Jenn Wasner (Flock of Dimes/Wye Oak) and Tōth :: In Conversation
As Flock of Dimes and a member of Wye Oak, Jenn Wasner stretches melodies and rhythms into fascinating and emotionally evocative shapes—which is probably why Alex Toth sought her out to guest on two sections on You And Me And Everything, his latest album under the Tōth banner. While many artists play it close to the chest, these two collaborators specialize in emotional honestly, and tellingly, when they get together the conversation tends to get deep quickly, as was the case in a recent exchange about creative practice, acceptance, meditation podcasts, the music industry hustle, and much more.
Alex Toth: You just released a beautiful record. I wanted to ask where you are at with it right now?
Jenn Wasner: The process of releasing records is not something that is very easy to talk about with anyone who is not immediately familiar with it, personally. It’s this strange process where you have to project complete and utter confidence, gratitude, excitement, and joy. [Both laugh] I’m like: Everything’s great and you should love this too because I love it, unabashedly. It’s partially very true, [but] because we are all complicated, insecure, sensitive creatures, it’s not the only part of it. There is a lot of anxiety inherent to the process of being looked at or seen by anyone, offering up these very vulnerable parts of yourself. I can intellectually grasp that it’s cool and happening. People are hearing the music that I made, or this person likes it, or a magazine wrote a nice review. I don’t really feel that though. It’s an intellectual reaction rather than a thing I feel in my body. So it’s weird and complicated and there’s a lot of should involved. I should be happy about this, or why don’t I feel satisfied, or what’s wrong with me if I’m not enjoying this a purely joyous experience. I am always curious to hear about how other artists and musicians deal with the release process. It can be somewhat fraught. Do you have a lot of anxiety around this sort of thing?
Alex Toth: Oh yeah. But I want to answer your question with another bigger question: When have you felt happy in any stage of this process? Music is a calling and a necessary sibling/codependent relationship. Or a hunger, like some food you need to eat. Food does it’s thing. You eat the food, and you have the calories you need to exist. If you eat better food, it can increase your wellbeing. So, it’s funny because we are living the dream over here.
Jenn Wasner: Exactly. Which is partially true. I think people want to flip into that binary mode, where things are one or the other and if you’re saying anything challenging about it then you aren’t appreciating the things that are so good about it. Life doesn’t run on binary. Especially for people who’s whole bread and butter is to pick apart the nuance of human experience. It’s difficult to go through this major experience with your art and projection of self and not be able to honestly and openly talk about the challenges without people taking it the wrong way.
I love your question and I don’t wanna forget it. I’ve been trying to pay more attention to when I do feel happy and when I feel a genuine emotional and physical reaction in my body to something related to this process, so that I can slow down and appreciate it and also take note of how to engineer that experience for myself more frequently. The times when I feel the most around it are a) when someone I know and love makes a point to reach out to me with a specific note on how the thing has impacted them—it overrides the abstractness of a project and it’s a personal thing in which I feel very deeply—and b) is actually playing these songs with other people in a room which I was lucky enough to be able to experience for the first and hopefully not last time with these songs. I was able to do when we were filming some live streams like everybody is doing. They’re certainly not the same as playing for a live audience, but just to be able to get together in another room with musicians and play through the songs is a deeply moving experience. I was actually surprised about how much I enjoyed. Having that experience, I though “let’s go and get out there…I wanna do this all the time.” I think the common denominator with the two is other people and getting out of your own, weird, inter-spiraling to actually use the music you’ve made as a means of connecting to other people in the world. Those are also the times when I actually feel it.
Alex Toth: Yeah, and that’s dependent on external circumstances.
Jenn Wasner: As we’ve recently learned! [Both laugh]
Alex Toth: I’ve been thinking about how to raise to base level of my well-being. My whole life I have hustled. I strive.
Jenn Wasner: I feel you!
Alex Toth: I guess the pandemic has sort of revealed just how much I was depending on the external things. Like being on stage, and having people applaud for me or being around other musicians. It’s sort of like I’m doing this song and dance, but building these structures to garner external stuff. As long as I can maintain certain dopamine needs, I can keep the dance going. I’ve learned the hard way over and over again. I’m sober seven and a half years now and I’ve had these different periods of major pain where music wasn’t enough. The song and dance wasn’t giving me enough, the drugs weren’t coming…you know? So how can I keep pursuing music but also ground myself? So I have some routines that I do with meditation, recovery stuff and other things. You have that song “The Price of Blue” and I was thinking: What’s the cost of blue? I’m like: it’s 70% of gross income! [Both laugh]
Jenn Wasner: That’s so funny. I love to hear that. I feel like one of the good things about this year for me has been the opportunity to establish some of those routines that I have neglected, specifically because I have been hustling or touring or leaning to hard into the external validation game and underserving the internal validation that comes from the sense of stability. Also, I am a pretty, naturally speaking, people pleaser kind of person. Or at least I have been in the past. It’s neither good or bad, it’s just partially why I am able to make people feel good and comfortable in my presence. But I can go in a dark direction when it leads me away from my own integrity because I am so desperate to please or satisfy whoever I happen to be interacting with in that particular moment. It doesn’t have to be a singular person, it can be people at large. Especially as a creative person, you are trying to establish your own voice, and then you get caught up in the idea of what people want to hear from me. Those have been the moments when I have hit a brick wall when it comes to productivity or expression of any kind. Part of the struggle is leaning into strengthening that pillar of core internal strength and “reliant self-reliance” which is hard work. It overrides some of my basic impulses from the kind of person that I am and the kind if life that I’ve had. Even in the past 18-months of really focusing on it in a new way—out of necessity. I’ve noticed a shift. I would say that—“I’m healed.”
Alex Toth (sarcastically): You did it! [Both laugh]
Jenn Wasner: That’s what’s so funny about this album release cycle is that you make this process and this journey. On the other end of it, maybe you’ve learned some things and had some experiences but you’re still this flawed, fallible, fucked-up human being just doing her best. And then you have to go through this interview process where it’s like: “So you’ve made a record about healing and now you’ve learned it all and tell us everything you’ve learned.” I can start to feel like a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to it. The marketing side of sharing the things you’ve made with other demands this absolute confidence and absolute authority, whereas a much more realistic and authentic way for me is it being a work in progress or trying your best or you don’t really know. But that is a hard thing to communicate in those forms.
Alex Toth: I was thinking about what we do in music. Again, at times it’s a physical or spiritual need, or other stuff, like trying to compensate for some wound shit. Life is hard and painful things happen and we consistently, over and over again, write about them and turn them into songs. I went through a breakup in October, and it was this roller-coaster relationship for two years, and I don’t know why it kept showing up to it. It kept hurting me, but I couldn’t stop showing up to it. The relationship ended and I was in the worst pain of many years of recent memory. I hosted a song-a-day group for the Rubblebucket crew, and like half the Rubblebucket record came out of that pain. I was like: How much of you is chasing the pain? Talk about the cost of blue, but there’s also what blue gives you! I wondering about that stuff. There’s no real answers to that cycle, but as far as healing goes I think it’s helpful for me to ask some of those questions. I don’t think there’s any part of me that wants to repeat a dysfunctional and painful relationship just to make songs.
Jenn Wasner: I relate to that because in my darker moments, when I am being really hard on myself and not particularly compassionate to myself, I can definitely go in that direction. “Oh you’re just a narcissist, and you are making choices in your life based on creating drama so that you can mine from those experiences for creative inspiration.” That’s a dark way to look at it. Another way of framing it might be that in life, we unconsciously seek out the experiences we need to learn the lessons we need to learn. People like you and I in part, learn those lessons from taking apart and understanding our experience through making things. I am trying really hard to give myself the benefit of the doubt and learn how to be compassionate to myself and how to not automatically frame things in the darkest, cruelest, most possible way. I relate to what your saying and I’ve had those thoughts before looking at my life and the way it has unfolded. But also, we are doing our best and I don’t get the sense from you (or a lot of people who I know that are deeply creative people who mine their personal lives for inspiration for their self-focused art) are out there crusin’ for a brusin’. I don’t think it’s intentional. We learn the lessons we need to learn in life how and when they find us. If we are able to heal from those experiences through creation, that can help other people do the same thing.
Alex Toth: Yeah I don’t think it’s intentional. I think it’s beautiful and it’s often the case that painful things happen and it teaches us lessons and if we are luck we are awake enough to have enough space to learn those lessons and have it shift. Gosh, the most euphoric thing in life for me is just writing songs. Literally writing through the pain is so beautiful. You can be living a perfectly clean and spiritual life and life is [still] going to offer plenty of stuff to work with.
Jenn Wasner: Yeah, it’s part of being a human. I have a tendency to put those value judgements on things. A lot of those come from outside ourselves too. I have doubled down on trying to be a baseline “healthier “person and make choices that are good for me physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and also being more careful and mindful about my behavior and how I interact with the world and other people. That has been a really important part of the last year for me. At the same time, I don’t feel like the answer is to expect ourselves to become these completely morally pure beings. In many ways, I don’t think that’s it. I think that’s a recipe for shame disasters. The real work for me is talking a lot about this stuff—to the point where sometimes I feel embarrassed that I am presenting myself as the authority on having my shit together. I just don’t. The real thing for me is trying to love myself and accept myself and be forgiving toward myself in y worst, shittiest moments. When I am not rising to the absolute highest standard that I would hold myself to and when my inner child is have a shitty little temper tantrum. You know, that’s a challenge for me. I am trying to unlearn the value of x being good and y being bad. It’s all human, baby, and we’re all just trying to figure it out.
Alex Toth: What do you do to get to that? Are there specific things you do that help you arrive? As far as loving yourself.
Jenn Wasner: You mentioned meditation and its become a bigger part of my life in the last year. I’ve dipped in and out of it a lot in the past. It’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about because having a daily meditation practice just makes me feel better. It actually does slow everything down and make me feel more centered and more present if I am able to adhere to it. But, say I miss a day or two because I am busy and I fall out of it. The reaction where I’m like, “Hey you idiot, look at you, you little piece of shit, you didn’t even meditate today…and you did an interview talking about doing it, you fucking fraud”—that’s my visceral knee-jerk reaction and I am trying to train myself to be like “Hey it’s ok you didn’t do this because you’re really busy, just do it tomorrow, no big deal.” That’s the way you get back on the bike as opposed to spinning out into greater and greater spirals of self-flagellation and self-destructive behavior. So that kind of thing. Or like, I have this value judgement that exercise=good and eating ice cream=bad. It’s fucking ridiculous. But we have internalized that from so many sources in the world. It’s the messages that were handed down to us about food and out bodies. Yes, of course I want to put things in my body to make me feel good but also, if I wanna eat some fucking ice cream and not exercise that’s not bad.
Instead of trying to constantly be in search of some sort of self-optimization, I try to accept and embrace my humanity, even when I am participating in behaviors that fall outside of that. But yeah, I try and meditate every morning, I try to exercise as often as I am able. I like to go for long walks. I have an incredible group of close friends that I keep up with on the daily. I am a super relational person and I want to be in contact with the people I care about constantly. It’s also something I have to keep an eye on because it can be used as a means of distracting myself too. I have found that deepening in a lot of my friendships, because I have had the time to do so, has been a really grounding force in my life. Also, showing up and making music in some form—even if it’s not writing. Like playing some silly songs or playing the drums for an hour has been a really grounding force for me too. What about you? What are some of your routines?
Alex Toth: Somebody told me they have a really good friend who is an ex-heroin addict who says all the time that he leads his conversation with “I have no holes to fill today.” I’m like, wow that would be fucking awesome. I think that same person was mentioning the importance of having some connection with nature every day. Like before anything else. For the past 3-4 months, especially this winter, I was destitute and really struggling with album announcement stuff. It felt like this was my pandemic baby and an unhealthy amount of my identity was riding in it. That breaking point. Luckily, I have some practices in my life to take a hold of it. I do therapy, and I talk to lots of people. I started doing this thing where I wake up to the phone alarm but I don’t look at the phone. I make coffee, put a nicotine patch on, rain or shine, step outside for the length of the coffee. I listen to the sounds and look at the trees or absence of leaves or maybe have some interaction with a bird…and that’s it. It’s easy enough, because I’m drinking coffee because it’s a thing I want, and whatever length that is.
When it’s cold outside the coffee usually goes pretty quick. It’s this calibration that there is something bigger than my phone, or just opening up that relationship a little bit. For me, a morning thing and a night thing is crucial. It has to be short and easy. I am always at the bare minimum tapped into this minimal thing. For the past four years every night before I go to bed I do this little choreography to the Buddha. I do a triple bow thing, kind of watching every motion, listening to the sounds of the room. Then I hold my hand on my heart and do a quick love and kindness thing which is really good for fear. If you have fear around certain relationships or challenging people in your life or this and that, you can just wish them well. There’s no one that is against me. My default sometimes can be that the world is after me and I gotta fight to be OK today. It’s just shifting that. Every day I just have to offset that default. It really works amazingly to open up some extra space around things. I started doing little affirmation things. I knew it was a thing when somebody told me to do this affirmation thing by saying things like: I am whole, I love myself, I deserve love, I deserve to be in a stable relationship, etc. When I starting writing these things down and reading them aloud I started crying.
Jenn Wasner: I know what you mean because as someone who has cultivated and experienced an amount of trauma in my upbringing, I didn’t realize how much I cultivated the ability to completely numb out and detach from my feelings. One of the things about my meditation practice that has been so jarring is that often (not always because right now I am doing pretty well—but over the course of the past year there were times when I certainly wasn’t) but I’d be fine throughout the day and within minutes of sitting down to meditate I’d be sobbing. The second I actually stop to make space and actually look inward and feel my feelings, they’re all there waiting to be felt. I never realized that there was all this unprocessed shit in there because I didn’t look for it. Anyways, I was running away from it. But, I love that nature thing. I’m gonna try that tomorrow morning with my coffee.
Alex Toth: It’s a small action. On a meditation retreat that I was on and somebody talked about karma being this tank of water with a long hose. The things that are happening in life are coming out of that hose but each day you have the opportunity to put in different types of water. Cleaner or dirtier. By doing that type of action, I identified that there is a clean cause. Like if I’m getting wrapped up on an Instagram spiral, I am putting in some not as clean water. On any giver day, based on the words I say or the actions I take there is going to be some various amounts of clean and not clean water. It takes a while for it to all work out and for it to come out of the hose. Even if you’ve been living clean for a while you still might have a bunch of residues. It’s accountable to think about the causes. What causes am I putting in. If I want to have a different result, I need to put in different causes. It’s simple, but it’s so fucking hard to notice what’s happening and shift.
Jenn Wasner: For real. And even if you do notice, that’s only step one. Creating that distance between those actions and reactions and getting to make a choice on how you act out. It’s still fucking hard. You can really have a good grasp on it intellectually, but there’s really no way to rush the process of integrating that shit into your life. I was very much a head-driven person and I thought that because I understood everything that meant I was unsusceptible. It’s been very humbling in a lot of ways to see that just because you understand something intellectually doesn’t mean that you have taken the time to do the necessary work that is required to rewire your brain, notice your reactions and start to slowly change them. That’s a slow process no matter what you do or no matter how smart you think you are.
Alex Toth: I’ve often heard, from some of the meditation teaches that I’ve encountered, that it’s simply about noticing. If awareness is present and you sustain the noticing, your body will automatically start to shift the thing. Noticing without adding much else is the light. Th light of awareness is the clean cause. And then judgement arises and you watch the judgement and smile. There’s that song on my record “Thirsty” which you sing on…
Jenn Wasner: I love that song!
Alex Toth: Well thanks for singing on it! Yeah, just understanding our nature as humans—that the thirst is unquenchable. You got something and the second you get the thing you think you want, you want more or something different.
Jenn Wasner: Yeah we can’t really be satisfied, it’s not really in our nature to be satisfied.
Alex Toth: And I guess the big thing for me as somebody who is ambitious and a striver is to have made the connection (and I’m still understanding it on deeper levels) that quieting that thirst or indulging in it is less of a way. Understanding that pursuing it is not going to fix me, I feel like has made my art and music better. I listen to this podcast by a woman Tara Brach…
Jenn Wasner: Oh I love her! I listen to her talks all the time. She’s so funny too!
Alex Toth: I used to listen to them on the regular like six years ago and I still have some of them in a Dropbox but I don’t know if you’ve heard the one called “Healing Self-Doubt”.
Jenn Wasner: I know totally which one you’re talking about!
Alex Toth: It brought me back to being in the practice rooms in college with my trumpet, reworking my embouchure and wanting to be the best trumpet player in the world. There were foam walls and I would literally bang my head against and get back to doing it! The motivation was “You suck, and you’re not good enough,” but something would take over…this genuine connection to making sound and that process. Despite ourselves and the struggles we have, part of what brings us back to music is that complete euphoric feeling of love, even if it’s only for a small percentage of time or for a few moments. It get’s us to resonate with our voices and instruments. That’s something that is really pure there, but the “Healing Self-Doubt” helped show me how to ask the question if the self-doubt was helping. Just ask the question, you don’t have to answer it, just ask. I’ve been able to see how much that gets in the way and that type of motivation.
Jenn Wasner: When you painted that picture of music school, I had this flash of when I was graduating high school and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do. I’ve always been pretty fixated on music and it’s been the thing I care about the most, but I remember my bandmate in Wye Oak, Andy Stack, was older than me and he went to Berklee. I remember going to visit him there and thinking if I was going to go to Berklee…I wonder? I remember taking a walk through the basement of his dorm and seeing all the practice rooms and walking down the hallway seeing one miserable looking person after another. Just miserable. Palpable misery. Like, truly sad. I was like…”Oh, oh no. I can’t do that.” I sometimes regret…well I don’t know if I actually regret it, but I went in a different direction. I often feel as though I wish I had more fundamental wisdom and knowledge and chops rather than just relying on my own self taught ear-based way of making music. At the same time I do think that preserving some of that sense of joy or protecting that joy has been important to me.
Alex Toth: I remember feeling like I couldn’t go to a conservatory. The thought of it was crushing. I was a totally unformed as a musician so that’s why I ended up at University of Vermont.
Jenn Wasner: Can you pinpoint a moment when you stopped feeling like you had to be the best trumpet player in the world and started having a more personal relationship to music? Or is it still happening?
Alex Toth: Like I said, even with that really unwholesome pull, at the same time there’s a whole internal world that is just happening at the same time that is filled with play. Joy in my own secrets about sound and shapes and funny lyrics, and observations and interactions with the world. I’ve just lessened that over time and it’s become a gradual thing. At a certain point, the trumpet thing went out the window and all of a sudden it was wanting to have the best band in the world, or being the best songwriter in the world. That voice isn’t really helpful in making great music.
Jenn Wasner: It’s the hierarchy thing that trips me up. We live in a world and a society that absolutely hinges upon hierarchy being the way in which we determine value and power structures. Everything has to be ranked. That kind of thinking is almost impossible to not internalize if you live in this world. I have a really hard time applying that to art. I don’t actually feel competitive, but I do feel less than. But I’m always trying to push back against that reaction because I feel like morally speaking I am anti-hierarchy when it comes to creative expression. I feel like it’s really just about being the best and clearest version of yourself. But I still have this feeling that if I am not hitting this mark of getting this amount of attention, somehow, I am less than; even though I don’t believe that I still feel the reaction in my body.
Alex Toth: It’s cool that you don’t actually believe it.
Jenn Wasner: I don’t actually believe it. I would say that it’s a fundamental belief that creativity belongs to everyone and that it is not the role. For me it is a spiritual practice to create things and share it with others. I actually really struggle with applying a lot of the tenets of pure unfiltered capitalism to something that, to me, is a fundamentally pure and spiritual thing. You have to compromise a lot of that stuff just to live in the world. I am un-hirable. I dropped out of college, never had a real job, I’ve been doing this since I was 19. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done. Even though I struggle with it sometimes, this is what I am here to do and I didn’t get to choose the framework in which I get to live in this world. No one really does. I don’t think that somebody like me dropping out and giving up is going to fix anything about it. I do think I’ve been able to mature enough to wrap my mind around the necessary compromises without an unnecessary amount of self-flagellation, but it’s weird. I do fundamentally believe that creativity is for everyone and that everyone, if they so choose, has a role to play and a pert to express in the grand tapestry of human expression. I like to see myself as being a part of that, and I don’t like to think that me participating in that system would make anybody feel less than, in the way that I feel less than looking at someone else is an uncomfortable thing for me.
Alex Toth: I don’t think that the hierarchal stuff is helpful in any way.
Jenn Wasner: But it’s also inevitable. We live in the world we live in. We have absorbed a lot of toxic shit that is not necessarily our fault. I also think that what you’re talking about reads a genuine ambition. Ambition doesn’t have to be about surpassing others, it can be about trying to do what you know you are capable of at your highest level.
Alex Toth: I feel really lucky that I have this calling. When I was in high school I was super self-destructive, getting arrested for underage drinking and marijuana possession, always grounded, and just going on a downward path. One day my dad put this jazz for teens [class] in New York and New Jersey down and I signed up for it, and all of a sudden, I was a jazz musician. All of that neurosis and fear was replaced with bebop and thinking about jazz. It saved my ass, to be able to work through sound. There really is a physical massage that happens through vibrating and it’s a really beautiful thing.
Jenn Wasner: I love thinking of it as a massage. I’ve talked about this too, the somatic connection to music has not always been apparent to me. I am only recently starting to realize that as someone who is only now beginning to recreate a healthy relationship to my body and my feelings. In the past when I was writing, I was very into head focus. I was intellectualizing about a feeling or experience and then trying to reverse engineer a song from that. This record was very different because I was in a lot of pain. It came up from below instead of top down and it was like the act of singing connected to the breath. Like they say, the gateway is the fastest way to presence, and it can be a very healing thing to do physically. So a lot of these songs came from a very different place not necessarily intellectually but actually needing to feel that physical comfort that comes from bringing voice to something. Or even playing an instrument. I think that’s why I am so addicted to playing the drums right now, because it’s so physical. When I’m doing it right, I really loose myself and am not thinking about anything. My body is just doing what it does and it feels ecstatic.
Alex Toth: To me its absolutely crucial for basically every idea to come from the body. I feel like the juiciest stuff is not thinkable.
Jenn Wasner: I am new to that but I agree with you. It’s taken me a long time to learn it.
Alex Toth: That’s been an ongoing thing. I remember early on a Thelonious Monk interview and he was talking about “body music.” In every decision, there is no decision. It’s just felt. I’ve been writing stream of consciousness poetry since high school. That’s a different craft than songwriting. Lake Street Dive set up these Virtual Lessons for Actual Change—all the money goes to racial justice organizations. I’ve never given songwriting lessons before and I’ve been doing that for months now and it’s really a great thing empowering people. Most people just need a license to do it. Also accountability. I set a timer for two minutes and I say “We are both going to write the all the words that come out in two minutes.” Usually, it’s really cool shit. I don’t know these people and we just start melodizing.
Jenn Wasner: That sounds like a fun class. You mentioned that song a day thing. A couple songs on my record came from a song a day club. The accountability of having to do it and not thinking about it. I forgot you were in there. [Both laugh]
Alex Toth: There were like 30 people in that club.
Jenn Wasner: Did any of your songs go on your record?
Alex Toth: The record was already in process. But I wrote 35 songs in 2020 in Song a Day groups. I wrote a bunch more in outside settings like co-writing and producing. I think it’s such a great way to do it. At least 50% of stuff from these groups seems to make records. The record I am about to release has about half of the stuff from song groups.
Jenn Wasner: I want to do more. They’re really fun and scary.
Alex Toth: There’s something about the pressure and being under the gun that gets me out of the way of myself.
Jenn Wasner: That’s a very good way of putting it.