“It’s very, very beautiful here. I’m walking through the water, and there’s all these fish swimming up and nibbling on my legs. It’s not bad at all,” says Jenn Wasner, vocalist/guitarist for indie folk-rock duo Wye Oak. She’s calling from Key West, Florida, before she and her band mate, drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack, embark on a tour that will take them across the U.S. throughout February and March, including a stop in Brooklyn, at Music Hall of Williamsburg, on March 4.
This is a much-needed break for Wasner, who’s noteworthy for her prolific and remarkably varied musical output. Wye Oak have released six albums, starting with 2007’s If Children, receiving critical acclaim for their imaginative acoustic-based but powerful instrumentation and Wasner’s insightful, introspective lyrics. They earned international fame when their evocative single “Civilian,” from the 2011 album of the same name, was used to poignant effect in a pivotal scene on the TV series The Walking Dead. Wasner is also in another duo, Dungeonesse, with Jon Ehrens (of White Life), which goes for an unabashedly pop sound. Her solo career, under the moniker Flock of Dimes, has a more electronic, exploratory vibe. On top of all that, she frequently is a touring musician with other bands, including Bon Iver, with whom she toured last year, and will again later this year.
Such diversity, Wasner says, is necessary for her. “With Wye Oak shows, I’m basically singing all of my deepest feelings for two hours every single night. I can do that, and that’s a really important part of my life, but I can only do that so much without it becoming a drain. It’s kind of like boundaries: with anything in life, boundaries are super-important. Knowing what you have to give, and not giving more than that, is a life lesson that I think you can apply to a whole lot of different areas. It’s taken me a long time to get to a point where I feel like I even have an understanding of that.”
With that self-care strategy in mind, Wasner says she is deliberately building more down time into her schedule, as with this Key West vacation. “I’m trying to be a little bit kinder to myself, and a little bit more intentional about how I spend my time, so that I can keep doing this for a long time and I don’t burn out. Because I’ve come close to burning out before. It’s not doing anyone any favors. Torturing yourself by over-working yourself and never giving yourself time to stop is not helping anybody else, it’s only hurting you. So I’m just trying to give myself space that I need, when I need it, so that I can really fully show up to all the shit that I sign up for and be happy to be there, not miserable and resentful because I’m tired.”
And there’s another reason why Wasner is learning to relax. “If you’re not giving yourself any time to regenerate and reflect, then you’re not going to have any new material.” But songwriting fatigue is, fortunately, not an issue for Wye Oak, and Wasner promises that “There’s going to be a lot of new music from us—but it’s not going to take the form of an album for probably some time.” Instead, the band will put out stand-alone singles, as they’ve already started to do, first releasing the song “Fortune” in November, then “Fear of Heights” in January. So far, Wasner says the reaction to this method has been “encouraging,” because those two singles “are having the best runs at radio and online that we’ve ever had. It’s an interesting experiment, for sure.”
Releasing their songs in this way is, Wasner says, another energy-saving strategy. “When you put out a record, it forces you to basically set aside an entire year of your life for promoting that record. And that’s not something we’re really interested in doing right now. I’m excited to be in a place in our career where we don’t have to play by those rules all the time. What’s more exciting to us is making music and releasing it as we make it. This actually is more in line with the way the creative process unfolds in real time. That, to me, is super-exciting.”
As for the actual writing process itself, Wasner says she has no set formula, though it’s clear her work ethic is a factor. “It’s very rare that I just sit down with an instrument on the spot and write a song from start to finish. It’s just a practice of showing up to the studio for at least a little bit every day to see what useable ideas come out, and also paying attention to your life as it’s happening, so that you can observe and write down things in real time, and then have those things available to you when you’re ready for them. I keep very, very organized notes on my phone all the time. I think of it as a data collecting exercise.”
Once the ideas are flowing, though, Wasner says she tries to give them room to evolve. “I’ve definitely gone into record making being like, ‘This is my concept’–and that’s useful to get you started. But it’s really important that you’re not so attached to a concept that you don’t allow a record to turn into what it’s trying to turn into. I don’t like to be too attached to anything because that stage of the process is so fragile. I don’t want to put too much thought into trying to control my output. Part of it is, whatever helps you brainstorm and daydream and helps get you started—but once it’s happening, you have to see what comes out.”
Proving that she really is open-minded about letting her material change, Wasner says that one of the reasons she’s looking forward to this upcoming tour is that, for the first time, she and Stack are bringing along other musicians, making it a five-piece touring band, which she expects will result in new interpretations of her songs. “I trust these musicians, and I am excited to not tell them what I want them to do, as much as see what they themselves are going to conceive of,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to relinquish a little bit of control and be like, ‘I’m going to learn my part and then I’m going to see what these people bring to the table.’ We can let other people bring their own ideas into the mix and see what the songs turn into, as opposed to trying to wrangle them into an idea that we had. That’s exciting.”
She also looks forward to playing a wider variety of material on this tour than Wye Oak has ever done before. “I do think it’s important for people coming to this show to know that there will be Wye Oak songs but there will also be Flock of Dimes songs and there will also be Joyero [Andy Stack’s solo moniker) songs. So there’s going to be all kinds of stuff that people have never heard us play live, from both of those projects, and from Wye Oak, in the set list. It’s going to be sweet.”
Doing this type of “career overview” tour is something that Wasner admits she never could have imagined when she and Stack played in a high school band together in their native Baltimore. She was only 15-years-old when they met. “It was a garage band situation, and it was the first band that I had ever been in. It was us and our friends, and then gradually over the years, as our friends went away to college and started families and did other things, the two of us were like, ‘Well, we still want to do this, so let’s figure out how to make it work.’ We’ve played music together, in some capacity, since that day. Which is kind of astonishing, really.”
Wasner thinks their duo has survived this long because “We really care about each other a lot as friends. And we are able to be flexible and malleable, as musicians and people. This partnership has been very fluid based on how our lives have changed. Because you’re not going to be able to keep your life in just one way for any seriously long period of time. So if your band’s only able to exist in in this very one specific capacity, then it’s probably going to end up going away. But if you’re flexible, then it allows you to grow and change and evolve, and still find a place for it. That’s what I’m really grateful for. There’s still room for us to make music together, and it can look any number of different ways.”
When they’re not on the road, Wasner and Stack have both relocated from Baltimore to Durham, North Carolina. Wasner moved there about five years ago, after visiting friends in the area and falling in love with the place. “It’s been a really healthy place for me, as far as establishing good habits and a good daily routine. I live in a really nice little house. I have a lot of friends, but not so many that I’m constantly overwhelmed all the time. It’s a really wonderful community—everyone there is just so positive and encouraging and supportive. It’s just a really great place to live. I wasn’t necessarily thinking I would leave Baltimore, but I figured it would be a nice thing to try on a temporary basis. And it changed my life.”
Today, though, Wasner is happy to find herself on a Florida beach. She takes one last moment to reflect, ocean waves rumbling in the background. “I didn’t necessarily envision my life unfolding this way, but I’m really, really lucky to have the job that I have.” Then she excuses herself to get back to her vacation. “I’m about to go order myself a tiki beverage!”
Wye Oak will play Music Hall of Williamsburg on March 4.