2016 Artist Survey: Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak and Flock of Dimes
Wasner on Trump, Brexit, Scary Movies, Memorable Fan Encounters, and Elementary School
Feb 24, 2017
Photography by Ray Lego (for Under the Radar) Issue # 59 - 15th Anniversary
For Under the Radar's 14th annual Artist Survey we emailed some of our favorite artists a few questions relating to 2016. We asked them about their favorite albums of the year and their thoughts on various notable 2016 news stories involving either the music industry or world events, as well as some quirkier personal questions. Here are some answers from Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak. In 2016 Wye Oak released Tween, a new mini-album on Merge. In 2016 Wasner also released via Partisan If You See Me, Say Yes, her debut full-length album under her Flock of Dimes solo project.
For our annual Artist Surveys we emailed the same set of questions to musicians about Trump and the election, 2016's deaths, self-driving cars, Stranger Things, first kisses, scary movies they shouldn't have seen as a child, which Friends character they are most like, and much more.
Pick up or download Under the Radar's Best of 2016 / 15th Anniversary Issue for Artist Survey interviews with Amber Arcades, Austra, Faris Badwan of Cat's Eyes and The Horrors, Boxed In, Caveman, The Charlatans, Cursive, Lucy Dacus, The Dears, C Duncan, Sadie Dupuis of Sad13 and Speedy Ortiz, Dutch Uncles, Ezra Furman, Robyn Hitchcock, The Invisible, Justin Lockey of Editors and Minor Victories, Lost Under Heaven (LUH), Lush, Midlake, Phantogram, The Range, Springtime Carnivore, Sunflower Bean, Surfer Blood, TEEN, The Thermals, Nick Valensi of CRX and The Strokes, Jenn Wasner of Flock of Dimes and Wye Oak, and Yuck.
A shorter version of Wasner's survey appeared in the print version of Under the Radar's Best of 2016 / 15th Anniversary Issue, this is the full unedited version.
Top 11 Albums of 2016
I don't really do the whole "list in order of preference" thing. I think pretending that art is a game that you can "win" and that works of art can be filed and cataloged by some sort of imaginary hierarchy of personal preference is detrimental to the way we experience the world. My buddy Drew actually wrote a really thoughtful article about it, here! With that said, here are some albums made in 2016 that I enjoy for different reasons and use for different purposes:
Kendrick Lamar: untitled unmastered.
Juliana Barwick: Will
Sound of Ceres: Nostalgia for Infinity
Solange: A Seat at the Table
Thor & Friends: Thor & Friends
A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service
Whitney: Light Upon the Lake
Luke Temple: A Hand Through the Cellar Door
2016 was regarded by many as a fairly tough and negative year. Was it also a hard year for you personally? If so, how? And also what were the high points for you?
A lot of horrible things happened in 2016. A lot of beautiful, inspiring things happened, too. Beauty and horror surround us everywhere, constantly, regardless of our own fully human, arbitrary demarcations of time. So I'm reluctant to write off an entire year-I think our desire to do so, collectively, seems to me to be another effect of our increasing rejection of nuance. This is the thing that scares me the most, because I think it's at the root of what is making it impossible for us to communicate with each other. Anyway, on the personal front, I put out two records this year, and I'm really proud of both of them. Also, a bunch of people died and the planet is in chaos. Life.
Let's discuss Donald Trump. What does the rise of Trump tell you about America in 2016? What concerns you most about a Trump presidency? How do you think his presidency might personally change your life? What message do you have for those who voted for Trump? What actions will you take over the course of the next four years to either protest a Trump presidency or support it?
I've started over on my answer to this question probably 50 times. I don't know what I can say that hasn't already been said by hundreds of smarter, better-informed people. I will say that I think this turn of events isn't entirely surprising in the greater context of our country's history of racism and oppression of non-white people. But it's shocking to have it suddenly unmasked so openly, and it should be. We've been very lucky, as a generation, to live under the illusion that many of these issues are of the past. Now, there's no denying that they are very much still with us—that this is a struggle that takes place anew, every single day. So yeah, I'm doing what I can, which is of course, not enough. I'm donating my time and money to causes I believe in—the ACLU, SPLC, Planned Parenthood, and the NRDC. I'm planning on going to the protests in DC. But also, I'm trying to be kind to people, to care for the people I love and for strangers, and to continue being an openhearted person. Small things do count.
What reality TV star would you have rather been elected president?
Sorry, I'm not really at the "joking about this horrible thing that happened and is still happening" stage just yet.
If you were president, what would you try to accomplish in your first 100 days in office?
I can't even begin to entertain this fantasy. Plus, being president would honestly be my worst nightmare. I don't want to be in charge of anything. I can barely deal with being in charge of myself.
What are your thoughts on Brexit and the future of the European Union? To what extent do you think the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump were motivated by the same factors?
My band-mate and friend, Katie Harkin, is British, and I remember talking to her about the Brexit vote just after it happened. Hearing about their shock and horror that it actually happened, about the uptick in hate crimes and the increasing fear of some sort of arbitrary "other"—in retrospect, it seems like I was watching a car heading towards us in slow motion. Obviously many of the same factors are at play here. It's just human nature—we are in a constant struggle against our worst impulses, and fear is very powerful.
We lost three highly influential music icons in 2016. What are your thoughts on the passing of David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen? And what are your favorite albums by each artist?
As I mentioned above, I don't really do favorites, and in this case it feels particularly impossible if only because all of these artists were incredibly important to me. Also, I've always been a little bit uncomfortable with the whole public grief song-and-dance. Of course it's sad when people we admire die, but in the end, these are human beings. Their families are the ones who are truly grieving. I still get to listen to their music whenever I want to.
What do you think Prince and Bowie's afterlife project sounds like?
Sorry. They're just dead, I think.
Which Friends character are you most like?
Wow, this question really came out of nowhere, huh? Well, I haven't watched this show in over a decade, but I'll have to go with...Marcel the Monkey.
What scary movie did you see way too young as a child, how'd you end up seeing it, and does it still scare you now?
Oh man. I saw The Shining when I was WAY too young, and yes, it stuck with me for a long while. I had nightmares for months. I had largely forgotten about it, but a few years back I saw the Kubrick exhibit at LACMA, and was completely unprepared for the extent to which it shook me. They had the full outfits that the twins wore-I couldn't even be in the same room with them.
Are you ready for self-driving cars and a more automated future?
Why not? At this point I'm leaning into it. Humanity is going to destroy itself or be destroyed by nature eventually, perhaps even in my lifetime! Might as well get REAL weird first.
Tell us about the most memorable fan encounter you had this year.
Sadly, I think the most memorable was in Atlanta, the day after the election. My band-mate Katie and I spent a while talking to a really nice young lady who was dealing (like many of us) with several different levels of trauma and heartbreak—except she was still living with her parents, who were Trump supporters. We hugged and cried, and she thanked me for giving her a "place to go." Up until that point I had been feeling pretty useless, and it was a good reminder that music does have a purpose—if only to create a shared space for people to inhabit and be human together.
Tell us about your first kiss.
No, thank you!
Under the Radar has been around for 15 years now, since December 2001. How do you feel the music industry has most changed in that time, both for the better and the worst?
It's the same beast. We are still commodifying something uncontainable and indefinable, desperately clamoring to trade our ideas and our identities for money and notoriety. Now we just do it on the Internet!
What's usually the biggest stumbling block to your happiness?
My stupid brain. I can think myself out of almost anything, including things that are in my own best interest. The fact that my reality feels so malleable is frightening. I've tried my best to learn how to shape my perception and experience into one that is conducive to my health and happiness. But, as my dear friend Thor says: sometimes you can't trust what your own brain is telling you.
What celebrity, musician, or historical figure, living or dead, would you most want to be stuck in an elevator with?
Probably Joni Mitchell. But would we have to be stuck in an elevator? Couldn't we just have dinner?
As an artist, what do you have to do beyond making your art to make a successful living?
I think of it this way—making art, I do for free. I love it and I'll do it forever. Everything else—touring, self-promotion, posting dumb selfies, filling out long-form surveys for magazines—that's my job. Many people see that as "being an artist" but I think it's more like playing one on TV. However, my brain is a strange, broken thing, so you should take all of this with a grain of salt.
What's your strongest memory from elementary school?
Performing Michael Jackson's "Heal the World" in my fifth grade choir, complete with group sign language. It was a real '90s situation.
If you could be a musician at any point in history, when would you choose? Why?
Well, I have a vagina, so I'm afraid my options here are pretty thin. In fact, it's hard enough to be taken seriously as an artist and whole person as it stands in 2016! So I think I'm going to stay put.
Can you make a case for why there's a bright future for independent musicians and the music industry? If so, what is it?
Well, my ideal situation would be a local community of artists investing in itself, producing art that is less dependent on the capitalist model and constant maintenance of a broader public image. However, this will never happen and no one should listen to me about anything.
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