Flock of Dimes' Jenn Wasner: 'I became incredibly adept at outrunning myself'

The US indie star who has played with Bon Iver, Sharon Van Etten and more is confronting emotional blindspots on her stirringly brilliant new album

As the promo cycle for Jenn Wasner’s second album as Flock of Dimes kicked in recently, she felt eager to get back to work. Then she was struck by a new feeling. “Oh, but I don’t want to do anything?” she recalls from her green sofa on a sunny day in Carrboro, North Carolina, sounding bemused. “I would like to read my book and lie in the sun. A thought like that was so novel to me.”

Over the past decade, Wasner seemed to have an unusually healthy relationship to her work. In 2011, she and fellow Baltimorean Andy Stack experienced a breakthrough with their third album as indie-rock duo Wye Oak, the ruminative and stormy Civilian: rave reviews, syncs on The Walking Dead and One Tree Hill, 200 gigs in one year. Burned out by their moment in the sun, Wasner decided to abandon the pursuit of career growth to remain connected to her music and unencumbered by external expectations, following in the footsteps of her irreducible hero, Arthur Russell.

She formed a duo, Dungeonesse, with musician Jon Ehrens, and made one fantastic dance-pop album bizarrely reminiscent of UK garage’s Top 40 sweet spot. Wye Oak dropped guitars for synths (a mild outrage-stirring shift in early 2010s indie). Wasner released her solo debut as Flock of Dimes, and has played with artists not limited to Sharon Van Etten (whom Wasner met while waitressing during Van Etten’s set at a Baltimore cafe), Future Islands, Helado Negro, composer William Britelle, experimental producer Drew Daniel and math-rockers Horse Lords. When her name comes up in conversation, other musicians inevitably hold their chest and rhapsodise about “Waz”.

Most recently, Waz joined Bon Iver, and was due to spend 2020 playing arenas with them. Then the start of the pandemic collided with the painful end of a relationship, becoming “the spark that lighted the tinder that blew up my entire life”. Stasis and a blank schedule compounded her devastation. “I had become incredibly adept at outrunning myself, and I had a whole slew of very high-functioning coping mechanisms in place. I had spent the better half of a decade always moving, always on tour, always working on something, distracted from being with myself.” She was horribly good at it, she says, covering up childhood trauma and “deep, deep grief” by creating “a life and a body of work [whereby] I could reverse-engineer a love and acceptance of myself without actually building it from the ground up”.

Wye Oak: Holy Holy – video

Now she was stuck at home, knocked sideways. “I really thought that I knew myself really well, and I was a happy person,” she says. “It’s pretty astonishing to me that we can have such enormous blindspots about ourselves, and sometimes it takes a certain collision with another person or experience.”

Her stirring second album as Flock of Dimes, Head of Roses, blossoms from this tension. Wasner, a subtly profound lyricist, attempts to understand heartbreak from both sides, and her own habit of loving from what Joni Mitchell called “icy altitudes”. Amid muscular guitar, pulsing synths and her elegantly conversational vocals, shifting from forlorn haunting to sky-searching lament, she hides razorblades of self-admonishment and failure. “Making a sorry attempt at compersion,” she sings on the lovely country-tinged Awake for the Sunrise, referencing the polyamorous concept of celebrating a partner’s other relationships, “with a hand halfway down my throat.”

It’s easy to tell why all those musicians want Wasner around. A bright-eyed 34-year-old who bears a striking resemblance to actor Zoe Kazan, she is full of careful observations about the things that divide us from one another, and heart from mind. She is strikingly open and easygoing, though she admits she doesn’t love the interview dynamic – uncomfortable with “receiving what I would consider a disproportionate amount of attention” and with attempting to articulate the message of the record. “It’s not just how I talk about it, it’s how it’s felt, how it’s received.”

The catastrophe of last spring meant Wasner couldn’t deal with her emotions in her usual “cerebral, intellectualised sort of way”. She had to address how that gap had opened up. “I’ve been at war with my body in a lot of ways,” she says. “It’s something that I’ve tried to dominate and control, and in many ways disconnect from, and I think that’s a natural reaction that we have to any painful experience that we’re trying to avoid. In so many cases, the avoidance of that difficult emotion is the cause of much worse consequences than learning how to be present with it and feel it.”

‘Showing up as your flawed human self, that’s what I want to do with my art.’
‘Showing up as your flawed human self, that’s what I want to do with my art.’ Photograph: Graham Tolbert

One potential source she considered was going on tour as a teenager – an earlier version of Wye Oak was called Monarch – “spending the bulk of my life in these largely male-dominated spaces when my sense of self was still developing”, she says. “My desire to accommodate whoever I happen to be around at any given moment has sometimes left me feeling like I’ve got a foot in a multitude of worlds and I don’t really have a strong sense of who I am.”

Another went back further. Wasner sensitively broaches growing up watching her parents struggle with addiction and mental illness, “and doing so with very little money, very little resources, and being at a point in the class system where you have to work constantly to keep your head above water”.

She had always told herself it hadn’t affected her: she got a scholarship to a local boarding school to get some distance, and felt grateful that she had built a life that is “good and easy”. Yet, she says, “having to sit with the reality of their suffering, which breaks my heart every day, made me feel as though I didn’t have a right to enjoy myself – that if they didn’t get to stop, I should never get to stop either. And that I had to earn my good life by working constantly. Turns out that doesn’t really do anything for them or anyone else, it just exhausts me and makes me a shittier version of myself.”

Wasner didn’t realise how hard she was on herself until other people pointed it out. “For the majority of my life, I’ve mistaken self-compassion for self-optimisation.” Although Head of Roses is peppered with bitter lyrics about deserving her fate, she says she’s made some progress in the year since. “I’ve been learning how shame and self-loathing are the very things that keep us going back to those same self-reinforcing negative behaviour patterns and spirals. It’s really forgiveness that is the way out, the way forward, and compassion for oneself.”

Among those self-lacerating lyrics, Wasner often sings about turning away from love: “I want the lightning,” she sings over the lovely, thumbed electric guitar of Lightning, “but I can’t live like that.” Distance has been another coping mechanism. Six years ago, she moved alone to North Carolina as a way to fully appreciate her community back in Baltimore, a strange move by anyone’s logic.

“I used to think I was just drawn to change,” she says. “And I think the influx of new experiences and places and people is definitely part of feeling alive and vital and connected. But there’s also fear.” Growing up “feeling heavily depended upon” prompted her to cultivate and fiercely protect her own stability. “I think in some ways I’ve made it too much of a priority,” she says. “I think there’s a way to balance it out and let other people into that world, but I haven’t quite figured out how.”

Wasner worried that Head of Roses might feel navel-gazing “at a time when there’s so much thought and energy being directed towards the collective sphere”. Then she saw the link between emotional denial and the state of the world. “That natural defensiveness, the hoop our brains jump through to help us avoid pain and suffering, is I think part of what got us into this predicament in the first place.”

Music, she says, has a way of softening those defences. While Wasner has a way with lyrics about shame and searching that stop you in your tracks, her trademark might be breathtaking melodic catharsis: the chorus of her new song One More Hour breaks open in a way that feels like watching your ribs crack and the night sky flood out. Making this album, she says, was “about feeling, for me to be able to override that disconnect between my brain and my heart and my body. I believe that music is one of the art forms that is most adept at making that transition for others, too.” For Wasner, the challenge is retaining her spiritual connection to her work (“it feels silly to say, but it’s real, it gives my life a sense of purpose and meaning”) while having to commodify it. “But showing up as your flawed human self, that’s what I want to do with my art.”

It’s a year since her life blew up. She’s rehearsing for live-streamed shows, but struggling to get back into the heartbroken headspace of Head of Roses. “When you write a song, you trace your own outline in the air and then you keep walking,” she says. “I’ve always had a little bit of friction in the experience of trying to get back into that old version of myself.”

She says she feels “wildly different” to that person: calmer, slower, “at ease in a way that I really can’t remember ever feeling before: I don’t feel like I’m reaching for something ahead of me, or dwelling in something that’s behind me, but that I’m fully fixed and satisfied where I am.” The trick now is to cultivate that feeling over the old instinct to control. “I’m hopeful that maybe my life can unfold in some directions that might surprise me.”

• Head of Roses is out now on Sub Pop

Contributor

Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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