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Aby Wolf has been the Twin Cities' secret weapon of harmony for years now. However, the gifted vocalist's debut release fronting electro-pop ensemble A.Wolf and Her Claws is a far cry from the personal, delicate acoustic tracks she showed off three years ago on Sweet Prudence.
In person, Wolf is a magnetic presence with a bold head of hair featuring lines shaved into one side. During a recent conversation with City Pages, her generous smile and alert brown eyes give her the sort of commanding presence that puts you simultaneously at ease and on edge. And ever since she began releasing her own work and performing backing vocals for artists like Dessa, Dark Dark Dark, and Brother Ali, it's safe to say her artistry has done the same.
Wolf's spellbinding vocal range can be as gentle as a breeze or as domineering as a thunderstorm, and it's that versatility that has allowed her to soar from hip hop to electronica to jazz, and then some. Sweet Prudence itself was a solo folk album with an R&B slant, like a new-age Ani DiFranco, but so much has changed since then.
"On Sweet Prudence, like the folk thing, that was super personal and very vulnerable and very soft, kind of like a 'cracking open the shell' sort of feel, which you could say was a very intimate experience," says Wolf. "But as far as where I feel like I want to go, [the music] has to be a lot more viable to play in clubs.... Pop music is a lot more accessible. I felt like [Sweet Prudence] asked a lot of people as an audience in a live setting, more so than something that has catchy beats and live drums. It feels great to have something that's a little more bouncy."
To attain this, Jesse Whitney (synthesizer), Joey Van Phillips (drums, vibraphone), and Linnea Mohn (backing vocals, keys, bass) came together in January 2011, when the Cedar Cultural Center asked Wolf to join the 416 Club Commissions, and collaborate with artists she had never worked with before from different genres. Experimentation paid off: The debut album from A.Wolf and Her Claws is layered with synthesized drum beats and vibraphone notes, and Wolf has added layers of ambiguity and abstraction to her lyrics. The 10-track offering is a haunting, intelligent collection, which transplants the listener in Wolf's own dewy, mystical reverie, and there is no trace of the acoustic guitar.
"The recording process was a really slow thing, lots of distance between sessions," she says. "To have a week or two weeks and then come back and record again, there was a lot of time to kind of sit with those tunes and let them steep and grow on their own. A few of them, I came back after all the other instruments were built onto each track and would rerecord the vocals, because with all that instrumental support, the song was asking more of the vocal track."
A.Wolf and Her Claws show impressive range within these electronic confines. "Rise Anew" has an orchestral quality to it, while the vocal harmonizing from Mohn on "Zero to 60" takes the song from dubstep dance to hymn and back. "Disassemble" is an eerie lullaby sung from the perspective of a caterpillar trapped in a cocoon. And although the lyrics may be less confessional this time around, there's no confusing these tracks with your average empty-headed pop songs — Wolf thinks too deeply for that.
"I wanted to strip away some of the specific details of my personal experience and just make it something that other people could latch onto," she says. "There's still distilled, zen-influenced observations and thoughts that are incredibly appealing to me. Sweet Prudence was so incredibly intimate.... Those elements are still there for me, but I feel like I've just made them more like a Sharpie drawing — like bold lines and structures that other people can color in for themselves."
Be it the nuances of Sharpie drawings, or any of her past collaborations, it's certain that Wolf looks at situations from different angles and finds inspiration in unlikely things, and that attitude is reflected in her music.
"I feel so much more connected to this, and so excited about the project," says a beaming Wolf. "It's the kind of thing where if someone is doing something that makes them happy, other people around — and in particular in an audience — can only feed off that. It almost doesn't matter what you were doing before; if you seem happy now, something's going right."