2016 has been a year of milestones for Jenn Wasner. In September, the singer-songwriter — already well-known in indie circles as a member of Wye Oak and the electro-pop duo Dungeonesse — debuted her first full-length album with her solo project Flock of Dimes. Much like the rest of her discography, If You See Me, Say Yes is shakingly earnest. Through the buzzing hum of songs like "Ida Glow" and fervent chorus of "Semaphore," Wasner examines how our spatial and metaphorical distance from the places and people we love can shape our journeys as individuals. Each song is a living testament to the impact of that distance, the direct result of tireless focus, deliberate solitude, and artistic evolution. "I wanted to see what I was capable of once I took away all of the distractions," she says. In order to do so, Wasner left her beloved hometown of Baltimore to live alone in a house nestled deep in the woods of North Carolina, where much of the album was written.
I spoke with Wasner over the phone shortly after her return from a tour in Europe about her solo debut, why solitude is essential to her process, and how collaborating with friends gave her songs new life after a tiring record-making process.
Dianca Potts: You dropped out of college to pursue music. Was that a difficult choice to make?
Jenn Wasner: I've been making music and writing songs from a really early age. It was always my dream and my highest aspiration, but I never assumed that I would get to do it as a job. I went to college briefly and in that time made a record with Andy [Stack] just for fun, and it got picked up by Merge [a record label]. I was about nineteen when that happened, and when I found out, I dropped out of school. I was like, I'm gonna give this a try. It felt like a sign, so I went for it and I never really looked back.
DP: The song "Semaphore" examines what it's like to be shy. Do you consider yourself to be an introvert?
JW: I never thought of myself as an introvert until recently. There's different styles of introversion, and I'm not a shy person in the traditional sense. You could see me at a party or at a show talking to people and you'd never notice that something is amiss, but I have a lot of internal anxiety about the way that I interact with people, and a lot of that is because for a large part of my life I was a people pleaser. I worried about satisfying and meeting others' needs at my own expense. It took me a while to figure that out. "Semaphore," like a lot of my songs, is about the anxiety of making sure that I communicate myself as honestly as possible to people. I think that's why I gravitated to making music and writing songs, because it's an opportunity for me to say what I want exactly they way I want to and to be understood.
DP: You've lived in Baltimore for most of your life but recently moved to North Carolina. Why did you decide to leave?
JW: Baltimore is everything to me and I still think of it as home, but I couldn't resist the pull of learning how to operate outside of my comfort zone. I have a lot of complicated feelings about leaving, but in order to do what I do, I have to be absent for a lot of things and away from a lot of the people that I love. I'm really happy here in North Carolina, though! I'm living by myself for the first time, and it's amazing. I know that it's necessary. I wouldn't have been able to make this record without being here.
DP: Has living alone given you more creative freedom or focus?
JW: When you're young you feel like you have an infinite amount of time, and that you'll get around to doing what you want to do, but life is a series of choices, and how you spend every minute of your time and what you create is a direct result of those decisions. When I was in Baltimore I was the last person that I would say yes to when it came to time, and by the end of the day I didn't have the energy, time, or space to be creative in the way that I wanted to. I knew that I was selling myself short. I wanted to see what I was capable of once I took away all of the distractions. I wanted to push myself.
DP: You turned 30 in April. Has that milestone impacted your creative process in any way?
JW: In some ways I feel like a cliché. I feel like everything that everybody says is true. I have always been super anxious and super insecure about myself and my physical body and about my opinions, and about everything. My twenties were an agonizing period of self-doubt and insecurity. Now I care so much less about what anybody thinks. I feel like I have a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be a human on this planet.
DP: You recorded a rendition of "Ida Glow" with Thor Harris's band. What was that experience like?
JW: This video is from a session that took place this summer at my dear friend Thor Harris's house in Austin. He's well known for his work as a drummer and multi-instrumentalist [with Swans, Thor & Friends, etc.]. I heard an advance copy of Thor & Friends' record not long after I had put the finishing touches on If You See Me, Say Yes, and at that point my ears were long dead from overexposure to my own music. Their record woke me up, and I had the idea to get together with them when I was passing through Austin to create some alternate versions of songs from my record [in a] free-flowing creative space with zero expectations. After working on my songs in a controlled studio environment for so long, it was such a pleasure to make something wild and ephemeral and totally different out of them. It helped me to recapture the love of the songs after totally exhausting myself in the record-making process.
DP: Your album ends with "… To Have No Answer." How has uncertainty, or not being sure, shaped your life?
JW: A lot of the stress and anxiety in my life has come from trying to make sense of everything. I'm an organized person and I like to understand things, and that's possible to a certain extent with some aspects of life, but as far as the bigger picture is concerned, you'll drive yourself crazy if you're fixated on control like that. "… To Have No Answer" is about relinquishing that control and being at peace with the chaos that is life. To be at peace with the fact that time doesn't wait and to be content regardless of what is going on around you.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Dianca Potts is an assistant at Lenny.