Photo Courtesy of Wyn Doran
By Lily Doolin, WERS Blog Editor
Although live mixes here at 88.9 are indefinitely cancelled due to the outbreak of COVID-19, we’re not stopping Wicked Local Wednesday (WLW), our weekly program dedicated to bringing you music and interviews with artists in the Boston/New England area. Tune in at 9 pm every Wednesday night to hear two songs each by two local artists!
To learn more about the artists you hear on WLW, check here weekly on our WERS Music Blog for interviews with them! In this interview, indie singer/songwriter Wyn Doran talks with WERS Blog Editor Lily Doolin about her amazing experience at a Ben Folds-run songwriting retreat, her journey transitioning to a solo act, and her new single, "Cigarettes."
I wanted to start off with learning a bit about your process for the Thick of It EP. This was your first solo project, so what was it like transitioning into the solo realm?
Wyn Doran: It was something I never saw coming to be honest. Exactly two years ago, I had gone to a songwriting retreat in California. It was led by one of my songwriting idols, Ben Folds.
We absolutely love him here!
WD: I am obsessed with him, so it was a very hard week to be in front of him all of the time (laughs). That was my first adventure outside of my band, and I didn’t really know what to expect because I had co-written for a while. It really pushed me in different ways and kind of showed different pieces of my writing. I had been writing for a folk band and these songs that were coming out of me weren’t so folky anymore. So, I came home from that, and I kind of sat on the material for a few months but it was nagging at me, and I was like, “Oh, it doesn’t really fit in this band,” but I really wanted to do something with it. I sent it to my friend Devon Dawson, who had produced my other band, and he lit a fire under the process. He was like, “You have something here.”
It started with just one song, “Places Unknown,” which was my first release. I don’t know, it led to a different voice, and that ended up leading to saying, “Well, what if we did an album?” So, then I sat that Fall – one and a half years ago I guess – and I would sit every day and try and figure out what this new sound was. I guess Thick of It, that album, kind of became that experiment, more or less, under this name.
That’s super cool, it’s so interesting for you to say that you felt like you weren’t specifically writing folk anymore. Do you know if there was a shift in the way you were seeing your writing that led to this different sound and feel, if you can pinpoint it?
WD: I kind of can. When I first started writing, it was all cowriting. I had met my bandmate on Craigslist (laughs). I kind of learned all that I knew from songwriting from him and that relationship. I was listening to a lot of folk at that time. Five years ago, The Lumineers, The Head and the Heart were what I was listening to. It was kind of my stepping stone to figuring out my own voice, I was just trying to write and see if I could, or how I wrote folk.
When I went to this songwriting workshop, I had a blank canvas. I was no longer writing for this band that had this definition. I was kind of caught off guard, honestly, by what came out (laughs). Like, “What is this? I don’t hear just an acoustic guitar anymore.” It’s been a journey, it kind of still is. When I’m writing each song, I’m trying not to put it in a box, and each song – I’m struggling personally with this because I kind of want to put them in a box since that was the past five years of my career, but I’m trying not to put that pressure on these songs, and take them each as my voice, and say, “Okay, where do I really hear this going?” and just have fun with it. But sometimes, that just feels like an identity crisis (laughs).
I feel that. Sometimes in writing, you look at something and go, “Who is this?” (laughs). Hearing you talk about this songwriting retreat, it sounds like it was a really transformative experience. What was it like not just being with Ben Folds, but what was the process like? Was every day structured, or was it more free-flowing?
WD: It was five days, and each day we had to write two songs. We would wake up and go to breakfast – there was roughly fifteen of us – and then Ben would give us a song prompt right after breakfast, and from eight to eleven, we would write a song, then we’d break for lunch, and after lunch, we would screen the songs for those participants and Ben, and then he would give direct feedback. After that feedback, in the afternoon, he would give us an afternoon songwriting challenge, and we would do the same thing until dinnertime. We did have some framework that would put us in a box as to what we were writing about, but it was insane, because I sit on songs for a long time (laughs), but this was like, “Nope, in three hours you’re going up in front of fifteen people, and one of them is your idol, and you’re gonna sing whatever you’ve got.” And he would always say we had to have a finished product, even if we weren’t that happy with it, you have to have three minutes of something.
Did you have a favorite song that you wrote, maybe one that you finished or are looking currently to transform into something? Or was it more of just a personal workshopping experience?
WD: Interesting question, because I haven’t gone back to any of them yet, but now with all of this time on our hands – I have them all saved from two years ago – there are a couple of things. Maybe they will surface. But at the time, it was more or less, “Oh, that’s just something I never would’ve thought about.” It kind of just gave me different writing tools and constructs.
That leads me to my next question because obviously we’re all cooped up here, there’s no gigs or shows, but what are you doing to keep the light on for your project?
WD: I know (laughs), I’m still discovering that! Stemming from that workshop, the guy that put it on put together a global songwriter’s… I wouldn’t call it a class, but a group, and there are a hundred of us from around the world that get together once a week and are cowriting. That was a nice thing that came up. I’m writing with somebody in New Zealand that I never would’ve met otherwise.
But I’ve been reflecting on this: The first couple of weeks, I was just heartbroken. I was going to be playing in California right now, and I had a tour lined up, and everybody is feeling these losses. At first, it was the mourning stage, but now I’m finally coming into the “Okay, this is a beautiful time where I’m not stressing out about the next thing.” So, I do plan on writing more, I’m trying to appreciate that. I’m actually waking up every morning and challenging myself to a ten-minute improv before I pick up my phone, so that’s been a fun thing. I do need to mention that I have a single coming out on April 14th. I’m very excited about that. I wasn’t sure if I should hold that off, but then I was like, “Why would I hold that off?”
This is the perfect time to release stuff! If you’re willing to share, what’s the name of the single, and why release this one? I’m assuming this is one single in a list of many that will probably end up being a bigger project, so why this single in particular?
WD: Yeah, this was a song that I wrote after the album was finished. It was one of those rare songs that – normally I’ll write a piece and I’ll sit on it for a long time – but it was one that just came out really quick. I was very excited that I got some money from the Iguana Fund from Club Passim, and that enabled me to go into the studio after I had this album out and capture it. I captured it in the Winter, and it’s a darker turn. As I said before, this whole project has been kind of an identity exploration, more or less. This one didn’t really fit with Thick of It, it’s a little more… electronic darkness (laughs). I was very excited to release it this Spring, I had a tour lined up around it. It was kind of a follow-up to the album.
I’m hoping to put a new band or project together soon, and it might be more in this vein. It was kind of like an endnote to Thick of It while I explore the next musical journey. That is called “Cigarettes,” and it comes out April 14th!