Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner: The choice was between making this record or no record at all

Baltimore duo Wye Oak might not have ever made it to a fourth album at all. After career-boosting success on 2011's definitive Civilian, guitarist/vocalist Jenn Wasner and bandmate Andy Stack felt inspired and grateful for opportunity and a real audience, yes, but also more-and-more dimmed by a seemingly insurmountable creative stalemate. The tried-and-true formula of sonically nuanced folk-rock began to feel uninspired and, with no clear solution, the future of the band was gravely uncertain. But after swapping her guitar for a bass, Wasner felt the smoldering ember of her ambition reignited. And in a manner as cathartic as its title suggests, Shriek was released, along with it, her pent-up reservations.

Ahead of Wye Oak's headlining slot with Braids at the Fine Line this Thursday, Gimme Noise chatted with Wasner about paralyzing self-doubt and the band's new synth-centric sound.

Gimme Noise: Your fourth album Shriek is finally here!
Jenn Wasner: I'm super excited about it! It's just so weird because it's been finished for so long. It was so far off in the distance that it wasn't even real but now it's actually happening! It's so exciting to finally be able to really share it with people and have them share their feelings with you about it. It's one of my favorite parts of the whole process surprisingly enough. I'm really happy to finally see it out and about.

When was the idea initially conceived?
About a year and a half ago, maybe a little bit less. I think the bulk of it was over the summer of 2013 and then we went into the studio last September, mixed it in November and mastered it in December. So we've pretty much been sitting on it since the beginning of December. That's five months, which is totally a normal amount of time when you're talking about the way that the record industry works. But for me it always seems like an eternity. I always want to share whatever it is I've made the second it's finished.

Following the last Wye Oak release Civilian you hit a creative wall and there were very real questions as to whether you'd ever make music again. Do think that this release is especially emotional or triumphant because of overcoming those doubts?

Yes. Absolutely for sure. There was definitely a time where I believed fully and completely that, not only would I never write again, but that even if I did I wouldn't be in a position to be releasing a record. Thankfully all of the work on Shriek seems to be pretty intact. You're going through this process and there is always going to be a lot of different opinions floating about, but the overriding emotion that I really have and have been experiencing every day is joy, relief and excitement.

I don't regret making this record and I'm just so grateful that it exists and it absolutely means a lot to me knowing how strongly I felt that I'd never actually be able to do it again. I think that's sort of the way that I work for some reason. I go through these pretty drastic feelings, but it seems like I'm more aware of it as a pattern. I'm a little more comfortable with the process as opposed to experiencing a lot of these things for the first time and being fully and completely consumed by them. Now I have a little bit more perspective. Everyone feels the lowest of the lows and the highest of the highs at different points. I'm just happy that I managed to figure out something that works for me so that I can keep doing this.

Was it a difficult realization to come by, figuring out that you had to make some sort of change? At what point did you realize what you had to do?
I think there's a long time where I realized that I had to do something but didn't know what it was, a pretty agonizingly long time in fact. And that's sort of more l big picture stuff, too. There's a lot of stuff I'm still working through and a lot of it is so much bigger than "Is there gonna be another Wye Oak record?" But on a smaller scale I realized I had this new, conscious vision. I guess I eventually thought to myself that what we needed was a new band that looked the same. I had this vision of me playing bass, which I had been doing a lot in other projects and bands and really enjoying it. So I had that picture and it was really exciting because it basically inverted the entire process. On paper and on stage and digitally it's still exactly the same as what it used to be, but it totally inverts the fabric of what is going on musically, we're basically trading off what we are responsible for. It was exactly the kind of new and different approach that I needed to feel excited about music.

I didn't want to make an entirely new thing and call it Wye Oak because I felt like that would be disingenuous. But with this setup it felt like it was still very much the same thing, just from a different angle. It felt new but it also made sense in the lineage of what we've already done. That was a really exciting moment and it at least solved a lot of the problems I'd been having with this particular band. If I'm not examining every angle and figuring out how to progress and go forward and be excited then I'm really not doing my job as a musician or artist or person. I'm not interested in doing things that I don't feel fully and completely passionate about. It was especially validating to get to a point where I felt like I had achieved that without starting over from scratch. That's when this record started to become a possibility and I started writing pretty furiously.


What's your relationship to the new, synth-y avenues of sound that you have developed? Is it more a product of realms you wanted to explore or musical styles that influence you?
I think it's all of the above. The biggest part of it honestly was that the entire process has been changing because I've been being more involved in the recording and production sides of things, which is a fairly new skill for me. It's something that Andy has always done, and he went to school for that. I'm more self-taught and am still very much learning. Basically once I acquired this recording setup I started becoming way more interested in producing these beats and doing it on my own and without filtering my ideas through a middleman. It partly had to do with Andy living farther away from me because if I had an idea I had to record it and document it in a way that made sense to share with him. So it became a necessity and it became engrained in a part of the writing process.

Because of that it changed the way that I wrote and it changed the way I could incorporate all of these new textures into my ideas and they were able to become more complex. That was what I was the most excited about and that was what I wanted to spend the most time doing. The writing inevitably became all tied up with that and I think that's the biggest reason why the record sounds like it does. In large part it was the main reason why my entire process changed, entirely for the better. That's a big part of the reason why it's the best record I've ever done.

Is there vulnerability in making such a huge change?
It's something that you definitely think about but the thing is for me, the change wasn't really a choice. The choice was between making this record or making no record at all. There was a time when I felt unsure that I would ever be writing or making music again or expressing myself in an honest, genuine way. To get to do that again is the biggest relief and the biggest source of joy. I always say that the approval of others is a really pale substitute for the approval of yourself. And I love this record so much and am so happy that it exists so what other people think of it or how they react to it is really low on my list of concerns. I have absolute and complete respect for peoples right to their opinion and I knew going in to it that it wouldn't be everybody's cup of tea which is fine, that's the way it should be.

But I also think that people for the most part will respect the idea of someone needing to try something new or wanting to take a risk. Within the creative or artistic realm those feelings should be especially encouraged and embraced regardless of if you like the outcome. I have a lot of faith in people's respect of that. That's what the point of this project has always been. It's always been a songwriting vehicle and about the compositions themselves and so I feel like if they are as strong as they can be then people will sense that. And that will be the deciding factor. I was following my gut and letting myself do exactly what I wanted and the songs are much better than they would have been otherwise. That was what it took to get there.

It seems like there's no question that you feel the most deeply connected to this body of work.
Right now yes. The height of the experience of making music for me is the moment that I have the idea and I realize the idea. After that, every time that I play the song or hear the song I'm further away from that initial high point. Other people like Andy are technicians and every time he plays a song he gets better at it and it's more satisfying to him. So because of the way that I am and the way my creative process work it makes sense that I would be most connected to the newest songs. Those are the ones that are closest to who I actually am as a person and the experiences that I've had most recently. I've sort of come to embrace it.

It's never really lined up with the way that the music industry unfortunately works. We're forced to live these highly repetitive lifestyles to make a living and forced to live with songs much longer. But it's something that I had to come to terms with. I'm going to be excited about newer material because of the way that I emotionally connect with the music that I make. But that doesn't mean that I think that the older material is bad. It's just not coming from where I'm coming from right now. And that's just the way it is.

Wye Oak play at the Fine Line Music Cafe on Thursday, May 15 with Braids. $16, 8 p.m.

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