‘And it reminded me why this thing exists, and how lucky I am to have someone else that can connect with it, and have it be theirs, as when I finish writing a song it is as much another person’s song as my own’ – Siobhán Kane talks performance, touring and boundaries with Wye Oak‘s Jenn Wasner.
For the last decade, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack have quietly been making beautiful records, speckled with dream pop and folk-rock to create work of rich depth. Their first – 2007’s If Children, led to them being signed to Merge Records, on which they have released The Knot (2009), Civilian (2011), and this year’s Shriek.
Both Stack and Wasner are from Baltimore, a place that has provided another touchstone, although Stack has spent the last while living in other parts of America, while Wasner has remained, but embraced new musical projects such as the R&B influenced-Dungeonesse. These shifts have informed their newest record, which is about renewal and evolution – a guttural call about not giving in to fear, and which exudes real joy. Ahead of their Dublin show, Siobhán Kane talks to Jenn Wasner.
At the end of your tour for Civilian, you had performed more than 120 shows, and in a sense, your exhaustion provided the basis for what would become Shriek. It is a pretty crazy life to try to live for sure [laughs]. I think there was a realisation that we came to, that we are still working through. Being a musician now at this point in time is very tricky, it’s unusual to not have to tour an excessive amount. We actually talk about this a lot. I consider myself a musician, and singer songwriter, but my actual job description is something more like entertainer, which is not something I like, but this is what it has come to, if you want to make any kind of living doing this. We want to spend as much time being musicians and a little time as possible being entertainers.
You have previously mentioned that you are a studio band more than anything, and you love that process. That’s how I would love to spend most of my time, instead of repeating the same songs over and over every night. Everyone’s got to work, but you have to learn to stand up for yourself, otherwise you will burn yourself out, and we did.
It’s interesting that Kate Bush is doing some concerts later this summer and autumn, considering that she is more synonymous with the studio, and hasn’t toured since 1979. That is possibly your ideal state. I have been thinking about this a lot, as we were asked to do a Kate Bush cover for the AV club in the States, which is up online right now. We chose Running up That Hill. The way it works is that they give you a list of songs to choose from, and you go into their office, and they film a live video of you performing the song, and ask you to talk about it a little, and that is exactly what I said, that I have always admired her for her unwillingness to compromise on how she spends her time. Having to relinquish control over your image, the way you are seen, observed and understood is awful – I have admired her for knowing her limits, and refusing to compromise for reasons that are completely understandable.
It also doesn’t necessarily equate that an artist is going to be a natural performer, either, or get satisfaction from that. Yes, not all people that are creative are also performers and entertainers, it is an entirely different skill set. It is funny to me that people think they go hand in hand, I have had to really work on it, and it doesn’t come naturally to me, and is not my true calling – but because of the world we live in, it is impossible to make a living off making records alone nowadays, no matter who you are, so we have had to get used to it, but I am still trying to to figure out a way around this, more and more. At the moment, touring is a necessity, if you want to make a living from your music, and it is a tricky thing.
It is not that every time I play a show I hate it, it is more that touring to excess is really difficult. Some days, like for anyone, you feel great and normal, and happy, and some days you feel like a freak and don’t want to even step outside the house, but if you are on tour you have no choice. The real irony of it to me is that being a “professional musician” takes me away from the act of working on my music more than working a day job ever did. That is a brutal irony, because touring is such a 24 hour day lifestyle, it is near impossible to work on new music and work on new things, which I love to do the most. We have been a band for 10 years now, and there has been a lot of evolution already, as to what the project means for us, in our lives. We really want to sustain it and keep making music together, we can’t fight the evolution, as our lives change, we need to remember to let this project change naturally, as well.
It’s a harder thing to do, when you get older – making changes can seem like a heavier task, which is another kind of wound, because that is exactly when you need to start making more changes. No kidding! I think everyone feels that way, and one of the biggest lessons I have had to teach myself is to understand that yes, it is frightening and difficult, but not to fight it – if you fight it, then emotionally you cope by just becoming numb, at least for me, if you don’t allow that evolution to occur naturally then you just shut down. Feeling nothing is way worse than struggling with difficult, complicated feelings. I would rather be turned on than completely shut off. Especially for what I do, I discovered that when I was touring to excess, and by forcing myself to continue, I did shut down, and it made it impossible for me to make music, and write songs.
What brought me round to making this record, and the way that it sounds had everything to do with that process of learning how to turn myself on to the world again, even though it was difficult, and not fighting change, I guess it comes down to that.
When I first heard your new record, the title made perfect sense, because sometimes when you cannot say anything, a shriek is all that you can do, just to let out a sound, anything – when you feel incapacitated. Yes, exactly! You’re one of the first people I have spoken to that hasn’t said “what’s up with the title?” – and I am glad that it made sense to you. I was overthinking something that is supposed to be an instinctive, cathartic, animalistic, and deep-seated thing… I had convinced myself intellectually that those things coming from that deep place were unworthy, or not good enough to share with the world, so it is a terrifying process, and it came down to me doing an act of self love, and realising that the things I feel, say, and make, are worth sharing with people. Even though it continues to be terrifying, and frankly an embarrassing process, as you are putting yourself in a very vulnerable place, it is so much better than resisting.
This whole process had a lot to do with how I am, and the way I work, and the evolution and change we needed to stay together as a band is not something people were expecting, and it was about letting go of that people-pleasing instinct and others’ expectations of what the project was “allowed” to be.
Baltimore has been a hugely creative influence on your work and life, and I have always loved the collaborative instinct between so many of the artists there. One of my favourite things is your collaboration with Future Islands on The Great Fire, it must be quite surreal for you to see what has been happening to them of late, they have always played as if they were playing to God, with such truth, and heart. [Laughs] Absolutely – I love that band. It is crazy to watch. I have been friends with them for years, and I have been a fan of them for years, it is a pretty remarkable thing, I am super happy for them. Speaking of true entertainers, Sam [Herring] is born to do that, without a doubt [laughs] – it is delightful to see.
Something Sam has, and all great musicians have, is an ability, and a need to connect genuinely with an audience, whether through the record player, or the live context. I had this experience the other night in Paris, and because of my strange feelings about performing, this doesn’t happen to me very often. We had just started playing Before, the first song we usually play, and I looked out into the audience and I saw this woman, and there was something about the look on her face – it was so pure, these feelings were written all over her face – it felt like watching this whole thing go full circle. It was really moving, and I was really struck by it. Just seeing her react to the song, and it shining through on her face, reminded me of what it feels like for me when I am first making something, it is then that I am in a very vulnerable, genuinely-feeling place. And it reminded me why this thing exists, and how lucky I am to have someone else that can connect with it, and have it be theirs, as when I finish writing a song it is as much another person’s song as my own.
I wonder what that woman was thinking of, or going through. I was thinking the same thing, but at the same time I kind of knew, because even though people’s experiences are very specific and unique, the way people feel in response to those experiences are so much the same, and that’s why people love songs, as they see themselves in them. It was a really powerful moment and it doesn’t happen that often for me.
Has that ever happened to you as an audience member at someone else’s concert? So often! That’s the thing. In Paris I think I was thinking “I can’t believe I am that person for someone else!” [Laughs] I have seen Bill Callahan a few times, and hearing some of his songs that I have grown with and adored is an experience, and I remember having a really powerful experience seeing my friend’s band – Lower Dens – they are wonderful. When they first started, and made their first record Twin Hand Movement, the first few shows I saw them play I thought “damn, this is the perfect band!” and I was in love with their songs, it’s especially cool that we are friends, as it’s great to see your friends do such awesome stuff.
You have been on Merge Records since 2008, and later this year you will be performing with Destroyer, and the Mountain Goats to celebrate 25 years of Merge, it seems like a perfect way to give thanks. We’re very lucky to work with Merge for so many reasons, and that show is going to be very special. Mac [McCaughan] and Laura [Ballance], who started the label are artists themselves, and have been touring musicians, and they know what it’s like.
It’s not all about money to them, and they are loyal to their bands and support them, and I am really grateful for that. As we age and evolve, and figure out how to perform less, I know for a fact there are plenty of bands on Merge who never perform, and they never drop them or stop putting out their records, they just change the way they put out their records, and work around them. I am not sure I know of any other label that does that. One of my favourite bands on the label – Lambchop -used to tour a lot but don’t much anymore, and Merge still put out their records, and it’s not all about making a profit from them, they want to be a part of their career, and that is very special.
Another concert to look forward to is your collaboration at the End of the Road festival with the Gene Clark No Other Band, which features so many great people; Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand of Beach House, Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen, Hamilton Leithauser (previously of The Walkmen), Ian Matthews of Plainsong/Fairport Convention and so many others. It is such a special thing. It’s going to be great. It was all Alex and Victoria getting everyone together, they handpicked the band. Everyone does such a great job too, the special thing being that they all do their thing in their own right, but it was this completely ego-less thing – everyone was all together and happy to play their small part. I have never really had an experience like this before, a big band, no-one is the star, we are all so excited to be playing together. When we found out that we were getting to do another show, we were all so excited. End of the Road is a great festival too. It feels like a real honour. Victoria has a lot of intense memories of Gene Clark’s record from her childhood, and it feels like a special honour to be part of it.
Things have changed quite radically from when you first started making music, in terms of the technological aspect, and the promotional aspect – and going back to what we were talking about earlier, that has changed, but the artistic impulse hasn’t – I suppose it is about setting up real boundaries about all the other stuff, it becomes like white noise anyway. It is uncomfortable for me, as it is hard to have privacy – you are expected as a band to promote yourself with Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and update all the time with where you are, and what you do, and if you don’t do that, then it is seen as strange. By many, you are expected to sacrifice every last shred of your privacy and humanity, otherwise you are not doing all you can to help promote your music. That’s a new thing. I am among those who don’t respond very well to that, I am a reluctant participant, and do it as little as possible. Just because you can doesn’t necessarily mean you should, me included, I don’t have all the answers. If you are handed this device that connects you to the digital world all the time it is hard not to become addicted to it, but awareness of it is important, as you can learn to regulate and use self-control and not mindlessly go along with it.
Boundaries – that’s a good way to put it. We have to learn that it is not our job to be available 24 hours a day, we have to be out of reach sometimes. I have to put my foot down with it, because without that time alone, to be alone, I will never be able to do any work.
That’s the only way the mind gets to truly reflect, and consider. Exactly. Everything we’re talking about has to do with instinct, it is not something that can be explained in rational terms, which doesn’t mean it is invalid. My lifeblood is dependent on how to coax these things out, it involves some trial and error, you have to listen to yourself, trust your instincts, and obey them – and insist that those needs will be met.That is what it has come down to, and why we have been struggling so much – the way you spend your days is the way you spend your life, and I don’t want to spend my life repeating myself over and over again, I want to spend my time doing the thing I really love to do, making work and getting better at what I do, and honestly, if it comes down to it, I am not going to make a decision that is so important about my life based on money and popularity – it’s not worth it.
When we were touring with Civilian, and arguably, things had never been better for us, we were miserable, it wasn’t worth it! We weren’t making things we were excited about, or spending time with family and friends, or bettering our craft. On paper it looked like we were having the year of our lives, but it sucked, it was terrible! But it’s okay, because it was a really valuable lesson.
I think people can sleepwalk their way through life without really thinking about it – the best shot you have at having a good life, and being happy is understanding yourself and what you really want. It was very easy for a while to just want to be in a successful band and make music for a living, but it turns out that it is nothing like you thought it would be, or it isn’t what you wanted, or isn’t making you happy, so you have to make changes – life is too short.
Wye Oak play The Sugar Club in Dublin on Saturday 14th June and McHugh’s in Belfast on Sunday 15th.