Several years ago, Jenn and I lived together in a leaky warehouse in Baltimore with a handful of other amazing friends. A dozen anarchists lived upstairs. Mostly they were very sweet, but one time they set a couch on fire in the subbasement. The building wasn’t all that structurally sound, and stray cats would find their way into Jenn’s room through cracks and gaps in the walls. Our landlord at the time was the worst and is now in prison. Looking back, it’s crazy that we lived that way. However: The rent was cheap and it was sometimes very fun to be going through an absurd experience together. These days, I think of Jenn as a model for how to be incredibly driven and generous at the same time. When I see her, we always end up having long conversations about how to make art without turning into a self-destructive (or other-destructive) monster.
Last week, I Skyped Jenn to talk about the freedoms and pressures of the creative life. She had just gotten back to her home in North Carolina from a week in Europe and was getting ready to head out for a monthlong Flock of Dimes tour.
RACHEL MONROE: I don’t know about you, but I sometimes get really frustrated with all this talk about self-care. Like it’s just this other set of obligations. Another person to take care of! Except that person is me.
JENN WASNER: [Laughs.] The burden of self-care. Which is the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to be. Something I haven’t yet figured out about being a freelancer and a creative person is how to avoid getting yourself in situations in which self-care is utterly impossible. When I’m left to my own devices I don’t normally have a problem getting enough sleep, exercising, eating okay. But it’s the nature of my job that I’m in the position I’m in right now: I ate a brownie for breakfast yesterday because I was in the airport, my sleep schedule is fucked up, I’m super overloaded with work … I tell people about it and get these well-meaning lectures [about what I should be doing], but I don’t know any other way.
Yeah, I’m realizing that I have to make peace with the fact that there are certain periods in my life when I’m going to be lost in work. My house is going to look insane and I’m going to eat popcorn for every meal and try to avoid other humans. It almost feels necessary to be a little feral.
For the first 10 years or so of touring, I dealt with it by drinking too much, eating like shit, never exercising. My body was a really toxic place, and I was really unhappy. But it was just something that I was used to. Now I’ve gotten accustomed to being able to take better care of myself, but on tour that’s essentially impossible. When you’re on tour, so many things are out of your control: what you’re able to do with your space and time and physical body. That’s probably the hardest thing for me. You have to relinquish some of that uptight, control-freak stuff and just let life happen to you. But I haven’t quite figured out how to let life happen to me and have that not end up with me drinking a bottle of wine and dancing on a table. Which is not really what I want to be doing.
How do you figure out what to say no to?
By my very nature, I’m a very guilty person — as you know, I’m a classic [Enneagram type] two.
So it’s my nature to want to give to others, to help people, to please people. For a long time, what I ended up saying no to was myself. That has kind of been the struggle of my life, letting go of the guilt of putting yourself ahead of others. I like being a person who considers the needs of others, but I also need to consider my own needs first. What it comes down to for me is asking how saying yes to something will affect the priorities of my emotional, physical, psychological well-being. If there’s a show that I’m really excited about but I need to meditate and go to bed, I’m at the point where I’m going to take that second option. And I’m probably going to feel a little bit bad about it, but nowhere near as bad as I used to, when I was just killing myself trying to do everything. I just have to have a really frank conversation with myself.
Do you see that struggle in gendered terms?
On one hand I feel like just because of the nature of the world we all exist in, there’s some aspect of everything we do being shaped by how we’re labeled. And so in one way I feel like it has to be. But on the other hand — I know people who identify as male and female and in between who have similar feelings, or choose to operate in a similar way.
For me, it’s definitely about learning to admit my own limitations, which doesn’t always feel great. Knowing that I can’t just power through and just make things happen by force of will. Admitting that I am a limited person.
You have a finite brain and body, and you have to pay attention to their limits.
That’s where creativity comes into play with it, too. If I’m waking up early to wait tables or walk dogs, I don’t need to be my fully turned on, fully present self to execute that job well. I can be a little rundown, a little tired, a little out of it, and do a perfectly fine job. But if your job is showing up and presenting the best you have to offer to try and capture some sort of indescribable universal magic to share with others every single fucking day — if that’s what you do and that’s what matters to you, and it’s not only your purpose in life but also your fucking paycheck, you’ve got to bring your serious A game to the table. Creativity requires a huge amount of presence, awareness, comfort, health. I realized at a certain point that how well I take care of myself has a direct link to how well I produce, and how often I produce.
As a person who does all her work alone in her room, I’ve always found the idea of performance really alien and exciting and scary. When you talk about creativity — is performing creative for you?
You know what? I think the diplomatic answer would be to say it can be. But I don’t think it is for me. It’s the writing and creating that I pour myself into; the performance is me trying to capture and communicate the things I’ve made as effectively as possible. And I do a better job of that when I’m really prepared, really rehearsed. I sometimes have weird feelings about performing: it can feel a bit robotic and uninspired. There are always places that transcend that feeling, but it’s not like you can be turned on and connected to some universal power at the drop of a hat every single day. At a certain point, the nature of touring is going to feel like a routine. I think my real creative moments come when I’m devoid of those responsibilities, that obligatory timeline.
Do you feel like you have a persona when you perform? Who is that, up there, when you’re performing?
Honestly, I wish that I did more. That’s something I’ve always struggled with. I’m very much myself in every moment, and that includes being on stage. I really admire and am in awe of performances that are more theatrical and fully realized — it’s not necessarily just a bunch of dudes playing music on stage, but it’s a show, it’s an idea. But I have a lot of anxiety about performing, and I tend to deal with that in the same way I deal with it in social situations: by making sure everyone feels comfortable. So I tend to be very present, self-deprecating, vulnerable — human. So I’m less of an other, and more of a person in the room. And in some ways I think that’s good, because I do write these personal, emotional pop songs, and I like that people can see me as a human being, not this one-dimensional show of a person. But at the same time I think I would be more protected and less vulnerable — and maybe even able to do some more interesting stuff in my performances — if I was better versed in crafting and executing a persona.
It’s really difficult to care as much as you need to in order to bring [your work] to life — and then to be able to turn off all those feelings so you’re immune and invulnerable to whatever people think about it. [Adopting a persona] is one very effective and fairly common type of self-preservation that performers use to separate their actual selves from what they’re giving to other people. But I’m not very good at that.
But you released this record as Flock of Dimes, not as Jenn Wasner.
A lot of people pointed out that it might be better if I released the record [as Jenn Wasner], but I can’t bring myself to release music under my own name. My name feels precious to me — it’s so tied up with my home and my identity, and I would be very, very reluctant to permanently link that identity to any one creative project. So even though [the songs on the record] are very personal and autobiographical, it feels important to me to set that boundary.
I also think that there are different aesthetic universes that serve different things. So I plan to release more Flock of Dimes records for sure, but I can also see myself conceiving of a project where that name is not appropriate. I really enjoy coming up with names for these little projects — the band name, the aesthetic, everything that surrounds the music. If I had more time and could split myself into little pieces more, I’d have more than two. I’d probably have a zillion.
To a certain extent, I’ll always be building things up and destroying them as needed. When something gets out of your control and becomes more of a commodity than a forum for actual creativity, it’s time to kill it. I have no qualms with taking the Flock of Dimes moniker out to the backyard and putting it out of its misery, if that becomes necessary.
And then “Jenn Wasner” is protected.
I can’t let people have my name. I have to be that person forever.
Do you have a hard time with success? Are you able to accept it?
Most people in the music business automatically gravitate to the bigger-is-better model. You’re always trying to get more famous and more popular. No one ever talks about alternative career models, about the fact that some people might not be suited to the style of growth, and that their art might not be suited to that level of mass consumption. I had to figure that out myself.
I feel very strongly that bigger is not better with what I do solo, and Andy [Stack] and I are on the same page — we’re much more interested in cultivating sustainability and creative freedom at the smallest level we can afford in order to be able to still make the things we want to make. If you’re trying to sustain something large, at some point you have to stop being an artist and start being a businessperson. You need to learn how to promote yourself and sell yourself, and that becomes the priority over making good work or challenging yourself.
But I guess also what I meant was, are you good at accepting compliments? When someone comes up to you — and I’ve heard people do this — and they say, Oh my god, you’re amazing, are you good receiving that?
I’m the worst! It’s not false modesty — I do think I’m really good at what I do, why else would I do it? I wouldn’t put myself through this if I didn’t think I had something to contribute. But I don’t think of my contributions of being of any greater worth than anyone else’s. It sounds cliché, but I genuinely believe that people who really deserve the praise are the ones out there in the fucking streets, protesting — or people going to medical school trying to learn how to save lives, or people who are teachers. There are so many people who work harder than I do for much more selfless reasons, but people don’t show up to a school and applaud a teacher as they’re leaving their job. What makes me uncomfortable is how people tend to put certain kinds of creative work on a pedestal, maybe because it’s a little mysterious and romantic. Making art is just one of many important things that can be done with a life.
There’s also the way that when your work is so public, like yours is, the way people relate to it gets so mixed up with your personality, with their idea of who you are …
I like making people feel good and comfortable in my presence, that’s important to me. When I’m meeting someone and they’re like, “I can’t believe you’re talking to me! I’m nobody,” I hate that so much. It’s like — who do you think I am?
And if people are treating you like that, it precludes any possibility of having a real, human connection with them.
That reminds me of this conversation I watched between Dave Chappelle and Maya Angelou. He was talking about why he left Chappelle’s Show, and the gist of it was: My fame got in the way of my ability to connect with people, which destroyed my ability to make comedy, which is what I love to do. That really got me. If you’re an artist who depends on observing life unfolding, and all of a sudden you’re too famous to walk down the street — how do you make things?
Did you read the Elena Ferrante books?
Did I read them? Girl. Oh man, they ate my life right up. I loved those books so much. Good lord.
This all makes me think of her attempt to keep some part of herself removed from this equation, and how they wouldn’t let her.
I was so deeply upset by that news. It goes to show you you can go to great lengths to preserve your right to live your life the way you choose, but to a certain extent, it’s out of your control. When your livelihood and your contribution to the world is so personal, people feel like they own you. Like they’re entitled to know everything about you that they want to know. I don’t know if there’s a way around that. She tried to do everything she could to protect herself and people just wouldn’t let her have it.
Last thing: I wanted to ask you about that time I saw you a couple years ago, when you had gone to Los Angeles to finish this record, but then you decided it wasn’t good enough. Can you talk about what happened there?
I was in a pretty low place when I saw you that time. I had been working on my [first solo] record for a long time. At the end of [last] summer, I drove from New York to Los Angeles to mix it. Halfway through the mixing process, I realized that about half of the record was — that they were not the caliber of song I wanted this record to be full of. So I called it off. I had to have a really hard conversation with the people at my record label, and I felt like a total fucking failure. I hated the idea that people were counting on me and spending money on me, and I failed to deliver.
After I saw you that summer in Marfa, I got back to my house in North Carolina. I set everything up and just started to work on new material as fast as I could. My favorite songs on the record — both the singles, “Semaphore” and “Everything Is Happening Today,” the first track, the last track — took shape during that period from September to December of last year. And I’m as content with the record I have ever been with a thing I made. I’m so glad I had the presence of mind to let it take as long as it took.
How do you know when doubts like those are a real sign that you need to work on something more, rather than just some kind of self-undermining perfectionism?
Intuition is huge for me. It’s such a massive part of how I create and how I make decisions in my life. I feel really lucky to have a pretty good connection to my own intuition, and I’m impulsive enough to listen to it when I hear it. It’s been there my whole life and it’s never led me astray.
I was also thinking about how future-me would feel — I know I’m going to be on tour singing and playing these songs for people, so every song on this record needs to be a song I can enjoy playing and inhabiting for years to come. If I can’t even stand up and sing this song comfortably today, what are the odds I’m going to be able to in a year, two years? The songs I had made were fine, cool, catchy, fun — but I was holding out for the real deal because I knew I would be living with them for a long time. I know what it is to put out a record that’s okay, that I like, but that I get tired of quickly — then I’m stuck inhabiting a dead person’s skin for a few years. That’s part of the natural flow of creativity and I accept it to a certain extent, but I wanted to make every effort to mitigate it. I’m very, very glad I had the foresight to do that. And I’m reaping the rewards of that right now.