LEFT OF THE DIAL In the spring of 2013, Jenn Wasner found herself at an unexpected crossroads.
As one half of Wye Oak, the singer-guitarist had been touring the country nearly nonstop following the critical success of Civilian, the album that shoved the then-five-year-old indie guitar band into the national spotlight. Brooding, heavily melodic, equal parts pretty and cinematically noisy, the title track was soaked through with Wasner's moody guitar tone, unmistakable technical chops, and her vulnerable yet powerful voice. If you watched any TV in 2011, chances are you heard it — the band licensed it to a number of shows. ("We had been working for years and years, and for whatever reason everything kind of culminated around Civilian, so we decided to say yes to every opportunity that presented itself," she says.)
But staring down the band's first real down time in two years, Wasner sat down to write new material, and found that she wanted nothing to do with the sound with which Wye Oak had just hit the big time.
"It was a difficult time for a lot of reasons. We were both exhausted. And I just discovered that there was a real air of negativity that surrounded music that sounded like the music we'd been playing for two years," says Wasner. "It was really hard to feel inspired or compelled to work that way again. There was all this emotional baggage associated with the guitar, and because that was how I'd always written in the past, it became a block." She spent a few months considering the possibility that this meant the band was over, that there would be no new album, before she realized something: She was allowed to write whatever kind of music she damn well pleased.
"I let go of a lot of expectations about what this album was allowed to sound like, a lot of expectations I had about pleasing other people," she says. "I went, 'You know what? Make the record that you want to make.'"
Turns out, she probably shouldn't have worried. For most Wye Oak fans, the record she wanted to make — Shriek, out April 29 on Merge — is a far cry from a disappointment. It is decidedly, almost defiantly different: Wasner has traded her guitar for synths, picking up a bass while she's at it. Gone is the swirling storm cloud of reverb; in its place are electro-R&B grooves, with percussionist and keyboard player Andy Stack now also carrying the lion's share of melody.
These are kids who grew up listening to Janet Jackson, and they're letting it show. (They'll bring that party to the Bay July 12 for Phono del Sol.)
Around each element, however, also sits an unfamiliar amount of breathing room — a sparseness that allows Wasner's vocals, sounding more confident than ever, to break through in a way we haven't heard before.
"It's been a really long process feeling comfortable with my own voice," she says. "I spent a lot of time trying to obscure my voice, and change it, and hide it...those were aesthetic decisions, but it also came down to feeling detached from it. That's definitely changed in the past couple years: I've started caring for my voice, practicing, treating it like my instrument, embrace the fact that I love singing.
"A lot of these melodies are specifically crafted to be more open," she adds. "It's a more vulnerable position to be coming from, but it feels good to do." Live, she's dealt with the fact that it's much more difficult to sing and play the bass at the same time than rhythm guitar — but that too is a good thing. "Being challenged is what keeps it interesting."