If you happen to be sitting across from Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner—say, in a booth in a Station North coffeeshop on a recent weekday morning—you might notice a single word tattooed on the inside of her right forearm, near the wrist, in small but personable cursive script: hustle. That word, maybe more than any other, describes her 2011.
“This past year, we played 220 shows, give or take,” she says. That means she spent the better part of 12 months living out of a suitcase, with her daily routine dictated down to the hour by the demands of travel, performing, and promoting Civilian, Wye Oak’s third album. And when she wasn’t on the road, she didn’t get to go home, because she didn’t have one, having given up her previous Baltimore address when the tour started. “I was bouncing around, couch surfing,” she says.
While that hard work and commitment meant that she and bandmate Andy Stack hit all sorts of next-level career markers—substantial album sales, playing to their biggest audiences ever opening for the likes of the National and the Decemberists, year-end critical accolades—the day-after-day, month-after-month hustle took a personal toll. “At a lot of points this past year, I was as miserable as I’ve ever been,” she says.
But right now, after being back home in Baltimore for a little more than a month, she’s happy. She has a place to live again, in a nearby warehouse space. She’s back at her old job waiting tables. Her daily routine is very much as it might be anyway had Wye Oak never blown up. “It’s incredible how the tiniest things are so thrilling to me,” she says. “Even just being able to go to the grocery store and get groceries.” And despite taking a break from heavy touring and most other Wye Oak activities in general for the next several months, she’s excited about making music, this time on her own under the name Flock of Dimes.
A SoundCloud account under that name flock-of-dimes appeared last spring, sporting a single uploaded tune: a loop-driven guitar-spangled bedroom-pop tune called “Prison Bride” that featured a familiar warble. But the roots of Flock of Dimes go back to late 2010, when Wasner started booking shows as a solo performer, looking for an outlet outside her increasingly successful band.
“It’s easy for people to say, ‘Who cares about the expectations, just play whatever you want to play,’” she says. “But realistically speaking, if 100, 200, 500, whatever amount of people pay money to come see my band and I don’t play any songs that they wanted or expected to hear, I don’t feel good about that. So the Wye Oak thing, right off the bat, is these songs, this kind of song. Not that we can’t grow, and I want to make things really different, and I think it’s already heading in that direction, but I think we’re always going to be required to provide certain things.
“The solo project, for me . . .” she continues, stops, and starts over. “I don’t listen to just one kind of thing, and I don’t want to make just one kind of thing, so for me it just became the place where I could do everything and anything else.”
So far everything and anything has included playing the drums and trying to master the production software she’s been carting around on her laptop. Most of all, she says, she’s interested in learning to be musically self-reliant—the kind of thing she feels she didn’t really get to do because of the near-immediate success of Wye Oak, which Wasner, now 25, formed with Stack when she was still a teenager.
“Because of the way things happened—it just kind of fell into our laps at a really young age—I put all the time and energy that most of my peers would be spending developing and changing and learning new instruments and learning to produce songs [into] touring my ass off, working really hard,” she says. “I’m proud of the songs we wrote and the albums we made, but it did mean that I had to sacrifice a lot of growth.”
The growth is audible. “Prison Bride” could conceivably be heard as a Wye Oak demo, not so different from the band’s established style, but as Wasner experiments, what she’s turning out is changing. She describes a more recent handful of songs uploaded to the SoundCloud page as “really janky, lo-fi pop songs,” an apt tag although her clarion voice and distinctive guitar hooks are still there. “I’m working with some things [now] that sound nothing like any of those,” she adds.
Asked about the process of writing songs these days—whether Wye Oak songs pop up among the Flock of Dimes tunes, or whether she ever tries to channel one or the other—she rejects the notion that songwriting works that way, at least for her. “That zone that you have to be in to write is really fragile, and any kind of stress about, like, I have to finish this for this time, or I have a show coming up and I really want to do a new song . . . if you’re not doing it sheerly for the joy of doing it and the excitement of creating, you’ll ruin it,” she says, then adds: “It’s such a struggle not to allow those outside ideas to come in—what’s this for, what’s it gonna be?”
And so she’s writing songs and trying not to over-think them, or anything else, too much. Even with year of tough touring behind her, she’s playing a few Flock of Dimes shows—an imminent mini-tour of three dates, including a Baltimore show at the Soft House on Feb. 17, and an upcoming 10-date run opening for singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten, an old friend on whose new album she plays. She’s also working on just having some fun, throwing herself into yet-to-debut collaborations with Baltimore musicians/friends and covering a “ridiculous” love song in honor of Valentine’s Day for the Slow Down event at the Windup Space Feb. 11 (not the cover on the SoundCloud page). She has had tentative talks about releasing a record under the Flock of Dimes name, but she remains adamant that her solo work does not represent a solo career in the making, or at least not in the way many people might expect.
“Clearly I want people to come to my shows, and it would be nice if people listened to the record,” she says. At the same time, she also makes clear that she’s not out to satisfy anyone but herself: “Take it, leave it, I don’t care. This is a place for me to not hold myself back from anything that I want to try. I mean, I’m excited to see what happens, but I’m certainly not going to try to force it in any direction.”
Wasner’s 2012 is not devoid of Wye Oak activities—she and Stack have a pair of West Coast dates coming up and more stuff scheduled later in the year—but 2011 helped redefine what Wye Oak needs to be going forward, at least for her. First, she says, “I’ll never again play as many shows in a year as we did last year.” And it’s not just the number of shows. “The bigger these shows got, I didn’t enjoy it,” she says. “It’s nothing against anyone we played with or for, and I’m so grateful for people giving a shit, but it feels different, and it doesn’t scratch the same itch and I didn’t respond well to it at all. . . . Now I have a much better idea of what I’m looking for—what makes me happy, what makes me fulfilled.
“The truth is that anything that you love that somehow becomes your livelihood becomes changed in some irrevocable way—it’s a different thing to you,” she continues. “This [Flock of Dimes] project for me is trying to regain all the pieces I love and keep them for myself and anyone else who might care to listen. It’s not my job, and I’m not accountable to anyone but myself. And I love that about it.”
Jenn Wasner performs as part of the Slow Down at the Windup Space Feb. 11. For more information, visit thewindup space.com. Flock of Dimes plays the Soft House Feb. 17. For more information, visit softhouse.tumblr.com.