Q&A: Jenn Wasner on Flock of Dimes, Wye Oak’s future and falling back in love with Baltimore
Walk around Baltimore today and you could see Jenn Wasner’s big eyes staring up at you. Wasner, who plays guitar and sings in Wye Oak and now by herself as Flock of Dimes, is the cover star for b’s latest “10 to Watch Under 30" issue.
In 2011, Wasner, an Owings Mills native, lived on the road, playing more than 200 shows alongside Wye Oak drummer Andy Stack. When she returned home to Baltimore, she was burned out, and even considered moving away from the city.
But don’t ever underestimate the power of rest. Wasner’s return home (and to normalcy) found her enjoying everyday life, from grocery shopping to waiting tables, and she eventually found her way back to the solo songs she had toyed with for the past couple of years. Now, she’s about to release a seven-inch as Flock of Dimes on Friends Records, which will be available on her upcoming tour with Sharon Van Etten. It kicks off Thursday night at the Ottobar.
We had plenty to discuss, and not enough space in b, so enjoy my full Q&A with Wasner. We spoke over the phone on her birthday, two days ago.
First, happy birthday. You turned 26 today, right?
Thanks. Yeah, it’s whatever. The one notable thing about this birthday is I get I off my parents’ health insurance. [Laughs]
Have you celebrated already or do you have a special day planned?
I had a show at my house on Saturday night, an unofficial birthday. Nate Nelson played as Afternoon Penis. My friend Lexie Mountain and Shana Palmer played as Speaker. 200 Years and new favorite Baltimore band, Horse Lords, played, too. It was a great time.
Let’s make sure I have the Flock of Dimes timeline straight. You began doing solo stuff in 2010, which resulted in “Prison Bride.”
I guess so. Late 2010. It’s been slow getting off the ground with everything else in my life. Unfortunately it has taken a back seat to all the touring [Wye Oak has] been doing. I’ve been trying to keep up with in my spare time. Now that we’ve been off the road for awhile, I’ve been able to put some more time into it. The [Flock of Dimes] record is still a ways off from being finished. I’m very excited to be doing my very first tour.
How do the other Flock of Dimes songs compare to “Prison Bride”? Are they in the same vein?
“Prison Bride” was one of the first songs I wrote for this project. [Producer] Mickey Free and I put it together. There’s a handful of songs from that era, about a year ago, that have a similar vibe/sound/beatmaking style. I was just getting started and I had tricks I was heavily leaning on. Five or six others sound similar.
Since then, in the past year, I’ve been traveling and trying to make songs independently, and I’m bringing them back to Mickey in my spare time. Those songs have been sounding very different. They’ve unfolded in my old personal little travel studio — my laptop, music-making software, a mini-MIDI controller. I’d say generally speaking, it’ll be a little all over the board but there will be that core group of songs that come from the same universe as “Prison Bride.” I have eight definites; trying to get 10 filled.
From reading other interviews, it seems you were really drained from the year Wye Oak had. How much is the Flock of Dimes material a response to the need of being creative on your own terms?
It’s definitely a response to that. I’m actually reinvigorated with what Andy and I are working on. I think there’s a place for that in my world but the mistake I made … I can compare it to anyone that has a career, where something steps up a level from just being something they’re interested in. It changes the way you think about it, how you do it, what circumstances. Music isn’t just a job for me. It’s the only thing I love to do. It’s the only thing I care about. It’s the most important thing in the world.
The mistake I made was that one outlet had become a livelihood, and that one thing couldn’t be enough for everything. The goal is to not replace or leave anything behind; it’s to invite more into my world so I can feel like I’m still making music for the reasons I started. I have pretty eclectic tastes and a short attention span to the music I make. I want to challenge myself. That requires different projects and collaborations. I’m working with a lot of people. That way, I’m not being complacent anymore.
Should Wye Oak fans be worried about the band’s future?
We’re working on new stuff. We’ve got a tour with Dirty Projectors coming up. Andy and I ... the trick for both of us, is Wye Oak is going to be apart of our world but not our whole world. I’m not just talking about music, but personal growth and relationships and family and friends and things you have to sacrifice. I think we’re learning to be balanced.
You’re thought of as one-half of a duo. Is it more nerve-wracking or exhilarating to put out solo material?
It’s great. I love it. Honestly, I love it not because I can take responsibility for the parts that are great and terrible. And that means if I don’t have to feel responsible for anyone else, I can take risks I might not have been comfortable taking. If I wanted to release a “screwed” cover of an Eagles song, I don’t have to ask anybody. If I have a bizarre idea that might weird people out or piss people off or not make sense, then I want to be able to share that with people and take that feedback. I’m fully willing to take responsiblitiy for these weird songs that I have. I just have to. It’s something that I feel compelled to share with people. That’s why I’m a songwriter. That’s why I’m a musician. I’m confused as to why that is, but it is.
Friends Records is releasing the seven-inch. Are you interested in putting an album out? Or is this a day at a time, song at a time type of project?
I’m really hoping that it’d be finished by now but I’m also not going to rush it. It takes as long as it takes. I want it to be exactly how I want it to be. I have a lot of balls in the air. I’m not trying to be too hard on myself. I’m trying to definitely have it done by the end of this summer at the very latest. Everything takes a little longer than it takes. Mickey, dear friend, he’s mixing a lot of tracks we have finished. We’re gonna wait ‘til it’s done.
What kind of expectations do you have for this Sharon Van Etten tour? You’ve done countless shows as Wye Oak, but I was curious how different it feels when it’s only you.
It’s definitely different. This is the first time I’ve had a band, a couple friends backing me. MickeyFree is my DJ; he’ll play some keyboards, he’ll drop beats. Will Ryerson from Other Colors is playing bass, and a little guitar. I’m still playing guitar for significant portion of the set but not all of it. I’ll be just singing for some, which is interesting for me. It’s freeing and really intimidating.
I’ve known Sharon for years. She’s a good friend. That band is great. I know her record has done well, so her shows will be kind of big. I’ve only played small, warehouse spaces, nothing too legitimate. I think the music is compatible with what Sharon does. I enjoy playing this set so much. ... I’m sure there will be people with expectations from what Wye Oak does, and it definitely won’t scratch every itch for them.
I’m not sure how much you can talk about this, but I heard you and Jon Ehrens have been working on a pop project. What can you say about it?
We’re working on this pop record. It’s beginning to take shape. It’s amazing. I’m really excited about the record. It’s some of the most catchy, well-written songwriting we’ve done. We share songwriting duties. It’s some of the best stuff we’ve ever done. We both love pop music. Our goal is to write the 10 poppiest songs we could. It’s some of his best work to date as well. If I had my way, it’d be the Summer 2012 megajam record to listen to with the top down. ... It’s in the mixing stages right now.
Is there a name for it?
It’s called Dungeonesse. It’s happening more slowly than both of us would like. He’s a super-talented songwriter. I shine in the pop spectrum more than I was anticipating.
Are there any specific goals for Flock of Dimes?
No! That’s the rule. That’s the only rule. I tend to trust my gut in situations. I already have a project that’s been fortunate, and in order to keep that thing going, there are certain industry rules and standards. You have to tour. Flock of dimes is whatever I want it to be whenever I want it to be. And that’s what makes it more free.
You’re a bit of a veteran in the Baltimore music scene, but you’re still young. Do you see yourself staying apart of the scene for years to come or could you be somewhere completely different in a few years?
Funny you should ask. I’ve been toying around with the idea of leaving Baltimore. I grew up here. I was gone for about a year, and since I’ve been home, since January 2012, I’ve rediscovered Baltimore again. I’ve fallen in love with it again. I’m having a hard time imagining walking away. I’m happier here right now than I’ve ever been in my entire life. I don’t want to live in any one city for my whole life. I’m not that kind of person. But for the time being, it’s got teeth in me once again. It’s a very special place. I imagine I’ll always be apart of Baltimore’s music scene somehow.
If you go
Flock of Dimes performs Thursday at the Ottobar, 2549 N. Howard St. in Charles Village. $12. Call 410-662-0069 or go to theottobar.com.
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