Jenn Wasner just released her second solo album, Head of Roses, under the moniker Flock of Dimes. Ahead of its release, she sat down with our staff writer Megan Doherty. They talked about her new approach to creating this record, how it got its name, and more.
YOU PUT OUT YOUR DEBUT SOLO ALBUM FIVE YEARS AGO, AND NOW YOU’RE RELEASING HEAD OF ROSES. HOW HAVE YOUR EXPERIENCES TOURING WITH BON IVER AND PUTTING OUT AN ALBUM FOR WYE OAK INFORMED THIS NEXT ALBUM?
Jenn Wasner: I think everything that I've learned has been a big part of how I've been able to grow. The biggest thing for me is just learning how to delegate and how to share responsibilities and open myself up to collaborations more. For a while, I really wanted to control every aspect of the production of things and just have a hand in as many different aspects of the record creating process as possible. That was something that I kind of needed to go through. I learned a lot from the process, but I don't necessarily think it's always what makes for the best result. So a big part of it has just been learning how to open myself up to the ideas that other people can bring to the table.
In many ways, I'm better at everything that I do than I was five years ago. Obviously, that's kind of how it is to be human. But learning to lean into these collaborations has been the best discovery of the past year or so.
ARE THERE ANY FEATURES OR COLLABORATIONS ON THE ALBUM THAT YOU'RE MOST EXCITED FOR?
JW: I mean, it was a very small and close group of friends. I think everyone contributed in some incredibly meaningful ways. But because of Covid, there was a limit to how many people could really be in the room. And a lot of people were just my close friends here in North Carolina. My friend Nick, who has a band called Sylvan Esso, also has a recording studio that he and his partner Amelia built not too far from where I live, fortunately enough. The fact that that place existed and they were so willing to so generously share it with me made the entire thing possible.
I got to work with one of my favorite drummers, Matt McCaughan, who I play with in Bon Iver. My friend Meg Duffy came to play guitar, and my friend Bella Blasko engineered for us. For the most part, it was a very, very tight knit group. But there were more people involved than maybe for me in the past.
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT FROM THE REST OF THE ALBUM?
JW: Something that Nick and I talked about when we were making this record was trying to capture that quality that is so much a part of what I do and condense it down to the size of a record. It's absolutely true that I really do a lot of creative shape-shifting. That’s something I just, for whatever reason, feel really drawn to. I've never really wanted to limit myself to making only one kind of thing, or only expressing myself in one particular style or one aesthetic. It's weird, ‘cause I don't entirely understand where to put myself sometimes. That’s a big part of who I am, and so we came to embrace it.
We talked about the record sort of capturing that sense of versatility, but still feeling like a cohesive whole and having it have this somewhat mixed tape quality, but making sure that everything had a narrative and hung together. All the tracks are actually pretty wildly different from one another. I don't think there are two that I can point to that are the same. But I'd like to think that it still tells a story and hangs together, even though it’s aesthetically so diverse.
HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT CONNECTING ALL THE SONGS AND MAKING SURE THEY FLOW NICELY? IS IT MORE BASED ON LYRICS OR PRODUCTION?
JW: Well, there's a thematic element to it for sure. I mean, you are telling a story. I think that there is something to be said for creating a narrative arc within the framework of a record because otherwise it's just a bunch of songs. I certainly had more songs written and recorded than I ended up putting on the record. It was more about zeroing in on which songs thematically were telling the story that I wanted to tell.
I also think that as far as making them sound cohesive, once you've settled on that, aside from the thematic and narrative aspect of it, there's production choices and even the most subtle and miniscule choices can really do a lot to shape the way something sounds and the way something feels as a cohesive whole and as a cohesive unit. It's partially just sort of making sure that you're sculpting the sounds just so and getting them to sit exactly where you want them to, and partially more of a conceptual kind of arc.
YEAH, DEFINITELY. SO WHAT'S THE STORY THAT YOU'RE TRYING TO TELL, OR YOU WANT TO TELL ON THIS ALBUM?
JW: This album was written around this time last year. So, it's still relatively fresh to me. I was in a situation where I had left a relationship and began another, which then ended. And that coincided with the beginning of the pandemic. So I was in a situation where I not only was dealing with a pretty immense amount of personal pain, but I was also very aware of the fact that I had been the source of that same kind of suffering for someone else that I cared about.
I was sort of forced into a situation where I had to really sit with that and all of the discomfort around that because I was in isolation, and because a lot of the coping mechanisms I had constructed in my life to avoid really having to sit with those uncomfortable feelings for very long were no longer available to me. And the only one that was, was making music. I mean, not the only one, there were few others left to me, you know, maybe exercise and snacks and music and that's it.
I think the story of the record starts from a place of being overwhelmed by this almost tidal wave of pain and suffering, and trying to find a way in my isolation to soothe myself and to understand what had happened and to take a closer look at some of the patterns within others and also within me, and maybe making some kind of peace with the reality that to be human and to love and be loved is to accept that at some point you will be both the recipient and the source of great suffering from others or to others. That's the most condensed elevator pitch version of what the record is about that I can come up with.
NO, IT'S A GREAT ELEVATOR PITCH! WHAT MADE YOU CHOOSE THE FINAL NAME FOR THE ALBUM – HEAD OF ROSES?
JW: The title came from the title of the song. The song had existed before I decided to call the record Head of Roses. It was one of those really rare and kind of spooky experiences in writing, which happens on occasion, where I sat down and started playing the piano. I was in a really intense, emotional headspace, and I just started playing the song like I already knew it, like it had already been written, which doesn't happen very often. But it can happen. It's a very surprising and somewhat mystical feeling when it does. I just sang it, you know, the first chorus of that song, “fear of the world / head of roses.” It just kind of came out of my mouth, and I wrote it down. I didn't really think too much about what it meant.
Then, looking back at the song and looking back at the songs that had come to shape the skeleton of the record that I was making, it occurred to me that the rose is just the perfect archetypal symbol of beauty and suffering. It's like the beauty of the blossom and the agony of the thorn. It really was surprising that I had just completely freestyled this idea out of my subconscious, and it turned out to be this beautifully poetic encapsulation of something that I didn't even necessarily fully realize consciously at the time.
I'VE NEVER HEARD OF SOMEONE JUST FREESTYLING THE WHOLE THING AND THEN IT BECOMING THE ALBUM NAME.
JW: It's weird, man. I mean, it's only happened to me a handful of times. It's pretty unusual. It's one of those magic moments, and then afterwards it's like you're on fire and you want to tell everyone. You're just like, “the craziest thing just happened!” It's wild.
IN YOUR SONG “TWO,” I LOVE HOW YOU BALANCED,CREATING SUCH A FUN, INTERESTING SOUNDING SONG WITH GENUINELY RELATABLE LYRICS. A LINE THAT REALLY STOOD OUT TO ME WAS “WE'RE ALL JUST WEARING BODIES, LIKE A COSTUME TILL WE DIE.” IT'S SO GOOD. CAN YOU TELL ME WHAT THE INSPIRATION WAS BEHIND THIS?
JW: Well, first I'll say the song itself is about duality and it's about trying to reconcile the two opposing forces of separateness and togetherness, or autonomy and togetherness, and independence and connectedness, and sort of feeling adrift amidst friction between those things. But the second verse, which has the line that you mentioned, is about how a lot of my life was spent in these all, or majority, male spaces.
So, much of what I learned, like the trappings of personality that I learned to adapt in those scenarios and to like fit in, were very deeply affected by that. I guess what I was thinking when I wrote that line. The one that comes before it is like, “I see the way they look at me when I try to be like the men.” It's like when you are someone in a non-male body trying to make yourself at home in majority male spaces, you sort of are doing this constant dance between how much of myself do I have to constantly compromise and adjust?
But then the choice to do that and to accommodate, or to adjust yourself to accommodate these all-male spaces, alienates you from other women in ways that maybe you don't even notice. I think the line that you mentioned, it's sort of like me coming to a point of frustration with the reality of that, and not really understanding which parts of myself came from where and how to fully feel at home in my body.
And then just hitting this wall with it, where I'm just like, “and it's all made up.’ It's all completely made up. We invented this. Gender is a total construct, and it's made all of us just more and more confused, and feel more and more separate from one another, and more and more not at home in our own bodies. That's my sardonic, kind of dark sense of humor being like, "eh, fuck it. We made this shit up.”
WHAT WAS THE MOST REWARDING PART OF WRITING THIS ALBUM?
JW: Oh, well honestly, I'm very proud of the record. I really am. The fact that I was able to make it, that I chose to do something positive and productive with what could have been and was a very difficult set of circumstances is something that I'm really proud of. But I think for me, the process and my presence and awake-ness and awareness and ability to actually enjoy myself, can sometimes get lost in the constant workaholic shuffle that I've been living my life in. And so, of course I'm proud of the final product.
But I also think I would say I'm equally proud of the way that I was able to enjoy the process of writing it, and enjoy the process of recording it, and really learn something about myself, but really be there, like be present and not be constantly thinking about, “Oh, when this is done, I'm going to do this, this and this.” There was so much real, honest, genuine joy and gratitude at being able to be in that space with other people doing the thing that I love to do the most.
It was a really important reminder to try and stay really aware of what moment you're living at any given time and enjoy it and be awake to your own experience in your own life. I think I am as proud of that realization and my continuing attempts to practice that mindset, as I am of the actual thing itself, because as much as I care about making art that helps people, I also want to be a happy, healthy person.
Flock of Dimes’ second studio album, Head of Roses, is available now.
For Live Music Week, we’ll be airing Jenn Waner’s 2016 live set! Tune in tonight at 6pm for her archived mix, including a unique take on her song “Sephamore.”