Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner may have made her name by creating heart-wrenching explosive folk rock anthems, but don’t call her new project Dungeonesse, a ’90s inspired confection of addictive beats and synth hooks, antithetical. Wasner says her music all comes from the same place. The self-titled debut, which dropped in May and is a perfect accompaniment to hot summer nights, started as a “pen pal pop music” correspondence with longtime friend Jon Ehrens as Wasner began to feel like she was in a “stagnant hole” touring for Wye Oak.
The two, both in their late 20s, spoke to me via phone from their respective apartments in Baltimore about how all great songs come from the same place, their un-ironic embrace of beat-heavy music from decades past and contrast Wye Oak’s “For Prayer” with Dungeonesse’s “Drive You Crazy.”
The Rumpus: How do you feel the new Dungeonesse project fits in with your work with Wye Oak? Are you accessing different parts of yourself musically when you work on these different projects?
Jenn Wasner: I have always been the first person to say that everything that I do is really just the same thing dressed up in different costumes. I think of these Dungeonesse songs as absolutely part of the same songwriting canon as everything else that I’ve done. I don’t see that they’re all that different. The same exercises, the same tendencies — that’s just songwriting at its heart. They get different aesthetic decisions and different looks, different feels, but at the heart of it it’s really just songwriting. Jon and I have talked about it a lot, and I think we probably agree, that sometimes people get so distracted by the aesthetic that we choose, the bells and whistles of a song, but at the heart of it what I do is what I’ve always done. It’s really the same.
Jon Ehrens: Except you can play it at a party.
Wasner: Except you can play it at a party. Exactly.
But I mean, the making of it — I don’t feel like these songs were trivial or trite. They’re not lesser in my mind. Just because they’re fun doesn’t mean we didn’t take the creating of them very seriously. It’s the same craft.
Rumpus: I was curious to contrast “Drive You Crazy” with “For Prayer” because those are two songs that Jenn’s created that I’ve listened to over and over again.
Wasner: That’s very interesting, because Jon is wholly and utterly responsible for writing “Drive You Crazy.” Jon wrote that song — he sent that song to me basically complete and all I did was sing it in a girly voice. So you should ask him about creating that song because I didn’t.
I think a lot of the songs on the record I am sort of responsible for melodically and lyrically, but a good portion of them, there’s just as much of his writing in there as mine. Jon, what do you think? I always sort of thought that you and I have similar songwriting tendencies.
Ehrens: Yeah, I think that we both want things to be able to be applied universally. Maybe it’s something that is based on a specific event in your life but we want to convey something that most people go through. Is that true?
Wasner: Absolutely. I think that nudging or expanding something specific into something universal is probably the most essential ingredient in the making of this record. And probably in everything that I do — it’s trying to capture a certain timelessness, and universality. That’s why Jon can write a song like “Drive You Crazy” and I can sing it, and it sounds like it’s my song. It’s because he did a really good job writing something that is universal enough that I can sing it, probably anybody could sing it, and make it their own. Which is not always the case — I feel like certain pop songs, the better ones, usually stand up to that kind of interpretation and reinterpretation, whereas sometimes you just can’t imagine anyone else conveying these things. Not that that’s necessarily always bad thing, but I do think that there’s a certain universality that Jon and I both try and capture when we write that hopefully is evident in this batch of songs.
Rumpus: Jon, tell me about “Drive You Crazy” and where it started.
Ehrens: It started with the instruments. I was writing it for a female character, or from a female perspective, as I often do ‘cause I have another band where my sisters sing. I think the original idea was gonna be I’m gonna drive you crazy like I’m gonna be real sexy and it’s gonna make you go nuts. But I thought that was a little trite and also kind of weird for me write, especially if gonna end up being for my sisters.
I was thinking about this Louis C.K. bit about how he had been divorced and he said that he has a hard time meeting eyes with a pretty girl and thinking that something really nice is gonna happen because he knows how relationships are already and it ended in divorce for him. I was thinking a lot about that. I thought it would be funny to address that right at the start when meeting somebody, and just being like, “Look, we can be together but I’m a nutcase.” Which is true of everybody, you know what I’m saying? I wanted it to be universal.
Wasner: I laugh because it’s perfect. I thought it was great when I heard it because it is sort of universal but I think it’s also something that’s not really…I can’t really think of another song that touches on it in the same way. Not that it doesn’t exist, but I’m not aware of it.
Ehrens: I like empowerment songs, and it’s a funny kind of empowerment song in that maybe you’re concerned that you’re broken, but no you’re not, it’s just how everyone is.
Rumpus: So to continue the comparison with “For Prayer” — Jenn, can you talk about where that song comes from?
Wasner: Let me try and put myself back there, because it really has been a minute. Honestly, I think that sometimes with stuff like that, I just kind of go into a trance with it. I will say that with that song in particular it’s been such a part of [Wye Oak’s] catalog for so long and I’ve played it so many times that I feel like I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I don’t even really understand where it came from at the time.
I definitely remember getting the demo for “Drive You Crazy” and trying to sing it, trying to inhabit that character and voice it. Because of the kind of band that Wye Oak is, I think a lot of people mistake that persona that I have as me. I think that as a songwriter, no one song or no one project fully inhabits who I am as a person.
It’s nice to be having projects where I branch out and inhabit different voices and different characters and different identities and different parts of myself. Because if we succeed, as we are trying to, at making them as universal as possible then there should be parts of myself in all of them. One of the reasons why it’s been such a pleasure to work with Jon is because he has a knack for tapping in to that universal “whatever” in the songs that he writes, and writing songs that that I feel like I can inhabit in a genuine way.
I guess that’s sort of what I’m trying to get at. I can’t remember precisely where I was at when I was writing “For Prayer,” and I know that there’s a lot of personal shit in there, but it’s important to me to communicate that every song that I write or sing is to a certain extent a character. It’s not just me. In the service of a song as a whole, you take the parts of yourself and try to make them into something bigger than yourself. It’s personal but it’s not as specific as you might expect.
Rumpus: Let’s get back to the Dungeonesse project. You made it out of your love for Top 40 and R&B, so let’s get a little more specific. What are those loves that you’re talking about?
Wasner: I grew up with Mariah Carey. I can specifically remember being a kid and having my Walkman and just jamming the fuck out to Mariah Carey. That was the first time I ever imagined myself performing and singing. So that was sort of a thing.
I think Jon and I both went through a phase where we stepped away from that world a little bit and went deep into the rock and roll, indie, punk rock underground world. Which is something that I feel like was of our time, growing up in the 90s. But I think we’ve both come around to embrace our love of pop music since then. We talk a lot about the importance of nostalgia.
Ehrens: I think just noticing certain songs lasted longer than others and could always light up a room, and those are usually songs that everyone knows or were made popular because they were in the form of pop. Like I was saying earlier, the difference between this and other songwriting stuff we’ve done in the past is that you could play this at a party. I think just wanting a song that is instantly recognizable, fun to sing along with, that you could dance to —
Wasner: But it also to have that emotional…
Ehrens: But that’s a good pop song. It’s heart wrenching.
Wasner: Yeah, the emotional center, the universality. We were trying to make something fun, but we definitely weren’t trying to make something trite.
Ehrens: Or vapid.
Wasner: Or vapid. That was definitely important to us.
Ehrens: I don’t think I was specifically thinking about a certain era. I was thinking about the song that’s so worn out on your mix tape that it sounds a little weird. Because you’ve listened to it so much.
Wasner: And I don’t think the ’90s throwback vibe was necessarily intentional, but being as we both are children of the ’90s…when we think about tapping into nostalgia, that’s the generation that we both were raised in. Even though it wasn’t necessarily an intentional thing, it makes sense that some people see it or hear it that way.
Ehrens: Personally, I was thinking about a lot of ‘70s music. I was listening to a lot of ’70s and ’80s music like Chic, the disco band. In terms of “Drive You Crazy,” I was trying to make sort of a pop version of a Chicago Juke song. So the influences are more than just Babyface-era R&B.
Rumpus: A lot of people separate pop and R&B from a heavier kind of songwriter process. Do you feel like that’s a false dichotomy that we’ve put onto music, if you compare pop to the other kinds of rock and roll that you’ve been writing?
Wasner: It absolutely is.
Ehrens: I was thinking about this yesterday. I don’t think people are inherently turned off by pop music, but they’re trained to be because there seems to be something dark about the pop that is fed to people, which is most of the pop that is being made. Because it’s coming from above, it’s coming from corporate overlords. I feel like that becomes conditioned, but the music itself people enjoy. That’s why these forces use pop music, because they know it’s enjoyable on a large scale. I think what I’m saying is you can make that kind of music and be an actual person.
Wasner: I think that’s one of the things that we have always aspired to do. We’ve used the word “reclaimed” before. To be working in a small, likeminded community like Baltimore, where lots of people are writing a lot of music that a lot of people would call “pop music” or just song-based music…I think Jon is totally spot-on. It doesn’t have to come from this warehouse of corporate overlords that take all of our money and give nothing back. I think writing a great, catchy pop song that is transcendent and universal and touches people is one of the hardest things in the world to do. It’s one of the easiest things in the world to do poorly, but it’s one of the hardest things in the world to do well. A lot of people try and do it and miss the mark. I think it’s definitely an endeavor that warrants a lot of respect. But you don’t have to be rich and famous and beautiful and skinny to do it. And hopefully we will be proof of that in some small way. We’re just a couple of normal people trying to do it well.