Wye Oak: The weary travellers who want to put down some roots
Singer Jenn Wasner from the US duo tells Edwin Gilson how life on the road left her depressed and drinking too much
Baltimore duo Wye Oak are currently in the middle of a gruelling tour that will last roughly six months. While this may seem pretty normal for a band in the modern age, this trip also has the potential for danger; the last time Wye Oak were on the road for such a time, after their 2011 album Civilian, singer Jenn Wasner's life slowly unravelled.
"That was a really difficult time for me," she remembers. "Touring is stressful, strenuous and incredibly repetitive. Repeating yourself night after night leads to a distancing and detachment from your own music. I grew to hate it, the feeling of playing my own songs. It felt wrong, disingenuous, and it kept me from doing new things. I resented that."
In conversation Wasner is not half as downbeat as that quote makes her out to be, and she is looking forward to Wye Oak's Belfast gig on Sunday, at McHugh's Bar. Clearly, though, she is haunted by memories of the misery of 2011, a time when she didn't have a home and everything seemed to be slipping away from her.
"I left my house, which felt like a good idea given I was never there, but it also meant I lacked a steady structure," recalls Wasner. "My relationship suffered because of touring. My personal health suffered. I was depressed and overly dependent on alcohol to get through life. It was a perfect storm of ... well, all of the stuff I just mentioned."
Wasner is caught up in a damaging "cycle", in that in order to make money from her music she is required to "tour relentlessly". And, as she muses, "this can detract from the quality of the music you make. Musicians these days spend too little time creating and too much time rehashing the same material over and again. It's a bummer."
When I ask Wasner what the solution is to this circular conundrum, she grimly states: "I don't think there is a way." She and her musical partner Andy Stack have talked regularly about breaking up the band, but Wasner maintains that she'll "always make music, for my whole life".
The singer has recently benefited from a change of approach, brought about by her sudden disdain of the guitar. There is considerably less six-stringed action on Shriek, Wye Oak's new record, than in the duo's previous work. Wasner explains that the instrument had become a weighty burden to her.
"A lot of the heavy baggage around the time of the Civilian touring seemed to be associated with the guitar in my mind. I realised that I had to lay it aside. I almost had to play a trick on my brain in order to move on musically and personally."
As a result, Shriek sees Wye Oak move away from the 'indie-folk' tag that both Wasner and Stack have denounced. In fact, Wasner disapproves of genre brackets on the whole.
"People get sucked in by these tags. I never thought our music sounded like folk music." Wasner also voices disapproval at those who "look down on pop".
"Some people think they're too good for pop, but we've always written pop songs fundamentally. We enjoy starting with a simple, catchy foundation and making it stranger along the way," she says.
The singer evidently doesn't enjoy being away from her home for too long, but she makes sure to pronounce her excitement at coming to the UK, and it certainly sounds genuine. We'll just have to give her a warm Belfast welcome to banish her traveller's woes!
Wye Oak play McHugh's Bar, Belfast, on Sunday. For details, visit www.wegottickets.com