Baltimore band Wye Oak: Juggling loneliness and aloneness on their new 'Civilian'
In the liner notes for the new Wye Oak album, "Civilian," Jenn Wasner explains that her new songs are about “aloneness (the positive kind)” and “loneliness (the horrible kind)." With help from Andy Stack, the other half of the Baltimore duo, she has fashioned music that alternates between the soothing calm of aloneness and the thrashing discord of loneliness — not from song to song, but from section to section within each song. Threading it all together are Wasner's melodies, a tunefulness that made Wye Oak a natural opening act for the recent tours by Spoon and the Decemberists.
Wasner finds it hard to get much aloneness once she and Stack hit the road, and their current headlining tour brings the duo to the Echo on Thursday night. So earlier this month she was savoring the chance hang out by herself at her home in Baltimore’s Bell Foundry, an abandoned factory taken over by artists in the city’s up-and-coming Station North scene. But she agreed to sit down with Stack and a reporter at the dining table in the Foundry’s steeply slanting common area and explain the dichotomy that fuels the new disc.
“Aloneness is when I get things done, when I listen to music and write, but I don’t get enough of it," she lamented. The 24-year-old's big eyes stared out from under her strawberry-blond bangs. “Loneliness is the other side of the coin. Then I feel disconnected and anxious, and my brain goes running off in a bad direction. Sometimes I've felt the loneliest in a crowded situation."
“I accomplish the most when I’m home by myself without obligations," she said. "That's when I feel alone. I can start a song when I’m around other people, but I can’t finish it — I can’t put a period on a song — until I’m alone. But when I start to feel lonely, I get desperate to reach out to other people. I wouldn’t have written these songs if I didn’t keep swinging back and forth between aloneness and loneliness."
"Civilian" could well be the album that makes Wye Oak the third act (following Beach House and Dan Deacon) to break out of Baltimore’s vibrant indie-rock scene and become a national presence. The universal experience of feeling too crowded and then too isolated in quick succession is captured by Wasner's giant guitar riffs and fetching vocal tunes and by Stack's driving rhythms and sonic manipulation.
To demonstrate how they work together, Wasner pulled out her copper-colored iPhone and tapped on an app that brought up the picture of an old-fashioned microphone. Another tap brought up a list of guitar licks and scat melodies that she had recorded on her phone. Another tap played the signature riff for one of the album's key songs, “Holy Holy."
“I used to keep a journal," she said, “but I would always forget to carry it around, and my ideas come when I’m out and about. My iPhone, though, is the one thing I have on my person at all times. So when I think of a guitar part or a vocal line or some lyrics, I put them on my iPhone. That way, when I have time to work on songs, I don’t face that blank-page syndrome like I used to. I played back that guitar riff and started singing scat syllables over it. Because the cadence was so driving it sounded like a chant to me, so the words 'holy, holy' came naturally."
“Where I come in is adding sonic textures to the songs," Stack said. “Because a lot of this music is about conflicted emotions, it made sense to have driving sections and dreamy sections side-by-side. You can hear that in ‘Holy Holy.’ A song like ‘Plains,’ which describes a dry, arid scene, should sound like ripples of heat over asphalt." Or a song like ‘Fish’ will be given a watery feel.”
When Wasner and Stack began the band they were a romantic couple as well as musical partners. Over the last year they separated as lovers and roommates but reaffirmed their commitment to Wye Oak.
“I was trying to live in both worlds,” Wasner said, “being a freewheeling, traveling musician and being part of a domestic couple. At this point in my life I can’t be both. This whole record is about not depending on other people or on particular places for fulfillment. I’m not going to be ready to be in a full-time relationship until I can be happy with myself. If you have to depend on another for your wellbeing, you’re going to suck that person dry.”
"We were both aware of the peril if one person wanted to stay in the relationship and the other person didn’t," Stack added. "That can be awful. We were lucky that we came to the same decision at the same time. Amongst all the hats we wore for one another, one hat had to be taken off. We worked it out, because we were patient and didn’t expect the change to happen all at once."
At the end of the interview, the two parted with a hug, making plans to meet for a rehearsal later. Having recorded the album in bits and pieces, they now have to learn how to play the songs with just two people on stage — Wasner on vocals and guitar, Stack with his right hand on the drums, his left hand on the keyboards. By the time they play the album's title track at the Echo on Thursday and Wasner sings the line, “I’m perfectly able to hold my own hand but I still can't kiss my own neck," Stack's thumping support will be right there with her.
-- Geoffrey Himes in Baltimore
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Photo: Wye Oak's Andy Stack, left, and Jenn Wasner. Credit: Courtesy Merge Records