A few days ago, without warning, indie duo Wye Oak dropped a new album, Tween. It was a pleasant shock for anyone following the band, either from their beginning many years ago or from the critically acclaimed –and brilliant– Shriek from 2014. Featuring more guitars and a killer lead single, Tween had people asking what this meant for the band, and whether or not the 8 songs were a “proper album” or no.
On the way from their hometown of Baltimore to New York, their first pit stop before starting their East Coast tour in Connecticut, we caught up with Wye Oak’s frontwoman Jenn Wasner. In between tunnels and tolls, Wasner let us in on the background behind Tween, our mutual adoration for Kate Bush, and the importance of honesty and authenticity in art that takes chances.
Obviously y’all just had a new album, Tween, drop as a sort of surprise release. So big question off the bat is: take us through a little of that album. What’s the reason for the surprise and maybe the meaning behind the album and some of its themes, which seem to be rather serious?
Jenn Wasner: So this record is actually not a proper follow-up to Shriek. It consists of songs we wrote and were starting to work on after Civilian and before we made Shriek and later set aside. For that reason it was really important to us to not to a traditional album release. At every step we wanted to make sure we communicated to people exactly what these songs are and what the record, as a collection, is. That’s why the surprise release seemed appropriate because we wanted to have it be just like this fun, extra thing that people didn’t expect and then got. That kind of goes in line with the nature of it, being a bit of a grab bag. A quick and easy metaphor I like to use for it is like, if you’re making a record it’s kind of like writing a novel, where you’ve got these overarching themes and overarching aesthetic and everything kind of works together, ideally cohesively. Whereas these songs are more like a collection of short stories. They didn’t fit in to any of our albums as a whole, but in and of themselves as standalone tracks we really liked them and really like playing them, so we were just figuring out a way to put these out into the world.
A little more specifically, the song “Watching the Waiting” which was released with a video sort of as the single for the album, that video and song has some really intense imagery with a lot of interesting themes that it shares with the album cover as well. Could you talk a little about the meaning behind that song and the mirrors on the faces?
JW: So that song is about a lot of things but in a lot of ways to me it’s about learning to accept what you are, not just physically but also emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. Learning to then accept that and being able to better present that image of yourself, like a more genuine and honest image of yourself to the world. So I talked to Andy’s wife Ashley who did that video along with our friend Mike about some of these concepts that I had and they were really successful at giving wonderful visual representation to things that are very very hard for me to articulate. But yeah I think in a lot of ways this song is about finding peace with yourself and who you are and things that you do, and about learning to show your real face to the world. And also to do that in a way that lines up with what I like to call radical vulnerability. That is something I try to get down on a daily basis with the things I put out into the world and the way that I am in the world. It’s very hard because of course being vulnerable is hard and being able to build up this message to check yourself. But it’s very important to what I do, I try to encompass a kind of radical vulnerability.
I love that. That’s a really cool idea. Is that idea, of radical vulnerability, is that something that you came into from your own personal experiences or were there specific artists, authors, or other creators that were influential?
JW: I mean it’s a combination. The things I love and enjoy obviously influence me, as they do everyone in the world. I think I tend to connect most of the stuff that is very honest, aggressively honest and vulnerable and real. It depends on what you’re trying to do, but for the kind of music we make I would say it’s essential. It’s a combination of that and just getting older and learning to accept who I am and just deal with it. It’s taken many many years for me to be at peace with who I am and what I make, but I finally feel like I’m getting somewhere with it. A lot of the noise that was in my head that was super distracting and all-consuming in my 20’s has sort of faded now that I’m beginning a new decade in my 30’s. So in a lot of ways I think it’s a combination of looking inward and seeing yourself reflected in the things you love that other people make too.
You all had a really tremendous cover last year of one of my absolute favorite songs, “Running Up that Hill” by Kate Bush.
It’s one of my favorites too.
Her work and type of outsider-pop icon from her era has a lot of those ideas of vulnerability as well as some similar musical elements to Shriek and Tween. Do you think that kind of figure, the 80’s pop figure, has been influential on your songwriting and vocals?
JW: Well I think just to use Kate Bush as an example, she is absolutely iconic for me as far as being a songwriter and the way she presents and uses her body and her appearance and the way that what she’s feeling is written all over her face and every line of every song that she makes. She’s huge for me. It’s not so much a part of that particular decade or any particular sound or aesthetic, but in general it’s about people who are successful at representing themselves in a way that feels very genuine.
You will get true icons like people who are really iconic, they aren’t all like each other. They’re all like nothing else. They’re like themselves. So if you’re chasing these ghosts of identities that other people are putting forward, you’re only gonna be an imitation of any one of those, when really you could be the best at being your actual self. You only have so much control over who you are and the life you were born into, but you can do the best with what you have, and you can always tell when people succeed at doing that.
I agree. You know 2016 has tragically seen a lot of losses of these iconic figures both in music and outside.
JW: Oh my god I was just thinking about that too.
I was wondering if there have been any that were particularly impactful to you out of them all. It’s really been an awful year.
JW: Well I have a really weird relationship to mourning someone I’ve never met. It always feels really strange. Like you aren’t mourning a person and the music still exists for you to enjoy, but it’s still heartbreaking and I can’t quite put my finger on why. But yeah Prince was particularly sad. It was just a shock. David Bowie was a shock. Any of those experiences that we have where we’re able to collectively and universally mourn together are really interesting, and it’s interesting to think about the idea of celebrity as being a thing where basically all it means is that more people cry when you die. You’re human and you die, you live according to physics but the things that you make basically mean that the maximum amount of people cry when you die. It’s a really strange thing but I feel fortunate. As horrible as it was it was really amazing when the day Prince died I turned on the radio and every single radio station that I shuffled through was playing a different Prince song. And there’s something really powerful about having a universal moment like that. I think it happens so rarely.
I had that same experience, even though I was pretty young when I discovered Prince. But to jump back to Tween real quick, maybe the answer to this lies in what you said about when the songs were written, but though it does have a similar vibe to Shriek it does return to a lot more guitars and instrumentation for you guys. I wondered if that was just because of the timing or if it was a conscious approach that you’re trying to include more guitars. It was a shock for some people on Shriek when you moved away from the guitars.
JW: Well in my mind that was always really funny that people did that. I think it’s understandable because when you’re marketing your music you’re really sort of forced to compress it down to these really easily digestible terms, when the reality of course is a lot more nuanced. So everybody latched onto me like, abandoning the guitars and were like, “She hates the guitar! She’s over it!” And of course no I’m just trying to experiment with different things, and now we’re at a point where we can incorporate guitar and lots of other things into our palate and we have all these different options and it’s wonderful. And so it got kind of blown out of proportion in that way. But I think a part of it too is that we recorded these songs before Shriek happened, but we produced them largely after Shriek happened, so the basics were recorded and the basics were put together closer to the time of Civilian. But then we went back and reworked them after everything else after an intense learning process and experience of making Shriek. I think that was particularly fun for us to get to put what we had learned and put to use on these songs that were older and so the result is songs that sound kind of like both of those records. I think that’s likely where we’re headed and what future things might sound like? But it was cool to take things that were old and interpret them with the set of skills we’ve now acquired.
I mean tying blowing things out of proportion back to Bush, when The Dreaming, which she produced on her own people lost their minds and accused her of being a totally different person blah blah blah. It’s true people have a tendency to grab one aspect.
JW: Well truly brave creative decisions are often misunderstood in the moment. I think for me, that’s all the more reason to make them. I’d rather do something brave and interesting. Even if that means falling flat on my face, I’d rather do that then do something safe. There are things looking back on Shriek, I mean I think it’s our best record. But even looking back on that there are things where we’re like, “Oh that was shitty, oh I’d do that over again.” That’s just the nature of making stuff, you know?
There’s no way you can avoid that train of feelings, but it takes a lot of bravery to know that about the stuff you make and still be willing to put stuff out into the world. I think I’m very happy with the record we made and I’m happy with [Tween] too even though they’re different from one another. I think the heart is still ours, still very much the same.