When the prolific multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Jenn Wasner released her first solo album as Flock of Dimes in 2016, she felt she was proving something.
“I had internalized a lot of the assumptions people make about women in music,” said Wasner, then known as half of indie rock duo Wye Oak. “I was very upset that I couldn’t use the doubt about my own art.” So she focused on the tried and true indie ethos of Do It Yourself – writing, producing and playing almost every instrument on “When you see me, say yes”.
“As it turns out,” 34-year-old Wasner recalled in a recent video chat from her home near Durham, NC, “that’s not always what makes the best shot.”
“If You See Me” is full of dazzling sounds and bright melodic ideas, but it stimulates the mind more often than it pierces the heart. “As someone who is very obsessed with language, I think that sometimes it can actually be an obstacle to feeling,” added Wasner, leaning on a sage green sofa that – she suddenly noticed a glimpse of her digital reflection on the zoom screen – the same color as the cozy sweatshirt she was wearing. “I think this record, and pretty much any record that could be referenced, would be better with some form of collaborative expression.”
“Head of Roses,” Friday’s second full-length Flock of Dimes, is that better record – one of the highlights of Wasner’s long, curvy career. It is also the project that revealed a creative paradox: sometimes, in order to become even more of herself, an artist needs a little help from her friends.
“I got the impression she was trying to get out of her head,” said Nick Sanborn, half of the electro-pop band Sylvan Esso, who co-produced Head of Roses with Wasner. “As her friend, it is obvious that what she has to offer is so broad and encompassing so many different things.”
A respected veteran of the underground music scene, Wasner is almost guilty in a music industry obsessed with elevator slots and genre-based drawers. “Because I like to experiment with so many different kinds of aesthetic choices,” she said, “people often say, ‘I don’t really know what you’re doing. We don’t know where to take you. ‘”
“But that’s just a big part of me and nothing I want to change about myself,” she added. “It’s a source of joy.”
Even at Wye Oak, which formed in 2006, Wasner and her bandmate Andy Stack seem allergic to repetition. After gaining recognition for “Civilian”, a breakout album from 2011 full of unusual rhythms and Wasner’s inventive guitar playing, a record with a focus on synthesizer “Shriek” followed in 2014. Her latest EP “No Horizon” from 2020 featured prominent choir arrangements sung by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
Wasner and Stack are both Baltimore natives who met in high school. You were in “one of those bands that everyone writes songs in,” Stack recalled on the phone. When 16-year-old Wasner got her to practice, it was clear that her compositions were a cut above the standard battle-of-the-tape fare. “She was a really good songwriter from the start,” he said.
Wasner and Stack have been playing music together for more than half their lives. The key to Wye Oak’s longevity, Stack said, was allowing each other to pursue other musical projects in their spare time. (They also wrote new material in quarantine.)
In the past decade Wasner has started several side projects and played in the touring bands of artists such as Sylvan Esso and Dirty Projectors. In 2019 she switched to Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver. “I think the way the industry is built to release as much music as I want, I have to get people to get me to do it by making up different names for myself,” she said .
But she pondered, “I had created this world of constant busyness and work that pretty much prevented me from spending time sitting with myself and examining my inner world.” “Head of Roses” is the answer to a certain riddle: What happens if one of the hardest-working musicians in indie rock suddenly has to sit still for a year?
Wasner’s most recent romantic relationship ended just before the pandemic began. (When I mentioned that not every musician had been creatively inspired over the past year, she laughed, “I would recommend these people try to be completely gutted from heartbreak!”) For the first time in her adult life, Wasner found herself without their usual distractions – no tour, no new band to join. “There was nothing to do but sit with my pain and myself,” she said. “I was so grateful that I could turn to making music because it was one of the last remaining things I had as a source of comfort.”
Or, while she sings “Walking” on a spacious, seedy new song that sounds more content than hurt: “Alone again, alone again, my time is my own again.”
Over the past year, Wasner kept writing songs, deepening her yoga practice, and teaching herself to cook – something she’d never taken the time to do in half a lifetime on tour. (“Nobody is going to be delighted with a homemade meal by me, but it’s certainly better than it was before this whole thing started.”)
In July, she gathered a small group of trustworthy workers at a nearby studio. Sanborn sometimes joked that she should name the album “The Many Faces of Was”. More than anything else she’s released before, “Head of Roses” makes room for the diversity of Wasner’s artistic voice. Neither of the singles sounds the same – neither the springy, unusual pop of “Two” nor the slow-burning psycho-rock of “Price of Blue” – and none of them prepare the listener for the wonderfully muted second half of the album, which features some of the contains the most exciting ballads that Wasner has ever recorded. The common element that holds all these different pieces together is their luminous, jewel-colored voice.
“I feel a lot more confident inside myself than ever, which makes it easier to make decisions without worrying about what I’m trying to prove,” said Wasner. The delegation of some technical tasks to Sanborn or the engineer Bella Blasko helped her to focus on her bigger vision. The fact that all of her co-workers were friends also made it easier to exploit her vulnerability in the studio: “It was a great pleasure to feel really held onto by everyone in my music community at a time when I was most gutted. personally.”
This was a relatively new experience. “For a lot of the music I’ve written in the past, I would reverse a feeling – I would think about a concept or idea that I wanted to explain, and then I would do it,” said Wasner. “With this record she suddenly came from this other place.”
That’s not to say that Wasner has given up on her avowed preference for challenging arrangements or non-traditional time-signature. “Watching her solo some of these songs,” said Wasner’s friend Meg Duffy, a guitarist who played on the album and recorded as Hand Habits. It seems like doing algebra in ballet. “
But now Wasner wants the more cerebral elements of her music to work primarily in the service of a feeling.
“Everything I’ve learned about trauma and healing this year supports the idea that music matters,” said Wasner. “It can undermine much of the defenses we have around the softer parts of us – the parts that may need to be seen and healed the most. These defenses are very difficult to overcome. But music could be the art form best able to get around these barriers and reach us where we need to be healed. “