What is Flock of Dimes? The answer, says Jenn Wasner, the singer-songwriter behind the stage name, is rooted in the who rather than the what. The solo artist has logged over a decade’s worth of music-making experience as one half of the indie rock duo Wye Oak, and recently she’s chosen to breach some personally unexplored ground: new methods of creation, a new location, and a new name. Today, we’re psyched to premiere the second single off of Flock of Dimes’ debut album, If You See Me, Say Yes. It’s a lyrical, anticipation-building song called “Everything Is Happening Today”:
Last week, I talked to Jenn about staying mentally young, taking the reins on creativity, and keeping it all in perspective.
VICTORIA CHIU: My first thought when I heard “Everything Is Happening Today” was that the song is so grand and bold and orchestral, like it’s building up to a huge incoming climax. Like the exhilarating feeling you get while diving, and the moment right between taking a leap and hitting the water—that’s what this track felt like to me: freedom. Your website includes a letter from your friend Rachel Monroe, who talks about your move from Baltimore to North Carolina and your feelings of being “eaten alive” by Baltimore despite loving the city. Were freedom and the sense of being caged at the forefront of your mind when you were writing “Everything Is Happening Today” and If You See Me, Say Yes?
JENN WASNER: Those were definitely major parts of it, for sure. A lot of the record revolves around observing life from a bit of a distance. And a lot of that sort of perspective—I didn’t realize it until I left [Baltimore] and did a lot of solo traveling to make the album, going to a lot of different cities and other places, but along the way it occurred to me that I’d never really had that distance, that perspective, for the place that I’d come from because I’d stayed there so long. Sometimes you can get trapped in places and routines without even realizing it, and while Baltimore is still a wonderful place—it feels in many ways like my spiritual home, and it’s where my family and the majority of my friends are—I think it can be very valuable to move out and get some perspective and space, especially when you’ve been the same place your entire life like I’ve been with Baltimore.
Another big part of it, besides freedom and perspective, was the concept of patterns, repetition, and circularity, which showed up a lot in “Everything Is Happening Today” in particular. The first handful of songs on the record, I realized recently, share a lot of the same metaphors, which was funny—I hadn’t even noticed that as I was writing them!
I’ve been telling people, when I’m trying to explain what a song or the album is referencing, about this experience I have whenever a season changes: summer to fall, fall to winter, every switch. I don’t know if it’s just a “me” thing, but when there’s a seasonal transition, I feel like a window is opened within me to all the other years I’ve lived through that change and all the memories that come with them are momentarily unlocked. If it’s the first day of autumn after summer, I’ll feel for a split second like every other first fall day in my life is laid out before me. It’s really just a feeling, but it’s so unique and I’ve felt it so regularly my entire life that I really wanted to document it somehow—that’s what the core of “Everything Is Happening Today” is.
That’s so cool! I’ve never heard anyone describe that seasonal “unlocking” before.
I kind of wonder if it’s just me who experiences that. [Laughs]
No, I get it. It’s like scheduled déjà vu! I think a lot of people are familiar with the feeling, but it’s unique that you feel that way every time a season changes. That’s like a secret superpower.
That’s one way of looking at it! Sometimes it’s a superpower; other times it’s an Achilles heel. It’s a phenomenon I’ve experienced throughout my life, and I was going through it when I wrote [“Everything Is Happening”]. A big part of it was that it was exacerbated pretty severely by the fact that I was in an entirely new place, too, so I was feeling extra sensitive and very open—kind of raw, you know? I love where I am now—I live alone, and that’s amazing—I’ve never lived alone before, and it’s been a total game changer both personally and creatively. It’s a big deal to leave your home, where you spent your entire life, so I’ve been feeling particularly ragged lately—and I feel like a lot of the best songs on this record come from that place.
Yeah, I’m a little afraid to leave home, myself. I’ve never lived anywhere other than my hometown—I’ve never even moved houses before!
Wow! You’re still in the house you grew up in?
Yep, I’m living at home while I go to university.
Oh, wow! I didn’t realize. You seem very mature for your age. I would’ve assumed you were my age, or at least in your twenties.
How old are you?
I’m 30—I’ve been [making music] for over a decade. [Laughs] It’s been a minute! [Flock of Dimes] is a new project, but I’ve got another band [Wye Oak] that I’ve been touring with for about 10 years now. It’s crazy! But, nah, it’s cool, though. I don’t get the chance to be the “old lady” that much, so it’s pretty fun to me when that sort of thing comes around.
I don’t think I’d call 30 old lady-ish…more like cool aspirational woman-ish. I mean, my mom says she’s old, but it really doesn’t seem like it. She’s 53, but she posts on Instagram more frequently than I do.
Haha, that’s awesome! I’ve noticed from the people in my life that being happy keeps you feeling really young, and having some kind of goal or creative outlet or purpose keeps you really young. I know so many people who are your mom’s age and older who are super young, super vital, and super productive. It’s exciting and very freeing because it shows that there’s no such thing as a “shelf life” for personal happiness. Obviously getting older is a physical reality, but in terms of aging emotionally and psychologically, if you choose to constantly be refreshed and renewed and excited to be alive, then you can totally prolong that process. You don’t have to become a jaded old person, which is great! Great for your mom.
I definitely don’t want to be an angry person when I’m older. Or full of regrets, or anything like that.
No. Certainly not. It’s a bummer when that happens—I mean, life is hard, I get it. It can definitely wear on you. But I do think that there are certain things you can do to combat that—I find myself being productive and working against it, and I’m only thirty. I constantly have to remind myself how lucky I am, how lucky I am to be alive, and how fortunate I am to have such a fulfilling life, great friends, and opportunities to make art. I’m very, very lucky. It’s easy to lose perspective if you aren’t careful and aren’t aware of everything you have to be thankful for. I also think that being creative and making art is a really good way to constantly stay in touch with that part of yourself [that’s aware of that perspective], because if you lose that part of yourself often you lose the ability to stay grounded. I guess that’s why it helps keep you mentally young.
You branched out recently with your new name—Flock of Dimes is such a unique moniker. How did you come up with the name, and what does it mean?
Coming up with new band names is tough in this day and age—there are so many bands and so many names that are taken. When I was searching for a name, I was really just looking for a collection of good-sounding syllables. And ideally it would lose its meaning or have no meaning, and just come to represent [me]. I honestly don’t even remember how I settled on it, but I just liked the way the syllables sounded together, and I liked that it had no attached meaning so that people thought of it and heard it, they would think of, well, me! If that makes sense.
It does! It’s like Flock of Dimes is you, rather than Flock of Dimes is something. It helps bring the focus onto you as a person, instead of an abstract concept.
Yeah. I just wanted to get something that felt right on the tongue—just a pleasant, satisfying set of syllables.
It does feel good to read and say. And it allows you to adopt the name as your own—speaking of stuff that’s uniquely you, you recently got to create your own signature guitar model, the JW-1! When it was finished, you wrote an essay on your relationship to guitar and being dubbed a “girl who can shred” by non-women—a sort of awkward and backhanded compliment that has ugly connotations attached to it even if it comes from a well-intentioned place. Needless to say, crafting a custom guitar was a totally sweet opportunity—how did it happen?
Thanks for reading the essay! It was really helpful to get those thoughts I’d been mulling over in my mind down on paper. [The opportunity to create the JW-1] actually came about because Reverend, the company that made the guitar, is a brand I’ve been using for a very long time. I got my first Reverend guitar probably around 10 years ago, maybe a little bit less than that, but I’ve been a big fan of theirs for a while. They reached out to me and said, “Hey, we love what you do, and we’ve been doing these signature guitars and we’d love to work with you if you’re interested”—of course I was totally excited about the idea. I mean, it’s a little strange, because I never imagined myself as the kind of guitar player who’d have a “signature guitar,” but like I said in the essay, that’s kind of exactly why I wanted to go ahead with it: there’s no reason why that honor should be reserved for a certain sect of people who are “serious” about guitar or have a specific image or look a certain way that “fits” having a signature guitar. I’m really excited about the JW-1; I’ve been playing it on stage with Flock of Dimes. I also have this special jumpsuit, which is on the painting of me used for the cover art and was designed by my really, really good friend April Camlin, an incredibly talented artist and drummer and all-around fantastic person. So when I play [the guitar] on stage, it’s super cool because I have this jumpsuit to match. It’s an awesome optical situation.
You’ve collaborated a lot very intensely with some great people during your career prior to composing and recording music as Flock of Dimes. But with this upcoming album you wrote every single song, played every instrument, and dove into self-production. Was that transition draining or challenging at all?
They’re both challenging in different ways. It’s funny, because I thought before making a record largely on my own—and by that I mean I had help from some people who I really could not have done it without, but the final decisions on every level were mine—that [making music solo] was going to be a lot easier. I thought, “Wow, this is going to be so simple! I can do anything I want every step of the way, and I won’t need to talk to anyone or ask what they think any step of the way! It’s going to be great!” And then I started doing it and I realized that it’s so incredibly difficult to be alone in that [creation] process, to be by yourself and have no one to bounce ideas off of or call for help when you need it. It’s a very lonely and stressful way of making work. No doubt, there are things about it that are really, really great—but I would just say that both collaborating with others and working alone have their own challenges, and it’s ironic that I thought working on my own would be easy—because it was actually very, very challenging for me!
When you were making music alone and largely isolated for big chunks of the creative process, did you find that you had to get up and get outside of the space you were working in more frequently to get your creativity flowing?
Absolutely. I’m a big, big believer in the idea that you can’t control creativity—all you can do is set yourself up and do your best to control the circumstances that allow you to be your best creative self. I take certain things very seriously on that front, like exercise. Never before in my life was I someone who was really into exercise, but for the past couple years I’ve been doing yoga. When I started doing it regularly, it quickly became a huge part of my life—and not just the physical side of my life, but the emotional side, the creative side. It helps me slow down and feel comfortable in my body, and that sets me up to have moments of inspiration. I take a lot of walks; I have a recording studio set up in my house that I’ll often work in, and how that normally works is I’ll do as much as I’m able to in there and once I start getting frustrated I’ll take a walk, do some yoga, or try to play someone else’s music—which is a really great way to stay creative, because you’re working on something that’s productive and in that creative sphere, but it’s not ego-involved. It’s just, “I want to learn how to play this beautiful song I heard.” There’s a whole bag of tricks that I’ve picked up over the years that kind of help trick your brain into becoming inspired and steer you away from becoming so stressed out that you can’t create. That said, it’s different every time and there’s no way to guarantee 100 percent that you’ll get to that creative zone. That’s one of the frustrating things about creativity: you can’t control it; you can only try to put measures in place that’ll put you in a position to better receive it.
Being creative is an interesting process because it involves massaging your brain instead of relying on an automatic, surefire process.
That’s a good way of putting it. It’s brain tricks. It’s tricking your consciousness—and that’s one of the other things about it. You’re trying to get to the same place every time, but you can never use the same path. Every time you want to make that journey, you have to take a different path to the same place. For that reason it’s never easy—no matter how long you’ve been doing it, every time you sit down to make something it’s a challenge, it’s time to forge a new path.
But for that same reason, too, it never truly gets boring.
That is true! That’s a good way of looking at it. It never gets boring—it can be immensely frustrating, and there are times in my life when I’ve worked and worked and worked for hours and hours and hours a day for weeks and nothing good is happening and I think, “This is it. I’m never going to write another song again.” And then the next day…it happens! It’s unpredictable. And it can be extremely trying to look at yourself when things are going the way you want and say, “I’m a songwriter. I should be able to do this!” You’re at the whim of your own brain, at the end of the day. But it has gotten easier. I can’t say I’ve figured out a magical, super-reliable way to get into that creative space all the time, but with time and experience I’ve managed to figure out what factors help me get to that same place a little faster, help me get into the right place at the right time.
Rachel’s letter to you mentions how to wrestle with the different “versions” of yourself that either help along or block the creative process—there’s the workaholic you, the you who chides yourself for being self-indulgent, the you who says you should be out saving the world, and the you who believes in magic, love, and the wonders of the universe. Do you have to shut certain parts of yourself off for different sections of the music-making process? Do you find yourself drawing from the various facets of yourself to sculpt the music you want?
Not all parts of myself, if I want to refer to it that way, are helpful. There are certain people—I guess they’re not really people; they’re all me!—but there are certain voices in my brain that are rooted in anxiety and fear and insecurity, and not everything that those voices tell me is what’s best for me. It’s about figuring out which voices are speaking to your favor and which ones are working to dissuade you. It’s taken many, many years for me to sort those out—I’ve had to learn not only how to sift through the different parts of myself, but also the people around me who want what’s best for me and want me to happy and productive. I think being happy, being productive, and learning how to live a good life is really hard to do but is good for the people around you—I have more to give to the people I love when I’m happy and healthy, and berating myself and loathing myself doesn’t do anyone any favors. If you worry about having too much and someone else not having enough but deal with that by destroying yourself or pulling your life apart doesn’t mean that someone else’s life is automatically improved. You’re just destroying yourself. It’s taken a long time to learn what tendencies of my brain are destructive and helpful, and it hasn’t been easy, but it’s worth it.
Like you said earlier, staying positive is one of those elixirs for longevity!
Exactly! And having perspective on life and things that may not necessarily work out the way you planned, being able to interpret those instances openly and accepting the way life goes—it’s hard, but it’s almost crucial. I’ve definitely had times in my life when I’ve spiraled—gone to darker places and let me mind go down that path of extreme self-loathing and terrible negativity—and it’s never been helpful to me or to anyone around me. It’s not helpful to the world at large. I think it’s important at all costs—not just for you, but for everyone around you—to be as happy and healthy as you can be, because that allows you to give more love to others and to yourself! And that’s a constant practice—you’ve got to work at it every day, every hour. That’s the substance of life right there. ♦