Jenn Wasner and Madeline Kenney on the Challenges of Staying Inspired

A conversation with the artists/friends — who just released a split single — plus two new videos.

Jenn Wasner (of Wye Oak and Flock of Dimes) produced Madeline Kenney’s second album, Perfect Shapes, and in the process the two became fast friends. (It didn’t hurt that they also lived in the same house for a time.) Kenney has since moved to Oakland — across the country from Wasner, who’s based in North Carolina — but the two will embark on a short tour together this month to celebrate the release of a split single. We’ve got exclusive video performances of their songs from that single below, woven into a conversation that the two had recently. Tour dates are below, too.
—Josh Modell, Executive Editor, Talkhouse

Madeline Kenney: So how do we go about this thing? I have a feeling if they leave us to our druthers we’ll just talk about bullshit for two hours.

Jenn Wasner: Yeah, nobody will be interested in us catching up about the yoga class we used to go to together. I wanna describe in detail every single yoga pose that we did. Is that a good way to spend our interview?

Madeline: Let’s do an entire interview about television’s The Masked Singer.

Jenn: I’ll start. Just to give folks some background: We met because Maddie was looking for folks to produce her last record, Perfect Shapes, and we were sort of tangentially aware of each other. But then when we got put in touch to talk about potentially working together, it immediately became apparent that we had just about every imaginable thing in common. We had a really amazing, positive, super badass experience working on that record with our friend Camille. The three of us recorded and played most everything on it, and in a jam-packed, super exciting, amazing two-week period, in North Carolina.

After that, we convinced her to come live with us for a year in our weird little, crumbling, Grey Gardens-esque mansion in North Carolina. So we spent that time as roommates, and then, when Maddie went back to Oakland, we had to think of a reason to hang out as soon as possible! We decided to put out a split seven-inch and go on tour together, so that we can have an excuse to see each other and hang out.

Madeline: That was so succinct.

Jenn: And now, because she’s a stone cold wizard, Maddie’s got an entire other record of new songs ready to roll. That’s partly what I wanna talk to you about, because I’m hoping to glean some advice.

Madeline: Oh, my God. I … what? No.

Jenn: I mean it! I’ve been in this weird zone with writing, and I’m having a really difficult time with a lot of ethics of the creative process that have, in the past, come really easily to me. It’s this kind of burnout that I’ve been dealing with, that I suspect has come from the fact that I focus, like, a hundred percent of my attention on music, a hundred percent of the time. And I don’t really have any other hobbies or interests. And you! You’re super, super well-rounded, and you’re good at so many things, and…

Madeline: Oh, my God.

Jenn: I’m sorry if it’s uncomfortable. I would feel the same way, but it’s true that you have a lot of skills and wide ranging interests. I’m trying to broaden my horizons in hopes that it will trickle down into making me feel less burnt out on music. So my question for you is, do you feel like these things that you do in your life, is there ever a rank or an order to them? Do they feel like more primary than any others? Or is that always kind of moving around?

Madeline: It’s a timely question, actually. Coming back to Oakland has been so great, but also so crazy. It’s been kind of difficult to get used to what I used to do before, which was work three jobs, and do music, and it was fine. Going to North Carolina, I just hung out with you guys and ate and didn’t work, which was awesome! It was probably a little slice of non-reality for a while. And reality has kicked back in, which is fine but it’s just been a lot to get adjusted to, you know? In the spirit of honesty, and we’ve talked about all these things before, I was just feeling so depressed when I got back. Zero confidence in myself, and in my music. And I kind of was trying to sort things out, and pick out what exactly was stressing me out.

It was kind of like what you’re talking about where you put all of your energy into this one thing. And if it doesn’t go the way that you dreamed and hoped it would… I was like, “Oh man, I forgot. I’m good at other things. I wanna do those other things, and not rest my entire value and assessment of myself on this one thing that’s mostly out of my control.” I’ll make music, always. And I’ll always make records. But from the second that it’s released, it’s out of your control. It doesn’t belong to you anymore. And then, somehow, your destiny still rides on how well it performs at college radio. You’re like, “Oh my God. I don’t know. What is my life?” I hated college!

I don’t know. I just think we’re multi-faceted people, and we can’t really deny ourselves interest in other things. Although, it’s funny that I’m saying that, too, because when I interviewed for this restaurant job that I think I’m going to go start, the guy was really understanding. The chef was really understanding about my music stuff, but then he said at one point, “I get that you’re doing this thing, but at some point you have to choose.” It gave me this existential crisis for a brief moment.

Jenn: I don’t think that it’s at all true that you have to choose between a career in music and a career in something else. If you’re playing music in a way that is essential to surrounding the joy, and the experience, and the travel, it might not necessarily be something you’re doing all of the time. But people have lives outside of their work, and if you choose to spend that time in your life working on music, you can definitely have it both ways. It might not be your job. But that might be, in some ways, a blessing.

Madeline: I don’t want it to be my job. I wanna continue doing it as part of my life, because I love driving for 13 hours on end, and eating hot Cheetos. But if I put all my eggs in one basket, or kind of bet everything on music working out… I think it’s so important to be grateful that you get to do it at all. It’s so temporary. And people forget that, and then when you forget that, that’s when you get in trouble. I think that’s what happened to me. I was like, “This is just gonna be fine forever!” And then, “Oh, wait. No. It’s definitely not.”

Jenn: Yeah. This is sort of the conundrum that I’m in, in that I am one of the very few, very, very lucky people that, out of some combination of hard work and good luck, has managed to make something resembling a job out of playing music. Which is something that I’m super, super, grateful for, obviously. It’s incredibly rare. But whatever you do for your job inevitably becomes work. It changes your relationship to it. And I suspect that one of the reasons why I’m struggling with writing as much as I am now is because my mind unconsciously has come to associate it with work. And it needs to feel like play. So I’m trying to figure out ways to hack my brain and figure out how to make it feel like play again. It is, like, 100 percent of my identity, self-worth, you know, my feelings of needing to be productive, needing to work hard. So, coming from the other side of it, I think you’re spot on! And there are obviously traps and pitfalls to both worlds. There’s not one where you just kind of have a free and easy and perfect and unfettered relationship with your art.

Madeline: You know what I’ve been thinking about so much? It’s this pattern I’ve noticed in my friends and also bigger acts. The first couple records are about love and political stuff. And then, eventually, it evolves into being about songwriting, being about touring, being about the music industry things. What a weird pattern. But I’ve definitely noticed it start to happen in myself, where I’m like, “Oh, now I’m writing about the experience of writing music for a living.” How weird is this?

Jenn: It does start to reflect and refract in upon itself, inevitably.

Madeline: I gotta do something else, so I have something else to write about.

Jenn: That’s what I worry about, too. In some ways, I’m in a really good space where I’m getting by, but I still have to worry about making ends meet. But at the same time, what I do is so weird, and insular, and self-focused. Maybe that’s why I need to seek out some kind of hobby, volunteering or interacting with others. As opposed to what I’m doing right now, which is just sitting in front of all my instruments, self-flagellating for not being as prolific as I would like to be.

Madeline: I was like, “Oh, that’s the dream, is to just live in this beautiful, quiet space, and be surrounded with your instruments, and not have anything else to do other than make music.” But I was starting to go crazy! You get that anxiety as soon as you wake up. Like, if I’m not being productive every moment that I’m in my room with my instruments, then I’m wasting my time and my life. Then you start to work too much and there’s no balance, and there’s no joy in it.

Jenn: Have you ever watched the Adult Swim show China, IL? It’s a cartoon about all these college professors. The episode that I was recently watching, just to turn my brain off, was about these professors trying to get tenure. Once they finally got tenure, they were miserable because they were bored and felt like they had achieved the thing that they set out to achieve. But it actually sucked because there was no excitement, or working or striving, left in their lives. It didn’t even occur to me until now [that] being satisfied is maybe not the goal. The feeling of happiness or satisfaction doesn’t necessarily come from feeling like you’ve achieved your goals. I think it comes from feeling like you’re working towards something, or making progress. But you still have something to hope for, something left to achieve. I think that at this point in my career, having done this for half of my life, I’m gonna have to start getting more creative and more ambitious about ways to feel that way.

Madeline: I do have that thought that runs through my mind sometimes: When am I going to run out of songs? When’s the well gonna run dry? But then I think about it in the way that I used to think about essays at school. I was really good at school, but I also was a really good procrastinator. So I’d leave stuff ’til the last minute, and then pump out an essay. Maybe my teachers were dumb, but I never had a problem. I kind of think about songwriting in that way, where I’m like, “I don’t know how this essay is gonna get done. It’s midnight before it’s due. I don’t know, but I know that some talent will.”

Jenn: I’ve been writing songs for my whole adult life, and it’s such a huge part of the way that I process my life experience. And sometimes, you know, the universe doesn’t need to fuckin’ hear from you for a little bit. And that’s okay. And I should be able to just sit with that, and be like, “Cool. I’ll get better at piano, or I’ll work on this other skill,” and not feel really worthless and devastated if I’m not cranking something out.

Madeline: I don’t think that’s you doing something wrong. I think that’s the momentum that’s forced upon you by the music industry — people asking you to give them that sweet, sweet content all the time. It hurts me to do that. I hate it so much. I want to get what’s in my head outside of my head and beyond that I don’t really want to participate in the whole machine because all it does it make me feel really, really bad about myself all the time.

Jenn: I’ve worked a lot on making peace with that. I think maybe I’m more at peace with it now than I have been in the past, but the struggle for me is that it feels very disingenuous and I have a hard time with something that’s so linked to my… It’d be one thing if I had some sort of alter ego or something, but the music that I make, it’s me, my personality, my identity.

Madeline: Yeah, it’s my name.

Jenn: Yeah, it’s your fucking name! And it’s terrible linking something that you feel like is compromised in some way to your fucking identity. But for me it’s like okay, suck it up, this is the job, everyone has to do things with their job that they don’t want to do. How do I retain the purity and excitement and connection to the things that I’m making while still also existing outside of that, as this person that has to self promote and make myself visible to others in order to survive? Honestly there have been many times in the past that I’ve been exactly where you are and just been like, “I just need to get a job and let music be my hobby that I love.” The thing that’s kept me from doing that is the fact that I don’t have any other skills. But I do think that my work for this year at least is to be less hard on myself. If I don’t write an album’s worth of material every six months, I’m not worthless.

Madeline: I was really stressing out about not doing as many tours at the beginning of the year. I’ve been nannying, for money, but also I need another job so that I can make money — and I miss having coworkers. And adult conversations. That’s something you don’t have in music most of the time either, especially as a solo musician. But I let myself do this tour with you, and I have one more show booked in July, and after that I’m just going to let myself work on a record and not go crazy and be gone all the time.

Jenn: Dude, for real, you deserve it and you can do it and I think you can have it all the way. You live in a really good place for that too because you can play shows, you can access other cities pretty easily if you want to do short tours like the one we’re about to do.

Madeline: Here’s something that I also want to do that you can join me in if you feel like it: I am dying to start a country band.

Jenn: Yes, girl!

Madeline: And I have my country alter ego name, are you ready? Saddlin’ Penny. I’m not even joking. I started writing country songs the other day just for fun and I was like uh what, this is so easy and so fun.

Jenn: Saddlin’! I’m sure it might not surprise you to hear that I actually have a few secret country ballads in my back pocket. I’m here for it. I will definitely be involved if you would like. Well, just to wrap things up and actually talk about our tour for a second…  Getting ready for this tour I’ve been super excited but also very, very nervous because I’m doing this thing where I’m trying to present the songs pretty unadorned and spare, just me singing and some light instrumentation. Which is something that I’ve really shied away from in the past. It scares the hell out of me. There’s this voice in my head that is second guessing everything I do, like, “Are you enough?” Is this enough to sort of hold people’s attention for an entire 45 minutes to an hour? I don’t know. What do you think makes for a good and compelling and riveting solo performance?

Madeline: Man, I use to do all these open mics in Seattle when I was like, 20, 19… There were a lot of people doing pretty much the same thing, which is like covering “I’m on Fire” acoustically on guitar, you know? Wow this is really boring to watch, am I this boring to watch? I think there are certain things that are just really engaging and you don’t have to try too hard for it. It’s not pulling out any fancy tricks or doing anything gimmicky, it’s just being a good singer, which you are one of the best I’ve ever heard — don’t you say anything! [Laughs.] And just really connecting to your own material and believing what you sing. I have had to perform a lot solo because of just not being financially able to pay a band, and it just happens and it’s fine and I’ve gotten used to it and I enjoy it.

I remember one show, it might have been with you guys. I played and then I got off stage and somebody said to me — they thought they were really giving me a compliment — “Man, you were so good, I was expecting just the normal girl-with-a-guitar routine, but that was really good.” If you think that’s a compliment, that’s crazy. I think that gets into your head, where you’re like, am I just like, quote unquote girl with a guitar, and it’s just like, so who fucking cares if you are? If you’re good at playing your instrument, you’re good at singing and you believe what you sing and fucking go for it. Anyway, I get the nervousness that comes with not having someone else on stage, to be there when you fuck up. But also, if you do fuck up, people love that shit. People are like, “Oh my gosh, she’s so human. She had to retune her guitar!”

Jenn: Look at her being human! I also think you were a hundred percent correct that I have been haunted by the specter of being just a girl with a guitar or whatever for my entire career, and that’s the thing that really fucks with my head. I have been so afraid of being reduced to that, and I just feel like so many of the decisions that I’ve made have revolved around me feeling that, so I have to constantly prove to other people that I can do other things all the time. I do think that it’s influenced the choices I make about my music and the way that I perform it. It’s feeling as though I have to show that I’m capable of more than just singing and playing the songs that I write. Which, fuck, that should be enough. Because honestly, when It comes down to it, that’s fucking everything. That’s what people connect to. That’s the kind of art that actually really lives with people and affects their lives and makes them feel things.

You can catch Flock of Dimes and Madeline Kenney on tour this month along the West Coast:

4/23 – Los Angeles, CA – Moroccan Lounge
4/24 – San Francisco, CA – Swedish American Hall
4/27 – Seattle, WA – Fremont Abbey
4/28 – Portland, OR – Mississippi Studios
4/30 – Whidbey Island – House Show

Jenn Wasner is a songwriter, musician, producer and human being. She has released solo music as Flock of Dimes and collaborates with others as a member of Wye Oak and Dungeonesse. She is alive, at work and at play in the city of Durham, NC. You can follow her on Twitter here.