Jenn Wasner, Wye Oak and Flock of Dimes

Regardless of the art you create, some level of self-awareness is important. If you're a songwriter, you may marvel at the miracle of inspiration and how sometimes songs just fall into your lap. But at some point you have to think about your process: you have to think about the parts that work, the parts that don't work, and why they do and don't. Successful songwriters have that level of self-awareness. It's hard to be productive if you're oblivious to your process. Jenn Wasner knows what works and what doesn't work, and this is one of the reasons why she is so prolific.

Wasner and Andy Stack make up Wye Oak, an indie rock duo formed in 2006. Wasner also has a solo project called Flock of Dimes, and her fantastic debut album is called If You See Me, Say Yes. I first interviewed Wasner back in 2011, when she admitted that only recently had she discovered that you have to work at inspiration:

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. 

Wasner's self-awareness has meant constant self-correction. When something stops working, she tries something else. As she explains, "No matter how long you've been doing it, you're constantly forced to find a new way. You always have to find a way that puts you and your habits and your brain space off-balance. That's how to find something new and different and exciting. It's a new path to the same goal. You can't always take the same path."

But that self-awareness also means knowing what works the best inside that process. Wasner has a strict routine that she follows whenever possible: she gets up at a certain time, she has a big breakfast, she answers emails, she works, she goes for a walk, she works some more, then she goes to yoga. Sound familiar? This mirrors the process of many of the classic prose writers throughout history. 

There's more. Living in Baltimore interfered with her creative process, so she moved to a house in the North Carolina woods. When she's in a creative funk, she always turns to other artists for inspiration. And if it wasn't for yoga, you probably wouldn't be reading this interview with such a ridiculously talented artist. Read it after the video for "Semaphore," off her new album. 

What kind of writing are you doing outside of songwriting?

I've been trying to write more longform pieces. I've written some for The Talkhouse and one for Medium about guitars. I love writing. It's not something that I've done a lot of since college, but I've been trying to do more because I've become increasingly frustrated, overwhelmed, and confused with navigating other forms of social media and public engagement. It has become almost impossible for me to express myself in an authentic and genuine way in such a limited medium. I've never been comfortable with Twitter and Facebook. It causes me an enormous amount of anxiety to try to express myself that way. So I've been trying to write more longform pieces because that's the best way to express myself outside of music.

Are you a disciplined writer, either with music or those longform pieces?

I'm more disciplined as a songwriter, surprisingly. It's one of the only things I know of where I can show up to do it and there's no guaranteed outcome. When I sit down to write an essay, at the very least I can crank out a few paragraphs. But with songwriting, for every time I sit down to write a song, something sticks maybe once every 50 times. It's infuriating to show up over and over again with no guaranteed result. Striking gold is rare.

Left to my own devices, and if I have nothing else to fill my time, I'm extremely disciplined. That's my preferred lifestyle. I love my writing routine, and it's hard when touring takes me out of that. When I'm home, I get up around 8am; I make myself a long, leisurely breakfast; I answer emails until around 11am, and then I work on music until around 5pm. I usually take a walk in the middle of that writing session. Then around 6pm I do about an hour and a half of yoga at the local yoga studio. Then I come home and have my evenings free. I go to bed around midnight. That is my absolute best life. I love when I have an unbroken month when I can have that schedule. That makes me a happy person.

That's the most disciplined routine any songwriter has given me.

I got that idea from reading about the routines of prose writers. I don't do well with aimlessness. If I get back from a tour and I have all the time in the world and no idea how to fill it, I get depressed. So I have to mimic the discipline of a job and stick to it. That's when I'm the happiest. Obviously, I'm not insane about it. If a friend calls and asks me to do something, I'll take a day here and there. But I'm still the happiest and the most productive with routines.

It sounds like your endpoint each day is a time, not a certain number of words or lines or anything like that.

When I say "write" or "work on music," there's a certain routine even within that. I sit down and start working on something that I made before, and I try to make that better. Then if that gets tedious, I'll switch over and work on something new. This is all happening in the studio, so there's music involved. At a certain point, inevitably, I get frustrated and tired of being in my own head. I keep a list of other people's songs that I really want to learn how to play, so I'll play someone else's song, or I'll learn a part of a song that I've never played before. That keeps me working on music without being in my own head. It inspires again so I can get back to working on my own music. That treat I give myself of learning someone else's music or playing a song I love prevents me from giving up, which is what I used to do when I got frustrated.

That sounds like a great way to cure writer's block.

Oh yeah. The files on my computer are often named after the files I'm trying to rip off. Laughs. Of course, the finished product sounds nothing like those originals, but they really help with getting over the hump of the blank page. Focusing on that small part and seeing it mutate into something unrecognizable is so helpful.

Was If You See Me, Say Yes a pretty easy album to write?

Sometimes. During those rare miracle song moments, where I can't explain why they happen or how they happen, my songs just write themselves. There's no agonizing. They take no effort. Those are the moments when I find myself just screaming at the top of my lungs, "WHAAAAAT JUST HAPPENED???"

Half of the songs on this album were like that, but I wrote it over the course of several years. I made and remade that record several times, and I cut it down to just the bangers. I had probably three times as many songs as ended up on the record.

But for the other songs, I have a melody that I feel really good about, and I have to find the words that fit. And that is agonizing. When it's something I work on over time that's more like a puzzle, I take a walk with it or take it in the car.

Is there a favorite room in your house where you like to write?

That doesn't really matter too much, because my best ideas come when I'm moving around or traveling. But I will say that this is the first house I've lived alone in, and it is amazing. I'm super spoiled now because just knowing that I live alone and there's no one around to hear me or find me is so freeing. It's like having a physical representation of your own brain space, because there's no one in there and you know it. I'm super grateful that I gave myself this gift, to live alone and have my own space to do this.

That newfound solitude has changed the way I think about creativity. Before this, I used to write all the time with people downstairs or in the next room. It never really bothered me, but it was always on my mind.

photo by Will Hackney

photo by Will Hackney

You mentioned earlier that when you're stuck, you'll return to something that you were working on earlier. Do you do that often?

Yeah. A lot of the songs that eventually come to life in a big way start as ideas that I abandoned. When you work like I do now--producing, writing, and recording all at the same time--the ideas come from all over the place. It can be overwhelming to have so many options. That's why I feel like it can be better to listen to someone else and mimic what they do. It gives me a sense of direction.

But in the course of doing that, I could work on something for hours and then burn out. When that happened, I used to feel that everything I had just done was a waste of time. But once I opened them back up a couple of days or a couple of weeks later, I could take those ideas and turn them into my own song.

Do you have a set writing process?

I don't, and I tell people that the second you think you have a process, or at least one that works, it will eventually stop working. That's the bitch about the creative process: no matter how long you've been doing it, you're constantly forced to find a new way. You always have to find a way that puts you and your habits and your brain space off-balance. That's how to find something new and different and exciting. It's a new path to the same goal. You can't always take the same path.

How often do things you hear or read make their way into your songs?

That's all it is. Lyrics happen around me everywhere, all the time. It might have nothing in common with what the source meant to communicate, but sometimes I hear words that just sound right together and they unlock something in my brain that I can build a whole world around.

I actually just listened to the Song Exploder podcast episode with Nick Zammuto from The Books. He said something that I want to try: he'd be in a hotel room and turn on the TV. He'd watch whatever channel was on and would wait for the lyric of a song to happen. When it did, he'd write it down then change the channel and wait for the next line. He did that over and over. That blew me away. It's a great example of what it's like to move through the world as a lyricist and to be aware of every word around you so that you can collect the information you need in order to make more things. Our job is not to create something from nothing but to observe what's around us and write it down.

Phones make that job more difficult, don't they?

What scares me is not that they exist but that they are taking us away from something else. As a creative person and someone who loves to be present in the world, I have to be careful and self-regulate. I started about six months by telling myself I would only look at Facebook once a week. Of course, I didn't fully stick to that, but I look at it much less than I used to. And because of that, I'm a much less anxious person when it's a smaller part of my life.

Is your awareness of your environment a passive one, or are you consciously noticing the things around you?

It's not like I'm listening in on other people's conversations, but as long as I'm not actively distracted by someone else, there's a part of my brain that's always paying attention. You don't have to try too hard, because you're listening for things that stick out. Those lines grab you. But there's also so much going on in my subconscious: trains of thought, topics, ideas that I'm working through without even being aware of them. Then the right phrase or the right word finds me and I'm not even sure why until I dig a little deeper and realize that I feel so strongly about something because it's related to what I've been thinking about. My songwriting is a way of unpacking those ideas.

Five years ago we talked about the role of motion in your songwriting process. It sounds like that still holds true today.

Absolutely. It gives my brain something mindless to occupy itself with while I'm creating. It frees up my unconscious. Driving is a huge one for me. I have so many thoughts and ideas when I drive, but it's irritating because I'm driving! I can't write them down. So I repeat the ideas over and over until I find a safe place to pull over and write then down. That's one of the only things about touring that isn't disruptive to the creative process: you can collect ideas there.

Does exercise play a role in your creative process?

Exercise is so important to me now. Exercise and sanity go hand in hand. Before I made Shriek, I was in a pretty dark place. I had convinced myself that I was done with music and was going to quit making music. I wasn't convinced that I would ever even be able to make music again. I felt like everything I had done was trite and trivial, and that I had wasted my years when I should have been doing something more important to help people. It was the classic existential meltdown. And I was also going through some terrible cystic acne. I never felt worse. I felt horrible about myself and never left the house. One of my dear friends from Baltimore, Caroline, came over one day and taught me how to do yoga. We did it every day and eventually after doing enough of it I felt good enough to be able to leave the house again.

Yoga gave, and still gives me, access to clarity and peace of mind. It lessened my anxiety to the extent that I wanted to keep making music again. I cannot overstate how important yoga was to me and how important it still is. I do it as much as I can. It's the only exercise I've ever found that is both challenging and steadying. It's peaceful and not frantic, which is important to me because I'm really high strung and have a lot of anxiety naturally.

To answer your question, I don't know that inspiration comes from exercise, but it does quiet my anxiety enough that it allows me to tap into a place that is required to be creative. If I'm really anxious, I can't create. I can't even hear my own thoughts.

How has your creative process changed since you moved to North Carolina? (Ed. note: Wasner moved a year ago to North Carolina from Baltimore.)

I lived in downtown Baltimore for most of my life, but now I live outside Durham in this neighborhood that's technically a suburb, but it's tucked away in the woods so it feels rural. It's an undeveloped area with tons of trees and a pond. Greenery everywhere.

I moved here because my friends in Sylvan Esso used to live in this neighborhood. We toured together last year, and I hung out with them here after the tour. I was so jealous of how cool their neighborhood was, and they told me that the house next door was up for rent.

I still miss Baltimore tremendously. It's full of incredible art, incredible music, and amazing and hard working people. It was an honor to be a part of that community, and it made me the artist I am today. But as I've gotten older I've realized I need a lot of space and privacy. I have a hard time saying no to people, and Baltimore was such a rich environment that I eventually realized that I was putting my time and art on the back burner. I had to get away from that if I was ever going to focus on myself and my work.

That all goes back to discipline, right? You can be more disciplined if there are fewer distractions.

That's exactly right. It was a tough choice but it's a more productive and healthy lifestyle for me.

How, if at all, does the rural environment affect your inspiration? You went from a place full of sensory overload of words to a place where it's a lot quieter, literally. 

Yeah, but it's great. My therapist told me to be careful not to rebuild Baltimore all over for myself. What she meant was not to put myself back in the same problem I was trying to avoid. Don't seek out distractions. I have a good crew of close-knit friends, but have to say "no" a lot less often than I used to. The practical reality is that I get a lot more work done down here and it's a great place for me to focus on my art.

Five years ago you were obsessed with Flannery O'Connor. Who are you reading now?

I'm so glad you asked. I just finished my favorite books in a long time called The Neapolitan Novels, the series by Elena Ferrante. They are soooo good. She's an Italian author, and that's a pseudonym, so no one knows who she is. They are a great examination of what it means to be female in the world. She writes beautifully.