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Wye Oak: "I thought I'd never be able to write again"

01 May 2014, 14:30
“I honestly thought I was broken. I was starting to think about what else I could do with my life.”

Jenn Wasner is at home in Baltimore, honouring press commitments for the new Wye Oak record. It isn’t that long, though, since she was convinced that she’d never be in this position again. Back in 2011, she and Andy Stack released Civilian, their third full-length record since changing their name from Monarch in 2007. On previous releases If Children and The Knot, they’d traded primarily on a noisy, decidedly unrefined brand of folk-rock that sounded like precisely what it was; a couple of kids barely out of their teens picking up instruments and attempting to figure out the ins and outs of their own musicianship, and paying pretty much no heed whatsoever to present trends in the process.

On Civilian, though, it was pretty clear that something had changed. There’s no way anybody could listen to that album and suggest that it was born of a creative attitude that amounted to throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what stuck. It’s a record so elegant, so measured in its execution that it makes fellow Baltimorean duo Beach House look like Lightning Bolt. It has atmosphere in spades; there’s a tension running through it that couldn’t possibly be the work of a band that didn’t have a tight handle on every minute detail of their approach.

Where their older material regularly swung wildly between reserved and explosive, Civilian merely simmered; on the gorgeously moody “Plains”, Wasner only affords herself the briefest of noisy breaks from an otherwise tentative slow-burn. The title track eventually reaches crescendo, sure, but the way in which it gets there is an exercise in close control; the galloping drums take off first, before searing guitars join them at the climax. The manner in which “We Were Wealth” married ambience and euphoria, with such flair, confirmed how quickly Wye Oak had come to realise the value of restraint. The critics, in turn, realised the value of this sudden leap forwards, responded accordingly, and left the pair on the verge of a genuine breakthrough.

“All of these amazing opportunities kept presenting themselves,” Wasner remembers, “and we were so excited about it that we didn’t really say no to anything. We ended up playing more than three hundred shows in two years. Neither of us lived anywhere; we just put all of our stuff into storage, hit the road and stayed out there. We had no stability, no real routine. When you live like that for a while, you start to shut down a little bit.”

Some context probably wouldn’t go amiss here; when I saw the band play in Manchester in August of 2011, in front of - to give a generous estimate - around fifty people, Wasner apologised for looking tired, because they’d driven to the venue from Germany and barely made it in time for soundcheck. She delivered this appeal for understanding in pretty casual fashion, as if racing across Western Europe in the back of a beaten-up van to get to work on time was something that most of those gathered would be able to empathise with. That in itself tells you plenty about how accustomed the pair had become to such a gruelling day-to-day; privately, though, it was beginning to take its toll.

“I think when you’re in a situation where you know there’s no way out for a while, you start to detach yourself, emotionally, from the realities of it,” she says. “It’s a pretty classic coping mechanism, removing yourself from the things that cause you pain. I started to become aware that this was happening, that I was slipping into some kind of depression, but I don’t think I really realised the severity of it until I got home, and had time to reflect. I’d become totally cut off from myself, and I rely so heavily on being in touch with my emotions and my intuition that it inevitably caused a creative block.”

Back in Baltimore, Wasner now had thousands of miles separating herself and Stack, after months of living on top of each other; he’d settled in Portland, Oregon once they’d finally put Civilian to bed. She put out a couple of solo singles during the latter part of 2012, under the name Flock of Dimes. When the time came to start thinking about new Wye Oak material, though, she was struggling. “I discovered that all the tactics that I had used in the past weren’t working; I just couldn’t write the way I used to. For a while, I thought it meant that I was broken, and that I might never be able to do it again. I couldn’t really understand why it wasn’t happening for me.”

“Eventually, it occurred to me that a lot of the baggage of those past two years had become caught up with the way I was thinking about the guitar. I’d spent so much time playing it, and Civilian was such a guitar-centric project, that I guess I’d come to assume that there was an expectation that we would make another record the same way. Once I allowed myself to let go of what I thought this album was supposed to be, that mental block just lifted. It was an incredible relief, to realise that I could still do it - it just had to be different.”

Different will pretty much be the word du jour for anybody coming into Shriek expecting another Civilian; it’s as dramatic a departure from one record to the next as I can remember for quite some time. Wasner must have left her guitars down at her storage space when she went to pick up her belongings, because there’s only the faintest hints of them on this album; instead, the band have whole-heartedly embraced synths in what must, I suggest, have felt like a risky decision.

“Maybe it seems that way, but you have to think that there was a time where I never thought I’d ever write anything again. If there’s no songs, there’s no band, and I’d already accepted the possibility that I might have to figure out something else to do with my life. I’m curious as to how people are going to respond to it, but I’m just so happy that it exists, and that I like it as much as I do, that I’m not going to worry about it too much. It’s certainly preferable to no record, whatever people think of it.”

She’s perhaps underselling it a little there; once I’d managed to get past the creeping sense that the band’s PR had possibly mislabeled somebody else’s album and sent it to me by mistake, I began to appreciate how well Shriek reflects upon Wasner and Stack as musicians; where Civilian was chiefly concerned with mood and tone, this is all texture and groove - a field in which they had scant previous experience, but that they’ve pulled off with startling assurance. The sound of the record wasn’t the only uncharted territory for the pair to navigate, though; they needed to figure out how to reconcile their newly-bicoastal geography with the task of writing music together.

“Pretty much the whole record was written with me in Baltimore and Andy in Portland,” Wasner relates. “We knew we weren’t going to have the time or money to be able to spend a while working things out in the studio, so we had to plan ahead pretty excessively. The idea we had was to create these really fleshed-out demos, that we could use as a template. We wanted to have everything down, structurally, before we went to record; every part written, every idea in its right place. You can’t account for everything, obviously, but we thought that if we had a real blueprint, we could really get the most out of our studio time.”


Live photo by Wunmi OnibudoLive photo by Wunmi Onibudo

For Wasner, this meant figuring out an entirely new way of working; given that she’d already had to pretty fundamentally rip up her own rulebook by putting the guitar to one side, the timing was probably fortuitous. “The real change for me was that, if I was going to be able to share ideas with Andy, I needed to learn how to document them properly. I can’t just play him something I’ve come up with, on the spur of the moment, if he’s in a different time zone, you know? I had to record something fairly substantial, that was going to be worth sending to him. What that ended up meaning was that the production and recording of the album became tied up pretty inextricably with the writing process.”

“It freed me up to explore more complex ideas earlier on, and I think the songs are fundamentally better as a result. I wouldn’t have gravitated towards that if I hadn’t been forced to, but I had to realise something to show it to Andy - I couldn’t just describe it. It was a lot more fun working that way, for one thing, but the fact that what’s come out of it is better than anything I’ve done in the past is seriously exciting. I honestly think it’s changed the way I’ll write for the rest of my life.”

I thought I was imagining it at first - that perhaps it was some trick of perception, given that everything surrounding it was so unfamiliar - but Wasner has changed up her vocal approach pretty markedly on Shriek. She projected vulnerability and trepidation fairly obviously on Civilian, as was so often demanded of her by the subject matter, but this time around it’s the sounds surrounding her, rather than the topics of discussion, that seem to have had the biggest influence.

“I was ready to use my voice in different ways, for sure,” she concurs. “Coming to terms with how it sounds has been kind of a protracted process for me; ten years of my life, really. I think, like a lot of singers, I spent a lot of time feeling shy and weird about it. One of the things that really changed the way I thought about it, actually, happened while we were touring Civilian; I was diagnosed with vocal cord nodules, and I completely lost my voice. I mean, it was gone, and since then I’ve started to view it the same way you view any instrument; as something that could be cared for properly, but also something that you can improve your level of skill with. I wanted to pursue that, and I was able to with this record, because I’ve become a lot more accepting of how I sound now - the same way you become more accepting of yourself as a person as you get older. This is definitely the first time I’ve sung totally honestly, without trying to hide certain things about my voice.”

The fact that Shriek is effectively stateless - its gestation occurring halfway between two far-flung cities - is particularly interesting in the context of the band’s previously close allegiance with their hometown of Baltimore (and, indeed, their home state, having taken their name from the one-time official tree of Maryland). Wasner is staunch in her defence of the city, as would I be if Manchester’s most popular cultural export was as unremittingly bleak a self-examination as The Wire. “The thing about Baltimore, for a lot of people who have called it home, is that there’s an incredibly strong sense of community. It’s such an inspiring incubator for arts and music right now, because the environment you’re working in is so supportive, and so encouraging. That was still the case for me working on this record, and that’s really the only way in which Baltimore has ever permeated our music. There’s no real unifying aesthetic to Baltimore music, which is precisely what’s so exciting about it. I might not still be making music if it didn’t mean so much to me to be a part of the creative community here.”

The kind of digitally purgatorial manner in which the record was produced is reflected in some of the most abstract lyrics that Wasner’s ever turned in; the idea of sleep and dreams is a prominent motif throughout. “I think the mindset that you find yourself in, when you’re really in the zone creatively, is a lot like your state of mind when you meditate successfully,” she explains. “You’re in that weird semi-consciousness, halfway between waking and dreaming. I did try to combat a lot of my stress and anxiety by meditating more, and trying to be more present and aware, and it worked for me; I feel like I can tap into that creativity more easily now. As a result, there’s a lot of references to that weird state of mind on the record, and they’re all intentional.”

There’s little question that Shriek marks a genuine rebirth for Wye Oak; these are songs that, ultimately, pulled them back from the brink. They should, in theory, be better equipped for the rigours of the road this time around; Wasner stressed that they were keen to make their commitments more manageable this time, especially considering that the new instrumental set up has intensified the difficulty of playing live (given that, on previous tours, Stack would play drums with one arm and keyboard with the other, that’s no mean feat). As integral as the step away from the guitar has been to Wasner’s creative revival, though, she’s adamant that she hasn’t retired the instrument permanently.

“It was always less about abandoning the guitar, and more to do with opening up doors, so that this project could be whatever we wanted it to be. To be honest, I think it worried me that we’d come to be too readily associated with the guitar, because I never considered it a defining characteristic of what we do. I feel like, with this record, we’ve set the parameters for ourselves; from now on, we can just work as we feel inspired to do so.”

Shriek is released this week via City Slang. Read our 8.5/10 review here. Wye Oak play are currently on a world tour, with 5 UK dates set for May.

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