musically it’s sort of the ebullient pop song on the album.
WASNER: Your read on it is accurate. It was one of the songs that was written outside of that concentrated spring 2020 period. It’s a beginning of a relationship song. Navigating, maintaining your sense of autonomy and separateness with your desire to connect and to merge. It’s one of those puzzles that I think everyone, to varying degrees, has to try and navigate. As human beings we need each other to live but I think it’s very important to understand the difference between interdependency, in a healthy way, and codependency, in an unhealthy way. When I wrote this song I was navigating a lot of these ideas in a more optimistic and upbeat kind of headspace.
But it’s also not just about that. I would say the first verse points to that most directly. The second verse is about not feeling at home in one’s body. Not feeling the entire spectrum of human experience can be expressed with the limited options we have available to us as dictated by what society expects or demands. Having to contend with ideas of masculinity and femininity and how to present oneself, all the trappings of personality we learn and the ways in which we try to make ourselves known and seen to the world.
The song is really just about duality in all its forms, and the great unanswerable question of that. My therapist gives me a hard time for my extremely binary thinking. Which is funny… with some perspective, I’d think of myself as someone who’s able to have a fair amount of complexity tolerance. But I think when I’m in a highly emotional, responsive state, I can sometimes want to lean into one extreme or the other. You want this easy concrete, simple, direct solution. But the truth exists in learning how to make yourself more comfortable in that strange, unknowable, undefined middle space.
Why was this the lead single?
WASNER: Because everyone told me to. [Laughs] Honestly, I feel like I’m sometimes the worst judge of what my music is and how it reads to other people. I tend to trust others more than I trust myself, in that. I really just can’t tell how people are going to react to certain things. This song is more of an obvious in. Sure, it’s an odd time signature. But it’s catchy and it’s direct. I think it sets the stage. There are a lot of really heavy, sad songs on this record, but it’s pretty varied overall. Coming out the gate with a song like “Two” sets a precedent of, “This record is not necessarily going to go just in the one direction you think it’s going to go.”
4. “Hard Way”
Once upon a time you thought this was a song of new love.
WASNER: I did. It can be read that way, too.
Now it could be a lost love song, but you’ve also talked about how there was a current of unease even when you wrote it, and you didn’t know it then. The very structure of the song feels that way to me. It’s not quite stuttering or stop-start, but there’s this way it keeps grazing up against something and not going all the way there. When did you realize it wasn’t quite the sentiment you thought earlier on?
WASNER: This is a perfect example of one of the things we talked about before, these strange inexplicable moments where you manage to pull something down from the ether that perfectly encapsulates something that hasn’t happened to you yet. I do think, in a lot of ways, if you take it at its most surface-level, it actually can be painting a picture of a sweet and earnest love song. “Just because I know/ Doesn’t mean I go.” It’s a promise, it’s an intention. In my mind, as I was writing it… I was taking a shower and it just popped into my head, the melody and the words. I could hear the progression, it was one of those moments where I had to get out of the shower really quick and turn off all the music and run over to the piano to get this while it’s here. I was thinking it was very sweet and elegant. Simple and pure. But not necessarily dark. But every recording I tried to make of it had this creepy darkness to it, it sounded foreboding and morose and dirge-y.
I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, and I still really don’t to be honest with you. I’ve spent God knows how many hours — and at this point, weeks and months and years — trying to make sense of my experience, and there are still so many questions that are unanswerable. The lack of certainty is one of the only certain things we have. [Laughs] I think the song embodies that for me.
I didn’t forget your initial question. As for when I realized that, I think it was much, much later — after that relationship had dissolved — that I was able to take another look at that song and see there was maybe more to it. There were some other songs from that time that were also more earnest, heart-on-sleeve love songs, that did not wind up on this record because there wasn’t a second reading of them to be had. So I was like, “Well, this is obviously trash.” [Laughs] “That didn’t work, what an idiot.” But this one, there was a second reading, something under the surface that I didn’t see but was just as real and true as the surface part of it.
There’s a moment here that almost has this country lament vibe to me, the way your voice works around “Are we 20 miles from nothing here,” and when that melody recurs with different lyrics.
WASNER: I think it’s one of those songs where the metaphor works on multiple levels. It is, quite literally, about one specific day and one specific walk with one specific group of people. But you can use the walk as a metaphor for the duration of a relationship. In the first verse there’s this uncertainty and questioning and spark. In the second verse, too, those initial feelings of connection and attraction. Then as the song continues it just gets more complicated. There’s a certain weight that descends. Then at the end it’s, “Alone again/ My time it is my own again.”
I think this year, a lot of people have been experiencing something I’ve always felt I’m keyed into, which is the strange circularity of time. Much of the way I’ve lived my life has felt very… like I’m tracing these loops. Tour is particularly reminiscent of what I’m talking about. You’re going to the same places, doing roughly the same activities. I think this year in particular because everyone was forced to spend so much time in one place, my experience with time, at least, had a very different quality. I like the idea of this song being a song that plays with the idea of time. You can listen to it and think of it being the passing of one single day and the description of the things that happened and the conversations and where it started and where it ended. It could also be the passing of a year, the passing of a relationship. It could be the passing of a life. There’s this way it can be expanded or contracted to fit whatever cross-section of time.
Yeah in a sense it very much felt like a traveler’s song to me.
WASNER: Absolutely, the pace of it and the tempo of it, the repetitiveness of it. It’s kind of meant to be played on a loop a little bit, you know? The pace of it is the pace of a leisurely stroll. I’ve never thought of it that way, but unquestionably. That feeling of perpetual motion is such a huge part of who I am and how my brain works. It’s been really reassuring in a lot of ways to realize that sensation, that quality of time and motion, doesn’t necessarily require actual, physical, tangible motion. It’s something else entirely. It’s a quality of time and presence and perception. So, yeah, I love thinking of it as a traveler’s song.
Maybe this is silly just because the words look similar, but I do mean spiritually/sonically — it feels as if there’s this pairing at the centerpiece of the album between “Walking” and “Lightning.”
WASNER: There was some debate about the tracklisting but “Walking” and “Lightning” did always hang together. I think there was always this sense that they should be coupled. I’m not entirely sure why. It might just be something as simple as, transitionally speaking, they sound good together, and there’s this quiet eye of the storm moment at the center of the record. They are, certainly in many ways, some of the most fragile and stripped-down of the songs. “Walking” was one take live in the room. It’s the only song I can say that about. There’s no overdubs on that song, it’s as it was played. “Lightning” is me playing guitar and singing and there’s some atmosphere and light orchestral arrangement, but it’s very straightforward and spare.
“Lightning” was actually the last song I wrote. It was getting on to be about the time I knew I would be recording in June. I felt like I had a record. But sometimes you have this feeling that there’s still a piece of the puzzle missing, some kind of angle on the general idea or concept hasn’t been covered yet. I still felt that way and it was really irking me. I was sitting right where I’m sitting right now on my couch. It was early June. It was one of those North Carolina days where the sky kind of turns green, weird creepy thunderstorms. There’s a real foreboding energy around outside. I was playing guitar in this weird tuning and it just sort of very simply and easily emerged from that. Another one of those really quick moments, all told maybe 35 or 45 minutes.
It’s a perfect moment of singing what you see and then your brain takes you places. Watching this lightning storm unfold and thinking about how this pull, this inescapable pull towards people in life that you can’t predict and you have no control over when it happens, this universal spark that occurs, it can be incredibly beautiful but it can also be incredibly destructive. That song in particular is about the desire for that spark, that energy, but having to make peace with the fact that, in some cases, the intensity of it and the power that it has to destroy is unsustainable. I want the lightning, but I can’t live like that.
Like you were saying, this is a very spare song. This time around, the iteration of Flock Of Dimes we’ve gotten includes the EP last year, which was also very sparse and intimate. Head Of Roses has a lot of different moods but is quite restrained in many places. Is that because, as you said, you were sitting home alone playing guitar during quarantine? Because I feel a lot of these songs are more sparse than at almost any other point in your career, so I’m curious about how much of that is circumstantial and how much you were pulled toward that.
WASNER: You could definitely make the logistical argument, but that’s never stopped me before. I think in reality it’s more the desire to not hide. The desire to be seen and heard and understood. When I wrote a lot of these songs I was having a really hard time understanding someone and being understood. Those communication breakdown moments that occur despite your best efforts and all the energy you can put into it. When I’m writing, I can make myself understood exactly the way I want to be. In that moment of my life in particular, I think that held more of an appeal. In this one area, I can control what I’m saying. I can’t control how it’s being received, but I can express myself exactly the way I want to and I can make absolutely certain there’s nothing obscuring my meaning or intention.
Yeah, I don’t know. It’s really fucking scary. It’s really scary to offer up such an earnest sentiment. This record is filled with earnest, direct sentiments that can’t be misread. They can only be understood as such, and there’s nowhere to hide in that. In the past, I’ve been drawn to and excited by ways of implying something but still giving myself a little bit of anonymity in it. Now I just feel more and more called to the opposite. I feel in many ways this year and experience has broken me open in such a way that I understand my purpose as a musician and a person a little better. I feel this incredible call to be as direct and truthful as I can, because I feel like that’s what I have to offer more than anything else. I think [this record] is my first attempt at trying that on for size and seeing what that looks like. I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. I was just trying to make something that would comfort and soothe me. That would help me to understand myself better. I hadn’t really done too much thinking about what it would feel like to share the songs, I was still in possession of them myself.
7. “One More Hour”
I remember the album bio talked about a new sense of openness of the songs. I can certainly hear that, especially in those sparser moments. Although this song is not one of those. It has that lush buildup. The word we’re not supposed to use anymore, “ethereal” —
WASNER: We’re not supposed to use “ethereal”? It’s such a good word!
No I know, I just mean like, music journalists beat the word into the ground. I’m not supposed to use it anymore. But yes, this song is ethereal.
WASNER: This song is obviously about losing yourself in the memory of another person, and it’s about the appeal of projection and fantasy as a distraction from being present. There’s a lot of ways in which people, myself included, do anything to avoid just sitting and being present with themselves. This year, I really became aware of the extent to which I was guilty of that in my own life, as a recovering workaholic. I was in go mode 100 percent of the time. I never slowed down, I never stopped. I didn’t think of myself as being unhappy, per se. But I think there was this sort of desperate energy to it. Like, if I do slow down, I’m a little worried about what I’m going to see. What will I find, what will I be forced to look at.
It wasn’t until I was forced to — I jokingly think of it like, the universe gave me a time out — it was like, “Oh, guess what, now you have to look at your shit. You can’t distract yourself from it, you can’t use people, you can’t use travel, you can’t use tour. You just have to do this.” At the time, pretty much every part of me rejected the premise. I was angry and confused and just totally adrift. Since then I have changed my tune quite a bit. It’s kind of incredible, how profoundly we can change and how much we can adapt. But, yeah, I adapted. It’s funny, because now I’m in this incredibly busy phase and now I don’t like it. It’s not like I’m not having a good time, but in the past it would’ve never occurred to me like, “Oh, I wish I could just sit down and read a book.” That’s not in my character until recently, but I’m happy to see that it seems to have stuck a bit.
When I wrote this song, I was still very much in the throes of trying to find some way to distract myself from myself. There’s also this shame aspect to it: I could do anything, I could read a book, I could watch a film, I could exercise, I could call a friend, and all I want to do is sit and try and untangle this psychic knot, or try to imagine a way in which this person can do or say something that will rescue me from the situation I’m in. It’s not about learning to be present with oneself, but it was sort of the apex of me spinning out before I learned to take steps in a healthier direction.
8. “No Question”
It’s interesting you say part of the story kind of ends with “One More Hour,” because then “No Question” kind of reminds me of “2 Heads” — it’s this floating, hymn-like thing. It almost feels to me like an out-of-body thing, you’re up above all this turmoil, or zooming out and seeing your life as if in a movie.
WASNER: The first thing I’m going to say, I know this one is something of a deep cut but this is one of my favorites on the record.
I was actually wondering whether last year’s Wye Oak EP fueled this one at all, since you’re playing with this kind of celestial sound again. Obviously you don’t have a chorus with you this time around.
WASNER: Initially when I wrote all that music for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus with Wye Oak, I was singing all the parts. I love doing that thing where I’m just layering a million of me on top. This song… I was listening to a lot of music that was deeply soothing. I was listening to a lot of Harold Budd and Grouper, I think, was a reference for this one.
This one is a great example of — it was more about how it felt to sing and what it does to your actual physical body. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and trying to understand the impacts of trauma on the body and how it’s stored in the body and how it must be processed there. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about techniques around soothing and/or releasing trauma in the body. Singing is one of them. Singing is one that comes up a lot, because it involves breathing. Obviously, it all comes back to the breath. The breath is everything, especially when it comes to learning to center yourself in the body. Everyone’s like, “First thing’s first, notice that breath.” There’s this vibratory aspect to singing. There’s real science behind what happens in your body when you breathe in a particular way, an intentional way, and when you vibrate. It creates this somatic experience that’s very soothing.
So those long, held notes, those pure vowel sounds — I had made this drone-y soundscape and it was a pad for me to sit on top of and improvise with my voice, as a way of soothing my nervous system, I think. But at the same time, it also oddly has one of my favorite lyrical couplets on it, which is “And they both can’t be true/ Still I do see God in you/ In the rays, constantly/ In the maze you laid for me.” I think that’s one of the moments where the duality comes in. Instead of telling yourself a story and painting yourself as the victim and this other person as the villain, trying to hold a more complicated and painful reality. All the beautiful things about this person that you still loved them for are still true. To feel that connection with someone is to touch God, you know? To be separated from it is incredibly painful. I think there’s a certain spiritual aspect of that song for me, but there is that physical, somatic element that was a really healing way to write.
9. “Awake For The Sunrise”
At first glance, I thought this was something positive at the end of the album’s journey. But the lyric is about not intending to be awake for the sunrise, like you are still awake after a bad night.
WASNER: You’re right, it’s more of a “I’m still awake.” It’s more of a sleep-can’t-be-found kind of situation. This song is, again, very simple and straightforward. I wrote it in exactly the moment I claim to. It’s a true story. [Laughs] I was struggling to sleep, I was exhausted, I was riddled with anxiety and grief. I had agreed to do this song-a-day club that a whole bunch of really incredible musicians occasionally take part in where everyone agrees to try and write a song every day and they submit them. That requires a certain releasing of impossibly high standards. That’s where this song came from initially. I was looking for a distraction from my misery and participating in something like that gives you the structure but also asks that you loosen up a bit and lower some of your standards and let what happens happen.
That song was written really quickly. The reason it ended up where it did on the record goes back to the line I think makes it distinct, the one that seals the deal for me, the “I deserve it.” That’s the line where people’s ears generally perk up. Up to that point it’s sort of “Oh poor me, witness me in my sadness.” But there’s this moment towards the end of, I deserve this. Honestly, when I wrote it I was definitely in more of a self-punishing headspace. Imagining myself as the recipient of some sort of karmic retribution: Since I had had the audacity to make a choice that hurt another person, I deserved to be hurt myself. I was getting exactly what I deserved to get. Now, I have a little bit of a different read on it.
This is something, again, I think emerges a little later in the process. To take responsibility for the things that are yours. There’s a certain dignity in that. There’s a healing that comes with taking that responsibility. Again, like I mentioned in the beginning, we protect ourselves through our anger and the stories we tell, but those stories are rarely the whole truth when they exist as psychic defenses. We’re all flawed, fragile, confused human beings trying our best. We’ve all got our own baggage, we’ve all got our own barriers to connection.
I think for me a big part of healing has been learning to take responsibility for my own shit, and learning to understand the ways in which my choices and my behavior and my patterns and my tendencies play into the creation of a situation. The co-creation of a situation as it unfolds. Trying to tell a true story instead of a story that just makes me feel good about myself. That takes a lot of self-compassion and it takes a little bit of time, which is why I think it makes sense to have “Awake For The Sunrise” come at the end of the record. When you’re still in the initial throes of something, you can’t really — it’s just too painful. You can’t hang with that kind of truth yet. As you expand your capacity to contain all the various layers of grief, you make space for these realities and it starts to tell a story that appears to be a bit more objective.
Obviously you’re putting this stuff into songs a lot of people are going to hear —
WASNER: Don’t remind me. [Laughs]
I did want to take a second and talk about the band. You have your Bon Iver bandmate Matt McCaughan, Nick Sanborn from Sylvan Esso, Meg Duffy from Hand Habits. Did having them around bolster you when you were trying reckon with these themes?
WASNER: I think part of what made the making of this record such a meaningful experience for me goes deeper than just the writing of the songs and making the record. It was also the experience of making the thing with these people. At the time, when we all got together to make this, I was absolutely starving — I was living alone, I was miserable — I was truly starving for human connection. Not only to just be with people in a space, but to be able to do the thing I love the most, that makes me feel the most centered. I don’t think I’ll ever — I mean, I hope — I don’t think I’ll ever have another experience of making a record quite like this.
There was this real, incredible presence. Everyone was just kind of in disbelief that we were all able to be there with one another. There was this real sense of urgency. Savor this moment, appreciate this moment. When you experience something as traumatic as we all did, and you’re reminded how fragile the things in your life you’ve taken for granted actually are… we were still at the point where that was really fresh. There was so much gratitude and attention. People weren’t lost in their phones. They were there, they were really there. I’m so grateful for all those people, they’re all phenomenally talented.
Nick Sanborn, who co-produced the record with me. He’s a dear friend and he’s an amazing musical mind. He’s got a combination of skills I think is really rare in a single person, because he’s got the math brain that makes all the machines work together and the problem-solving aspect, but he also can be just as comfortable and fluid and direct talking about the feelings and ideas behind the compositions. I’m incredibly grateful to him, it would not be the same record without him. My friend Bella Blasko who engineered. You know, there’s more to that job than just being good at the job — you also need to make people feel comfortable enough in your presence that they can be vulnerable and try things. She’s extraordinary at that, and so devoted to helping us get things the way we wanted them to sound. The players — Matt McCaughan, one of my favorite drummers to play with. He’s so curious about sounds and ideas. Meg, who is incredible. They’re one of my favorite guitar players, they’re such a joy to be around, they offered so much wisdom in the process. We were so happy to be around each other. I felt myself coming back to life in making this thing.
10. “Head Of Roses”
I tried Googling the phrase “head of roses” and the main reference that comes up is this Dali painting. I was curious whether this was a phrase you pulled from someplace or whether this was a phrase you made up, what it came to symbolize for you.
WASNER: I’m about to sound like a total cornball, but I had a really cool experience just last night that brought this song into focus in a whole new way. The story of how this song came to be was a true story, but an incomplete story as it turns out. This song just appeared. It was one of those very eerie moments. I was in a very distinct headspace and I sat down at the piano and I just started to sing it as if it already existed, as if I just knew it. Words, music, everything, it just came right out. Very eerie experience. I remember singing “Fear of the world/ Head of roses” and being like, “Huh, I don’t know what that is.” To this day I’ve just been like, the subconscious is really amazing or maybe you open this creative conduit and you’re connected to forces outside yourself. But it’s a really incredible experienced to have when it just flows with ease.
Anyway, flash forward to last night. I’m doing my regular Tuesday night yoga class, and I decided I was going to light a candle, so I grabbed this votive candle. It was a gift from a friend of mine, and I had it lit — she gave it to me the night I wrote this song, and I had it lit when I was writing it, but I had forgotten that. It wasn’t until I saw it and lit it again last night and then I looked at it. I have it right here as a matter of fact. [Reaches for candle, which turns out to have a portrait of Frida Kahlo with roses in her hair] It’s Frida Kahlo, take a look at that shit! It’s right there!
For the skeptics among us… it’s still an interesting story depending how you want to spin it. On one hand, you have the power of the subconscious, to all in one moment take note of that without consciously realizing it and spin it into something, all in the blink of an eye. Or, if you choose, if it feels a little bit more magical to you, sure, it’s the ghost of Frida Kahlo handing down some wisdom. I said this to my friend last night and she was like, “It’s both.” That energy, that divine spark in creation, that flows through me, it’s the same one that flowed through her, that flows through all of us. It’s our way of connecting to the divine, of connecting to some force larger than us that we can’t understand. It’s cool you asked that because I feel like my understanding of that song reached full circle as recently as yesterday evening.
In terms of full circles… There is so much heaviness across this album. Once you got to this fragile conclusion and had put the whole album together, did you feel as if you had come out on the other side of all that had inspired these songs?
WASNER: I wish it was that simple. [Laughs] In some ways… I’m not the same. I’m fundamentally changed by this experience. I understand things about myself and the world and other people that I did not understand before. For lack of a better word, that’s miraculous. It still makes me very sad. A record is not a substitute for a human being, at the end of the day. Anyone who tells you that it is is either lying or sad. [Laughs] Nothing about the last couple years of my life has gone the way I would’ve planned. It’s been difficult and painful but I’m also very grateful for it and I’m very glad for the things I’ve learned and the resilience I’ve discovered in myself. I can’t imagine another way.
My feeling about grief is that we carry these things with us forever. I think I had gone into this process with this intention of “I’m going to eradicate, I’m going to find this where it lives and I’m going to eliminate it.” Now I’m more of the mind of… I don’t want to let go because I always want to carry with me the fact that this experience was sacred and profound and important to me. The stronger I get, and the more I invest in caring for myself, the more room I have to hold that but to also make space for joy and new experiences and new people. For me, I like the idea of carrying everything with me, because it’s part of what makes me who I am. I think there’s infinite space within me to hold the truth of what happened, and the truth of the pain and the truth of the loss and still have room for life’s other experiences.
When you say you fundamentally changed, whether that’s talking about the process of these songs or going through this breakup, did that ever happen to you with past albums or the loss of other relationships? Or this feels different?
WASNER: This is different. I think you can’t really remove the pandemic from the equation. I think my coping mechanisms around this stuff were really ingrained and really strong. It was almost as if those things needed to be forcibly removed from my grasp for me to stop and take account of what was underneath them and why they were there in the first place. It became about more than just one person and one relationship. It was actually much, much deeper.
When I talk about this pain or this grief, it was obviously connected to one person specifically or people I had loved in a specific kind of way, but the thing that made it so profound was something much, much deeper, because it was something I had been carrying inside of me from my earliest experiences as a person, from deep, deep in my past in my childhood. Things I had tried to bury and paper over and move past. To think the move was to be strong and stoic and to transcend — or to run from, even. To escape. When I talk about how profound this was, it wasn’t just “Oh, this was a bad breakup.” It was the things it brought to light, and the circumstances in which it unfolded. It really introduced me to some of the deepest parts of myself that I think I had been avoiding and maybe had been steering the ship for a long time.
Head Of Roses is out now via Sub Pop. Get it here.