Q&A with Wye Oak

Lead singer Jenn Wasner discusses the band's latest release.

By Lydia Woolever - August 2016

Q&A with Wye Oak

Lead singer Jenn Wasner discusses the band's latest release.

By Lydia Woolever - August 2016

-Courtesy of Alex Marks

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After 10 years as a beloved Baltimore band, local indie-rock duo Wye Oak has just released a new record (of sorts), Tween, in preparation for their fifth album. Having recently relocated to North Carolina, lead singer Jenn Wasner discusses the beauty of moving away and how Baltimore will always be home.

You guys don’t live in Baltimore anymore.
As of right now, Andy lives in Marfa, Texas, and I just moved to Durham, North Carolina, about a year ago. It was tricky for me because all my family and friends are in Baltimore and I’ve lived there my entire life up until this point, but! Now I have this really nice quiet peaceful little house that I share with no one. It’s just me, and I’m kind of tucked away in the woods, and can make music any time of day or night.

So yeah, technically neither of us live in Baltimore at the moment, but there’s a lot of weird baggage that’s comes along with staying and with leaving. In my mind and in my heart, I’m still very Baltimore-based and I fully expect that I will return.

I don’t think most people would even know you’ve left. You’ve had such a remarkable presence here over the past year, from BSO Pulse to BWI Live to your album release at the Ottobar.
I’m around all the time. When I first found this house, I had this theory that if I just didn’t tell anybody, then nobody would notice—and nobody did! Which doesn’t surprise me that much, because I’m a bit of a hermit, and I tour a lot.

Do you feel a big difference in your work, being away from the bumper to bumper of Baltimore?
Honestly, the biggest thing is just being alone. And not just “alone,” as in having your own room, but having your own space where you know no one can hear you and you’re not going to disturb anyone at any time. It’s changed the way that I work and my productivity has never been higher.

No more neighbors banging on the ceiling with a broomstick.
The real trick was that Baltimore is my favorite place, full of my favorite people, and creatively, it’s so inspiring, so overwhelming, there’s so much happening. But if you’re like me, and you’re bad at saying no to things, you are constantly doing things, and the one thing that always takes the back burner is your own time, spent alone with yourself. If you don’t take that, you’re never going to make anything. So I thought, well, I’ll just put myself in a new place and be better at making time for my own process and wellbeing, and it’s working! I do get homesick, but then it occurred to me: just go get in the car and drive to Baltimore. Once I realized that, this became a really wonderful gift that I gave myself.

Does the move have anything to do with the release of this “not-album” of songs from your past? Was putting them out in the world a sort of catharsis for the band?
Absolutely. Making a record is, in a lot of ways, comparable to writing a novel: you have a theme, you have a message, you make aesthetic decisions to group everything together in a cohesive way. But sometimes you write great songs that don’t really fit into any of those categories or don’t really make sense as a part of the larger whole. They’re like the short stories of song making.

So after two years, we had all these short story songs, and we took some time to really sit down and assess everything we’ve done and want to do. At the very least, we figured out what these songs were, and realized that even though they don’t necessarily fit into the classic "album," even though they fall outside of a really rigid structure that is set up to sell music as a commodity, they are still something we’re proud of. We were able to zero in on what makes them different and come to terms with the fact that we want share them.

Were there moments where you were thought: I don’t know if it’s going to come together?
Yes! I think most of the time we felt that way, because Andy and I are both really hard on ourselves, and each other, as far as making sure our work is the best it can possibly be. But in a lot of ways, the purpose of this whole thing was to take some of the pressure off our process and off creating “the next Wye Oak record.”

We’ve been a band for 10 years, which is insane, and just like any relationship, a creative relationship has to evolve in order to stay vital and interesting. It’s easy to lose sight of the reason why you make music in the first place once you’ve become this kind of music making, performing, touring machine. So this album is just a reminder for us to enjoy the process, and to make whatever music we make, and to let it be whatever weird, imperfect thing it is in the end.

The distinct and different natures of these songs meld together in such an oddly beautiful way. It makes you stop and listen.
When you’re known for giving people a certain thing, there’s nothing more powerful than defying their expectations. At a certain point, we came to a crossroads where we were like, okay, here’s what we do, and here’s what people think we do, so we have a choice. We can go the route of continuing to give people exactly what they expect, or we can try and run the horizons of what our band is capable of in hopes that people will follow.

For me, if I’m going to keep making music under this banner, it’s really important from a creative standpoint that all possibilities are available. A lot of people got fixated when we switched to keyboard on Shriek, like you’re over the guitar! You’re done with the guitar! And I was like, no, I just want to have a broader palette. Now we have this whole spectrum available to us for everything we do in the future, and that’s really exciting.

Along the same vein, you’ve been involved in some pretty exciting new projects over the past year. How was performing Pulse with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra?
Oh my god. It’s very rare that I have an experience where I know, as it’s happening, that it’s going to be one of the best experiences of my life. That day was so stressful and nonstop craziness. We got there at 9 a.m., spent the entire day sound-checking and rehearsing—most of those songs had never been run through with the musicians before—and then suddenly, it was show time.

And I was petrified, absolutely petrified beyond belief. But then I’m not sure what happened, but when I walked out onto the stage, the second I started playing, my nerves vanished. I could have been in my living room. I just instantly felt so peaceful, in control, and present in a way that I never have been on stage before. I just had this feeling that everything was going to go really well. It was really otherworldly, and borderline spooky. I think I just knew it was such a special thing and would likely never happen again. All my family was there. My friends were there. My hometown. It was such a magical experience.

Chills, is all we can say. And how was playing at the BWI Airport with WTMD?
That was an incredible experience for a totally different reason. I’ve been playing shows for a decade, and when I started out, I would basically be sitting in a room playing songs in front of a few people, being able to look at them in the face. But as your career stretches on, you get bigger and bigger crowds with more and more levels of detachment from the people you’re playing for. So before BWI, I wondered, if I was just in a room with some people, could I still entertain them, or do I need all this bullshit—the lights, the smoke, the big PA. If you strip all of that away, what can I do? What am I actually capable of? I went in not really knowing what to expect.

And not only that, but you have to play to people who are just getting off of planes!
No one knew what to expect. No one knew why I was there. And it was immediately apparent what each person was thinking. It was written all over their face.

Either “this is awesome” or “what the fuck.”
At times, it was devastating, because someone would look at you like you’re human garbage and ruining their day. But then a minute later, somebody would wander by with their daughters and stop and watch and hug each other. It was the highest highs and lowest lows on a constant loop for hours. But it was really empowering and I met all these interesting people, like a woman from Iran who said it was so amazing to see something like this because in her country, a woman could never do that. And it was so great to get all the trappings of professional musicianship stripped away and just play songs for people again.

You released the "not-album" at the Ottobar in June, too. Is it nice, after big venues and big U.S. tours, to be able to come home and play small, familiar venues?
As magical as the Meyerhoff was, playing a small rock club is a totally different experience. That space. That size. It’s kind of our natural element. It’s where we spent much of our lives. And it's a great chance for us to test the waters before we go into full-on writing mode for the next record.

Which is part of what you’re working on in your little pastoral home down south.
I’m also excited to announce that my first full-length Flock of Dimes record is coming out in September. It’s taken me years and years, and years and years and years, but I’m super, super, super excited about it—I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

It sounds like North Carolina has been doing wonders for you.
I’m getting a lot of shit done, you know? Making anything takes a whole lot of time doing nothing, and then eventually, all of that nothing adds up into something. Right now, it’s very important that I have this place and peace of mind, but Baltimore is always at the forefront of my mind and heart, all the time.

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