Wye Oak’s music is unequivocally, well, Wye Oak.
You know the glowing synth, colossal guitar and ethereal vocals when you hear them — and yet, you’d be hard-pressed to package it all together under one neat and tidy label. And that’s exactly how Jenn Wasner would have it. Ahead of the band’s show at Deep Ellum Art Co. in Dallas this week, KXT’s Lauren Menking hopped on the phone with Jenn for a conversation about that unique style, the band’s partnership, branching out on her own for her solo project Flock of Dimes and more.
LM: So, you’re in North Carolina — you moved there from Baltimore pretty recently, right?
JW: Yeah, it’s been about two-and-a-half years now. Yeah, I kind of did it in semi-secret fashion because it was an impulsive decision that I wasn’t sure I was going to stick with, but I’ve been very, very happy here. I have a great situation where I live alone, I have my music space — so my productivity has sort of been through the roof. It’s a beautiful place to live — it’s full of great people, there’s a lot of natural beauty around. All those things become increasingly important to me with every passing year.
LM: Has that new environment influenced your music for Wye Oak, or your solo project Flock of Dimes?
JW: Absolutely. I think regardless of where the space is, it’s very important for creative people to give themselves an actual, physical space — and the head space and time — it takes to be productive. And that was a big part of what inspired me to do this. Now that I have both of these projects that are simultaneously fully active, I was like, “OK, I need to prioritize and basically double the time I give myself to write to work and to create, or else I’m not going to be able to keep this afloat.” So, it’s been really helpful and necessary to create so much.
It’s almost like an equation — you put X amount of hours in, you’re going to get some kind of result. And you can spread those hours over a month or you can spread them over a week, depending on how much you are willing to dedicate to the practice of sitting with yourself and trying to have ideas. So, it really helps with that. I think everyone owes it to themselves to have that if they possibly can.
LM: This fall, you and the other half of Wye Oak, Andy Stack, set out on a smaller tour to preview new songs in more intimate venues, which is such exciting news for your fans. What led to that decision?
JW: Well, since Andy lives in West Texas and I live here, as you can imagine it’s pretty hard to get actual time in the same physical space. So, we developed a pretty great way of working together in spite of that, but the actual playing time is relatively rare compared to other bands. So, the first tour we did a month ago, those were the first shows we had played in probably a little over a year. So a big part of it was just getting to take these songs and get them out into the world and share them with people in a way that was less high-profile, less pressure. It’s very hard to go from zero to 60 with this stuff, so we wanted to give ourselves a little bit of space to learn and grow as a live band before we were in the full-on album zone that’s coming pretty soon. Because we don’t live in the same place, we can’t do a little warm up show in our hometown. So, we kind of have to put these little tours together where we have the chance to experience and remember what it’s like to be a real band again.
LM: It also sounds like, in what I’ve seen from you guys talking about this tour on social media, that you are seeking a deeper connection with your fans. Was that the case when you went out to these shows — that you got to connect with fans in a different way?
JW: Oh my god, I am so happy you said that. 100%. Yes. That’s one of the things I’m always trying to figure out. One of the trappings of “success” in the music industry actually removes me from the things about it that I treasure the most. And a great example of that is playing in a really large room. For a lot of people, that’s one of their biggest aspirations — bigger audiences and bigger spaces. But bigger audiences and bigger spaces are kind of cold. Not always. But, it’s really hard to have the same sense of the humanity of the people you are performing for and sharing an evening with. I think vice versa, too. There’s a greater sense of detachment the larger the space you’re working with.
So, for me, it’s a real treat to go into these small spaces and I get to see people, see their faces, interact with them in a way I can’t always do. It really is something I treasure and often miss when moving into bigger rooms. It’s always a learning process for us as far as continuing to grow so that we are able to be a band, but also preserving a lot of things about it — the intimacy, the honesty, the personal connections between people — that brought us to perform these shows in the first place.
LM: Yeah, I love how there really seems to be this, I don’t know, vulnerability to Wye Oak. You guys are always so honest about things like that.
JW: Yeah, you know I was talking to my friend about it last night, and there’s kind of no other way for me to be. Here’s the thing that’s tricky: I think people that are good entertainers — and I say entertainer because there’s a distinction there between an artist or songwriter or musician, and someone with the skill of entertaining — but people who are really good at that [entertaining] skill, they have good days and bad days just like everybody. But the difference is on their bad days, you don’t know. It’s part of the job, they’re able to shut that down. And for me (laughing), if I’m having a bad day, you’ll know. Because I can’t help but tell you. It’s like, I don’t know how to fake it — I really don’t.
LM: Well, you were in Texas recently opening for Sylvan Esso with Flock of Dimes. That was an amazing show, by the way.
JW: Oh, thank you!
LM: Yeah, and I wanted to bring it up because there was a moment that really stuck out to me at that show. You said that your solo album — If You See Me, Say Yes — took you so long to make because you wanted to make every single quirky, beautiful sound yourself. And you did! And that’s amazing. And that was such a powerful thing to hear and see — a woman on stage sharing something really personal that she and she alone created. And to be up there standing behind it, literally and figuratively — I just took a lot away from it, and I’m sure others did, too. So I guess that’s a very long-winded way of asking — can you elaborate on taking that scary plunge into your solo work and branching out like that?
JW: Oh, 100%. I’m glad to hear you appreciate that. This is another thing I wonder a lot. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how much of the decisions that I’ve made about my art stems from the fact that as a woman, I don’t get the benefit of the doubt. If I didn’t feel as though I had to prove myself in this way, I’m not sure that I would have approached the album-making process in the same way. In a lot of ways, it would have been easier to say, “OK, I’m going to get the best drummer, the best bass player and all the best people, and I’ll tell them what to do and I will have the record that I want.” But, I feel like when women do that they’re kind of robbed of their artistry and their authorship in a way that’s incredibly frustrating.
So, at that time I was making the record, I wasn’t even thinking about what the motivations may have been. But in retrospect, I think it was very much about me feeling like I had to prove that I was capable of these things — which I shouldn’t have to do. I feel like I should have the benefit of the doubt in the same way as a man who makes a solo album has. His ownership of that material is rarely in question — and he chooses to work with other people. So it is kind of crazy to me, looking back at that record. I am so proud of that album…
LM: It’s so good! It’s such a great record.
JW: Thank you! I mean, yeah, it means so much to me that it’s out there in the world for people to find and connect with. And in a lot of ways, it has opened up this space for me to continue to be in Wye Oak — it was something I needed to do in order to continue to join up with Andy in this equal collaboration on equal footing. And it’s great because Wye Oak is something that’s super important to me and the musical relationship and history that Andy and I have is very rare and special. I’m just super grateful that this is something I can do not just for myself and my own output, but it makes me feel more in control of myself and my personal expression when I’m in collaboration with men, as well.
LM: Speaking of that unique partnership — now that you guys are so far apart, could you speak to how that collaboration works?
JW: Yeah it is very different. Andy and I have been making music together since we were 15 years old. So, for over 15 years. And we’ve been in this band together for 10 years. It’s easy to take that for granted when it’s been a part of your life for so long. But that kind of history and shared understanding — it takes time. There’s no substitute for building that up over time. Fortunately, since we live so far away from one another, we both have the ability to record and produce and create ideas in our personal spaces. Obviously, when we share ideas with each other, there’s not a whole lot of explanation that needs to occur. Generally, we know what the other person is going for without a whole lot of dialogue.
We work really well together from a great distance, which is fortunate because that’s where our lives have turned into. Being in a band like this for so long, we had to tell ourselves, “If this is something that is going to continue, it’s going to have to adapt.” We both owe it to ourselves to live the fullest lives we want to, and to go to the places we want to go, and do the things we want to do. And we don’t want the band to be something that keeps us from doing that. It’s worth the extra effort for us to keep it going, but it does, at this point in our lives, involve extra negotiation to make it all possible.
LM: You know something I think people really enjoy about Wye Oak is the unexpected. And that’s not just from album to album, but even in a single track you might go from dreamy synthpop to thunderous scream-alone-in-your-car guitar. And I’m just kind of curious, is that a conscious decision or something that just comes out organically?
JW: I am so happy to hear that that is a positive thing, because I think so many people in the music industry frame that as an obstacle. I mean, it is true that one of the basic tenets of marketing something is picking something that you do and doing it to death and shoving it down people’s throats. But that’s sort of antithetical to the creative spirit. We don’t want to compromise the things we want to do, the things we want to create, the ideas we have just because it makes explaining to people what we do a little more complicated. I always hope there are people out there, like me, who see it as an asset.
Honestly, that’s why I got into this in the first place. I didn’t get into making music so that I could limit myself and limit my creativity. So, it’s great that there are people out there who think that it is something we do well. I think the basis behind that decision is more that, at the heart of it, we are a song-based band. We’re trying to create a landscape that inspires feeling. Different songs require a different sonic landscape to communicate the feeling that they are trying to express. So, it is inevitable that it has to vary. I hate the idea of trying to shove every single song into the exact same sonic box. It doesn’t feel like the way it should be, from a creative standpoint.
LM: OK last question before we let you go — if you could do anything musically for the next year with no consequences or real world responsibilities, what would that be?
JW: It’s kind of split for me right now. I’m going down these two equal paths of — holy ****, this is going to swallow my life, but also I really want to get better at this. One of them is modular synthesis, and the other is practicing the drums. I think I’m getting pretty good at drumming, but it’s one of those things where you need all of the hours in a day and there’s no substitute for just playing forever. So, I would practice the drums and actually turn into a good drummer and/or I would continue down the road that I recently embarked upon of beginning to understand and acquire modular synth.
LM: Very cool. And just more women on drums in general would be great.
JW: **** yeah! Drums are fun as hell. They are so fun and I feel like I could actually be good at them. But boy, like I said, you have to really put in those hours. One day I’ll do it!
Wye Oak plays at Deep Ellum Art Co. this Thursday, December 7 in Dallas.
Tickets available here.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.