“Little green tree frogs:” Jenn Wasner’s newfound fascination with the green amphibians surrounding her Durham, NC home offers a window into the woman herself. Wasner focuses on the small miracles, and any notions of superficial beauty or social media grandstanding are eschewed in favor of poetic honesty, introspection, and empowerment. Along with bandmate Andy Stack, Wasner has been weaving these refreshing traits into her songwriting as one half of indie-pop favorites Wye Oak for over 10 years. On If You See Me, Say Yes, the debut album from her new solo project Flock of Dimes, Wasner takes a wide-eyed look at a life in flux. Bathed in synths and electro-pop optimism, the backbeat belies a wistful and world-weary outlook, as Wasner takes a step back from a majorly disconcerting move, personally and artistically, eventually emerging clean on the other side.
In 2015, Wasner left her native Baltimore, the city that had nurtured her personally and artistically her entire life, for a bit of Thoreau-inspired retreat and relocation in wooded seclusion just outside Durham, North Carolina. Though Wasner is known for her virtuosic guitar playing, with Flock of Dimes, she steps further away from guitar-driven cacophony, disappearing into lithe synth dreamscapes. There were seeds of this transition on Wye Oak’s 2014 album Shriek, but they’re fully blossomed on If You See Me, Say Yes. As Wasner makes clear in our interview, Wye Oak and Flock of Dimes need each other, and stepping outside her comfort zones is crucial to maintaining her sanity.
Was there a specific moment or incident that caused you to leave Baltimore?
It wasn’t that I was desperate to leave Baltimore. I was very happy there, and I really value the community. It was more a desire to be alone and to be removed from the context in which I’d shaped my entire identity. I was born there, and I never had the experience of leaving my hometown and getting to see the person I am when I’m outside that bubble. I really felt like I needed to have that experience in my life. I found this really cute house in the woods that I could afford to live in alone. I’d never lived alone before.
Was it scary to step outside your immediate support system?
It’s absolutely terrifying on all levels. The experience of going out and not being in a place where everyone knows me is crazy. It’s liberating, because there’s no context or baggage. I’m meeting new people everywhere I go. Even the most mundane bullshit, like not knowing where to do dry cleaning, is exciting. I’m learning to be comfortable with my own company. I did end a relationship, but that had nothing to do with the move. I’m not much of a relationship co-habitator. In Baltimore I lived in a warehouse with six other people. It was an art, music and performance cultural hub.
Is it hard for you to just come home, chill out, and fall asleep in that solitude?
It’s definitely difficult, but I meditate and do yoga. It’s really difficult to be at peace alone with just your thoughts. Our lives are one big distraction from that experience. In order to really get to know yourself, you have to learn to be comfortable with yourself in a really intimate, honest way. In the past, I had a tendency to use the company of other people like a drug. Instead of just being alone or working on music, if the distraction to party and hang out with friends was there, I would take it. Being in a situation now where that distraction isn’t available has been very helpful.
I’m living in this house in the woods, but it’s relatively central to Durham and Chapel Hill. It feels like it’s more isolated than it really is, which is perfect for me. I’ve got plenty of space for music to happen. I’ve got my drums set up, and I can make noise. I’ve got a little pond nearby and I’m absolutely inundated with these adorable, little green tree frogs. They’re on all the windows and doors. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I’m a city person, but I’ve always loved being outside. There are times when I miss the city amenities, but my peace of mind has never been better. My anxieties are lower, and I’m taking much better care of myself. I’m drinking less, so the move has been very good for me.
Did the If You See Me, Say Yes tunes spew forth in a burst of creativity?
The songs are all from the last couple of years. I went through a lot of self-editing on this record. I wrote what I thought was a complete record, but when I went to mix it, I ended up being unhappy with a good portion of it. I cut a bunch of songs and took another year to rewrite half of the record. It was definitely an extended period of time. Self-editing really encompasses everything for me. It’s really easy to just slap the first 12 songs you write onto a record and call it a day. I try and be more intentional with my work. Music invokes feelings, and I’m trying to capture feelings without the use of words. Words are a big part of what I do, but for the feeling, I have to trust my intuition. I was looking for something, and I wasn’t even sure exactly what it was. I knew that I hadn’t found it, so I had to take my time. You only get one first record. This was my only shot to really make this what I wanted it to be. The only deadlines I had were self-imposed. I decided that I would take as much time to be happy with it, at all costs. I’m really happy I waited and had the patience and foresight to make that decision. I wanted every song to be what I consider ‘single-worthy.’ It’s not like I expect everyone to feel that way, but I wanted to feel that. That was a tough situation for me, and pretty ambitious. It was very important for me to look back and say, ‘This is the best that I can do.’ That was the goal.
This is not just a break from Wye Oak. These songs screamed to be realized.
It’s very important to me that people realize that Wye Oak is very much alive and a big part of my creative universe. It’s a little frustrating how reductive people can be. I started making music because I love making music. In no way do I think I should be limited to only one project. I think that kind of language only comes into play when you start selling the music. Marketing something revolves around finding an angle and repeating it over and over. That’s not how creativity works for me. These two projects have to coexist. They both need each other. I get tired of things really quickly, and want to put a lot of new stuff out into the world as fast as i possibly can. Because of the way the album cycle process works in the music industry, you can’t do that with one project. It takes a lot of time to get an album out with a band like Wye Oak. It occurred to me that I was going to need different angles and avenues to put songs out into the world. Working on Flock of Dimes has made me more excited about collaborating with Andy in Wye Oak. Working alone is very difficult in a lot of ways, and it really makes me appreciate collaboration. I feel better about both projects, because I’m not confined and restricted to only one thing. Wye Oak fans should be thrilled that Flock of Dimes exists because it’s only going to encourage and improve everything going into Wye Oak.
Did you feel that critics or fans weren’t willing to go on the Shriek journey with you?
I think that was a narrative that people really jumped on in the theoretical internet world. Andy and I were both pretty unhappy with how reductive the press was surrounding that record. I think people took the easy angle and ran with it. I think that record is our strongest collection of songs to date, and I continue to be extremely proud of it. Outside of the internet, in the tours we did immediately following Shriek, people would get excited when we’d play old songs from Civilian. Now, people get excited when we play the Shriek songs. We had almost convinced ourselves that wouldn’t happen. People need a minute to live with a record, outside of what people are telling them. It was vindicating to see people reacting so positively to the Shriek songs. We’re in a really good place with it. Everything is on the table now and we’re able to branch out and spread our wings and make music we’re excited about, without any limitations as to what that should sound like.
Are you given to anxiety or panic by feeling stifled or pigeon-holed?
If that’s my nightmare, then I’m living my nightmare. [Laughs] One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that I can’t control what people are going to say about me. I was just having this conversation with my manager today about how frustrating that is. People will say, ‘If You See Me is your 80s, electropop throwback album!’ I don’t think that at all. I feel like it sounds like its own universe. There’s just as many organic as inorganic components. Synthesizers and drum machines have been around a long time. All these tools are on the table, and they’ve been on the table for a long time. It frustrates me that people assume that it must be a throwback to a certain time. It really just dates the person who writes that. It’s just like Wye Oak being labeled a folk band throughout our entire career. There may be elements of traditional folk, but I think that’s pretty reductive too. I have two choices being faced with this reality. I can drive myself crazy, or I can put all my effort into making the most concise, direct and fully-realized version of my vision that I can. If I know that I’ve done that, the rest is out of my control. I’ve chosen to channel all of my frustration into making sure I’m doing the best I can. I have to let go of the fact that some people aren’t going to understand it. Some people will, and it’s there to be understood. Instead of just calling Flock of Dimes an electro-pop project, I’ve seen a lot of people who get it for what it is. Why can’t we just take things at face value, rather than dating them with old references? We need to let that shit go, man. I wish people had a broader frame of reference.
The album feels like stepping away from a precipice or a swirling moment of intensity and hitting pause to evaluate.
Yeah! I love that analogy. I think that’s my process for songwriting or creativity at any level. It’s how I process my reality, and having the presence of mind to step back and observe what’s happening to me as it’s happening. I think that’s one of the most important practices in life, whether you’re a creative person or not. Being able to observe and be present in your life as it’s happening is so important. I process my feelings and thoughts through songwriting but there’s a lot of ways one can do it.
The soundscapes feel very open and spacious. It feels like the soundtrack to wanderlust.
I was, and am, doing a lot of traveling in my life—even before the move from Baltimore. I spend a large portion of my time coming and going and being an observer of my own reality from a distance. It’s a really strange sensation to have. It feels like being in orbit around my life. I did a couple of solo road trips across the country which I absolutely adore. It feels restorative for me. There’s a lot of that wanderlust on the record.
With Heathcliff Berru going down and so many women coming forward about sexism in the industry, have you seen the boys’ club start to crumble?
Not as much as it needs to, but it’s great that people are talking about it. It’s great that the word is out that it won’t be tolerated at any level, in any way. I think that we’ve taken a great first step, and it’s encouraging to see people coming together to self-police the industry. This shit is not going to be tolerated anymore. I think that sexism in the industry and life in general happens in more subtle ways. It’s important for me to point it out where I see it. Often, it’s not intentional, but comes from cultural conditioning. It’s OK. We all have our moments when we do or say something that we don’t even stop to realize where it’s coming from. We need to correct ourselves and do better in the future. This culture of outrage and shaming can definitely be taken too far. I think it’s important to not approach people with aggression but with kindness: ‘This is why what you said is problematic.’ I want people to think about why that thought came into their head. Those conversations are the ones where people tend to have their hearts and minds changed. Arguments just result in more arguing.
As I go through the world, I try and point those moments out, and have productive human-to-human conversation. Most people’s hearts are in the right place, but they’ve just been socially and culturally conditioned to feel a certain way. That is where we need to attack the problem. Why is anyone surprised that I’m good at guitar? I don’t think anyone should be surprised or amazed by what I do. I want the credit I deserve as a default human being, not as patronizing, extra credit because I’m a female. It’s a weird, delicate balance. I was really happy to write that piece about playing the guitar because I needed to get a lot of that off my chest. I was expecting to be misunderstood more than I was. A lot of people really related to it. I just want to be a fucking default human being on this planet. That’s what everybody wants when it comes down to it.
Wye Oak is 10 years old. In 10 years, where would you like to be personally and professionally?
I would love to be totally out of the game. [Laughs] I’m only half joking. My struggle is that I love making music and consider myself incredibly blessed to be able to do it for a living. I just really don’t want to be famous. Even with the increased amount of notoriety that I have now, which is at a really moderate, reasonable level, makes me really uncomfortable. I don’t like it. I’m not an attention-seeking person. I’ve always been trying to find this balance in my career where I just want to make music and put it out there for people to enjoy. Or not like, as they see fit. Unfortunately, the self-promotion angle in this business is exhausting and painful. It’s part of the deal, and almost more important than the music itself. I find it really distasteful, and it goes against the way I am as a person. In the future, I’d really like to move into a more behind-the-scenes role. I’m always going to make records, even if they’re just available on Bandcamp. Whether I’ll continue to play the game and be a part of the promotional machine, the jury is still out on that one. I’d love to produce and play on other people’s records. I don’t want to shame anyone who is cut out for that lifestyle. But self-promotion, or embarrassing myself for a living, is just not for me. Their image is their art. I want to be a lot more private than I am. I’d love to not be on social media at all. That’s always an ongoing compromise with the people I work with. They’re always saying, ‘You need to do more!’ I would love to do nothing, but I’m trying my best!
Just take pictures of tiny green frogs and post that to Instagram.
I think my last two Instagram posts were frogs actually. [Laughs] I don’t like to do things that feel disingenuous. To a certain extent, all social media feels disingenuous to me. It’s not how I like to express myself. I don’t like having to reduce things down to little snippets. I’ve learned that it’s unavoidable but I’ve managed to make decisions about my career accordingly. Andy and I were both fortunate that we figured that out early. We want something that’s sustainable and creatively fulfilling, but we’re not in it to be famous.