new album Civilian just out via the Merge
label, the Baltimore
indiepop duo moves to the next level.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
We continue our
conversation with Wye Oak songwriter Jenn Wasner. Go here to read Part 1.
BLURT: How do you
write honest and personal songs about yourself without revealing too much?
JENN WASNER: I’ll say this – to
my closest friends and family they are obvious, but that’s fine. Generally
speaking you have to have some level of privacy when you’re writing songs about
your life and experiences, and there’s lot of different ways to mask that. The
songs that I love the most from others are those that are specific, but able to
be interpreted in a variety of ways and realigned with one’s own experiences.
When I start writing it’s always with a very specific jewel of an idea in mind,
but I always try and broaden it and stretch it and make it applicable to not
just me. I want people to be able to relate to these songs, even though they’re
specific to my experience. I guess it’s just all about understanding that one
thing that means something to you, could mean something entirely different to
someone else. I listen to songs from others across the spectrum of different
kinds of music, and hear a line where I feel like I could have written that
line — but I didn’t. I can’t be too afraid of sharing too much because I know
people are coming at it from their own frame of reference, so it’s not
necessarily a guarantee that everyone who’s hearing it is going to know
automatically know what I’m talking about. A few people probably will, but that’s okay.
I never wanted to be a
confessional singer-songwriter, but my songwriting process is pretty much
inevitably linked to my emotional state, and I have a really hard time
separating them. I know a lot of people who can write with more of a detached
viewpoint and write from someone else’s perspective really successfully. I’d
love to develop that skill at some point in the future, that’s something I wish
I could better. But for the time being I’m kind of in this place where my own
personal experience and emotions and ideas are all kind of linked together in
this really tight way. So, yeah, confessional singer-songwriter is what I am, I
guess, for the time being!
There seems to be this real push-and-pull on
the record between “superficial” things and real “wealth” as to what really
matters – can you elaborate?
Absolutely, that’s true. I
think of the last track (“Doubt”) as almost like the moral or the concluding
paragraph or something, a little end-note, so “We Were Wealth” is kind of the
last full-blown track, and it has to do with coming out of, and still facing, a
big chunk of time where I’m basically homeless. We’ve been touring a lot, we’re
going to be touring a lot more – I love to tour and it’s something that I
really enjoy, but it requires of you that you cut the ties that were important
to you and be okay with drifting. I’m sleeping on couches right now in life, I’m
going to be in Europe tomorrow, and on tour
the better part of the next year if not more. And to be okay with that you have
to get into that kind of Zen mindset where you have to figure out what you
need, as opposed to what your comforts are. I’m finding that even when I’m at
home, it’s impossible for me to not live out of a bag….when you decide to
commit to a band, or anything really, it requires of you that you break a lot ties
and figure out what your absolute necessities are, as opposed to what your
comforts have been. In the past I’ve been a real homebody, I really treasure my
time with my family and friends and staying in one place here in Baltimore. But in the
next year, and in the past year, I’m pretty much adrift.
That’s definitely a recurring theme
throughout this record. ‘Wealth’ is about finding it different places. The line
‘we were wealth and we were money of the world and needing nothing’ is pretty
much the summation of that idea. Because I find that the less that I presume
that I need, as far as things and money and objects, the better I feel. Not to
say it’s like that all the time – believe me, I’m a consumer, I’m not trying to
act like I don’t buy and spend, and I’m not trying to pretend I wouldn’t love money
if I had it, I’d love to have it. But at the same time, simplifying my life and
detaching myself from those needs has been a necessity as far as keeping up
with the scale of touring that we’re doing. And being okay with being
constantly away from everyone you know and everything you own, all that stuff.
So I guess the record is about understanding the difference between what is
superficial and what is real, and latching onto the idea of that emotional
wealth, and the connection you have with people and places that will get you
through the times when you really don’t have anything.
When I wrote that line, I
was just thinking about driving around the U.S. in a minivan, completely
destitute and detached from pretty much everyone else’s semblance of reality.
Everyone’s going to work, getting in their car and driving to work, and I’m
just kind of adrift. There is something really wonderful about that that I
treasure, so learning to appreciate the treasures that you have is important.
I’ve always been a ‘grass is greener’ type of person, wherever I am I’m
thinking about wherever I’m not, and I’m trying to get out of the mindset, and
that’s definitely a big part of what this record’s about.
For better or worse, when
you are in the tour bubble, as I like to think of it, sometimes you lose sight
of reality in a bad way. It can be really fun, to be really adrift, anything is
possible, you can go anywhere, do anything. But sometimes it takes your brain to
an even further place, and it’s not always where the best decisions are made.
There are an awful lot of songs about it,
I will always be traveling; I
can guarantee that, until I’m physically unable to do so. The kind of touring we’re doing now isn’t
permanently sustainable, and what I mean is the extent of it. I don’t want to
be doing eight months out of the year for the rest of my life. But I knew from
the second I started it would be a big part of my life. I grew up in a family
without a lot of money, I’d never got on a plane, the farthest I ever went away
from Maryland was when we drove to Florida and Disneyworld
once when I was like 12. I never travelled, I never left the country, never
went anywhere west of the East coast until we started touring. As soon as I
did, it was a complete awakening, absolutely mind-blowing. It’s become a huge
part of who I am and the life I want to lead and I want to go as many places as
I can and see as many different places and meet as many different people as I
can. If I go for too long without it, I just get miserable, so I need it. In
that way I’m really fortunate in that what I do for a living now allows me to
travel as much as I do, because I definitely have the bug for sure. I think
it’s important for everyone. Just driving around, getting out of your comfort
level, getting out of the place you’re most familiar with is a really valuable
It’s a much smaller world
than people assume. When I tell people in my family, I’m going to Berlin tomorrow, and it
sounds like the other end of the universe, it’s really not that different from
here. Just realizing how small the world is, and how alike people are, and that
these places are real, and not just these phantom names that you hear on TV
–that changes your perspective. It’s really special to be able to do it, I
wish that everyone would and could.
Let’s talk about Baltimore.
Goddamn, I love it here!
Everybody asks about the fertile music scene, but I want to know
whether you were a fan of The Wire? How
has the city affected the music scene?
I’m a huge fan! My boyfriend
told me recently, I had no idea, that I live like a block-and-a-half away from
Bodie’s corner. Where — and when — I live in Baltimore, I live in a big giant
warehouse in Station North, the arts district, a big cold drafty warehouse
space, and just two blocks up is Bodie’s corner where he got killed. So every
time I drive by there I get very excited. As far as Baltimore
the city impacting Baltimore
the cultural scene, it’s huge. I’ve been to a lot of different places and
played in a lot of different places, and people live differently here. I think
a lot of people don’t even realize it because they’re used to it. But that side
of the city is not hidden. Where I live is typically a pretty safe block, but
it’s not far from some really nasty areas. People who are involved in music and
art in Baltimore live in all kinds of different places, and typically I find
the people who are artists and a little more forward thinking are those who
tend to not run from that sort of thing, and not be afraid of it, and to kind
of insinuate themselves into these communities and get to know these people.
Crack-heads, and people who are poor and starving and begging in the street — live
amongst that. And people who live in different neighborhoods in Baltimore, who are more
isolated from that, are really afraid of it.
Typically speaking, I like
to remember that everywhere you are is somebody’s home. You could be driving
through a neighborhood, ‘oh, it’s the ghetto, it’s so sketchy,’ but everywhere
you go somebody lives there. And The Wire is a really good example of something like that. It’s true, in real life, these
are people going through life trying to stay alive and trying to be happy and
healthy. If there’s one thing to take away, to sum it up, is that it reminds
you to treat these people and places with respect. Fortunately, living amongst
that, a lot of people in Baltimore
do remember, and they have a little bit more perspective on what they have and
how lucky they are, and they remember to treat their city and the people in it
with respect, regardless of their station in life.
[Photo Credit: Natasha Tylea]