#6 Women in Music: Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak)

Jenn WasnerOver the course of April, DrunkenWerewolf will team up with women filling various professional roles in Britain and abroad, to talk about the finer details of feminism and its application to the music industry. Rather than lambaste common topics such as heckling and media coverage, we hope to address issues that often go unrecognised but are equally as important to discuss. The instalments are in association with our 2013 article Grrrock and the Ratio Argument, and the current issue of DrunkenWerewolf Magazine, a Women in Music special.

Here our Editor Tiffany Daniels speaks to Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak about their upcoming album Shriek.

Jenn Wasner in Interview

On 29th April 2014, dream rock purveyors Wye Oak will return with a new album in tow, courtesy of City Slang in the UK and Merge Records in the US. Refreshed and dare we say it peppy; every publication to comment so far has noted that Shriek is starkly different from 2011’s Civilian. Through teaser tracks "The Tower" and "Glory" the public have been given a similar impression, tantalizing existing fans and making new friends afresh for the Baltimore duo.

In a revealing interview we speak to front woman Jenn Wasner about ditching the guitar, reinventing the band and the vision of Shriek.

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Hello! How are you?

I’m very well thanks!

Your new album Shriek is coming out soon, and there are some big differences between it and your previous album, 2011’s Civilian. Did you purposefully move away from your previous sound or was there a natural progression over the years?

It was sort of a combination of the two. On the one hand I think, when we released Civilian, we toured it pretty excessively for a couple of years. We spent the better part of two years touring, we played 120 shows in a year. I think it just exhausted both of us. I don’t think it’s very natural for creative people to play for that amount of time. It’s part of the way that the music industry works now, to do that kind of work on the ground, but it’s really unnatural. I think for a lot of reasons; creatively, emotionally… when it came time to sit down and write again, when we were finally able to rest and think about the future, what I discovered was a lot of that really negative and emotional baggage had become caught up with the guitar. I’d spent so much time with it playing those songs from Civilian; it had become sort of a symbol of that time for me, and had become a block creatively. It felt like a dead object to me. For a while I thought that the band was over, but then I realised that what I had to do was let go of other people’s expectations of what we were allowed to do – of my own expectations of what the project really meant. I had to sort of chase the inspiration that I was actually feeling, wherever it took me. When I allowed myself to do that, and at this particular time it meant stepping away from the guitar, all of a sudden that block disappeared and I was able to write again. That’s really how we made this record.

Would you say that pressure was prevalent previous to this record?

I think it was a result. For us the guitar was never a fundamental part of what we did. It was really more about the songs themselves. There are songs on the first few records that are piano-centric or keyboard-centric. That was never a thing for us; it was just that we gravitated towards the guitar because of the live set up. It was something that we’d figured out that worked for us in order for us to translate the songs live, with just the two of us. It was something that we gravitated towards, but it was also not something that we went into this project [in mind]. It wasn’t like we went into this project like, this is going to be a guitar band. It became obvious that had become how people had thought of us, and I think we were both sort of excited to step away from that a little bit. Now in the future we can write from a really genuine place and not really worry about what the song sounds like or what instrument we prefer writing around. Those expectations were really stifling and sort of arbitrary and silly to us. It feels good to get away from that.

You live in different states. Did you find that one was thinking that more than the other?

I still live in Baltimore where I’ve always lived, but Andy for a lot of reasons – I think largely because he could, once we started making a small living off of what we do, it frees you up to live wherever you want really - he was living in Portland and he’s living in Texas now. That ability to travel and live in different places was really appealing to him. I’m happy for a lot of reasons that he was able to pursue that inclination because it really hasn’t affected our ability to continue being a band, and in a lot of ways it’s made our partnership a lot stronger.

Do you find yourselves affected by the different scenes surrounding you?

We’re still very much at heart a Baltimore band, and the reason why I continue to live in Baltimore is because I’m so grateful to be a part of this community here. I think the bands that work in Baltimore today and the artists that work in Baltimore today are a huge source of inspiration and motivation for me. I really value it. I think being a part of this community makes me better at what I do. I think I’m more driven to do my best work. It’s a really supportive, really diverse scene, and it doesn’t really have a unifying aesthetic. Everything that’s going on here sounds really different, but everyone is so supportive of one another. It’s not something – I’m really grateful to have it in my life, from a personal standpoint and from an artistic standpoint. It’s what’s keeping me here right now. It’s what I search for most in a place to live. It’s my top priority really. It’s a big part of what I do, because it’s sort of what’s kept me inspired to keep doing this work.

The lyrics for your albums are quite personal and there don’t seem to be many outside influences. Would you say that’s fair?

I think the kind of songwriting that I do – there are a lot of ways to make music and I think that for whatever reason my creative process is directly linked to my emotional state and my internal emotional workings. That’s where I draw most of my lyrics. It’s how I feel connected to the world. I filter it through my own experience. I think naturally they’re very personal, but I also make a particular effort to leave space. I equally enjoy writing songs because there’s a formula that you’re working with, and exploring with what you can do within those limits is really exciting to me. One of the things that I admire about a lot of the songs that I love is the universality that you can find in them. They are highly specific and personal, but there’s still room for the listener to see themselves.

Who did the art work for the new album and was that deliberately designed to reflect that?

It’s funny – that artwork is by Andy’s fiancé Ashley Compton. Ashley’s a really gifted artist and she’s a good friend, and we’d already collaborated on an idea for the cover that was nothing like this at all – even a little bit – and she’d been working on it for some time. When I was deep in the recording stages of the record, tracking vocals and stuff, I got an email from here like, “I made this thing. I think it might be cool for a t-shirt or something?” As soon as I saw it, I was like, that’s the cover! Immediately I was like, stop working on the other thing, this is the cover, exactly how it is. It’s exactly what I wanted. It was one of those things – she’s a very intuitive person, I feel like she conjured this idea from my mind that I hadn’t even communicated but as soon as I saw it, it was perfect. It was exactly what I didn’t even know that I wanted.

Were you recording in Brooklyn?

The recording that I was doing for the vocals I actually did on my own at a house in upstate New York, but the bulk of the recording was done at the Rare Book Room in Brooklyn. It was great. I mean we didn’t have a lot of time, so the idea going into it was that we would go into it with a very specific blueprint that we would create. We had fleshed out demos to reflect what we were doing in the studio, so we could use that time as effectively as possible. It was very rushed and very intense because we didn’t have enough money to spend a lot of time there. Considering what we were working with, the fact that Nicolas Vernhes is so good at what he does, and he’s so great at realising ideas and understanding what people are asking for, we were able to move very quickly. The record turned out great, I couldn’t be happier.

Elsewhere you’ve talked about how this album pushes you musically. Have you managed to settle its stage version?

Yeah it’s definitely a challenge for us. The idea was that we really wanted a challenge. We wanted to push the limits of what we’re capable of. Realistically speaking when you have to spend so much time over and over playing these songs in front of people, it’s not very fun! It’s so easy to get bored with them. Challenging ourselves not only in the recording but in the performance was definitely intentional. We’re still not very comfortable with the songs, but I honestly think that’s a good thing.

You played London at the end of March. Are you coming back?

Yeah! We’re coming back in June. At that point our record will be released, so we’re really excited about that.

Shriek will be released on 29th April 2014 through City Slang. Check back soon for our review!

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