Jenn Wasner, the North Carolina-based singer of Wye Oak, documents her life avidly, but keeps the results to herself. Her phone is full of snapshots, many of which she deemed too private for public viewing. When we asked her to share some photos from her life on tour, in the studio, and those increasingly few hours in-between, she was skeptical: “This was kind of surprisingly hard for me. I have a phone full of dumb shit, but as I realized as I was going through my photos, I’m kind of weirdly private about a lot of things in my life,” she explains from a van en route to South By Southwest last month, where her band—along with Andy Stack—will be playing in order to promote their new LP, The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs. “I like to keep my personal life to myself. There were a lot of photos I didn’t want to talk about, but I tried to find ones that gave me something to say. I tried to push myself to let some things out into the world that I wasn’t super comfortable with,” she adds.
Wasner’s collection consists of personal reminders to be a better person, exotic tour locales, and a strangely erotic book about ghosts. When Wasner discusses these pictures, she has a relentless energy and infectious excitement, the same sort of qualities that infuse her body of work in Wye Oak. The first photo in this collection is a phrase which Wasner has chosen as a mantra for her band: “It takes courage to believe in chaos.”
JENN WASNER: I tend to be really attracted to real world mantras I find scattered around. This particular photo is from a place called Meow Wolf in Santa Fe. I remember taking that picture specifically because I spent a good portion of that day…It’s very easy to fall into a deep existential pit while driving through the desert. I’m particularly susceptible to that kind of thinking, but especially when on tour and you’re cut off from routine, stability, your family, and friends; all the things you use to anchor your life. I had been thinking about that all day on the way to Meow Wolf, and when I saw that it just instantly struck me.
WASNER: That is from one of the more magical day-offs we’ve ever had on tour as a band. I think we had played in Milwaukee or something. We had a day off in Wisconsin and I had heard from friends over the years about this place called House on the Rock. The hotel we stayed out was directly across the street from this crazy motel called The Don Q Inn. They parked this airplane in the front yard of the hotel in the middle-of- nowhere-Wisconsin and it was just sitting there. You could go in and explore. It felt like a magical discovery we stumbled across.
WASNER: That’s another real-world mantra I discovered at another really opportune moment. That was taken not long after the great election of 2016 disaster took place. We were on tour at the time. I was one of those deluded people who just didn’t see it coming. We played a show that night and it was one of the more miserable tour times I can think of. It was sinking into this feeling of, ‘Why am I doing this incredibly selfish and self-serving thing when there are so many bigger problems to deal with.’ I was really beating up on myself for not having done more. I was feeling incredibly bleak. I got that fortune and it was so direct and abrupt. It’s so easy and tempting to fall into that mindset of ‘Why bother? Everything’s fucked.’ But that’s how things fall into disrepair. It’s so much more valuable to have some sort of hope in the face of those circumstances. It’s a reminder I really needed and a reminder I still need.
WASNER: They had an Arthur Russell exhibit at BAM in Brooklyn. It was sheet music, personal affects, and unreleased music. I traveled to New York specifically to see that show because I’m a superfan. It was 1,000% worth it. There are few artists in history who have been more moving and important to me than Arthur Russell.
WASNER: The man in that picture is Jonathan Meiburg from Shearwater. I chose this photo because I get to brag about the one time I was legitimately psychic in my life. During the recording of The Louder I Call… I was in Marfa. We finished up a week of recording and I was flying back to North Carolina but I had a layover in Austin. Jonathan’s from Austin but he’s lived in New York for a long time. As I was on the plane flying to Austin I had this deep, weird, heart-cracking open creative flow moment and I started writing furiously. I ended up writing words that were added to “Say Hello.” I landed in Austin with some time to kill and off the cuff for no particular reason texted Jonathan like, “Any chance you’re in the Austin airport right now?” And he fucking was! It was really weird and we were both really freaked out.
WASNER: That’s me and Andy [Stack] and John Congleton. He mixed Civilian and The Louder I Call…He’s a really great guy and a really great friend and a really talented and inventive person. He got a package in the mail and he was like, ‘Oh, someone sent me a book!’ And it was a copy of The Pregnant Ghost and Other Sexual Hauntings, which, I can say from the little bit of time I spent reading it during mixing, really lives up to its title.
WASNER: This is actually from pretty recently. I was sick and exhausted and really leaning into the sloth. I made my boyfriend get me jelly donuts so I could eat them in bed. I included this photo because I’d like to put it out in the universe: If someone reads this, I would really love a realistic oil painting of me in bed with a dozen jelly donuts.
WASNER: This is from White Sands in New Mexico. This is where our album art, video, and a bunch of our photos were shot. White Sands is an absolutely gorgeous place. It’s an invert, a void of a place. There’s nowhere else I’ve ever been that plays with your perception of distance and space the way it does. As we were shooting these things we were wandering deeper and deeper into the dunes and we had to make these arrows for us to find our way back. It’s so easy to get totally swept up in it.
WASNER: This is at Marfa Recording Company. That was with our engineer and front-of- house person extraordinaire Brandon Eggleston. He flew down to Marfa to help Andy and I get our initial tracks and not go totally insane during this recording process. I do a lot of goofy stretches. That’s pretty typical. I think that’s the first day we got sounds for this record.
WASNER: This was in LA. I immediately knew I fucking loved it. There’s something about the phrase ‘emotional intelligence’ being spray painted on a literal can of garbage was just a perfect representation of how much value a sense of emotional intelligence has in our shitty culture. Someone’s just throwing it out with the trash. It also felt like this secret, weird Jenny Holzer piece. I just thought the juxtaposition of that phrase on an actual pile of garbage was just too good to me.
WASNER: I think this is the funniest thing in the world. The absolute pinnacle of my sense of humor: the fact that Faulkner’s grave has a Yelp page and it has 3 and ½ stars. It’s the kind of funny that you almost can’t even laugh at. You curl up in a ball and your eyes tear up. It’s so insane to me. We discovered that when we were in Oxford, Mississippi. I’m a huge Faulkner fan so we went to go find it. It was after a show and we were all a little drunk, so it was really hard to find the grave, which we eventually did. I was very happy to have found the grave, but even happier to have found the Yelp review. Our world is trash. If you die and write some of the best books in history, you can be rewarded with a mediocre Yelp review.
WYE OAK’S LATEST RECORD THE LOUDER I CALL, THE FASTER IT RUNS IS OUT NOW ON MERGE.