Photo by Kendall Atwater
Wye Oak On Learning To Press Pause, Branching Out & Supporting Black Lives Matter
For many musicians, 2020 has felt like an indeterminable pause. Calling from their respective homes in North Carolina, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack acknowledge that the unplanted time off the road has been emotionally trying. But for the members of Wye Oak, this era has also been an extended opportunity to regroup after nearly a decade of hustle, which in addition to their joint project has included solo work as Flock of Dimes and Joyero.
But despite the recent addition vitamin routines and socially distanced porch hang-outs, Wasner and Stack say they recognized the power of taking a beat to reflect early in their career. Across six albums, the duo has dipped into dream pop, rock, folk and noise, dotting their indelible compositions with waves of guitars and electronics in such equal parts, it almost feels like a dare to those looking to neatly categorize their efforts. Each tonal shift, says Stack, was the result of taking a needed moment to reflect.
“We spent a lot of time sort of like searching and questioning that and I think, in some cases, maybe disappointing some people with the directions we went, and with the choices we made,” he says pragmatically of the band’s gradual yet precise evolution.
The band’s newest offering No Horizon (out July 31 via Merge), was the result of one of those "what-if" moments. A collaboration between Wye Oak and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus (a collective whose dazzling resume also features work with The National, David Byrne and Arcade Fire), the EP is a wash of unspooling synths, understated guitar, fleshed out by the choir’s haunting voices. With its themes of isolation and loneliness, it’s also an eerily appropriate release, in ways that both Wasner and Stack say they couldn't have anticipated during recording.
Ahead of the release of No Horizon, Wye Oak spoke with GRAMMY.com about their love of metaphors, the joys of working with extremely focused youth musicians, and how they’re trying to find positivity in the downtime.
How are you handling being at home?
Jenn Wasner: This time in my life is something that is in many ways, deeply unpleasant to go through. I also strangely feel like it's something that will have been really good to have been through, if that makes sense. There's a lot about myself, that I feel like has sort of been buried underneath this frantic constantly in motion, sort of workaholic way of living my life that I've been basically at without really any sort of break or any slowdown for the past 12 years. So, the amount of personal growth, that feels like it's happening is kind of unprecedented in my experience, but at the same time growth can be very painful and very uncomfortable. And so, I'm like weirdly grateful for the opportunity to do some of this inner work that I feel like has sort of been lost or neglected, or, left behind in the shuffle of everything. But it's not fun.
Andy Stack: Everyone's also having a tough run. Especially musicians who are generally pretty scrappy and floating from one thing to the next. Everyone's had to change the way that they get energy from the world and expand and move into some new areas, and I'm certainly doing that. I think everyone's trying to find their next thing.
As a band with a platform, how have you specifically worked on being an ally to Black community?
Wasner: I'm glad you asked that question because I feel like we all have a responsibility. All white people, right now at this moment in history, have a responsibility to turn into what's happening in the world more than we ever have before. And I'm someone that I feel like has at least attempted to be very conscientious of how I spend my time and, and the efforts that I make privately. But in general, my relationship to social media on all counts is somewhat uncomfortable. I've never really felt super fluent in that space. It gives me a lot of anxiety and a lot of grief, but at the same time I do feel like I have responsibility and a call to do a better job with it than I ever have done. However, I also feel like I don't want to pour so much of my limited finite time and effort and energy into that platform that it drains me up the ability to do other things. Although it might sometimes feel like it, social media is not the be all and end all of the world itself. It’s not where all change is going to take place. I found what was happening was that I was just getting sucked into it and feeling more and more overwhelmed and depleted that I didn't have anything to do with these directives. And so, it's this weird tightrope walk right where you're like, yeah I want to say something and it's important not to say nothing, but you also have to be mindful of what you can actually physically give as one human being and take care of yourself guard your energy so that you can put it to use in the most constructive way possible. Because if you burn yourself out, then you're not going to be useful, and you're not going to be able to continue to have these discussions and continue to show up and continue to do the work. Dismantling white supremacy is a white person's problem. We created this problem, and it's our job to solve it.
Give that you both have multiple projects outside of Wye Oak, when do you know it’s time to come together for another album?
Wasner: I think the answer to that has probably changed because our lives have changed so much in the past six months like everyone. I don't do super well personally with mental health without having some kind of a project to focus on. And so maybe there'll be more records sooner than there would have been otherwise. Music is one of the things that fills my life with meaning and purpose. So, if touring is out of the question, then, you know, time for record making.
Stack: We haven't, I should say we haven't in the last few months, really been making much music together. We've been sitting on the porch and catching up, and taking walks and stuff, like that but we're not we're not like germ bubbled up together, so that I think if we were, that would definitely change the equation for us. But we have also have made a lot of records where we've been on opposite sides of the country and we're pretty comfortable with that process of each of us working in our own little sphere and then bringing it together when the time comes. Right now, we're both in the middle of a couple other things. And so, that's where we're putting our energy, but at the same time we, we talked about like being excited to get back to it.
Wasner: Yeah, I think the important thing to keep in mind is that I feel really fortunate to be in a situation where like, we don't feel cornered into making a record before we have something that we're excited to share and like something we have today.
Has that been the case in the past?
Wasner: I feel like when music becomes your job, then your livelihood, there's this pressure to have something always have something new to promote so that you can continue. Making a living as a band is borderline impossible position. And so, in general, the more, for lack of a better term, you can create, the better equipped you are to continue to survive. So, it's just nice to not feel that pressure. In many ways like this EP is a perfect example of that because I feel like that's something that maybe would have never existed if we hadn't sort of taken a breath and give our given ourselves a chance to just sort of branch out and experiment and try and make something different than anything we've ever made before.
Stack: I think we're going on like 15 years of having since having started working on this project and I think a lot of the last like 10 years or so has been feeling pressure to be making a thing. To use the lamest terminology possible, but like the question of like what the band is and what the band sounds like and what we represent. And we didn't quite know and we spent a lot of time searching and questioning that and I think, in some cases, maybe disappointing some people with the directions we went, and with the choices we made. And I think a large part of the process for us has been getting more and more comfortable with that. Just kind of saying "f**k it" to that, and not feeling beholden to stylistic choices or expectations.
How did you begin the process of writing for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus?
Wasner: That was really exciting. Something that we've never done before. Very far out of both of our comfort zones. But I was also really intimidated by it. A because yeah like I don't, I wish I'd never really written or arranged choral music. It was something that I had to kind of figure out a long way. But also, because it was actually surprisingly very challenging to write music that was separate from my own personal perspective because so much music I've written has been emotionally linked to my experience or semi-autobiographical. It was like one of those things where I was like, well, this sounds really hard, but maybe that's a sign that we should try it. It was really hard. It was extremely hard I had a near meltdown in the process.
Stack: Yeah, but you gotta like schedule that in whenever you're making music. There's always some kind of meltdown and definitely some self-doubt involved.
I’m a big believer that sometimes you just got to cry until things makes sense.
Wasner: Yeah, meltdowns have been a really big part of my life. Melting down can be very healing and really helpful. Sometimes if you just let yourself completely fall apart, you can move through things faster than if you were trying to hold yourself together.
What was it like working with the kids?
Wasner: They're so advanced. I don't have kids. I'm a f**king weird loner freak, and I you know I don't have the great fortune of spending a lot of time, particularly with kids of that age. They were very impressive really wonderful. If anything, I felt lucky to be there.
Oh, that's awesome. How involved were you in the recording session?
Wasner: We recorded our parts separately. Here in North Carolina. And then, Andy I think for you were on the Lambchop tour, somewhere were somewhere in Europe.
Stack: I think I was doing Lambchop stuff. So I couldn't be at the session. Jenn, you were doing Bon Iver stuff. She was able to speak up to New York.
Wasner: For a day. I flew up that morning at like 5 a.m. We did all the tracking in a day and I flew it back to North Carolina that evening.
Stack: They’re really pro. In this regard, so they probably would have been okay. But it's just like, Jenn and I really felt like we wanted to have one of us who wrote the music and who was really familiar with the arrangements there to put fires out.
"No Place" with lyrics like "We live in a place/That is no place/Afraid of getting sick" feel incredibly appropriate for this era.
Wasner: These songs are all about like isolation and alienation. You know, these are things that I was thinking about long before the age of the quarantine. It's weird, and we weren't expecting it to be. We certainly weren't expecting it to be as timely as it is, and I'm horrified that it is. When I said about trying to conceptualize this whole thing, it was sort of the initial idea, which actually didn't end up making the record because it's an older song that sort of branching off of a song from our last record called "My Signal," which had sort of a strange little string arrangement. And it was about this sort of contemporary phenomenon of having people that you love and feel close to spread out over such great distances, which is something that only the ability to travel and move through the world, the way we do now, has even made possible. And so, I had this initial idea of trying to sort of write a suite of music based off of that concept. But, sitting down and trying to think about, okay, I'm writing this music, and I want it to feel universal and I want it to feel like it's coming for me, but I also want it to be less autobiographical than a lot of the things that I've made in the past and trying to think of some things that might actually apply to the voices of the young adults singing it. Again, just sort of thinking about how strange it must be to be coming of age in the present moment with so much alienation and isolation and so much of these sort of fundamental developmental experiences happening in non-real spaces. So, that was kind of the kind of thinking that started me down the path themes, but I had no idea how I had no idea what was coming for us.
it's interesting because in my notes, I wrote the phrase "musical pre-cognition." But the way you're describing it sounds like you're picking on a thread that already existed.
Stack: It's not a new epidemic. The epidemic has just like cemented some games that already were there.
Wasner: Side note, I will say from experience, musical precognition is real. And weird. It's really f**ked up. And it's happening a lot with one of the songs I've been writing or working on of late, where I go back, and I'm like, I couldn't have known but also, holy shit!
Stack: That happens to me too and I think it's largely that when you're writing from a sort of stream of consciousness place, you don't always feel like you need to assign meaning, but the meaning is coming from somewhere and that happens to me very often where I realised what a song was about, after having written that after the fact. It's just how the brain works that's a word. It's such a wild thing in them you obscure these things from ourselves.
What does the concept of "no horizon" mean to you?
Wasner: That's a fragment of a line from the song "Spitting Image." And that song is specifically about brain overload. It's about trying to take in an infinite amount of information into a finite frame, and how that can be paralysing. And the idea of no horizon is actually kind of playing off of what I've been told can contribute to motion sickness which is sort of like the brain or the eye not being able to see things upon perspective. And then it doesn't understand where it is in space at a given moment. And so, like I've been told you know if you're in a car and you're carsick, can you see the horizon? Can you give your brain some context for where it is in space? Because if you can't, then you might expect, where it's this sort of feeling of queasiness can be derived. So, I don't know if that's true, if that's science! But it's cool metaphor, so I don't really care. But that was sort of the general premise of that song was the loss of perspective. And you know that that perspective can manifest in a number of ways, but just sort of the inability to, with that sense of detachment, to be able to sort of figure out where, where your existence should be.
How are you handling not being able to see the horizon in 2020?
Wasner: Isn't that the lesson right now? You know that's something that I feel like people have been kind of whispering in my ear for the past decade.
Stack: I'm just eating lot of Oreos, personally.
Wasner: In some ways, it feels like I'm being put in this very intentional time-out kind of space. Because, as someone who's very anxious, I've learned to gravitate towards trying to control my surroundings, and some of that control manifests in an over-dependence on planning and trying to create conceptual future so that I know exactly how things are going to play out so that I can eliminate chance, and eliminate the possibility of being hurt. And it's never been more obvious as that isn’t possible. That doesn't work, it can't work. And my reliance on it was a real crutch. It was working for a while until I got away with it. But as soon as I hit a point where I could no longer see or control what my future was going to be, I absolutely f**king crumbled, and I realised how little work that I've done around being able to sit with uncertainty. And how, in many ways, the real work of like learning to manage and mitigate my feelings of anxiety or fear of the future, it's not going to come from controlling the uncontrollable. It's going to be coming from learning how to sit with a certainty and the discomfort that it creates.