It was a long road, but Jenn Wasner is finally where she needs to be.
“I will say this: it’s important to work hard, but you have to know your limits.”
Wasner, the multi instrumentalist and vocalist best known as one half of Wye Oak, has just arrived in Chicago with her touring band in support of her debut solo album, If You See Me, Say Yes. Released last month under the stage name Flock of Dimes after three years in production, the album captures so many of the feelings and introspection that makes Wasner such a compelling artist and songwriter – with the added perspective that only comes with age, experience, and distance.
“That’s always going through my mind one way or another,” Wasner continues, as she steps outside of a bookstore in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, near Schubas Tavern, the venue she’ll be lighting up that night. While the rest of her band walks off the soreness of the long, dreary Midwestern drive by roaming the aisles of this local shop, Wasner sagely cautions against burnout inherent in a go-go-go lifestyle:
“There’s always another show, but if there’s no “you”; if you have nothing left to give, nothing else happens. It all disappears.”
From someone as prolific as Wasner, these words carry particularly significant weight, and provide plenty of food for thought.
Flock of Dimes plays Brooklyn’s Rough Trade on November 2, as well as Washington DC’s U Street Music Hall on November 4, and The Kennedy Center (opening for The National’s Bryce Dessner) on November 18. If You See Me, Say Yes is out now on Partisan Records.
Brightest Young Things: If You See Me, Say Yes opens and closes with a really powerful realization: “Sometimes it is right to have no answer, to sit with myself and remember.” That line really resonated with me – what was the inspiration behind it? It’s such beautiful, concise framing of so many “big” concepts.
Jenn Wasner: A lot of mantras that I use in my daily life to get through – [laughs] to move through the world in peace and harmony with myself – find their way into the music that I make, and that’s certainly one of them. I think it’s one of the hardest things to accept and learn to deal with as a human being on the planet, and especially for me: I really like to plan and think ahead and put things in their place. I’m a bit of a control freak. In many ways, I have done myself a great service over the years in trying to loosen that a bit, and trying to learn how to be present and be comfortable with where I am in any particular moment, literally and figuratively. To try and find the joy and peace in any situation, even if I feel like I don’t have a handle on where it is or where it’s going.
When I’m home, I make a point to take care of myself, meditate, and exercise, which has all really help settle some of the residual anxiety and panic that comes with trying to control the chaos that is our lives. And yeah – many of the lines that people seem to be drawn to in the record really come from these mantras that I repeat to myself to try and move through the world in more thoughtful, comfortable way. I’m glad that line resonated with you, because it’s certainly helpful for me to remember.
BYT: Honestly, the album couldn’t have come a better time for me, as I was going through some stuff and dealing with a lot of ambiguity. That line just punched me in the gut – so thank you.
Wasner: Of course! That’s one of the best compliments you can get.
BYT: It’s been about a year since you traded Baltimore for North Carolina. How has the adjustment process been?
Wasner: Yeah! I don’t know if I would say “traded” – Baltimore is still very much a part of my life, but in a different way. But yes, I did move a little over a year ago, which is crazy.
I’m right in between Durham and Chapel Hill, sort of equidistant between those two places, more or less. To be honest with you, I consider myself to be a city person, but I’ve been very, very happy there. It was something I’d been working towards for a long time, and I don’t think I realized I needed it until the opportunity presented itself to me on a platter. [Laughs]
I had no plans to leave Baltimore, as I was very happy there and loved my life there, but I was hanging out with some of my friends in their neck of the woods after a tour, and I loved their neighborhood and where they were. They mentioned that the house next door was up for rent. I’d never lived alone, and I realized I could afford to do it there and get out of the city, and have some space and distance from everything I had ever known – my family, my friends; all of it. In a theoretical way, I always knew I’d need that, but I had never found the right opportunity until just then. I’m really happy that I did it, and it’s been really good for me. I’m definitely in a much better, healthier, and more productive place. I’ve been doing much better with work since I allowed myself to live alone.
It’s weird because I miss Baltimore so much, and it’s such a big part of who I am personally and creatively, but I’m finding that I’m really benefiting from the distance. It was very easy for me to use Baltimore and the people that I know. and everything that was happening there as a distraction, and to lean into that when I was hitting a wall, and not really find out who I was and who I needed to be when I was on my own. I love that place, and I’m up there all the time, but this move is something I needed to do, and I’m really happy that I had the presence of mind to make that decision.
BYT: There’s something to be said about uprooting and moving to a new environment, and all the challenges surrounding that. You have to start over, and make new acquaintances, and sort of look inside yourself to keep developing the things you like, and change the things you don’t. A new environment is a great conduit for that.
Wasner: Yeah! And you know, because Baltimore is so fucking awesome – a place full of amazing people and music and art – I was super happy there, but it took something like this to give me the push to make what was at the time a really difficult decision, but has benefited me pretty tremendously.
BYT: You’ve previously said that you “don’t get behind the whole false modesty, deprecation thing.” That kind of confidence in yourself and your art is incredibly powerful. In which ways do you think this perspective has enhanced your abilities as an artist?
Wasner: Oh wow! [Excited] I love this question, and I have a lot of thoughts on it, but I’ll try to put it as briefly as I can.
I used to be very self-deprecating, and I still have those tendencies. It didn’t come from self-hatred as much as it came from trying to equalize and put myself on a similar footing as people around me, and it was more of a social tool than anything. But I really don’t see the point of making music if you don’t love it, and I’m lucky enough to say I love this record, and love the things I’ve made over the last couple of years and they bring me so much joy.
The reason I think I can say that is because I don’t think of music as being a competition – what I make is exactly what I want it to be for me, and it’s not better or worse than anything else. I’m just trying to be the best at what I am, or that I possibly can be. And when I’ve done that, I feel incredibly confident and there’s nothing anyone can see to dampen that, but I don’t think that because it means something to me, it has to necessarily mean something to other people. Am I just rambling? Does this make sense? I love what I do and I’m super confident in it, but I also think of myself as humble in it. It’s not better than what anyone else is doing, but I’m doing the best job of being exactly who I am, and doing what I want to do today. It feels so good to me that it doesn’t really matter what it means to other people because that’s more about them than me. I’m in a really great place with it.
It’s such a strange thing. I’m a real people pleaser, and for a while I was really desperate to make a kind of thing that would satisfy everyone, and I realized I was focusing so much on satisfying everyone else that I’d forgotten that the only real way to make anything true is to focus on making what you want to hear and saying what you want to say. Trying to people please with my art was a direct line to complete meltdown, writer’s block situation, and I had to look inward before I could move past it.
Getting back to your original question, I’m very confident and very open about loving my music, because there’s absolutely no reason to make anything if you don’t love it and you don’t believe it. It’s important to be open about this, and I don’t think people should interpret this as me thinking I’m better than anyone else. I genuinely love what I make and if anyone else loves it, I’m thrilled, but if not – first and foremost, it’s for me. And that’s why the record took so long. [Laughs]
BYT: You’ve put out three albums in the past two and a half years – though I know Tween is basically a collection of B-sides – all while performing by yourself and as part of Wye Oak. Where do you find the time and more importantly, the mental space to write new material? Are you able to write while on tour?
Wasner: Well, it goes back to your first question, and a big part of the reason why I moved to North Carolina. It means discipline. There were a lot of times that I’d rather be hanging out with friends, or out at a show, but instead I stay home and work on music. It’s important to me that I make a lot of work and have a lot of variety and change for myself, because of the kind of personality I have. This is why it’s important that I have these two projects going on simultaneously. The problem with that is I have to reach a new level of routine, diligence, and focus, because I’m writing for two bands now. I have to bring my best self and my best work to the table.
A big part of that answer is that it matters to me, and I had to choose how I was going to spend my time. It’s not that it’s easy, and I wish there were more hours in the day or days in the week to spend with people I care about, but right now my priority really has to be putting myself into my work as much as possible.
Now, on tour is a totally different thing – it’s all consuming, insane, and an absolutely mad way to live. No human should live this way. [Laughs] I like to think of it as a raw material, data collecting phase. I try and write things as I go, but as far as having the space and time to process them? I’ve never been able to do that. There’s not a second of my time on tour where I’m not engaged with something. It is the hardest job – a great job, and I love it – but truly the hardest job I’ve ever had. There’s no time away, there’s no time off, and it’s so exhausting. I drive myself around in a van, and I don’t have the money or infrastructure to do it differently, and I’m involved at every level. I feel like I’m just collecting info, and can’t wait to get home to try and process these.
BYT: Your friend Rachel Monroe recently interviewed you in the LA Review of Books. How did that come about? What was the thought behind having Rachel conduct this interview?
Wasner: Rachel is a very good dear old friend of mine, and she and I used to live together in Baltimore in a crazy old warehouse that was unfit for human habitation. [Laughs] We have a lot in common as far as our creative approaches and the way we think about the world, and we’ve had tons of conversations about creativity, loneliness, isolation – the lifestyle we live. In a lot of ways, this record as a whole functions for me as a love letter to the people and places and things that I’ve had to choose to leave behind in the name of having to prioritize in life and making choices.
I’m lucky that I know so many people in the world, but it’s also heartbreaking because I’m only one person, and I only have as much time as everyone else. For every choice I make about how to spend this time, there are a million somethings that have to go by the wayside.
Rachel is a writer, and she moved to Marfa, Texas – and it’s actually where my bandmate in Wye Oak [Andy Stack] also lives – but she lives way out there. So, Rachel’s there for a lot of the same reasons: having to learn how to be alone, and be responsible for your own time, and to devote yourself to your creative practice. It felt appropriate that she was involved in some way given that she’s a beautiful person and beautiful writer, and that she has so much experience with a lot of these themes.
BYT: Beyond the things that we’ve discussed, are there lessons that you have learned at this point, almost a decade into your career as a full-time musician, that you wish you’d known at the beginning?
Wasner: Very much so. I would like to go back in time and remind myself that when you’re working in this field, it’s very easy to overestimate how much of yourself you have to give. It’s obviously a competitive field, and it’s hard work, and it matters if it’s something that you care about, so you have to really pour yourself into it. But I wish I had been more aware of my limits when I was younger. I wish I had understood better that everyone is going to be looking out for their own interests, but the only person who is looking out for your best interests is you.
Sometimes you have to say no to things that people don’t want you to say no to in the interest of self-preservation. I definitely went through some times that I did more than I could handle, and I was trying to make decisions for the best of my career; the irony was that those decisions were a direct cause of my inability to produce, perform, create anything. If you are not emotionally and personally stable and intact and healthy, then the entire foundation of what you do this for – the things that you make – is gone.
I wish I could go back in time and tell myself, or tell anyone starting off on this path, that sometimes you have to know your limits. Know that the limit is real, and sometimes you need to turn things down in the interest of being able to do the weird, magical thing that you do that takes so much of your time, and effort, and requires so much of your vulnerability and presence.
If you don’t take care of yourself, that goes away and you don’t have a leg left to stand on.