Flock of Dimes on the importance of community for artists, play tracks from 'Head of Roses'

Flock of Dimes - Virtual Session (MPR)

Fresh off the release of her new record, 'Head of Roses,' Flock of Dimes' Jenn Wasner joins The Current to talk about the self exploration of songwriting, recording the new record with her close pal Nick Sanborn of Sylvan Esso, and the value of personal community in making art. Plus, hear performances of tracks from the new record filmed in Joshua Tree, California with Meg Duffy of Hand Habits.

Interview Transcription

Edited for clarity and length.

MADDIE: We're sitting down for another one of The Current virtual sessions today we are joined by Jenn Wasner of Flock of Dimes and we just heard her song "Price Of Blue". Thank you so much for sitting down today, Jenn, how are you doing?

JENN WASNER: I'm doing really well. Thank you. Happy to be home in my house, just feeling really lucky to be alive and vaccinated, and in the spring. It's great. Life's good.

Yeah, the spring, it feels like everything is kind of coming back to life. And I know that's been a good feeling for me.

Oh, it's been a game changer for me too. One of the cool things about this past year of being stationary, for the first time in my life has actually been being able to experience the changing of the seasons, in a way that I never have because I've just been jumping around from place to place so much. So it's really nice to be able to really feel the spring arrive in a way.

A whole new appreciation for that stillness for sure. In addition to having your project Flock of Dimes, you're in the band Wye Oak. It had been a few years since you'd released music under Flock of Dimes, what made you feel like it was time to pick up that moniker again, and start writing?

I think I've always been someone that really likes having multiple outlets, because I write a lot. And I get really impatient about wanting to share as much music as I can, which sometimes makes me feel like I'm maybe taking up too much space. But I don't know, I love being able to share the things that I make with people, it makes me feel like I'm completing a certain cycle. The way that I make that possible for myself, to the degree that I prefer, is by having multiple aliases, because that allows me to do more things and share more things more quickly. But sometimes it's different, because it's obviously--it's just me. I think a lot of that project has been about learning to take responsibility for the creative process in a different--in a new way, in a way that actually allows me to feel more excited about collaboration. It's like the balancing of the scales, as it were. I've come to sort of feel as though this project because it is mine, and it's something that I use to learn about myself, and I use to process my own experience. It's sort of like the center around which all of the other things kind of rotate.

Yeah, that's a really interesting outlook to hear that your solo project is what has helped you learn the most about collaboration. How do you feel like you approach songwriting differently when you're working under Flock of Dimes than you might under other monikers and aliases?

Honestly, I'm not sure that I ever think about what project I'm writing for when I'm writing because writing is such an intuitive thing that trying to superimpose the external world onto it can be disruptive. So I tried to not do that. Usually I'm in sort of a little bit of a fugue state, or so as it were. It's more about following that intuitive thread. Later after the fact, trying to make sense of where it seems like a certain thing belongs. Even that is a process that's largely based on intuition, and I think people ask a lot, like, how do you know what, you know what song is going to be for what project and it's just sort of like, it's not something that I feel like I've ever been able to articulate, but it's, I think part of being a creative person is learning to trust your own intuition and trust your gut. So that's just something I tend to lean into as much as possible.

Absolutely. I know that you did a lot of the writing for this album Head of Roses at the beginning stages of the pandemic. Do you feel like that sort of shaped your processing of those really uncertain months?

[sneezes] Sorry, I was trying so hard to not sneeze. It's pollen city here right now, too. It's like the peak holiday here. Yeah, I think this record absolutely is like a document of a moment in time, I mean, they all are, but especially this one, I think, because it all happens so fast. I was left to process some exceptionally painful experiences without any of the distractions that I normally use and throw myself into, to try and distract from those experiences. So there was no escape from really like sitting with myself and my own experience and uncovering the layers of why this experience was as painful as it was because with human beings, it's never really just about one thing. It goes deep and I think I had never really taken the time to truly go as deep with that as I needed to. And so having this time and space where I'm-- I live alone, so I'm in my house, I'm not touring, not really seeing very many people, and I'm processing this painful, emotional experience. I had a lot of time on my hands and I only had this one outlet. So I had to make this outlet work for me to the best of its ability. Yeah, it was like most of the songs from this record, unfolded in like a one, one month, six week period. It is very much to me sort of like a snapshot of that moment.

Yeah, I think all those circumstances combined make--it makes sense why this is such an intimate record that you were alone and just recording and using that as a reflective outlet. I think that is really present in the album.

Thank you. I appreciate that.

When you sat down after writing those songs as this vessel for figuring out your own emotions, and then you went to go record them--how was that experience sharing that with other people and collaborating?

It was exceptionally joyful, because at the time, everyone involved--and it was a small group, because obviously, we were trying to keep things very, very safe. But it was a very, very small group of people. And it was a very, very attention and affection and humanity-starved group of people. So there was a real joyousness to it, there was a real like, presence. People were there, people were really and truly present. There wasn't a lot of like, hanging out on their phone. It was just sort of like--everyone was very, very grateful to be sharing space, making music with other people and obviously I include myself in that. It was a life saving and life giving experience to be able to get a few close friends together to work on this record with me.

Absolutely, I think that moments of getting to see people right now are so--that experience is so heightened that it's really cool that you got to experience that alongside your music as well. I know you worked with Nick Sanborn of Sylvan Esso in the recording process for that, how was working with him?

Well, I mean, Nick's one of my closest friends here in North Carolina and Betty's, their studio is only just a few short minutes from my house. Aside from music making, we saw a lot of each other. Nick and Amelia [Meath] really are my pod mates in early pandemic days. We would have outdoor backyard hangs--just try and still see other people and have some semblance of a social life. They were very intimately familiar with the circumstances surrounding the writing of this record, and also just, they know me. Nick knows me very well as a friend, so I think that it was really important to me to find someone and I'm still in awe that I was able to have someone in such close proximity to me, who not only is a dear friend and someone I feel very comfortable with on a personal level, but also has the perfect skill set to bring these songs to life. I mean, Nick's got such an incredible brain for all of the parts of producing that I think are are rarely present in just one person. He's got the incredible technical know how, and the math brain to understand how to make all the machines talk to each other. He's got that better than I do. But he also has a real sense for the sort of like musicality and poetry of songs and the way they work and honestly, if it wasn't for our pre-existing friendship and proximity to one another, I'm not sure this record would have been able to been made because I just don't think it would have been safe to do so.

Right, yeah. When we started talking, you mentioned that this is like the only time that You've really sat in one place for a year. How is being in North Carolina and working with your friends in North Carolina for the past year affected the way that you look at music, the way you look at songwriting?

Oh my gosh, that's a great question because I've been thinking about this so much. Because obviously, music is such a huge part of who I am as a person. I've dedicated my life to the process of creating it and sharing it. A lot of what that looks like has meant a lot of travel and a lot of things that, honestly, there's still some uncertainty around how much of that may or may not actually return and to what extent. I've had to really take stock of what do I need? Like, what is a need, in those early days of the pandemic, where everything really felt so uncertain, it became clear that going on tour and playing in front of hundreds or sometimes 1000s of people is not a need and I think the process of sharing music is the need and the all that you really need to have that is a community. The size of the community doesn't really matter as much to the impact of what it feels like.

Meaning that I've always been the kind of person where like, the most meaningful parts of a record release are the people I know and love and care about and respect reaching out to me to tell me that something I made really touched them. That, to me, is when I actually feel how important that cycle is, of creating and offering up. A lot of the other stuff, the flashier stuff, the more relatively anonymous, like press stuff, even though it's like, intellectually speaking, it could be like, Oh, it's really cool that so and so like this record, or this publication or that, like, I don't actually feel anything around that very much. I think the thing that's very comforting to me, is that I can imagine a future for myself, in which I feel a meaningful relationship with the creative process of creating and sharing things with others at any scale, that the, that the numbers aren't really as important as the act itself. And that it can feel meaningful, whether I'm sharing that music with 1000s of people, or just a handful of close friends who I love. So that to me, it might sound like a silly thing, for someone to say, in an interview with a large radio station, like, yeah, easy for you to say, but I really felt it this year, I really felt it this year. A lot of that external validation that you get from the outside world wasn't present and I wasn't miserable. I still got to do the thing, in a way. It's not that I don't miss those things. But like, I don't need them, if that makes sense.

Totally, yeah, and it sounds like as your your physical world got smaller, and you're kind of in this little bubble, that you were able to look into your more intimate social circle for validation and for approval. That's really cool that those things went hand in hand.

Yeah, and we just, I mean, we need other people. We need to be in unity with others. We need to be interdependent as a species, and I really believe that. I think sometimes the quantity--that sizing up the scale, can start to really--it can be diminishing returns at a certain point, it gets complicated really fast. It's nice to sort of like, I think it's important to be intentional with your choices in life in general, but also in career especially, and so it's really nice to know that about myself and to know like, what actually matters? What do I need? What about this process actually is important to me? How do I like focus on making decisions around that rather than just making the most money and getting the most people to look at me?

Yeah, absolutely. I know that one of the people that you have connected with over the past year is Meg Duffy of Hand Habits. You recorded the songs that we are hearing today with. Yeah. Do you want to talk about recording those songs, the live versions with Meg?

Yeah. So Meg, they played on my record as well, they came out to North Carolina. They're one of our tight, tight knit group. And I just love them so much, I think so highly of them as a human being, as a songwriter, as a player. I've been so fortunate to cross paths with them these past few years and play in a bunch of different ensembles with them. It's funny that I have to say this now after saying how cool it is that I stayed in one place for all this time, but I did go to Joshua Tree this winter to escape the dismal rainy North Carolina cold and give myself as someone who lives alone some semblance of a shot at getting through the winter without truly pretty miserable. So I drove out there in my little minivan, which, honestly, I am so impressed at my sweet Honda Odyssey to make across the country. I promised her. She's got 200,000 miles on her and I promised her I wouldn't make her do that again. But I did. So yeah. And you know, Meg's in LA. And so I was like, you know, if you want to come and drive out to the Joshua Tree and, and hang out for an afternoon and say hi to me from a distance, you'll notice in the video, we're kind of set up, but a healthy distance from one another. But it was just nice to see them and see a familiar face and to make music. We didn't rehearse. These videos were all kind of like first takes, but it was more just about the experience of remembering that playing music with another person is actually like, a very special and important thing to get to do.

Yeah, that's wonderful. Do you feel like being in Joshua Tree changed the way that you were playing or the way that you were looking at the songs at all?

Inevitably I think, at that point, some time had passed from the writing of the songs. My thinking on a lot of the issue at hand has sort of evolved many times over. One of the reasons that songs are such an interesting framework for self exploration is that they are both highly specific and if you're doing it right, highly universal, so that they can kind of expand to fit. I was actually doing an interview with, or I did a podcast with my friend Merrill Garbus, who is from the band Tune Yards. She mentioned actually the song "Walking," which is one of the songs that Meg and I played, and when she heard it, you know, there's a 'we,' there's a collective 'we' mentioned and like, "Are we 20 miles from nothing? Are we anywhere at all?" and she sort of read that song to be about the collective like to be about us as a society, as as a whole. And what are we moving towards? What are we progressing towards? That song was obviously written about a very specific person, a very specific relationship and sort of using the walk as a metaphor for like moving through a relationship from its beginning to its eventual end. But it was really cool to get to a place where, since my thinking and my experience had evolved, I was able to hear my own music in a way to be able to really feel the reinterpretation of it, like the expanding of it, to not just be about myself, and to get outside myself enough to actually be able to feel that and feel something a little bit more universal inside of it. I think the perspective of being in a new place, and like singing an old song in a new place, it helps to feed into that part of the process.

Absolutely, we're gonna hear that song "Walking" right now. Thank you again, Jenn for sitting down with me today. It's been a pleasure.

It's so nice to talk to you and yeah, thanks so much for playing my music and listening to my songs. It means a lot.

Absolutely. Thank you so much to Jenn and as well to our producers Derrick Stevens and Jesse Wiza as well as today's engineer Eric Romani and thank you to the members of Minnesota Public Radio for making it all possible.

Songs Played

00:05 Price of Blue
06:06 Awake for the Sunrise
28:49 Walking
All songs appear on Flock of Dimes' 2021 release, Head of Roses.

External Link

Flock of Dimes - official website

Credits

Host - Maddie
Producer - Derrick Stevens
Digital Producer - Jesse Wiza
Technical Director - Eric Romani

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