clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

"I got stoned and took a shower": How Wye Oak writes its songs

Jenn Wasner (left) and Wye Oak bandmate Andy Stack
Jenn Wasner (left) and Wye Oak bandmate Andy Stack
Photo by Shervin Lainez
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Jenn Wasner is a Baltimore-based musician, perhaps best known as one half of Wye Oak, with Andy Stack. She serves as the band's primary singer and songwriter and, until recently, guitarist. For its most recent album, Shriek, which came out April 29, she abandoned guitars entirely and relied more on synthesizers and bass. Outside Wye Oak, she is the vocalist for the electro-pop group Dungeonesse and records solo as Flock of Dimes. We spoke on the phone last week; a lightly edited transcript follows.

Dylan Matthews: How do you go about starting a song from the beginning? I suppose one way we might start it is just to pick a song and go into its history and how you shaped it together.

Jenn Wasner: Yeah, sure. Do you have a song in mind or do you want me to pick one?

Dylan Matthews: Do you have a song in mind? I was going to start with "Glory" from the new album, but if there's another one where there's a better story ...

Jenn Wasner: Well, they're all very similar — "Glory" in particular but also the first track "Before," and "The Tower" — all of those songs started in the exact same way, which is I got stoned and took a shower. [laughter in background] That was step one, and then…My bandmate [Stack] is laughing at me but I'm being 100 percent serious and genuine. Oftentimes when I'm doing something else that distracts me, like a routine that distracts my conscious mind from itself, then these ideas start to pop up. That is one way to do it.

With "Glory" specifically and with "Before" and a few others, that's when melodic or lyrical ideas will start to gestate in my brain along with a general overall feel for the song — although it's really vague. Sort of hard to describe. Then I'd go into my room and I'd open up Pro Tools. Usually, with those songs, I actually built drums first. So I'd build a drum loop, usually not spending too much time on it, because that really wasn't the point, but just enough to get the feel across. With "Glory," the next thing that I tracked was the bass line; that came first.

I guess the idea is that I'm trying to build this utterly simplistic thing that is a space-holder for the song that will later come to be.  Usually that would involve some sort of synth part, a pad, a bass line, and a drum loop. Once that's in place as a very bare bones placeholder, I'd start tracking whatever melodic or lyrical ideas I'd have. As I was doing that, that's when the structure of the song would come together. The initial demo versions would be partially syllabic gibberish and nonsense and partially lyrical ideas that had come to me. That's when the idea of the song really made sense to me and I knew what it was going to be, and from then on it's a matter of realizing it and putting in the time and effort to bring in the nuance.

Obviously, a lot of that process was me sending stuff back and forth with Andy; just being like, "This is a really simplistic skeletal version of what I have in mind. See what you can do with this." Since so much of the writing process for me is trying to deal with those initial melodic and lyrical ideas, it was almost like a race with myself to try and build a fragment of a song enough to document those ideas before I lost them. The real heavy lifting as far as building something that's actually complete came later, and often with help from Andy.

Dylan Matthews: Got it. In previous albums when you were working with more guitars, how different was the process? Did you still start with Pro Tools or did you make that initial placeholder on guitar instead?

Jenn Wasner: That's the thing. There past few years were really the first time that I've actually acquired the equipment and the ability and the knowledge to know how to take ownership of the production of the songs from step one. In the past, I would write on an instrument. I would either write a song on the piano or I'd write on guitar. I was limited to what I could conceivably sing and play simultaneously without practice. It obviously resulted in a much simpler kind of song. Then I would share that basic song fragment —whether I was playing guitar and singing, or playing piano and singing, or what have you — with someone and communicate those ideas, and then work with someone who actually knew what they were doing to try and build the recording. The way that I write has changed really drastically since I learned how to take responsibility for the production myself. It opens a lot of doors for me as far as what I'm capable of doing in the writing process. I'm writing very differently than I used to be.

Dylan Matthews: How important were your other band, Dungeonesse, and your solo project Flock of Dimes in that adjustment? Did they get you started in that new workflow, or did those have different writing processes?

Jenn Wasner: Dungeonesse and Flock of Dimes were both very different from one another. Flock of Dimes is where I cut my teeth as far as learning to record and produce and bring these ideas to life on my own. It coincided with my acquisition of all the necessary tools. That was a big learning process for me, writing those songs. They were some of the first songs that I wrote in that way.

Dungeonesse was entirely different. That was basically me writing melodies and building songs over the top of preexisting tracks that someone else had produced — in this case [bandmate] Jon Ehrens. Both of those things were great practice at tactics that came to play when I was writing this record, except in this case I was responsible for building the tracks themselves, writing the melodies on top of them, and bringing them to life in every facet. Both of those projects had a lot to do with me feeling comfortable with those processes and learning how to incorporate them into my own existing creative routines.

When I'm writing, regardless of how I'm going about doing it, it's always very clear to me in my mind what I'm writing for. Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking that Wye Oak sounds a certain way, and so that's more who I really am, and it's more autobiographical, whereas something that sounds like pop music is more of an alter ego. In truth, every single one of these projects very much has a persona that exists for it. They're all semi-autobiographical, but the kind of songwriting that comes into play when I'm making these songs is largely fiction. None is really more or less real or true to my own voice than any other. They're all really important to me as far as learning how to do the thing that I think I am best at even better.

But there's never any doubt in my mind about what I'm writing for, and from the onset these songs really were Wye Oak songs to me. I knew that from the beginning. They may sound a little different on the surface, but I think on their foundation they're very much the same kind of songs, coming from the same kind of place that all of Wye Oak's music has always been.

Dylan Matthews: Does that carry over into the voice you're writing from? Is there a Wye Oak character who's distinct from your solo character or Dungeonesse character?

Jenn Wasner: Yeah, for sure. It honestly took me a while to recognize what that was, or call it by that name. There's a certain voice that I inhabit and place that I come from that I wouldn't necessarily say is me any more than any of the other personas. That's what the craft of songwriting really is to me. It's all about using these forms and structures to try and create something representative of yourself, but with these limitations. Because it's based on all these intangible, emotional, unknowable things, it's hard to describe in a way that makes sense. It's more of an instinctive feeling or a tone than anything else. It's very hard to put into words, but it definitely is a feeling that's very present, and that makes a lot of sense to me. I can understand why it maybe be less noticeable to someone who isn't actually writing the songs themselves.

Dylan Matthews: I does come across, I think. It's hard to imagine "Drive You Crazy" by Dungeonesse being sung by the same character as "Glory."

Jenn Wasner: For sure, they're two very, very different songs. The palettes maybe are more similar than they have been in the past, but, in my mind, they couldn't be farther apart as far as the kinds of songs that they are.

Dylan Matthews: I know some songwriters almost scat vocal lines before forming them into words, whereas other people have a workflow where lyrics come first and they try to work the melody around them. Is there one of those methods you lean more towards than the other?

Jenn Wasner: It's honestly equal parts. It's very rare, and honestly I could even say it's never happened, that I have all the lyrics in place before writing a melody. Maybe I'll have a phrase here and there or a collection of fragments of lyrics that sound really good to me that I'm modeling the rest of them after, but it's almost always the case that I have this pattern, this syllabic pattern, or this melodic, rhythmic, idea, and then I have to find the words to fit into it.

It's kind of like a puzzle, because you're trying to find words that sound the way you want them to sound, but that mean the thing that you want them to mean. It's really fun. It's one of my favorite parts of the process, but it can also be incredibly infuriating and frustrating when you just can't find the word you're looking for to save your life. The initial process is improvising over an existing song and seeing where that takes you and picking out fragments that work and expanding upon them. That's definitely something that was a much bigger part of Shriek than it was for past records, which is pretty much owed to the fact that I was building these tracks and writing on a track that, at least in some form, existed already, which frees you up to work with more interesting and complex melodic ideas instantly. That was more part of the process than it has been in the past, but I've never been a lyrics-first person.

Dylan Matthews: You're starting to work with synths for the first time in Wye Oak in a really big way, and some people at least tend to get very passionate about their gear. Did you? How'd you go about choosing equipment?

Jenn Wasner: Honestly, I've never been the person that is very insistent about the purity of the source. I think if something sounds good and it sounds right and it sounds interesting to me, I don't care where it came from. A lot of the stuff on our record came from beautiful, pristine, gorgeous analog synthesizers but a lot of it's just weird soft synth MIDI shit, too.

Fortunately, our producer was very much in line with that way of thinking as well, which was really important to me. I would ask him, "What do you think of this sound? Should we replace it? Do you want to do it with this? Do you want to try it with that?" He would just say, "Well, do you like it?" And I would be like, "Yeah." He's like, "Well, is it working? Is it working for what you want it to do? Do you think it sounds good?" I would be like, "Well, yeah." He would be like, "Okay, then we're going to use it."

I think a lot of people have the same feelings about their guitar, that it's all about your tone and what pedals you use and what amp you're using. Yeah, I want things to sound good but to be honest with you, I don't really give a shit. Everything I do has always been in service of the song. That's the main thing for me. If something is working, and playing the part it needs to play, and it sounds right and it feels right, then I don't really obsess over where it came from. Going back to what you were asking, as far as synthesizers themselves, I have a Juno 6 that I got a lot of the initial sounds from, but just as many of the sounds came from samples and soft synths and stuff like that. I'm not one of those picky gearheads, to answer your question.

Dylan Matthews: How big of a transition was going into live performance once you made the switch? I know you had a lot more experience going up there with a guitar versus managing a synth setup. Was that challenging at all? How did you prepare for that?

Jenn Wasner: Definitely what we're doing right now is really hard for both of us. It's definitely way more of a challenge than anything we've tried to do in the past, but partly by design, because it was important to us to be challenged and to have something that was a challenge for the live show, simply just because we didn't want to be bored. We knew we were going to be playing these songs a lot of times, and I in particular have a real tendency towards getting over that really quickly.

I think the pinnacle of the experience for me is the writing process itself. It's sort of writing and recording and bringing these things to life, and after that, every time that I play the song or hear the song, I get a little bit further away from it and I feel a little bit less connected to it. The complexity of what we're doing live is a fine distraction from that. I don't feel like we're really sacrificing anything as far as the way the songs sound. It just means that we have to really work hard to do it. It's been a real challenge for us in a lot of ways. I think that we're only just now starting to feel comfortable with it, but I started out being completely and utterly terrifying.

The gist of it is basically I'm playing bass on 75 percent of the new material, I'm playing keyboards on the remaining 25 percent, and then I'm playing guitar on all the old songs. Andy, visually it looks like he's doing the same thing; he's playing one-handed drums and then one-handed keyboard stuff, but what he's actually responsible for with his keyboard controller is probably ten times as complex as it used to be. We wanted a challenge and that is what we got.

Dylan Matthews: What Andy was doing on your older records looks impossible enough, so I can't imagine what a challenge that is.

Jenn Wasner: Yeah, it's ridiculous. It's pretty silly.

Dylan Matthews: The title track on Civilian seemed to really blow up, and it seems like "Glory" might do that too. Do you know that about songs when you're recording them? Can you predict what's going to get that kind of audience, or is it anyone's guess?

Jenn Wasner: I definitely don't feel like I know which songs are going to be those songs in the actual recording process, but I feel like I figure it out pretty early on. I have this joke that at a live show, you can always tell which songs people are most excited to hear, because they all put their phones up in the air [to take pictures/video]. I once mocked an audience for that, but no one really seemed to get down with it. I was like, "If you're having fun tonight, put your phones in the air!" I got a lot of stinkeye. We play "Civilian" every night, we play it every show, and every time it's like everyone's overtaken by this strange force. Everyone slowly raises their phones up in the air. That's a pretty telling way to know which songs are really resonating with people.

"Civilian" got placed in some TV shows, it got placed in some movies, and that automatically brings some people to the fold that aren't familiar with your catalog. They're just familiar with that one song from that one show, and they're there to see that, and that's what they're waiting for, and they could give a shit about the rest of it. Once it swells there's really no coming back from it. We have a little bit of a running joke that "Civilian" is going to be our "Margaritaville," as our manager so kindly put it. He's like, "Yeah man, it's your 'Margaritaville.' Live with it."

Dylan Matthews: You still have that "Cheeseburger in Paradise" slot to fill, though.

Jenn Wasner: Yeah, yeah, it's true. You're right. That's a good optimistic way to think about it. I'll still be working trying to find that "Cheeseburger in Paradise."

Dylan Matthews: Are you and Andy still working outside of music at the moment? I'm always curious about how bands make that jump.

Jenn Wasner: Andy and I haven't had day jobs for about 2 or 3 years maybe. Maybe less, I don't know. Sometimes I wish that I did, because I'm actually really bad at coming off of a tour and all of a sudden having my life be this giant, empty space that I have to fill with things. I'm really bad at providing routine and structure for myself.

Ironically enough, I tend to use my time better when I have less of it, or when I have a job that I have to go to and then I have time off. When I don't have anything to do and I come off a tour, and all of a sudden there's just nothing happening, it's very easy for me to just sink into a pit of despair, to be really despondent and lazy. Every once in a while I'll pick up a shift at the restaurant I used to work, but it's been a while since I've done that even.

However, I think we're both very much aware that will almost certainly change at some point. I'd be very surprised if didn't find myself waiting tables again at some point in the future. The music business is just too fickle to expect that I'll be getting a check in the mail every month for the rest of my life. That's really probably not going to happen. I'll enjoy it while it lasts, but certainly don't take it for granted.

Dylan Matthews: That's kind of a harsh way to look at it!

Jenn Wasner: No, it's cool. It's okay, it's fine. Honestly, in a lot of ways touring is the hardest job I've ever had, and I wouldn't really want to do it for the rest of my life even if I could. I don't mean it to sound depressing.

Dylan Matthews: Sure, it's just unusual for people to be that candid about it.

Jenn Wasner: That's sort of my style these days. I can't help myself. I've got to be candid.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.