“My fear it is a circle / My joy it is the infinite line” — Flock of Dimes, “Everything Is Happening Today”
Jenn Wasner makes music; that’s the core of who she is. If you’ve spent any time with her, then you know the way her voice becomes elastic when she talks about songwriting, the seriousness she assumes when addressing different aspects of instruments or recording, the way she smiles when performing comes up. If you see her, you see the music in her. It’s an enthusiastic affirmation that seems to hum out of her, even if there’s not a note in sight.
Earlier this year, I had the chance to see that humming in action firsthand, when I interviewed her and fellow Wye Oak member Andy Stack on the heels of the release of their excellent new album Tween. Last week, I got to experience it by proxy on the phone to discuss her first-ever solo record, as Flock of Dimes. It’s called If You See Me, Say Yes, and it’s a stunning synthpop monument to a life spent as a creator.
Wasner’s nucleus is threaded with the decade she’s spent devoting herself to the profession, and that’s the primary thesis of this record. While she worked in her primary, long-term project Wye Oak, and on other side projects like dance pop focused Dungeonesse (who released a record in 2013), Flock of Dimes was waiting in the wings all along. It’s the only project Wasner works on in a solo capacity, and the moniker has been floating around since 2011, when Baltimore-based Friend Records released her debut single “Prison Bride,” first on a cassette-only compilation, and then later as a stand-alone vinyl 7-inch in 2012.
“At the time, all I had space and mental energy for was a single song,” Wasner told me of the project’s beginnings. “I thought I would just put out singles, so I did release a bunch of different singles on a bunch of different labels. That was sort of the extent of the project for me. But I’ve been writing and cutting songs for years. For every song on this record, there’s probably two or three that I had to cut. I wanted it to be all bangers.”
Around the time “Prison Bride” was first released, Wye Oak’s third album Civilian blew up, and most of Wasner’s energy was redirected toward becoming one of indie rock’s most-respected and well-known frontwomen. She would continue to release singles as Flock of Dimes intermittently — including a fan-beloved covers split with Sylvan Esso — and even write songs for the project, but no record emerged. There simply wasn’t time.
After the massive tour behind Wye Oak’s 2014 shape-shifting record Shriek, Wasner returned to Baltimore with the weight of time on her mind for the first time. Since she was 19, Wye Oak and Baltimore had been the twin poles of her existence. Frequent touring meant she was often away from friends, and traveling, or squeezing time in with people when back home. But that lifestyle left little room for something she found herself craving — alone time. So she packed up and moved down to North Carolina, where the floating Flock of Dimes songs from over the years were refined and, post-move, new songs emerged too.
“Because of my job, I always lived a somewhat transient life,” she said. “In a lot of ways that experience has defined my life and it has defined the way I relate to people. Moving to North Carolina was the first time I’d ever moved in my life, and it was very much a part of my headspace and my brain space while this record was unfolding, even before I made that decision.
“As a musician I spent a lot of time moving away, traveling, and being outside of my comfort zone and my social sphere. I’m used to observing my life unfolding from a distance with me not in it. I found myself down here, and it’s really just a perspective that distance allows — being able to tap into some of these thoughts and feelings that I’ve had over the years. It’s also just a logistical thing. It’s impossible in life to say yes to everything.”
By saying yes to Flock of Dimes for the first time, Wasner was able to grapple with another tier of creative expression — what do I sound like on my own? To make her debut solo album perfect was part of why she waited so long to release it and worked so hard to refine it; the creative act is such a clear expression of her, that the record, in turn, becomes a gift to those she had to leave in order to make it.
“I have a lot of relationships and friendships where I’m not able to spend as much physical or actual time with them,” Wasner admitted. “So this record was my way of forgiving myself for making those choices, and also reaching out to those people and saying ‘This is why I have to do this.’ It’s a love letter and a postcard to those people all in one. Because, you only have so much time to spend in your life, you can’t do everything, you can’t be everywhere at once. When you say yes to something, you’re inevitably saying no to something else. There’s inherently something really sad and tragic about that, but also, obviously, very beautiful.”
One of the songs on the album that best captures that tangled connection of tragic and beautiful choices is “Semaphore.” It’s the lead single off the record, a beautiful, rubbery groove that uses the metaphor of flag semaphore — a communication used over long distances — to explore that theme in a significant, personal way.
“That son is one of the few instances in my life where the song actually came from the word,” she shared. “I discovered the word when I was reading one day. I saw it and didn’t know what it meant, so I looked it up. Basically, flag semaphore is what people on ships use to communicate with each other from great distances. If you’ve ever seen anyone standing on the deck of a ship and they have a flag in each hand holding the flags in these different positions, that’s what semaphore is.
“I loved the way the word sounded, so I kept saying it over and over again. Then immediately the line ‘Too far gone for the semaphore’ popped into my head. The song happened from there in probably about a half hour or less. The initial discovery of that word made the whole thing happen. It was one of those magical moments where it just sort of falls into your lap like it had always existed.”
Much of If You See Me, Say Yes feels like that, like it always existed, like it was supposed to happen now. The best records feel like they came out of a single moment and exist within it, even if the reality is these songs were years in the making. This record is proof that a single moment can matter, that you can reverse or redirect the culmination of your experiences whenever you want. If you see me, say yes, it’s a direction to others, yes, but also a direction to the self. This record urges the listener to look toward the things you truly want, and to stop fearing the things you must dismiss in order to get them.
As Wasner steps into a new chapter with Flock of Dimes, she’s also recently been honored by Reverend Guitars, who wanted to put out a signature guitar in her honor. The timing was perfect, and a bit ironic; Wye Oak’s 2014 album had infamously abandoned the band’s initially defining sound of guitar all together, and that choice somehow became the narrative for the record’s life cycle.
In reality, the choice had been a temporary aesthetic one, but rock music purists, who are fragile enough to still struggle with the use of digital programs and synthesizers, spun the decision into something far bigger than what it was. Talking about the Reverend JW-1, her signature guitar, gave Wasner the chance to set the record straight when it came to some of that hullabaloo. She introduced the guitar and clarified her thoughts in a post on Medium that went up right before her solo album was announced.
“The troublemaker in me kind of loved the idea of doing a signature guitar after all that backlash about Shriek,” Wasner laughed. “I thought ‘You don’t use the guitar anymore, so this would be a perfect time to do a guitar and fuck with people.’ That whole discussion just got so out of hand and lot of words got put in my mouth regarding that situation.”
“It was a nice opportunity to work with a company that I really admire, and an instrument in particular that I really admire and love to use on everything I do, and have an opportunity to redirect the conversation a little bit. Writing that piece was such a relief in so many ways, because I had all these things to say about it that I built up over the years and had no real outlet for them. Overall it was such an incredible honor to have my name on something like that. It’s really special.”
Flock of Dimes does not signal the end of Wye Oak. It does not signal the end of anything; it is a project concerned with beginnings and the embrace of possibilities. It is a creative act focused on the idea of saying yes to creativity itself. It’s a record that faces down the specter of time without flinching, reveling in the ability to live in the moment, to choose what you want right now. But mostly, above all, like anything Wasner is involved in, it’s about the music.
“I use this work that I do to understand myself and other people,” Wasner explained. “There’s a lot of room to move within the formula of pop songwriting, but it provides this foundation that I really understand to work within and express myself. I find that sometimes I’ll listen to an old song I wrote and suddenly realize things I was writing about that I didn’t really understand at the time.”
“Regardless of whether I always get the opportunity to share it on a large scale or not, songwriting is something that I’ll always do, and always need to do, and it brings me a lot of joy and a lot of comfort and a lot of peace. It’s a huge part of the process and the path of self-discovery and self-improvement. I’m always trying to get better at all the different things that I do, but as far as songwriting itself, it’s the means through which I understand and process my experience. For that reason, it’s always going to be a part of my life.”
Flock of Dimes is going on tour in 2016 starting tonight with their performance at the Trans-Pecos Festival in Marfa, TX. Stream the entire album If You See Me, Say Yes below and check out their full tour dates.
Flock of Dimes 2016 tour dates:
10/1-10/2 Funkhaus Nalepastrasse @Berlin, DE
10/4 The Victoria @ London, UK
10/14 Meow Wolf @ Santa Fe, NM
10/15 191 Toole @ Tucson, AZ
10/16 Soda Bar @ San Diego, CA
10/17 Bootleg Theater @ Los Angeles, CA
10/18 Bottom of the Hill – San Francisco, CA
10/20 Doug Fir Lounge @ Portland, OR
10/21 The Cobalt @ Vancouver, BC
10/22 Barboza @ Seattle, WA
10/25 7th St. Entry @ Minneapolis, MN
10/26 Schubas @ Chicago, IL
10/28 The Drake @ Toronto, ON
10/29 Bar Le Ritz PDB @ Montreal, QC
10/30 Great Scott @ Allston, MA
11/1 Johnny Brenda’s Philadelphia, PA
11/2 Rough Trade NYC @ Brooklyn, NY
11/4 U Street Music Hall @ Washington, DC
11/5 Cat’s Cradle @ Carrboro, NC
11/6 The Mothlight @ Asheville, NC
11/8 The High Watt @ Nashville, TN
11/9 The Earl @ Atlanta, GA
11/11 Three Links @ Dallas, TX
11/12 3TEN ACL Live @ Austin, TX
If You See Me, Say Yes is out now via Partisan Records. Get it here.
First and last images by Ebru Yildiz.