There's no doubt in my mind that Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak would be lost without her phone. It's the key to her songwriting. That phone is where she documents all her observations for the day. She's constantly in touch with her surroundings, and all of her lyrical and melodic ideas that come from this connection go into the phone's voice recorder for later, when she actually writes a song. Wasner says her "switch is on all the time . . . if you're always looking around and noticing your environment, it's a big help."
What impresses me most about Wasner is that she calls herself a writer, period. And she knows that being a writer takes hard work. Like any good writer, she knows that the time spent actually crafting her words is only a small part of the writing process. Wasner recognizes that writers are always writing, even when they aren't. That is, her writing process takes place when she's driving, walking, shopping, anything. During this time, she's inventing ideas, trying out lines, just doing everything except putting pen to paper. In fact, she approaching her writing process with this wonderfully simple mantra: "living is work."
Wasner and the other half of Wye Oak, Andy Stack, are on tour now in support of their fantastic new record Civilian (Merge Records). Read all about Wasner's creative process after the video. And yeah, I know it's long. But I'll drop all pretense and say that I love everything she says. There's nothing here worth cutting.
How old were you when you started making music?
I started taking piano lessons when I was about eight, and my mom taught me to play guitar when I was a teenager. I was playing music a lot before it occurred to me to start writing on my own. I've always had an innate memory and sense for music, though.
Were you taught to read music?
I never learned to read music. I hated it. But I have an almost photographic musical memory, so when I was taking lessons I would go home and listen a few times to the piece I was supposed to learn, then I'd play it start to finish, no problem. My piano teacher called me out on it when I pretended to read notes on the page, but he could tell I had just memorized it. I told him that I wanted to be a songwriter. He was respectful and supportive, but he warned me that I should have a backup plan in case it didn't work out. And his backup plan for me was to play piano on cruise ships.
It seems like that musical memory of yours is an enormous aid in the songwriting process.
Without a doubt. It's so much a part of the way I think about music. It's instinctive. That's what I use to navigate music. I acquired a knowledge about theory because it's helpful to know, but it's really a way of telling myself something I already knew, like a language to describe things I already understood. Even when I was a kid making up songs and little melodies, it never occurred to me that I was writing songs; it just seemed the natural thing to do.
Tell me about your songwriting process.
I love to write. If I had one other creative outlet, it would be creative writing, since I did a lot of that in high school and college. With lyrical or melodic ideas, it's split about even as to what comes first. Since we tour so much, I don't get a lot of time to myself in that little private writer's world that I need. So when I have ideas, I document them by using the voice mail memo on my iPhone.
But what about a Moleskine journal!
I used to have one of those journals, but it wasn't very practical. I think you get your best thoughts when you're not trying to have them. I document lyrical and melodic ideas on my phone, so when I get one of those rare moments when I can sit down with a guitar or piano, I have a place to start. That's great for me because it prevents those awful moments for writers when they sit down and stare at a blank page. It gives me a starting place with ideas that were organic at one point. It's been a huge boost to my creativity; it probably tripled my songwriting output since I started doing it that way.
The flip side is that you might lose the initial emotional spark.
Nah, those ideas are starting points. They allow me to access that creative part of my brain much faster. They're just skeletons. If I have a second to sit down instead of wracking my brain thinking of something to write about, I can go back to those melodies or weird combination of words that I thought were cool. It gives me access to the creative world more easily, instead of staring at the page. I may not even use those ideas, but at least they serve as triggers.
But are there times when you write an entire set of lyrics first?
That's rare and I don't think my best songs have come that way. The songs I'm most proud of are those where the music and lyrics take shape simultaneously. A lot of the times I have the sounds of words, just the syllables, or just the shapes of the words. Then it's like a puzzle, filling in the blanks. Or I'll have the melody and chord progression and certain words, and an innate sense of what I want to say. Then it's just a matter of finding the words to fill in the blank.
There are times when for some reason I have a word that works, but it's not the right one, and I spend hours finding a better one. I have a fuzzy image of what the song is supposed to be, and the writing process is about narrowing it to something specific. It's like solving a puzzle.
With your experience reading and writing poetry, you have an advantage as a songwriter, since you appreciate the importance of how words sound.
Absolutely. Some people have this idea that music should have some grand sweeping statement, but honestly it's about wanting a certain syllable, or even a certain consonant or vowel. Then you have to find a word with the right meaning that fits that criteria. It's about the way words sound.
Jack Tempchin, a songwriter for the Eagles, told me that when he and Glenn Frey sat down to write, they named the nonsense words at the beginning of the writing process "El Blurto."
That's awesome. I love it. You don't hear people talk about that a lot, like "Yeah, I was spitting shit out. Whatever popped into my head, I just sculpted it." But so many people work that way to get at the basic creative instinct. It doesn't come out refined, but what comes out in that guttural stage is interesting and worth refining. Following that trail, that cool thing that exploded out of my brain, is what makes songwriting so much fun. I ask myself how I'm going to turn it into something meaningful.
How active are you in the inspiration process. Do you seek it out?
This is what's been absolutely revelatory in the last year. I don't have time to sit around and wait. I used to think it was a magical gift from the heavens that I couldn't control, and when it happened, it happened. But realizing that's not true is one of the best things that's happened to my writing process. I have very few moments to myself, and if I sat around and waited, I would never make anything again.
Songwriting and inspiration is a skill that can be improved upon with work, just like anything else. That's not to say that the spark that you can't control isn't important, but you can do things to trigger it. Like when I document all those ideas on my iPhone. You can work at being inspired. It's all about how you view the world. If that switch is on all the time, if you are always looking around and noticing your environment, it's a big help. For me, it's about documenting it for future reference, not just noticing how cool something is. Then when I sit down, I edit myself.
It doesn't feel like an evil thing to say that I edit my songs. In the past I would have written the first version of a song and just been happy that a song came to me and was done. But these new songs went through multiple versions and revisions. I'd play with them and try different things. Even though making art and writing songs is a mysterious craft, it's still a skill that you can get better at through practice and effort. That's changed the way I live. It's one of the most eye opening discoveries of my life, really.
A lot of songwriters are loathe to call what they do work. But it's a skill just like playing basketball.
Of course. Drawing is a skill. Anyone can doodle, but the act of making something great takes practice and discipline. To this day, the best songs I've written have parts where I don't know where they came from or how I got them. It's totally mysterious, but that's the exciting part, because if you are doing it well, you're tapping into stuff that you can't really explain. And you can't even take credit for it sometimes.
It's also about quantity. If you write ten songs, nine might be shitty, but one is good. If you weren't spending the time and effort on the whole experience, you probably wouldn't have gotten that one gem. Realizing that has changed my life. I used to settle for songs that weren't as good as they should have been because I wasn't doing enough.
Writing on a regular basis is important to being a good writer. You can't look at those nine shitty songs as a waste of time. They still help you get to the good stuff. Do you think about that where your productive writing sessions take place so you can replicate that environment?
It's been a constant struggle. Not only do I tour constantly, but I live in a different place ever year or so, either in different cities or within the same city. Right now I'm in Baltimore in a dormitory-style communal warehouse space without much privacy. But if I make than an excuse, I'd never write anything. I do think about what it takes and what's the best environment, but I have to make do with what I have.
Those triggers must come from me, not some external factor. I've had to force myself to find those things within myself. My phone is one of those comfort objects. But it's also very freeing to know that I don't need anything except me and my brain. If you force yourself to let go of those crutches that you think are necessary to the process, you can be productive anywhere. Like I said, for me there is no other choice. I define myself as writer, and I can't just let it go when I'm not in the ideal place to write. It's empowering to realize that I can create under less than ideal conditions.
When I interviewed Chris Difford of Squeeze, he told me of the importance of motion to his writing process, how he loves to write on the train.
Driving is one of my tricks. My theory is that at times when your best ideas are allowed to surface, that filter between your deep unconscious and the tedium of everyday life disappears and the creative side is let out. That only happens when you distract your brain and give it something mindless to do. The creative part of your brain gets freed up.
I do a lot of driving on tour, and I love to do it for that reason. Driving is easy and gives me something to do with my hands; it gives the conscious part of my brain something to do. This is why the recorder function of my phone is so great at keeping me out of horrible accidents. So many ideas come to me when I'm driving. I'm also passing a lot of things; it's like a constant film in front of me. When I sit in one space, like in a room, and try to write, it's impossible to crack through to the creative side because I start think about other things, like what I should eat for dinner, why my mom didn't call earlier, when I should go to the store.
How important is it to be in the place you write about, either emotionally or physically? I just finished rereading Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, and he says that he can't write about a place when he's there. He has to be far removed.
That's very true. It applies not only to places but to people. It's only when you remove yourself that you can really write about it. The last things that stick with you are the most essential things. When you are surrounded with a person's presence, the details of the place, there's so much to take in. To really figure out what's important, like the essence of the person of place, you have to test the strength of the memories. When I haven't seen someone for a really long time, what do I remember?
The things I love about Baltimore are the clearest to me when I'm away because it's what I miss. That's the only way I can let anything other than my conscious brain decide what the important parts are. Your conscious brain is strong, and when you are around someone you have all these ideas about who they are, and those little details take over an the brain takes over and starts assigning characteristics to that place or person that aren't even real. It's just my brain getting ahead of itself.
You worked as a server in a restaurant, and I have to think that it's fertile ground for songwriting, because every table is a story.
Baltimore is chock full of characters, which is why I think so many unusual and inventive artists come from here and live here. It wasn't until I left that I realized how unique it was. You can create a story arc for anyone who comes to a restaurant. And there's something about the anonymity of the service worker: I get to peer in and watch interaction without being a part. We are constantly creating stories and myths about people who come in. That's a big help to a songwriter.
And what do you do when you have writer's block?
I don't think about it. Writer's block comes from self imposed guilt about not producing enough. Here's my philosophy: "living is work." When you work in a creative field, part of the process is just being in the world. You start to think: I can sit here with a guitar and not produce anything, or maybe I just should get shitfaced with my friend and see what happens tonight. That accumulation of experiences is a big part of the creative process. You're not supposed to be sitting in a room with pen and paper. Thinking about it that way eliminates the guilt of not producing enough. It's cool to have a profession where hanging out with friends, going to shows, or going to museums is work. impulsive
Who are some of your literary influences?
Right now I've been getting into Flannery O'Connor. I read Wise Blood a year ago and it owned me. She's incredible. I read a lot of Japanese literature like Murakami, and I also love Adrienne Rich and ee cummings. I owe my love of literature to my amazing boarding high school experience. I was a boarding student in high school and spent a lot of my evenings and lunch breaks talking literature with my English teachers.
*photo by Natasha Tylea