Music

How Maryn Jones Created The Electrified Hymns Of Yowler’s ‘Black Dog In My Path’

Sam Split

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I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard a Yowler song. It was 2015, and I was working as a staff writer at the indie music website Stereogum, clicking through to see some of the artists I was unfamiliar with that we’d covered that day. The song was a sludgy, echoing track called “Water,” the first song off Maryn Jones’ debut album for the project; it sounded like a heart turned inside out, a dark, pleading track that was an acceptance of limitations, but also a sweeping rebellion against them. It was mesmerizing, and so was the rest of Jones’ initial record, The Offer. I listened to it on repeat for the rest of the year, soldiering through some dark times of rebellion and acceptance in my own life, but also using it as a light, proof other people felt this dark and were doing something about it.

Later that year, Jones released another record with a different group she’s a part of — All Dogs, Kicking Every Day — and it seemed clear this alt-pop project would take precedence over the dreamier, simmering songs of Yowler. But, that band recently went on permanent hiatus, and so, after the huge life change of moving across the country from Ohio to Philadelphia, Jones has finally given the cult fans of Yowler another release. Out this past Friday on the east coast-based DIY label Double Double Whammy (who also released her debut), Black Dog In My Path picks up where The Offer left off, a dynamic that Jones describes as “some sort of thread connecting them, but at the same time, having a chance to exist separately.”

A couple of songs off this 2018 release, “Holy Fire” and “No” in particular, were written around the same time as most of the songs on The Offer; “(Holidays Reprise)” is a direct call-back and reprise of a song on her debut, and others are just tied back to that album and time in theme or feeling. But the sonic textures of Black Dog In My Path are far more expansive than the first Yowler album, partially due to her working in heavy collaboration with Philadelphia-based producer and engineer, Kyle Gilbride (Missing Earth). Whereas The Offer was immediately arresting because it was so spare and quietly brutal, Black Dog In My Path spends some time in that frequency, but also builds into whopping, full-on rock songs and even more melodic, sweet explorations as well.

The songs retain some of the simplicity and of majesty hymns, but imbued with deeply personal, sometimes uncomfortable lyricism and an emphasis on electricity that runs through the album like a revelation. Jones and I recently corresponded over email about her experiences with Yowler, both in writing and releasing the debut and moving into a new sonic space for this follow-up. We chatted about the project’s beginnings, the influence and support of Gilbride on her project, and how spirituality from her childhood lingers in the structure of her music. Read a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation below.

Since you write and work with several different musical outlets, is there something in particular that differentiates a Yowler song from, say, an All Dogs song? What is that process like for you?

I can’t exactly say what differentiates the two, I can only say that when I sit down to write songs, I’m either intentionally thinking about a particular project and what I want to perform in that space, or I might just be noodling around and if something comes out I like, I can just tell whether it’s a Yowler song or an All Dogs song. I have no idea why, I just know. Also, it really depends where I’m at in the cycle of records or writing with those projects. For instance, lately, I’ve only been exclusively focusing and writing for this Yowler record; for almost 2+ years actually. I’m a very slow songwriter, and even slower at recording.

As far as different musical iterations, what was the impetus for starting the project Yowler? I’m also interested in hearing how you came to land on that name, which I absolutely love.

I’d been toying with the idea of starting to focus more on solo work after my time spent writing and performing with All Dogs and Saintseneca; it was kind of just floating in the back of my mind. And then I was in Omaha, Nebraska recording a Saintseneca album at ARC studios, and we were staying in this amazing guest house that is attached to the studio. I spent a lot of time popping back and forth between the studio and the house, but mostly just had so much free time. I figured it was as good a time as any to take advantage of some pure boredom and put it to good use.

I was lucky to have a very private space, and the studio let me borrow some equipment, and I just sat upstairs playing guitar. I went into it wanting to take the project in a darker and more introspective direction, as opposed to the generally tender and sweet lovey-dovey songwriting from my previous solo stuff. I wanted it to be a bit more serious and try to branch out with some heavier, darker guitar parts. It immediately felt really great, and a lot of songs from The Offer came out of those writing sessions. So grateful for that time.

The name came from liking the name “Howler,” because it sounded kind of haunted and sad and weird to me. But I think that was already being used or something, so I came up with Yowler. I don’t think I’ve come up with a band name quicker, actually. A lot of things just clicked with this project, which felt meaningful to me at the time. Like it was very naturally and organically all coming out of me.

There are a couple different religious allusions on the album — “Angel” and Holy Fire” especially — and you’ve also cited growing up in a very religious environment. Where are you at currently with your relationship to spirituality/religion and how does it shape your music?

I can definitely say I am not involved in any type of organized religion and don’t ever plan to be. I support my family and whatever makes them happy, but I can’t see myself ever being in that place again; it doesn’t match up with the way my brain works. I think spirituality is a little bit of a confusing topic for me, because I feel like it’s such a vast world, and covers so many things.

For instance, I am listening to Enya right now, and her music makes me feel spiritual; like there’s something beyond this world if this kind of human brain can exist (haha). I feel that way about a lot of music though, and maybe just art and creativity in general. I guess overall my spirituality is, if I’d have to break it down: the natural world and mother nature, fantasy realms, and science. Oh, also a little bit of astrology, but I’m an Aquarius so I hate to admit that cause it’s really trendy right now.

Your first album as Yowler, The Offer, was darker and more stark sounding. This record feels a lot lusher and more produced, especially the early single “WTFK,” which almost passes for upbeat, while covering a very heavy topic. Did you set out to change things sonically this time around, or was it more of an organic transition?

I think both things are true. Since Yowler has become my main outlet for songwriting, I can’t help but write all kinds of different things since it’s the one place I’m putting all of my creative energy at the moment. But also, yeah, it was definitely partly intentional. I’m a strong believer in music and songwriting morphing and growing along with you. I also had the incredible opportunity to collaborate with Kyle [Gilbride], who is someone who loves to challenge himself with his recording process and push the boundaries of what we’ve both done before.

It’s an exciting process to be like ‘I’ve always wanted to record a song like this’ and he’s immediately like ‘ok let’s do it.’ And we did! “WTFK” was a surprise to both of us. It just kinda grew out of this simple bass riff that I wanted to sound dark as hell and f*cked up as possible. And then suddenly we had a dance song. It was wild. But I also wanted to keep some of the old Yowler sound. I wanted a huge range, and I think we did that.

Some of the songs are very smooth and clean, like that first single, and then others, like “Spirits And Sprites” are much more lo-fi and stripped down. How do you think the contrast between those two aesthetics plays into the scope of the album?

Those elements were definitely intentional and thought out. It might be kind of hard to tell, but “Spirits & Sprites” is a kind of reprise of “Where Is My Light?” It has the same chords and almost the same melody, but different lyrics. I actually wrote the quieter one first, though, and then decided I wanted two versions and wrote the heavy one. I’m a big fan of self-reference in music, I think it helps to create a world you can get easier lost in, more like a story. In general, I wanted there to be breaths in the record; pauses and room to rest between these big, produced songs. I try to do the same when I’m performing live. Dynamics are super important to me and the way I perform, so I wanted to recreate that on the record.

I noticed Kyle Gilbride’s name come up a lot in discussing the album, particularly the sonic shift, can you talk a little bit about working with him on this album?

Kyle and I are really big nerds about music, I think, ha. I was hearing his recordings for his project Missing Earth, and just couldn’t get over how weird and cool they were turning out. It just made sense for us to make this record together, because we were spending a ton of time together, and mutually freaking out about the same bands and the same sounds. There are a lot of secret little references to music we were both into at the time, like the pipes in “WTFK,” which is because he got me really into XTC. Also both super heavy into 4AD bands, as well as ’70s classic rock, like Neil and Jackson Browne. All of these things informed what we made together, I think.

So yeah, it just made sense. We took a long time making the record, though, because I insisted on writing as we went instead of trying to come into the studio with everything ready. He was very patient with me. I think I’m actually a pain in the ass to record with, hah. I’m a perfectionist who has no attention span at all. If you can imagine what that’s like. But yeah, anyways, he is so important to this record. His collaboration and time are in every moment of every single song. He inspired so much of the sounds and the content. Without him, it wouldn’t have happened and also become basically my dream album.

In your quote about “Where Is My Light?” you brought up how being an artist attempting to function and create within a capitalistic system can be entirely disorienting and depressing. How do you balance making art for art’s sake and trying to make enough money to actually support yourself? Is that something you need to push aside while writing, recording etc?

I wish I had a clear answer for this. This topic is one of the main reasons being an artist in this day and age is very confusing. Everyone is trying to “sell” a product in a society in which art is not actually really profitable or sustainable for a living wage, at this point for really anyone. Or at least for anyone I give a sh*t about. You’re pressured to market yourself, to brand yourself, to promote yourself, when what you really should be doing is just the thing your brain is telling you to do which is make art. You shouldn’t have to have this weird voice in the back of your mind constantly being like “why didn’t I get more plays? Why didn’t I sell out this show? Why didn’t I sell more records? Did I not do enough? How can I ‘fix’ this and make it better?”

That’s honestly just not the f*cking point. It’s just not healthy or sustainable to tie so much financial weight to something so special and fragile as songwriting. I’ve had to attempt to split these two concepts in my head as much as I can, for my own sanity’s sake. I have had a lot of conversations with other musicians about this. It’s a constant struggle and it never gets easier, at least for me. I could seriously rant about this forever, ha, and I have no real answers, unfortunately. But overall the only way I can make money being a musician, basically, is touring. So to everyone out there reading this, take me on tour. Thanks.

Is there a particular song on the album that has become your favorite, or that you are most excited for people to hear/interact with?

Hands down my favorite song on the record is “Aldebaran”. The reason that it is my favorite is because it was inspired by a genre of music I became obsessed with for a time, called dungeon synth. Dungeon synth is a music mainly made in the late ’80s to early ’00s that is very fantasy-driven, and mostly written and recorded on vintage synths and all that cool-ass nerdy shit. Making that song was so much fun, and I am in love with how it came out. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I wasn’t also trying to partially make an Enya song, and we now know how I feel about that. There is literally an Enya song that has the same title. You should listen to it.

I think in terms of people interacting with one of the songs, I’m very excited for people to hear “No.” To me, it’s one of the most beautifully layered songs I’ve ever made, and that’s all thanks to my friends Michael Cantor and Catherine Elicson. The first time I heard that song after we mixed it, and the interweaving of his bowed guitar and her clarinet, it seriously took my breath away. It wouldn’t have ever had a chance to reach that depth without their incredible contributions.

Several of the songs really remind me of hymns, like electrified hymns, was or has spiritual music been an influence on your own songwriting style?

I’d say most likely. I grew up singing hymns all of the time. My mother was often the choir director at our church, and even when she wasn’t I was required to be in the choir. I also think the very simple but satisfying modulations and chord progressions in hymns are what make them work as spiritual songs. They’re just really satisfying to the human brain and ear to hear and also to sing because they always resolve.

I spend a lot of time trying to get away from really “satisfying” songwriting, but I honestly have trouble because I love pop music so much, and I love hooks. I love things getting stuck in your brain in a good way. There is a really great hymn called “If You Could Hie To Kolob” that you should also look up. It has a very dark tone to it, and weird lyrics about space, matter, and heaven actually being a planet in the universe. I keep going back to it, and I’d say it has influenced me over the years.

“Grizzly Bear II” seems to twist the narrative of the original that you previously had uploaded under your own name on Youtube, and fleshes it out in a major way. How did it feel to alter that song in such a way, and why did it feel important to include it here?

A few years ago I was messing around with changing the narrative or point of view of that song based on some of the things I was going through in my life in regards to romantic relationships. I no longer felt like the person generally at the receiving end of heartbreak, but more often than not the person who was inflicting pain and disappointment on another person. It was just a more realistic lyrical position for me to be in. When I was coming back to it for this record, I realized a lot of reasons for that shift. A lot of it had to do with my relationship to long-term monogamous partnerships and how that had changed over the years.

I realized it fit perfectly in with some of the overarching themes of the record. The lyrics at the end were added at the very last minute in the recording process, but the lyrics ‘black dog in my path’ ended up being the title of the album, so they were obviously very meaningful to me. In a way, the sentiments at the end of the song tie up and simplify a lot of the complex things I was trying to say on the record. The whole song kind of actually does that as a whole, I think. A kind of signature at the bottom of the page.

Black Dog In My Path is out now via Double Double Whammy Records. Stream it above and get it here.

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