How Flock of Dimes Found Herself (With a Little Help From Her Friends)

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Jenn Wasner has tended to let thoughts rather than feelings guide her songwriting. For her second solo album, “Head of Roses,” she did the opposite.

In 2016, when the wildly prolific multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Jenn Wasner released her first solo album as Flock of Dimes, she felt she had something to prove.

“I had internalized a lot of the assumptions that people make about women in music,” said Wasner, then best known as one-half of the indie-rock duo Wye Oak. “I felt a lot of resentment about not getting the benefit of the doubt of my own artistry.” So she doubled down on that time-tested indie ethos of Do It Yourself — writing, producing and playing just about every instrument on “If You See Me, Say Yes.”

“As it turns out,” Wasner, 34, recalled in a recent video chat from her home near Durham, N.C., “that’s not always what makes the best record.”

“If You See Me” is full of dazzling sounds and bright melodic ideas, but it stimulates the mind more frequently than it pierces the heart. “As someone who is very obsessed with language, I think sometimes it can actually be a barrier to feeling,” Wasner added, lounging on a sage-green sofa that — she suddenly realized, catching a glimpse of her digital reflection in the Zoom screen — was the same color as the cozy sweatshirt she was wearing. “I think that record, and pretty much any record you could point to would be better with some form of collaborative expression.”

“Head of Roses,” the second Flock of Dimes full-length, out Friday, is that better record — one of the highlights of Wasner’s long, winding career. It’s also the project that revealed a creative paradox: Sometimes what an artist needs to become even more of herself is a little help from her friends.

“I got the impression she was trying to get out of her head,” said Nick Sanborn, half of the electro-pop band Sylvan Esso, who co-produced “Head of Roses” with Wasner. “Being her friend, it’s obvious that her range is so broad and encompasses so many different things.”

A respected veteran of the underground music scene, Wasner is multifaceted almost to a fault, in a music industry obsessed with elevator pitches and genre-based pigeonholing. “Because I’m drawn to experimenting with so many different kinds of aesthetic choices,” she said, “people are often like, ‘I don’t really know what you do. We don’t know where to put you.’”

“But that’s just a big part of who I am, and not something I want to change about myself,” she added. “It’s a source of joy.”

Even in Wye Oak, formed in 2006, Wasner and her bandmate, Andy Stack, seem allergic to repeating themselves. After garnering acclaim for “Civilian,” a breakout 2011 album full of off-kilter rhythms and Wasner’s inventive guitar playing, they followed it with a record centered around synthesizers, “Shriek,” in 2014. Their most recent EP, “No Horizon” from 2020, prominently featured choral arrangements sung by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.

Wasner and Stack are both Baltimore natives who met in high school. They were in “one of those bands where everybody writes songs,” Stack recalled over the phone, though when the 16-year-old Wasner brought hers to practice, it was clear her compositions were a cut above the standard battle-of-the-bands fare. “She was a real good songwriter from the beginning,” he said.

“Everything I’ve learned this year about trauma and healing supports the idea that music is important,” Wasner said.
Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

Wasner and Stack have now been playing music together for more than half their lives. The key to Wye Oak’s longevity, Stack said, has been allowing each other to pursue other musical projects in their spare time. (They have also been writing new material in quarantine.)

Over the past decade, Wasner has formed multiple side projects and played in the touring bands of artists like Sylvan Esso and Dirty Projectors; in 2019, she joined Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver. “I think the way the industry is set up, in order to release as much music as I would like, I have to kind of trick people into letting me do it by inventing different names for myself,” she said.

But, she reflected, “I had created this world of constant busyness and work that pretty much prevented me from spending any time sitting with myself and examining my inner world.” So “Head of Roses” is the answer to a particular riddle: What happens when one of the hardest-working musicians in indie rock suddenly has to sit still for a year?

Wasner’s most recent romantic relationship ended just before the pandemic began. (When I mention that not every musician was able to stay creatively inspired over the past year, she laughed: “I would recommend to those people to try being completely eviscerated by heartbreak!”) For the first time in her adult life, Wasner found herself without her usual distractions — no tour to embark upon, no new band to join. “There was nothing to do but sit with my pain and myself,” she said. “I was so grateful to be able to turn to making music, because it was one of the last remaining things available, as a source of comfort for me.”

Or, as she sings on a spacious, twangy new song, “Walking,” sounding more contented than aggrieved, “Alone again, alone again, my time it is my own again.”

Over the past year Wasner wrote songs constantly, deepened her yoga practice and taught herself how to cook — something she’d never taken the time to do, in half a life spent on tour. (“No one’s going to be thrilled at a home-cooked meal from me, but it’s certainly better than it was before this whole thing started.”)

Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

In July, she assembled a small pod of trusted collaborators in a nearby studio. Sanborn sometimes joked that she should call the album “The Many Faces of Was.” More than anything she’s released before, “Head of Roses” makes room for the multiplicity of Wasner’s artistic voice. None of the singles sound anything alike — not the springy, off-kilter pop of “Two” nor the slow-burning, psych-rock of “Price of Blue” — and none of them quite prepare the listener for the gorgeously subdued second half of the album, which features several of the most stirring ballads Wasner has ever recorded. The common element holding all of these disparate parts together is her luminous, jewel-toned voice.

“I feel a lot more secure in myself than I ever have before, which makes it easier to make choices without worrying so much about what I’m trying to prove,” Wasner said. Delegating some technical tasks to Sanborn or the engineer Bella Blasko helped her focus on her larger vision. That all her collaborators were also friends made it easier to tap into her vulnerability in the studio, too: “It was such a joy to feel really held by all the people in my musical community at a time when I was at my most gutted, personally.”

This was a relatively new experience. “For a lot of the music I’ve written in the past, I would reverse-engineer a feeling — I would think about a concept or idea I wanted to expound upon, then I would create that,” Wasner said. “All of a sudden, with this record, it came up from this other place.”

Which is not to say that Wasner has abandoned her avowed penchant for challenging arrangements or nontraditional time signatures. “Watching her do some of these songs solo,” said Wasner’s friend Meg Duffy, a guitarist who played on the album and records as Hand Habits, “I’m like, how do you even do that? It seems like doing algebra while doing ballet.”’

But now, Wasner wants the more cerebral elements of her music to work, first and foremost, in service of a feeling.

“Everything I’ve learned this year about trauma and healing supports the idea that music is important,” Wasner said. “It can subvert a lot of the defenses we enact around the softer parts of ourselves — the parts that may need to be seen and healed the most. Those defenses are very hard to get past. But music might be the art form that is best able to get around those barriers and reach us where we need to be healed.”

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