The Fogged Clarity Interview
While cruising through the desert in a tour van, Wye Oak’s lead singer and guitarist Jenn Wasner takes time to discuss “The Wire,” her baby teeth, and the sentiment at the heart of her band’s new album, Civilian.
Ben Evans: Well, I’ve been watching old seasons of “The Wire” lately so Baltimore is fresh in my mind. In that show the city is portrayed as a pretty rough-hewn, gritty place, and although I’m sure you’re not running on the Westside with Avon Barksdale, can you discuss how living in the city has…
Jenn Wasner: Don’t be so sure my friend. No…Baltimore is not only as it is portrayed on “The Wire,” but I’d say that “The Wire” can be fairly accurate at times. I actually live across the street from the school in season four and about a block away from the corner where Bodie was gunned down in season five, I believe.
BE: End of season four.
JW: Season four. Yes, there you go. So I have a lot of “The Wire” in my life on a daily basis, at least reminders of it. I love the show. Its fiction, but it is inspired by reality, and fortunately there’s a lot more to Baltimore than just what you see in “The Wire.”
BE: Absolutely, and I’m sure it’s highly dramaticized; but how has the city itself influenced your sound, if any of that grittiness is indeed there?
JW: Well, um…I don’t know about the grittiness, but I do think that a certain type of person chooses to live in the city of Baltimore these days, and that bodes very well for Baltimore’s music scene, because the kind of people making music in Baltimore tend to be really genuine, really honest, true people that make really exciting, interesting work. It’s kind of because you sort of have to be willing to sacrifice some of those amenities of other bigger, nicer, safer cities to live there; for the people, and the music and the art that’s being made. So the city itself, if anything, has influenced our music by the sheer volume of incredible work being made there, and everyone is really really genuine and everyone is really supportive and people work together and collaborate in ways that I think would probably never happen in other bigger cities, in other bigger music scenes, and so the different types of music that we are exposed to, that we are really moved by is made by friends of ours in Baltimore, which is a really special thing.
BE: A lot of musicians now seem to view lyrics simply as another form of instrumentation, so that lyrical content becomes secondary to phonics, and to the actual sound of the words themselves. I don’t find that to be the case with your music; I hear introspection, I hear hurt, there seems to be a necessity to the lyrics. Talk about where you are as a writer, and where your coming from, and what your thinking, trying to explore, when you put pen to paper.
JW: Well, I do think that the sounds of words themselves, phonetically… its really important, and a lot of the times when I am just coming up with the bare bones structure of a song and I don’t have the precise words to say exactly what I want to articulate, I do rely on use of syllables and the percussive sounds of the words themselves. But then, at that point, once you get that under control, I really do spend a lot of time trying to pick the words that will fit into those phrases and those cadences that say what I want to say. I think that’s really an important step for me, and its almost like a puzzle, ya know, writing a song, completing a song, you have the flow of it, the feel of it, the sounds of the words, the length of the phrases, then you have to go back and really…I mean, for me, I have to absolutely agonize over it, and figure out what word is going to fit and make those sounds, but also have the meaning that I want to have. So that’s what I spend the most time on: writing, and that’s one of the things that’s most important to me. I take a lot of pain over making sure I’m saying what I want to say in a certain way, and with as much attention to both sides– I want to make sure that the words are musical and that they flow and don’t sound forced, but at the same time, that they have the meaning that I want them to have. But, I don’t know, as a writer I definitely….making this record, writing these songs, there is a lot of time spent kind of pouring over words and also kind of pouring over my own brain, and trying to just make sense of the place I was in at the time. So I’m glad that you noticed the care that I took, because there was a lot of time spent over it.
BE: (There are) A lot of narrative lyrics, not in general, but coming from your life, your experiences in particular.
JW: Yeah, I think a lot of the narrative in these songs probably wouldn’t be apparent to anyone but myself and my close friends who really know me. There are specific references, but I like to keep things generally, somewhat vague because it’s personal information. But I think that the feeling is there for those who don’t necessarily know the story behind it.
BE: Is their a certain fear or thrill in releasing a record like this, one in which you seem to expose some of your vulnerability?
JW: I mean, I think I’m always afraid and nervous to share songs with people for the first time, and every time, I mean, its always most frightening the first time, when I finish a song and I’m playing it for someone… for the very first time its incredibly scary to finally release that and let it out in the world, but its also a really really empowering and healing process, to be able to let them out in the world…yeah, that’s why I do it, I’m sure. That’s why I feel compelled to share them (the songs) with others once I finish them, because it is an incredibly important part of the process, to be able to let those words go and then move past them. I don’t feel frightened by it now, but in the making of the record it is hard not to be overwhelmed at times with wanting to do your own feelings, and your own words, and your own thoughts justice.
BE: As in any art, I’d imagine you come face to face with yourself in creating a record that’s as personal, at least as abstractly personal as this.
I guess for me there is a different dynamic with a female vocalist and it seems a good songwriter, a good female singer can explore places and lend certain emotional insight to things that a man just can’t. Do you see that, and, as a woman, do you find that the opposite is true?
JW: It’s funny, because I’d like to think that my voice is somewhat genderless. Not necessarily that I want to disavow the feminine part of myself, because I don’t, because that’s definitely very much a part of who I am, but I don’t necessarily want to be limited by it. I feel like one of the things I struggle with is just having range, and not always sounding classically feminine when I sing, but also being able to delve into some deeper, darker, more traditionally masculine sounds as well. I think the important thing is to not over-think it, and to be yourself, and to sing the way that feels comfortable to you, and (sing) the way you think the words are supposed to be sung and delivered. That way it won’t sound like a put on, if your just not focusing too much on the thought of it and the concept of it, and your letting yourself voice it in the way your comfortable with, then it will sound natural, it will sound real. I think I’m getting a lot better at embracing what my own voice is, and the fact that it is a female voice. I know growing up a lot of my favorite singers and songwriters voices were male and were nothing like mine, and I had a really hard time understanding that, and coming to terms with that, and I feel like I’m more comfortable with it than I ever have been before.
BE: Do you ever feel as if your sexualized, being a female singer, and if so, has that feeling ever hindered, or maybe even empowered you as an artist?
JW: I try not to think about that too much. It’s not something for me to be concerned with. I feel like…I’m sure that has happened, but I’m sure it happens with every artist and every singer and everyone who chooses to step in front of an audience and deliver their songs or perform their music. There’s a certain power in that and there’s also a certain vulnerability that I think people are attracted to, whether you’re male or female. So I don’t know, it’s not something that I necessarily encourage or discourage.
BE: What are you reading right now?
JW: I’m reading a couple of books, which is something that I very rarely do. But the book that I’m reading primarily is called The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen.
BE: What do you read typically?
JW: All sorts of things. I went on a little bit of a non-fiction kick for a minute, I read some Tracy Kidder books. I read the books that he wrote about Partners in Health and Paul Farmer. I read Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor recently, and I thought it was one of the best things I’ve read in a really long time. It was an extraordinary book, and I’m kind of obsessed with Flannery O’Connor right now, I think she is amazing. And then my friend recently gave me the book, The Snow Leopard, so I just dove into that in the van yesterday.
BE: I’ve really been taken by the title track on Civilian, particularly the line: “I still keep my baby teeth in the bedside table with my jewelry.” Can you discuss the impetus of that song?
JW: Thanks. It’s based in reality; I mean I actually do have some relics like that from my childhood. Ya know, it was more of an image than anything else, I definitely took some artistic license with it, and they are not necessarily where I claim them to be in the song. But I think that line in particular is more about my tendency to be a little bit of a pack rat physically with object, and that song “Civilian” is about that same impulse, but emotionally– hanging on to things past the point of reason and being dependent on others, and unnecessarily and unrealistically hinged to your past and being afraid of change. So that is kind of the point, it’s a more physical, more specific example of that larger idea of dependence and change.
BE: Do you find yourself threading back to the past a lot in your music, because there does seem to be an almost nostalgic quality to some of the songs on this record?
JW: I’m always thinking backwards, but I’m trying to think forwards more in my life. I think it is impossible not to let songs have nostalgic components to them because I’m usually writing about events that have happened to me or feelings that I’ve had, or things that are of the past. And then of course when you write it and then you record it, these things become more and more entrenched, and more removed from the moment and the present. So I think in a lot of ways writing songs and recording them is a way to preserve those moments and a way that helps me to access them again as the memories fade, and to have some sort of document of experiences and feelings from a time of my life. I feel like Civilian the record is very much a document of a specific time of my life that is slipping away from me a little bit more everyday, for better or for worse, but at least I have this way to mark it.
BE: What is the time line? Where do most of the songs come from?
JW: About a year ago, pretty much exactly a year ago, I wrote the bulk of the songs that ended up on Civilian. The writing process started right about this time last year, but the songs that made the final cut I wrote almost entirely between the beginning of June and the beginning of July, and then we recorded the songs in July and the beginning of August and then mixed in September and then it was finished in September.
BE: There’s such a lag between when an album is recorded, much like a book or a film, and when it’s released. Is it difficult to create that same passion in the work, and bring it to your live shows, given that you’ve recorded those songs a little more than half a year ago?
JW: Yes, sometimes I do struggle with… I mean, I think writers and artists and songwriters in particular, they crave new things. I am certainly the same way, once I complete something I am usually the first person to want to move forward and think of something else. But doing this for a living requires of you that you’re willing to retread that same ground over and over again, and I guess the point is that it’s new to others, if its not new to you. I’ve just had to learn to think about it in a different way. It’s a different kind of creative impulse than the writing impulse, it’s a different kind of feeling, but performing and being able to sing them (the songs), and make them new, and figuring out how to make them new every night is an exercise I enjoy. You just have to learn to expect different things out of it.
BE: You touched on it a bit, but do you know when its time to write another album? Do you have a build-up of experience and emotion that kind of bulges and presses at you, until you say, “Ok, its time to sit down and write songs.”?
JW: I knew this time. Civilian was a…I worked hard at writing these songs, but in a lot of ways it was also just an effortless expulsion of material. I think you can’t really plan it, ya know? I know now that I’m not at a place, right now, where I’m ready to make another record, I’m starting to think about it, I’m starting the process over again. And its kind of a vague-feeling process, but I know when I’m at the beginning and I know when I’m at the middle and I know when I’m at the end. Civilian is out in the world and it makes me feel really good, but it is somewhat daunting to be embarking upon the task of a new record, and I’m only at the very, very beginning of it, so hopefully…Part of the work of being a songwriter and making art is accumulating the experiences that allow you to translate them into that art, so right now I’m more at the accumulating experiences stage, then the actual writing stage.
BE: How did you get the name Civilian?
JW: Well, I’m drawn to words that are kind of ambiguous. I love Civilian because it’s obviously such an emotional record, but “civilian” is such a cold and detached and harsh-sounding word. It represents a certain distance, a clinical distance that I take when I step back and look at these songs, or when I was making the record. But also, I like that it is both an inclusive and exclusive word, I like that, in and of itself, it means someone who is not a member of the military, but it also essentially encompasses almost everyone. The record in a lot of ways is about yearning for that normal life that most people think is possible, but very few people actually have. There is this concept of normalcy that I think is a part of our collective consciousness, but isn’t really real, and no one ever really reaches it, and everyone strives for it. For us especially, being in a band and traveling and moving and having very little stability, the only stable element of our lives is our impermanence, is our instability. So, in a lot of ways the record is about yearning for that, which is something that I’ve certainly struggled with, but I think its something that everyone struggles with, regardless of who they are or where they live or what their life is like.
BE: I heard you use the word “clinical.” Do you have to get in that space, that objective, distant space to assess yourself, get inside yourself?
JW: Ya, I think that’s absolutely true. Being able to do that is probably the only reason why I’m able to process anything that I experience into something valuable.