MI Focus editor Laura Barnes caught up with Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner to find out more about her solo project Flock of Dimes and new album If You See Me, Say Yes…
If you ever want a lesson in how limitations foster creativity go along to a Wye Oak gig.
You’ll see the two-piece outfit from Baltimore travel through rock, synth and alternative landscapes throughout their set as Andy Stack create ingenious drum beats while keeping a hand free for playing a keyboard next to him, and Jenn Wasner goes back and forth between big guitar riffs, punchy synths and cunning basslines while vocally doing something that can only be compared to a honey-covered hug.
This idea of working around the limitations that the band as put in place by only having two members is something Jenn Wasner has carried through to her solo project Flock of Dimes.
Talking about Flock of Dimes’ debut album If You See Me, Say Yes, Wasner reveals: “It was the first record I ever self-produced and I played everything on it. It was a huge undertaking so it feels really good that I actually managed to pull it off.”
She admits that it took a while to finish something she was happy with.
“In a lot of ways it was something that I did for myself. I wanted it to take as long as it would take and I wanted to get it right. You only get one first record with a project.
“The whole point was to make something that I really love and really love to play and share with people. For every song that ended up on the record I cut one or two. There was a lot of writing and cutting and making sure only the best songs that I was most excited about made it on there.”
Talking about limitations, Wasner says it can be totally overwhelming when you don’t put them in place: “I think the lack of limitations is a great way to push yourself into a writer’s block zone. Even if it’s philosophical or totally theoretical, to put limitations in place in your brain is step one for me when I’m trying to be creative.
“I want to make music that’s so catchy and accessible that you don’t realise how weird it actually is.”
“You choose an instrument, and that within itself is a limitation. If I’m sitting down with a guitar and I’m going to write a song, there’s a limited pallet with the instrument itself. But when you sit down with a computer it’s virtually limitless. For a while that was really difficult for me. It was hard to overcome how overwhelming those options were.”
While the new album has quite an upbeat, synth-y exterior, each track is filled with subtle-yet-surprising rhythms and patterns. As Wasner puts it: “I wanted to create a universe that is very distinctive. You couldn’t play these songs on top 40 radio – they’re not “pop” in that sense. But they’re “pop” in a sense that they have hooks and catchy melodies, but they’re weird too.
“I want to make music that’s so catchy and accessible that you don’t realise how weird it actually is until you start to look closer and discover relatively complex rhythms… But I want it all to go down smooth!”
The album’s lyrics hint at themes around leaving things behind, moving on and being alone.
“A big part of this record is about learning how to be alone. I moved recently from Baltimore, where I was born, to North Carolina, where I’m living alone for the first time ever,” says Wasner.
“When you go on tour as often as I do you are absent for so long and you miss so much. You’re removed from the people you love and from your comfort zone and what’s familiar.
“That’s always been a part of my life, but more so of late, since I moved to North Carolina. So a lot of these songs come from having this new perspective on my reality. It’s like a love letter to the people and places that I’ve left behind.”
That’s not to say that she’s leaving Wye Oak behind. “As soon as I’m done touring this album, I’ll be back in the studio working on the next Wye Oak release,” she insists.
“I feel like a lot of people assume it’s got to be one or the other, but for the kind of persona and artist that I am, it’s really important for me to have both. They make each other possible.
“I have a short attention span. I am really impulsive and really impatient. And if I have to do just one thing for a long period of time I start to hate it.”
On the subject of personas, despite this album being very personal and autobiographical, Wasner decided to go with a project name rather than her own.
“It’s more interesting from an artistic perspective to have a name that is not just my name,” she explains. “I would be very reluctant to call something just my name. I think there’s a certain level of fiction to making things that I really relish and enjoy. I like the ability to shape shift and I would never want my name or identity to be stuck in any one particular zone.
“Who I am as a person is its own thing. I want that for myself. I don’t want to give that away to the internet!”
Discussing the age of the internet, music streaming and the value of music, Wasner jokes that she was born in wrong time. “I enjoy performing, but I would to be the kind of artist that primarily record albums. I identify a lot with artists like Kate Bush and Prince, artists of a bygone era where you make amazing records and tour if you want to tour.
“Now, if you want to make music as your profession, you have to tour ten times the amount that anyone has ever expected to in the past.
“Once people have got used to not paying for something, they’ll never pay for it again.”
“It goes against everything that I love about the creative process. It’s repetitive, it’s physically and emotionally demanding.
“I have to spend so much of my time touring that it kind of tortures me when I think about how much more music I could be making and how much better I would be if I didn’t have to spend so much time touring just to get by.
“I don’t want to sound like a dinosaur, but there’s no coming back from it. The damage is done. Once people have got used to not paying for something, they’ll never pay for it again.”
Wasner half jokes: “The next step will be me probably getting a day job and making the music I want to make on the side because I’m not sure I can sustain it.”
Admitting ‘this might be me being melodramatic’, Wasner says she sometimes feels like the harder she pushes herself with her music the less people are interested. “It’s not an ego party for me. I don’t really like the attention and I don’t like being more visible, but I do feel like I work really hard at what I do and it’s weirdly ironic in a way that there’s a good portion of people out there that just want to hear that one song that was played on that one TV show, forever.”
Despite these fears of fans only wanting to hear the big hits, or being overlooked because her music doesn’t fit into a nice neat marketable package, after this interview, Wasner plays a set at The Victoria in Dalston to a room packed full of fans thrilled to hear every track from the debut Flock of Dimes album.
As Wasner finishes up one track using her signature Reverend guitar and sets up her bass and synth for the next one, she’s somewhat overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the crowd. “Wow, you guys are great. And it’s only a Tuesday night!”
As the kick-ass bassline stomps in on lead single Semaphore, it’s impossible to imagine a world where Jenn Wasner has to take a day job.
Have a listen below to Flock of Dimes’ Semaphore, the lead single from If You See Me, Say Yes (do the right thing and put on some good quality headphones).