Catching Up With: Jenn Wasner of Flock Of Dimes and Wye Oak

Music Features Jenn Wasner, Flock of Dimes, Wye Oak
Catching Up With: Jenn Wasner of Flock Of Dimes and Wye Oak

Even when Jenn Wasner is worn out from two late-night festival performances, her words still carry an excited spark. “My immune system was like, ‘Nope, we’re done,’” she jokes of the cold that has her temporarily laid up at her home in North Carolina. But she doesn’t dwell for too long on that. There’s her upcoming trip to Berlin, a string of solo shows on the horizon—and, of course more music just waiting to be written.

But who could blame Wasner for taking a quick breather? Earlier this year, she and Wye Oak bandmate Andy Stack released their fifth album, Tween, a guitar- and synth-heavy collection of eight songs that showcased their skills as both multi-instrumentalists and producers. Now she’s back on the promotional trail behind If You See Me, Say Yes, her solo debut under the name Flock of Dimes. What started out as a handful of singles in 2012 has expanded into a lush electro pop-leaning world of synths, understated guitar lines, and her lilting soprano.

But make no mistake, it’s not a complete 180. After all, Flock of Dimes did spring from the same artist that engineered much of Wye Oak’s atmospheric pop. But, as
Wasner reasons, in art—just like life—it’s never bad to have an alternate means of exploration and expression.

Paste: Congratulations on If You See Me, Say Yes. It’s a beautiful album.
Jenn Wasner: Thank you for saying that. I think it’s really good, too. I don’t get behind the whole false modesty, deprecation thing. I think I can be a pretty self-deprecating person because I think it’s funny. But I’m also like, why would I bother making something I don’t like? It can be a vulnerable thing to admit that you like something and put it up for other people’s judgment. But the whole point of this is to make what you want to hear. It’s much more important to me that I like my music than anyone else does. If no one gave a shit, or didn’t notice or care or listen, it wouldn’t affect my view of the record at all. I feel that confident about it.

Paste: When did you embrace self-confidence?
Wasner: It honestly came when I made Shriek with Wye Oak. Before that record was the longest period of confusion and self-doubt and writer’s block that I had ever gone through. Shriek was the record that we wanted to make, but it wasn’t the record a lot of people wanted from us. I’m so grateful for that record. I still love it so much; I still enjoy playing the songs from it. In a lot of ways that the first time I said no, I need to make what I want to make and what I want to hear and I need to take that leap of faith and trust. If I trust myself and make something that I know is good, that I really love, other people will feel the same way about it. I really struggled with that for the longest time because I can be a bit of a people pleaser. It’s impossible to make anything that’s universally liked. For a while it was the cause of a really long period of writer’s block for me, because there was no way around it. There’s no way out. If you’re desperate to please everyone, you won’t make anything because that’s impossible. It kind of sunk me for a while. After a while I realized the only thing I could do if I wanted to make music again is to only satisfy myself and hope that if I look inward and make the thing that I want to hear, other people will also want to hear it. It’s like jumping off a cliff a little bit. You can’t just say that, you have to believe it.

Paste: Does Flock of Dimes help you channel that mentality a bit more, since, unlike Wye Oak, you don’t have a partner to bounce things off of?
Wasner: Making a record solo sounds really good until you do it. No one tells me what to do; I can just compromise and do whatever I want! Then you try and do it, and there were points in the process where I was desperate for someone to tell me what to do. Desperate! It’s terrifying and intimidating to only have yourself. No one to go to and ask, “Is this working? Is this good? What should I do here?” It’s a really lonely, really difficult process. You don’t anticipate how difficult it’s going to be until you’re in the middle of it. In this weird roundabout way, it was really important for me to do it by myself, but it made it made really grateful for the collaborators that I have in my life.

Paste: I read your essay on that idea of women being a one-dimensional object, where you discussed how people find it a novelty than you play the guitar. I hate the phrase “brave,” but I will say it took guts to point out that not everything is a compliment.
Wasner: I think about that stuff all the time. It’s the result of many conversations that I’ve had with people about that exact feeling. It’s a really complex thing. It came from a lot of frustration of trying to talk to people about this stuff and having it be misunderstood. People think that you’re being overly deprecating and looking for a compliment. Or people think that you’re not able to accept a compliment. People want to tell you you’re good at something, why do you want to take it out of context or take it the wrong way? I just felt like I was finally able to put all this stuff down on paper in a way that made sense. It wasn’t really overly optimistic that people would get it. It felt like people did, and that was really satisfying. It took a lot off my chest to get that stuff out there.

Paste: You spent a lot of time alone while making this album. Are you the kind of person who can embrace loneliness and use it?
Wasner: Yeah. I think that was completely necessary. Halfway though the writing and making of this record I was still in Baltimore. I was hitting the wall with it a little bit. It was a much harder and more all-consuming process than I anticipated it would be. I hit this point where it wasn’t right, it wasn’t there, it wasn’t finished, but I didn’t know what the fuck to do with it. I had no one else to turn to. I basically took on this project saying “I can do this.” And then I hit this point where I didn’t know if I could. At that point I drove to Los Angeles alone thinking I was going to mix my record, and then realized halfway through the mixing process that I wanted to cut half of it and start over.

I had to have this really difficult conversation with my label, friends of mine, who had already invested a lot of their time and money into me. They were awesome about it, thankfully. I’m so grateful for that because I am happy with it now. I can’t imagine having to release the shell of what this record could have been. At that point I was pretty devastated. I felt awful about having failed. I took it back to North Carolina and a holed up in my house and I worked like crazy and I worked and I worked and I worked. I really think that if I hadn’t given myself that space and time and perspective, and had gone for the easy distraction of being with my friends or being in Baltimore or going to the show, it probably wouldn’t have happened. I had to cut myself off and just do it.

Paste: Are you the kind of person who can embrace transition?
Wasner: I’m a lot more impulsive than most people. I’ve made a lot of really big decisions in my life in a moment of intensity of intuition. I can point to that feeling in several major moments in my life. When I listen to that feeling, it pays off. It’s not always at the moment on paper, the right thing to do. But I’ve learned to listen to it and it’s never lead me astray. I had that feeling when I was working on this record and I had the opportunity to move and go to a new place and put myself in a new set of circumstances. It was a big decision and it wasn’t that I didn’t think about it, I did. But that intuition was there. I kind of have to listen to it. I’m willing to do that. There have been times in my life when I’ve done things based on that feeling. And I’m sure I’ll do it again.

Paste: I think trusting your gut can be incredibly difficult to learn.
Wasner: It’s the hardest thing in the world! Everyone wants to have someone tell them, “This is the answer!” There’s no risk and it will work out and you’re doing the right thing. There’s no real right thing to be had is the point. You don’t have the perspective and hindsight in that moment. You just have to decide. It’s been helpful to me to remind myself that almost no decision is truly final. If I got to North Carolina and hated it, I could move back to Baltimore in a month and it would be fine. But I don’t want to let that fear keep me from doing the things in my life that I want to do. Sometimes even stone cold failure can be the thing that you need most in your life. You can’t be afraid of it. It’s actually really freeing. If I make a song, what if someone puts it out and I don’t like it. I imagine being in front of someone and then I remember that I’ve actually had people tell me straight up to my face that they don’t like my music. It’s not that bad! It’s totally fine. There’s a lot of stuff that I don’t like because it’s not for me. It’s not personal. People aren’t supposed to like everything. It’s more about them than it is about me.

Paste: There’s a line in “Everything is Happening Today,” “I’m as fragile as I ever was.” Does vulnerability come easily to you?
Wasner: Vulnerability by its very nature isn’t easy. But it’s a big part of why people connect to what I do. One of my many mantras that I give myself is that vulnerability is your greatest asset. If you put yourself out there in a real way and you show your real face to the world, I really do feel like most people want to meet you there. When they see that they want to respond to that in kind. That’s when you get real human connection. I know who I am at this point. I know my strengths, I know my weaknesses. I’m very self-aware to the point where there’s kinda nothing you can’t tell me. Anything anyone has to say about me, I already know. I’m at peace with those things about myself. I feel like no one can really do any damage. In a weird, roundabout way, being more vulnerable, more open with myself, I’m more protected from any negativity that I might have struggled with otherwise. I do spend a lot of time wondering about my purpose creativity. One of my little theories is that musically, creatively, artistically there are destroyers and there are healers. They’re both equally important. It’s important that we have these people who are destroying the past and recreating it and reinventing it and pushing the envelope. Because that’s how music and culture moves forward. I used to beat myself up a lot about not being a destroyer. I think I am more of a healer. I don’t think I gave that the credit it deserved. Now that I embrace that about myself and my purpose, I feel like I can do that to the best of my ability.

Paste: How important is it for you to be understood through your music?
Wasner: With this record, I took more care than I ever had to make sure it was there to be understood. That’s why I’m kind of at peace with it. Not because I think it’s perfect, but because I think it communicates what I want to communicate. There are people who aren’t going to get that. There will be a lot of people who say “Oh, you made a synth-pop record!” I think this record is a lot bigger than that. Whether people see it for what it is is out of my control. But then there are people I’ve never spoke to, never answered a single question for, who I have already seen totally get it. That lets me know it’s there, I did it. It’s possible to communicate if people are receptive to it.

Paste: Your signature-checkered jumpsuit—if I stare at it long enough, will the mysteries of the universe be revealed?
Wasner: Yes, they will! My friend April Camlin, from Baltimore, she’s an amazing visual artist and drummer. I commissioned her to make that jumpsuit for me. So it’s her original jumpsuit It’s the design of my signature guitar so when I play live it’s a full body ensemble. The idea came from having a uniform. I was exhausted by having to figure out what to wear every fucking time I got on stage. I’m not the kind of person where that’s one of the ways I’m best at expressing myself. I wanted something that put me in the visual and emotional space to play these songs and save me from thinking about it for another second.

Paste: If today was your first day on earth, what would you want to explore first?
Wasner: Part of me wants to say the rainforest because the biodiversity there is incredible. The problem with that is that with greater biodiversity comes bigger, scarier bugs. That’s super not what I’m into! I want to go everywhere, which is my biggest problem. I think that’s one of the greatest perks of having this career.

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