Jenn Wasner definitely knows how to keep herself busy. Best known for being one-half of the critically acclaimed indie-folk duo Wye Oak, she also founded Dungeonesse (an R’n’B project with White Life’s Jon Ehrens), along with touring as a member of Dirty Projectors, Future Islands, the Gene Clark No Other Tribute Band and various others. And if this wasn’t enough, only a couple of months after the release of Wye Oak's fifth studio album Tween, Wasner has also just put out her first solo record as Flock of Dimes. If You See me, Say Yes, which came out on Partisan Records on the 23rd September, is a compelling collection of folk melodies interwoven with electronic beats and dreamy synthesizers, wrapped around the ever so evocative Wasner’s vocals.
Flock of Dimes was first conceived in 2012, but after just a couple of 7" releases, it went quiet, not only due to Wasner’s other music commitments, but also because with no deadline, what really mattered to her was to be absolutely sure she wouldn’t have any regrets about the album whatsoever. “You only get one first record, so I wanted it to be the best I could possibly do”, she tells me while sipping a cappuccino in the garden of a Dalston cafeteria on a sunny, crisp autumn morning. “I initially thought it would take a couple of years, but it ended up taking way longer as I wasn’t ready to let it out. At some point I thought I was done and went into the mixing, but I wound up cutting half of it and rewriting it.”
Aside from a couple of collaborations, Wasner played the vast majority of the record, switching from one instrument to the other. “At first I was really excited to do something completely on my own, but I didn’t anticipate that at a certain point all I wanted was to be able to turn to someone else and ask what to do”, she confesses. “It is a very lonely and intimidating process to take on by yourself.”
If You See me, Say Yes was recorded in a few different places. A lot of the initial demos just featured Wasner, first in Baltimore then in North Carolina, and though she mainly self-produced the album, she got some help from friends and frequent collaborators Mickey Freeland in Baltimore and Aaron Roche in NYC, while John Congleton mixed it in Dallas.
The importance of being alone is a big running theme on this record, reflecting Wasner’s move from native Baltimore to Durham, North Carolina in search of a quieter place halfway through the making process. “I now live alone in a giant house in the woods. At the end of the tour opening for my friends Sylvan Esso, I was sitting down at their house admiring the neighbourhood and they told me that the house next door was available, so I impulsively decided to give it a try. A lot of the songs would have not existed if I hadn’t been able to leave behind some of the distractions of a big city and be present in a quiet space with myself.”
Wasner defines Flock of Dimes as experimental pop-music. “It’s pop music because I intentionally wanted a lot of the songs to be accessible, so that people could feel themselves in them, but the songs are also a bit odd”, she points out. “I always try to write music within a form, but in a way that is interesting to me.”
For this album, she was mainly trying to craft a universe for the songs that felt right and authentic to her. So, along with the synthesizers and the drum machines -on which most journalists seem to fixate, simply labelling the project as electro-pop - there are just as many organic elements like guitar, piano and pedal steel. “One of my biggest heroes is Arthur Russell, whose music has been extremely varied, encompassing many different styles, and like him I am also drawn into not limiting myself and the sounds I can use based on the music genre I am trying to make. In fact I think some of Flock of Dimes songs are the most interesting and complex I have ever written.”
Aware that a lot of people might write this record off because of the way it is produced, Wasner wants
to try and have different versions of the songs available to people. So recently, together with Swans’ Thor Harris she performed a version of “Everything is Happening Today” with xylophones, pedal steels, violin and viola in Dallas, followed by another stunning version of the song re-arranged by William Brittelle and backed by the String Orchestra of Brooklyn at NYC’s Poisson Rouge. “Britelle had worked with Wye Oak before, adapting some of our songs into formats for chamber ensemble and even bigger orchestra, so I wanted him to work on this with me too”, she explains. “Collaborating with these full-on orchestras of world-class musicians was at first very intimidating, but then it actually made me feel more confident about my abilities and what I can contribute than ever before. Everybody is bringing their distinct skills and there is a lot of mutual respect.”
Probably her fondest memory of her now ten years in Wye Oak is another performance with a Symphony Orchestra in her native Baltimore. “Playing versions of songs never played before after practicing for just a couple of hours, in front of a sold-out crowd, with all of our friends and family there, could have gone so wrong, but it just landed perfectly, and I actually felt that I was performing at my highest level”, she recalls. All these Symphony shows are unique, as they happen only once and are over in a flash, so if you are nervous you might not be able to appreciate what is happening in the moment, but on that occasion Wasner felt more present on stage than ever before. “The fact that I was able to be in front of a hometown crowd playing music that I was very proud of, feeling so comfortable and enjoying every minute of it, was probably the best moment of my life as a performer.”
Wasner took some piano lessons as a kid and has a bit of a theoretical background, but she mainly understands music on an instinctual level. “When I hear a part that I can conceive, but I can’t actually play, I can go to someone that is better at that instrument than me and tell them what I want. I don’t really need to be the greatest in every single thing, as I just envision how things should be and then reach out to people that can help me realise them.”
After taking it for granted for a long time, only recently she realised that her voice is probably the instrument she can play the best. “My voice is the only thing that is distinctively mine and the easiest way to express myself in the most immediate way”, she adds. “Since I started treating it as an instrument, practicing constantly and putting a lot of effort into it, it has got more and more satisfying and rewarding.”
Another great recent achievement was having Reverend Guitars contacting her to create the Jenn Wasner signature guitar, which combines the dynamic power of the Charger HB, a model she has been playing for a long time, with the visual aesthetic of her solo record. “When they approached me I was conceiving the visual art for the Flock of Dimes album, and as on the cover there is an abstract painting of me wearing a jumpsuit, I thought it would be really cool to have that guitar miming the jumpsuit patterns. So we got my talented friend April Camlin, who had designed the jumpsuit to also design the guitar”, she explains.
And as if she wasn’t busy enough, Wasner is already thinking of a new Wye Oak album. This year they only released Tween, a collection of outtakes from previous records, but her bandmate Andy Stack is already working on new material. “When I get home from the tour I have lots of ideas from him to work through and expand upon, while he will be on tour playing drums in Lambchop this winter”, she tells me. They hope to have something complete within the next year. “For me it is very important to have both projects to exist simultaneously. Because I am very impulsive and have a very short attention span, I discovered that if I am only doing one thing no matter what that thing is I go crazy as it gets boring and repetitive, whereas if I have both I am more excited to be working on whichever project I have been working on, and it helps keep both of them more exciting and fulfilling.”
"If You Can See Me, Say Yes" is out now on Partisan Records Originally published on The 405
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Laura Gibson is gentle and soft-spoken, yet articulate and clever, just like her folk music tales. We meet up at the Courtyard Theatre in Shoreditch where she is about to play her second London show this year. Her fourth record, Empire Builder came out last April and is undoubtedly her best as yet, in spite of also being the most difficult to make.
Mainly written in New York City, where Gibson moved from native Oregon in 2014 to attend grad school, it reflects the struggles she has being going through over the last couple of years. Not long after moving she broke her foot, and a few months later her East Village’s apartment got destroyed during a gas explosion that killed two people. Gibson escaped unharmed, but she lost everything, including her notebooks filled with lyrics and song ideas, and all her musical instruments. The result is a record which is still decidedly folky and tuneful, but also has a rough quality that cuts through the unique musical arrangements.
How is the tour going?
Very good, I think. This is our fifth show of the second UK leg, including a couple of festivals over the last weekend, which was really fun, though festivals are always a little chaotic. I took a break in August, but before then I was touring in the States and I also did a short run over here. The record came out in April, when I was still in grad school for the first six weeks, so I was bouncing back and forth between school and touring. Now that I finished school I can tour longer.
John Askew co-produced Empire Builder. How did the collaboration come along?
I first met John quite a few years back when I sang on a record with the Dodos, Visiter, which John engineered. Then I kept seeing him around and as I liked his manners and the things he had made, I asked him to co-produce the new album. Initially I wasn’t sure whether or not I would be making another record any time soon because I was going back to school, so I just booked two days with him, thinking I was only going to wrap my head around it, but it was really productive as we got seven basic chords for songs, and almost everything we did during those two days made it on the record. John was very smart as he pushed me while also giving me the reins. It was a very good balance between sharing his own ideas together with interesting ideas I came in with.
Your New York apartment was destroyed during an explosion in March last year. At what stage of the new record’s production were you when it happened, and did you lose any material you were working on?
I was almost done. The songs were at various stages of completion, but we had done all the basic tracks by then and I was just going back to sing the vocals. All the sounds were saved in a hard-drive in Portland, but I lost my notebook with the lyrics in the explosion. A few days after the fire I woke up and started writing down as much as I could remember, and though I had days booked in the studio, after the fire I was going to cancel, but John was so encouraging yet gentle that I decided to go anyway. I sang half of the vocals on those days, and when I listen to them now I can hear how exhausted I was, because I had lost everything. My voice was almost unable to perform anything, it sounded so raw and honest in a way, and it would have definitely sounded different had I not gone back and sung those lyrics just after the fire.
Did you also write some completely new lyrics after the fire or it was mainly rewriting what you had already done?
I remembered maybe half of the songs and the other songs were at various stages of completion. It is difficult to say how they would have been had I not gone back and rewritten them, but I think part of the songs were rewritten from memory of what had been written before, part were written beginning again just after the fire.
You recently got a MFA in Fiction Writing. What was the thesis about?
It was a combination of short stories and a longer piece. All the short stories take place in Oregon and/or around Oregon in different time periods. The longer piece is about several characters in their late thirties including some jazz musicians and women working in shipyards. They are all quite lyrical, as I came in my strength being lyricism, rhythm and words, and I am still learning how to tell a story.
How much is your music autobiography and how much is fiction?
I think both. It is kind of autobiographical laid on top of fiction, laid on top of autobiography. Even for me who I wrote all that, it is quite hard to tell, as it is all different things I pull from different parts of life, from different things I have read, from different things I have learnt. My songwriting is about what I am trying to express in that particular moment, but there are moments of fiction, moments of details added or taken away in order to both portrait that well artistically, and also to get across what I want to get across in an honest way.
“Not Harmless” is probably my favourite song of the new record. The lyrics are different from what you usually sing about.
There were frustrations at the time, and I wanted to write a song where I was declaring my own agency for both good and bad in the world, a song where I was perhaps the villain. I often play the part of someone wise that oversees things, so I was trying to write a song in which I was both flawed and powerful at the same time, and I am really proud of what came out.
You moved from Portland to New York mainly for your MFA. Now that you are done with your studies, are you planning to move back in the near future?
I have my apartment in New York, so I think I will stay there for now, but eventually I will move back to Portland. It is just that I want to wait till the end of the tour, and also I have moved so much over the last few years, and a couple of those moves took such an emotional toll on me that I am not quite ready to move from the little home I made in New York.
You were born in Coquille, a small town in the Oregon South Coast. How much do you think where people are from can influence the art they make?
Coquille and New York couldn’t be more opposite. I am from a very quiet place at the edge of town, surrounded by forests, where there is so much space and so much silence. I think that has affected how I have made music over the years and the way I think about things, because when you have that sort of space you can be imaginative and thoughtful in a longer way. As for New York, there is so much going on, and almost to match the architecture you stuck thoughts, words and ideas on top of each other in a way that is quite different from where I grew up. But I don’t know if all that comes across on the record. I have always been interested in places, and that is why touring is always so rich for me and definitely affects my music.
What is your favourite part of the writing and/or recording process?
I really love all of it. I love writing songs and putting lyrics together. I think lyrics are probably the thing I spend the most time on.
Do you find more rewarding the initial impetus or the final stages of the process?
It is a different enjoyment. I enjoy just having an idea, but initial ideas don’t involve a lot of work, whereas finishing involves the most work, but it is so difficult yet the most satisfying, because that is when you take the initial idea and make it better. Now I am very pleased that I took the extra time to make this record and very thankful, but that wasn’t necessarily enjoyable at the time, it was actually quite painful. Though the end can seem very far from being an artist, it is part of being an artist too.
You have composed music for a lot of commercials. Many indie musicians are actually against the idea of having their music used for commercial purposes. What is your opinion on that?
I would never want my voice to sell a product which could cause harm to people, I would turn that down. Mostly, it is things that I have composed specifically for a commercial rather than my music being used, so it feels like a job separate from the job of me opening my heart, because I have never had something quite personal and decided whether or not I wanted the money for that.
Last year you wrote the music and lyrics for Up the Fall, a musical production created for performers with developmental disabilities, for the Portland-based Non-Profit PHAME Academy. How was the whole experience?
My goal for the project was to actually write towards strengths and not towards limitations. There were musical pieces just involving people on stage doing movements and not verbal, and some repetitive lyrics for certain songs, because for some members of that community it’s hard to memorize longer lyrics, but if it’s something beautiful it becomes something really profound in the repetition. That was a hard project, mostly because there were a lot of people involved and it was non-profit, which made it more complicated, but also very good. My favourite part was just the interacting with the performers, getting to know them and their voices, and try to write things that would suit their voices.
And would you also consider working on a movie soundtrack in the future?
Oh I would love to, that is a goal and dream of mine.
What is next?
I am collecting ideas right now. I have a few ideas for side projects outside of music, I want to get back to writing and also want to make another record just after touring.
“Empire Builder” is out now via City Slang Originally published on London in Stereo
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Before meeting Lindsey Troy and Julie Edwards, a.k.a. blues-rock queens Deap Vally, based on their music and stage presence I had pictured them as two L.A. eccentric, rebel girls, a contemporary version of The Runaways. Instead, I found myself hanging out with two charming, polite and extremely professional musicians. No sight of alcohol backstage, just Troy on vocal rest, sipping a herbal tea with honey, Edwards with her gorgeous baby Mira, and a friend helping her out with her new-mum duties.
Their debut record, the gritty garage-blues masterpiece Sistrionix (which came out on Island Record in 2013), took the rock music world by storm and saw them climbing to celebrity heights almost overnight. With their powerful, visceral feminist anthems about career, sex and beauty, Deap Vally conquered the press, played massive festivals like Coachella and Reading, and gained a huge, loyal fanbase.
After touring endlessly, parting ways with their label, taking some deserved time off, going through personal changes and switching hair colour about a dozen times, the Californian duo finally started working on a new record. Femejism (yet another word pun created by Edwards) is probably a little heavier and catchier, a bit more ‘70s rather than ‘60s, but still very Deap Vally at its core.
Writing the sophomore record might be a tricky task for most bands, especially when the debut album was as critically acclaimed as Sistrionix was, but Deap Vally didn’t feel any pressure at all and after leaving a major label, they were actually excited to finally make music the way they wanted to. “We wrote Femejism when we were between labels so we financed it ourselves, therefore there was really no pressure because we did it on our own time schedule, being able to listen to each track and get perspective, while carrying on living our lives”, Edwards explains.
Aside from a couple of tracks produced by Deap Vally themselves, Yeah Yeah Yeah's Nick Zinner, whom Troy and Edwards first met while opening for the NY band at a couple of American shows back in 2013, was in charge of the production. After keeping running into each other at festivals, it was actually Zinner who offered his help should the girls want to make another record, something the L.A. duo was honoured to accept when the right time came.
While the first album was written completely outside of the studio, all the songs’ structure and lyrics of Femejism were discovered whilst recording in the studio. “Nick would sit in and make us do several spontaneous live jams in a row to try to accidentally find some awesome stuff “, Edwards recalls. “He was really brave to sit there while we free-jammed because that could be a scary musical experience! Then we would just email each other those IPhone recordings back and forth, debate which ones to incorporate in a song, then go back to the studio and start jamming those ideas into songs.”
Deap Vally have planned a visual accompaniment to every track of the new record. “The music definitely stands alone, but visuals are such a fun, awesome addition to it”, Troy says. “Creatively, I think our videos really opened up this album cycle”, Edwards continues. “For the first record the videos were very cool lifestyle, gritty downtown Los Angeles, whereas the videos that are going to come out for Femejism are a bit more fun and less cool, and a bit more surreal.”So far, for the raw , abrasive ‘Royal Jelly’, they teamed up with director Jess Holzworth to make a dream-like video starring Georgia May Jagger dancing as a mime, whereas Bosnian-born Canadian filmmaker and musician Nina Ljeti directed the more laid-back DIY-aesthetic video for "Smile More".
Together with visuals, the duo has always given a lot of importance to their look too, going as far as to design their own stage costumes with the help of stylist Michelle Rose. “We are not a jeans and T-shirt type of band. We love the idea of putting on a show and wearing on stage something over-the-top that you can’t find anywhere else”, Edwards points out.
Deap Vally is also known for performing shoeless, something that adds drama and coolness to their
shows. “It is nice to be connected to the ground as it gives you firm footing. There is no heel getting in the way or shoe constricting your foot. It just feels the most raw and vulnerable, which is important for us as performers”, Edwards explains.
Troy also occasionally knits hats on the road to sell at the merchandise table the same night. She actually learnt crochet from Edwards, when the latter was running workshops at her L.A. knitting shop. It is how the two met in the first place. “Unfortunately when we started touring a lot I had to sell the shop, but it is still there, which is nice as I can just go there and visit”. Edwards tells me. “Nowadays I barely do any crochet anymore, as saying that I have no time is an understatement…”
Edwards has been very busy indeed. Along with being a mum, she has been playing bass in her husband’s band JJUUJJUU, and the couple are also the organisers of the Desert Daze Festival. Initially conceived as a side party of Coachella five years ago, the first edition became an eleven-day festival at a dive bar in the Colorado Desert. Reducing the number of days, the following year they decided to carry on independently from Coachella and kept going from there. This year the festival will be run in Joshua Tree from the 14th till 16th October, featuring a lineup bigger than ever with the likes of Primus, Television, Suicide and The Black Angels. “It has been really blood, sweat and tears”, Edwards comments. “My husband is the real curator. Everybody around him is piping him with ideas, but he is the one busting his butt getting the lineup together and figuring out things. Festivals are so much fun. We love the challenge to win the audience over, and also you keep running into the same people so you make friends. It is like a summer camp!”
Finally, we ended up discussing weird objects kept in our house and Troy tells me that she still has all her wisdom teeth in their little case, while Edwards has kept the dead mouse that her cat caught preserved eternally in formaldehyde. Maybe, after all, they are the eccentric girls I pictured them to be……
Femejism is out on 16th September via Cooking Vinyl