Wye Oak on the Benefits of Radical Vulnerability

While not formally associated with Wham City, the well-known Baltimore art collective, Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack have long been friends and associates of that crew and the Baltimore music scene in general. Ben O'Brien and Alan Resnick of Wham City made a video for “The Tower,” a track from 2014's Shriek, as well as videos for other Baltimore-based artists like Dan Deacon and Beach House.

From early on, Wye Oak has evolved its sound and pushed its creative output in new directions. From the diverse songwriting styles of its 2007 debut, If Children, to its new album, Tween, Wye Oak seems to have been guided by an openness of emotional and creative spirit that has allowed the band to follow an intuitive path and avoid getting trapped in a particular style. Its only real tradition has been to challenge itself in trying out new ideas and being willing to rethink the bandmembers' roles within the creative process. On stage, Wasner and Stack have their roles in place, but on recordings, Stack has played guitar solos that Wasner has played live, and Wasner has played drums on several recorded songs that Stack has then learned for the shows.

One idea that has informed Wasner's approach to operating as a human being and as a performer is the concept of “radical vulnerability.”

“That's one of my many mantras that I try to incorporate into my life at all times,” Wasner says. “I honestly think it's the secret of everything I do, and it's empowering, because if you think about your vulnerability as your strength and if you think of the fact that it's what people connect with in you and it allows you to connect with them, it's like using your vulnerability as your greatest strength.”

Wasner seems to welcome experiences that test cognitive orientation in how she and Stack record and perform as multi-instrumentalists, and in playing unusual gigs like her solo show — playing as Flock of Dimes in the baggage-claim area of Baltimore-Washington International Airport in 2006.

“I loved doing it because it was powerful playing music and singing in front of people with absolutely none of those barriers typically in place for a normal show,” Wasner says. “I often wonder what it would be like to play in front of a group of people minus the lights, the stage and sound system that typically go into putting on a show. Could I be entertaining? Would people find it interesting or compelling? When it worked, it was so gratifying, and when it didn't, it was pretty devastating.”

The new album Tween is not a traditional album nor quite an “odds and sods” collection. The songs were written between the release of 2011's Civilian and 2014's Shriek. The demos had been sitting around and could probably have been sequestered to a release on some future boxed set or collection of unreleased tracks. But Wye Oak took those songs and finished them up, using the production techniques the duo had learned while making the more electronic Shriek. The result doesn't have the thematic cohesion of the band's other albums and yet works as an album with an ineffable line of unity between its divergent moods and modes. The approach, nonetheless, speaks to the band's willingness to break its own usual methods — perhaps a radical vulnerability to one's own creative process as well as toward the people one encounters every day. Wasner also sees the composition of the album as a cognate of a literary concept.

“I've always approached the record-making process as this weird, intuitive, instinctive process of trying to understand what ties certain songs together,” Wasner says. “It's rare that we just kind of throw the last ten songs we wrote together and call it a record. There's something thematic and associative that ties it all together and makes it cohesive. These songs never felt like they had that or didn't have what those songs had on the other records. I use the metaphor of how making a record is like writing a novel. These songs are more a collection of short stories.”

Wye Oak with Tushka, Friday, July 8, 9 p.m., Bluebird Theater, 720-865-2494, $18-20, 16+.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.