Wye Oak's Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner talk about the songwriting focus on their new album
The Baltimore duo Wye Oak had been working on its second album for weeks when it hit a wall. As they had on If Children, the debut album that led to a national tour, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack were layering their lovely melodies with guitar noise, sci-fi keyboards, agitated rhythms, and doubled vocals. But something wasn't working.
"That was a moment of crisis," Stack concedes. "We had spent days and days to get the proper doubles on the vocals, but everything felt flat. The songs had lost their essence. So we went back and listened to Jenn's first vocal takes. When we heard the songs with the direct emotion Jenn had given them in the first place, it brought them back to life."
"Sometimes I like to think that if the listener has to work more to dig out the lyrics from under layers of noise, the songs will mean more," Wasner confesses. "At a certain point, though, I realized it wasn't working. So we took off the doubles and moved the vocals up in the mix, because if the words don't come through, these songs don't work."
The new album, The Knot, comes out July 21, and Wye Oak celebrates with a show at the Ottobar. One of the album's most impressive songs is "Take It In," an ambivalent relationship confessional. Three minutes in, there's yet another bit of guitar thrashing, as if the song's protagonist were convulsing with frustration. Once again, however, the noise dissipates and over a pulsing bass and lulling pedal steel, Wasner's unadorned voice comes through clearly: "Do you never ask because you know I'll say you're the only one? Please stay."
If love were as simple as that, the song's character wouldn't be having these paroxysms of indecision, so she adds, "But you're not the only one and you know it's only fair. When you close your eyes, who's there?" And with that, the howling guitar reemerges from some underground lair and swallows the song once more.
"It's an album about relationships," Wasner admits. "All the songs are about a person--namely me--going through a cycle, trying to learn how to interact with other people in healthy ways. It's not just about the relationship of a lover to a lover, but also a friend to a friend or a child to a parent. I know people will think the title refers to marriage, but that's not how I meant it."
"What appeals to me about the image of a knot is its ambiguity," Stack says. A wiry 24-year-old with curly brown hair and a green-plaid cowboy shirt, he sits in the lower level of the One World Café. Sitting next to him on a bench pillow is Wasner, a year younger in red-orange bangs and a vintage black dress. "A knot can be positive, in the sense of two people being inseparable," he adds. "But it can also be negative, in the sense of people being restrained against their will."
"I was reading Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, and each chapter began with an illustration of a different knot," Wasner continues. "I liked that image, the idea that a thread ran through all these new songs and were tied together as one."
There is a cohesiveness to The Knot that distinguishes it from If Children. Like any other pop-music act, Wye Oak faced the dreaded challenge of the second album. For your first record, you can choose the 10 best songs from all the songs you've ever written songs you wrote while you had lots of time to rehearse and rewrite. For your second project, you can either dig into the leftovers from that same pile or rely on the songs you wrote during the hectic year of touring since that debut effort. More than one band has stumbled over this challenge.
Wye Oak, though, has a way of turning limitations into assets. The 10 tunes on The Knot were all written between the April 2008 re-release of If Children by Merge Records and the January 2009 commencement of recording for The Knot. Because the songs all come from this same nine-month period, they stem from a common perspective. And because they were tested on stage or arranged with live shows in mind, the tracks share a similar sound. Thus, the second album boasts a unity and clarity that the first lacked.
"If Children was a mish-mash," Stack says. "Lyrically it came from many different phases of our lives. Musically, it went from a country waltz to feedback squall. We weren't really a band yet when we made that record. We recorded the songs and then figured out how to do them live. This time we reversed the process: We figured out how to do the songs live and then recorded them. That definitely affects how we write."
Performing live as a duo is another limitation that Wye Oak has turned into an asset. At Station North's Metro Gallery in February, the twosome tried out some of its new material. "For Prayer" began quietly with Wasner picking out a pretty arpeggio on electric guitar and warbling that she "wanted hands but I got knees," as if a crisis of doubt had turned her toward a religion she couldn't fully believe anymore. Beneath her, Stack's upright bass built more and more till it crested in a wild bowed solo before ebbing again.
Those quiet-to-loud and loud-to-quiet transitions are indispensable to the drama Wye Oak creates on stage with just two people. More often, Stack plays drums with his right hand and keyboard bass lines with his left, but the sudden dynamic shifts are the same. The lack of other musicians forces Wye Oak to forego needless clutter and to make simple gestures count.
"I was skeptical about this live set up because it's so hard," Wasner allows. "But once I got comfortable with it, I found it helped my writing, because I found myself working with these limitations in mind. I know I'll have guitar, keys, and drums on stage, so I try to write for those tools. When everything is possible, you don't know where to start. But when you know what you have to work with, it helps focus the mind. I started writing these songs that were a little darker, more lyric-based, more connected by a common thread."
Stack and Wasner will spend most of the summer in their beloved Baltimore before they head off to Europe in September and then come home for a six-week U.S. tour. They both grew up in Baltimore County and went away to college, but came back to live in Hampden. In fact, photos of Hampden's Paine Street and 36th Street adorn the back cover and an inside panel of The Knot.
"Moving back here from Boston was like night and day," Stack says. "Boston was a four-year town--people came there to go to school and party and then left. In Baltimore, you have to commit to being here, to put up with all the good and bad."
"A lot of people who are here grew up here, but even people who move here come for a specific reason," Wasner adds. "These people chose not to move to New York just because it's the cool place to live--they chose Baltimore to have the feel of a small town and all the opportunities of a big city. Those are the kind of people I like. I feel inspired all the time by the music I find here. Whenever I get in a rut, I'll see a show and it will lift me out of it."
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