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Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner Wants to Stop the ‘Slow Slide to Insanity’

July 30, 2020

By Jeffrey Silverstein, July 30, 2020

Wye Oak contains multitudes. Across six LPs, the duo composed of Jenn Wasner (Flock of Dimes) and Andy Stack (Joyero) have consistently challenged listeners to reframe their understanding of what their project is or isn’t at any given point in time. Whether built around synths, guitars, or noise, the excitement surrounding each subsequent release is often rooted in a question: where will they go from here? 

No Horizon (out July 31 via Merge), once again sees Wye Oak stepping into unfamiliar terrain and embracing new creative challenges. Written and recorded in collaboration with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus (which has worked with The National, David Byrne, and Arcade Fire), the collective power of Stack and Wasner’s arrangements coupled with stirring vocal performances from high-school students is heartrending. We recently caught up with Wasner from her North Carolina home to talk about songwriting as a spiritual practice, the impacts of COVID-19 on full-time musicians, and the cost and benefits of infinite reinvention as an artist.

Where are you? What does your day-to-day look like?
I’m in North Carolina. I have been here for over five years now. I live in a small-ish town in the country to the west of Durham. I’ve been really happy living here. Even before COVID-19 hit, I had already felt that the possibility of me living in a city was slim. I’m feeling that more than ever now. I never want to live in a city again. I’m happy that I don’t have to. 

Most days I wake up, exercise, and go for a nice long walk in the woods near my house. It’s been different lately because I’ve been working on a new Flock of Dimes record so I’ve been in the studio every day.  My buddies Nick and Amelia from Sylvan Esso built a studio in the woods that is very conveniently located, about 15 minutes from my house. That’s winding down a bit though. Now I’m getting back into what I was doing during the original stages of quarantine—practicing drums, writing a lot of sad music, cleaning things that are already clean. That’s mostly for my headspace than anything else.  

Photo by Kendall Atwater.

Your move to North Carolina was almost a self-imposed quarantine. Had you already adjusted to living in isolation? 
It’s weird. Because of my lifestyle, I’ve always thought about solitude as being this precious gem. This thing that I have to seek out, find and fight for. I spend so much of my time on tour so I’m always around people. There is no privacy or alone time in any of it. I live alone. Before this, I’d been living in a house with five other people and I was losing my mind. I’d be on the road, come back and couldn't hear my own thoughts. I moved into a house alone thinking this is what I need. Then everything about my way of life changed and shifted. It has completely upended my life to the point where this thing that was a blessed rarity has become a constant reality. 

I need people. I really do. I cannot function and be happy without them. I don’t think there was any real preparation for the amount of solitude that has been introduced to me because I never could have imagined these circumstances. 

Has there been anything surprising you’ve learned about yourself?
There are so many answers to that question. All of them are so deeply and profoundly personal. The answer is yes, but I’m not sure that I’m prepared to talk about the depth of the inner work publicly. It’s delicate. It still feels like it's unfolding. 

Any silver linings?
A silver lining is that I’m way more resilient than I thought I was. I’ve been through some shit that I could have never imagined for myself. I’ve managed to fight my way back from some pretty dark places. It’s nice to be reminded of my own resilience and my own strength. To give myself the pat on the pack for sticking it out. 

Has your relationship with alcohol changed at all during this time?
I’ve never been a huge drink-to-get-drunk person. That’s more of a rarity for me. During the early stage of quarantine I’d meet friends outside for what we called “wine time.” It gave us all a chance to see another human being at least once during our day. There is no wine time without wine, so I’ve definitely consumed a fair amount more wine, but it's a healthy, adult, non-worrisome amount. And then I’ve definitely had those nights where I’m like, “Fuck it, I’m so depressed I’m going to drink a whole bottle of wine and pass out at 8 PM.” 

I’ve been happiest when I’ve spent the least amount of time on social media.”

I’ve noticed a shift away from music being a competition—bands being less precious about what they release, songs and albums not needing to be perfect, etc. Last year Wye Oak rolled out a handful of stand alone singles. Do you think you’ll continue on that path? 
The “make something quickly and release it quickly” model is much more in line with how the creative process actually unfolds. Given my choice, I would prefer to do that with everything. It’s just not possible. The record I’m working on now will have the typical amount of record lead time which, especially with the way current time passes, is an eternity. 

I made this record while experiencing something deeply and writing from a kind-of desperate place. Not desperate in subject matter, but more I needed to make this thing to feel better. Then I made it, the whole process took a few months. I like to move quickly but even if I do move quickly, I’m still at this point where the outline has slightly shifted and it's not me anymore. It’s strange to have such a delay and operate with such a remove from the things you create. 

Early Wye Oak records are masterful in their use of dynamics. Over time you’ve managed to convey emotion just as strongly but with less “immediate” loud/heavy moments. Does this reflect a change internally as well as in the music?
Yes. It’s not creatively fulfilling for me to do something I’ve already done or inhabit a space that doesn't feel 100 percent genuine to where I’m at in a given moment. In a lot of ways it feels like a different person made those songs. It’s not that I’m not pleased that they are in the world, but it's the same trait that drives you to want to make things as it does that pulls you away from them as time passes. You can’t have it one way and not have it be a bit the other way too.

Wye Oak operates more as a recording project that happens to have a name attached to it. What freedoms and challenges does this bring?
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. Realistically it's not a choice for me. When I’m creative it comes from such an intuitive place that it can't be forced. If it happens, it's organic and taking a shape that I don’t necessarily always think is a conscious choice. That to me is what’s exciting about having a creative practice be a consistent part of my life. It is a means through which I get to know myself. Many times what I discover in that process is surprising, even to me. Not what I expected, but I learn about myself and other people through doing it. It’s the thing I care about the most, more than attention or money. If that process has value to someone other than myself and can also help someone see themselves more clearly, that is the point. It’s the closest thing to a spiritual practice that I have in my life. 

The downside being that it is really difficult to brand and market music as a product where the only constant is that it's changing or that it can be anything. It's tough to explain or condense what you do in a way so it can become a commodity to be sold. It puts me at a disadvantage but I’m just lucky to be able to do it in the first place. To release music at all you have to shift yourself into one of those forms as best you can. It feels unnatural. It never quite feels like it's working or that it's an authentic way of expressing my humanity in the world. There is an element of condensing it down even just to be like “here, look at this, I made this.” It’s uncomfortable for me. I think about how it makes me feel, and then I think maybe I’m just being pretentious and self-defeating, and then I feel bad about that. It’s super fun, ha. 

Even as a teacher myself, working with students can be seriously intimidating. What were your first interactions with Brooklyn Youth Chorus like? 
Andy and I had worked for a number of years with a composer, William Brittelle. We made a record together and he’s done some reimaginings of some of our songs. He also works with the BYC as well. That was the first time that we performed with them and met BYC director Dianne Berkun Menaker. She is amazing. Those kids are so advanced, talented, and charismatic. I don’t have kids and I don’t spend much time with kids so it was something else to be exposed to that energy. It was also very intimidating in a way I was not expecting at all. I don’t know the psychology that makes kids of that age so threatening to adults but it’s a real thing. 

Photo by Lissa Gotwals.

The concept of No Horizon stems from the song “Spitting Image” about brain overload—trying to take in an infinite amount of information and how that can be paralysing. Is this something you’re currently experiencing?
It’s been something I’ve struggled with for much of my adult life. There are positives to it as well. More often than not it seems as though my brain and nervous system cannot hold up against the onslaught of information that is necessary to absorb just to exist in this world. When COVID-19 happened and all of life moved onto the internet, it was something that I was already struggling with that has been borderline untenable. I don’t have a great answer for how I’ve learned to cope with it. I’ve been happiest when I’ve spent the least amount of time on social media. 

During the first week of the George Floyd protests I found myself turning to social media to get the information I needed but then getting so overwhelmed and overloaded that I was frozen in place. I wouldn't have any brain power left to contribute anything. I found myself setting a timer for 15 minutes, I would go to social media, find the information I need, and then set another timer for 45 minutes to take the info I had and take more concrete action steps. 

That helped because it stopped me from the slow slide to insanity. I feel great when I eliminate it from my life as much as possible, but of course that's not realistic for someone's whose job it is to try and promote music. Especially since we can't play shows anymore, it's sort of the last remaining space to share and make music in a way. It’s such a compromised way of doing it. You can't completely disengage. It’s still an open question for me. That stuff is what gets me closest to just wanting to quit entirely because it's hard to imagine a world where I engage with the condensed, reduced, digital version of myself in a non-real space and am also a full, happy, and satisfied human being. 

Lyrically you wrote from perspectives not your own. Were you able to switch gears easily?
It was so, so hard. I tend to be drawn to a challenge so when the idea of writing this music was pitched to us, even though I had no business attempting anything remotely like this, I have no experience...but when this came up I thought, “why not go for it?” It was so much harder than I would have thought. Not so much the writing of the music but the words. I’m so used to writing from a place of intuition and through my own experiential lens. “This is how I feel, this is what I want to say.” It’s actually really difficult for me to write from a different perspective. In a way it was helpful to step outside of myself. I had my moments of thinking, “I just can’t do this.” 

Content-wise, the EP is particularly timely. Did this come as a surprise?
What makes it feel timely is not that I was having some sort of precognition or something, but more that what is happening now just heightens everything before it. It takes issues and makes them even more life or death. Everything through a lens of greater intensity. They were just as relevant as when we wrote them, but it makes them feel more pressurized. 

What do you miss the most right now?
I miss playing music with others, but more than that I miss the camaraderie on tour with the people you are working with and traveling with. To have these little families that pop up... I had never realized how integral it was to my happiness and my sense of meaning and completeness of my life. I’ve made a lot of decisions about the way my life will unfold in order to prioritize this job, which is more than a job. It’s who I am, it's what I love to do. It’s bigger than just playing music. It's people that I surround myself with on a daily basis. To have that go away and to be left with the reality of what my life looks like without it is really hard. Identity is a big part of it, but it's even more literal and logistical. I don’t have a partner, I don’t have a pet, I don't even have many plants. I dont have the trappings of a domestic life that I can sink into as much as some people do. I have my friends, I have music, I have my family and have myself. There is less to throw myself into and lose myself in. That's been by design and in some ways it was a decision I wouldn't change. I have my freedom and I’m grateful for that. It’s so easy to get into the woe-is-me mindset and start feeling sorry for myself but everyone in every way of life has particular perks and downsides to the way that they live and what is being asked of them now. There is no perfect situation.

You can see one (contemporary) band play for one hour with your favorite alcoholic beverage in hand. Name the band, venue, and beer. 
That’s a big question! Double bill with Palm and Big Thief. It could be at a goddamn hole in the wall for all I fuckin’ care! That makes me sad to think about venues because so many aren't going to be around anymore. I’ve recently been introduced to pét-nat wine, which is a fermented, natural wine that I wasn't aware of. It’s sour and sparkly. I like funky, fermented drinks so I’d probably go with that right now. 

Top photo by Kendall Atwater.

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