Wilderness, the new album from Jen Wood, is a powerful collection of piano-based pop songs that showcase a refreshingly bold and vibrant voice; one unlike we’ve heard since her last release in 2010. Wilderness is rich in swells of beautiful soundscapes, gritty electronic melodies and a haunting timbre that slowly moves throughout.
But, to call Wood a veteran indie songstress is a bit of an understatement. With a career spanning more than two decades, and collaborations with Jeremy Enigk and the Postal Service, indie rock fans worldwide have certainly been exposed to Wood’s artful vocals.
The driving force of Wood’s current sound highlights Gameboy/Chiptune melodies; composed by musician Andy Myers (Stenobot, Supercommuter), shaping Wood’s songs into the electronic/digital realm, one she isn’t completely unfamiliar with. The percussion arrangements took months of rehearsals, while Wood closely worked with drummer Alex Westcoat (Pickwick, Dave Bazan) to create dynamically interesting beats that melded perfectly with the feeling of each song; the thoughtfulness of the arrangements on Wilderness is undeniable. Wilderness was recorded in a host of locations with producer Joshua Myers (Jeremy Enigk, Rosie Thomas), including London Bridge Studio, Studio Litho, and two different home studios.
Ghettoblaster recently caught up with Wood, who released Wilderness in mid-October via Radar Light and New Granada, to discuss her artistic vision for Wilderness, Coldplay, past collaborations, and sleeping on my couch.
Did you have an idea of what Wilderness should be before you started writing for the project? Was there some sort of grand artistic vision for it?
I definitely knew from the get-go that I wanted this album to be very dynamically powerful and complex; writing songs on the piano brought out an entirely new voice for me which was a wonderful surprise. As I wrote the songs I was always writing drum beats in my head…. I had a specific sound and feel that I wanted from the percussion aspect. I was pulling inspiration from the rythmic beats and stomping 4-on-the-floor vibe on the Arcade Fire records… they have this way of crafting their songs to sound like they are always going into battle; I love the intensity of it. I also went through a Kings of Leon phase and I kind of fell in love with Caleb Followill’s gritty voice; he inspired me to push my voice to an edge that I hadn’t been to before really… I wanted to add some gravel and grit to my voice, I wanted to be as real as I possibly could be about the way I was feeling and what I was trying to communicate but the challenge was I wanted to make a record that sounded “big” without losing the sincerity amongst all the sonic layers. I also pulled inspiration from Peter Gabriel, Bon Iver and… yep, Coldplay… there I said it, Coldplay.
Andy Myers helped you bring an electronic/digital feel to your songs. What was it about Andy that made him the right collaborator for this project?
Honestly, at first, asking Andy to collaborate was an experiment. I wasn’t sure if it was going to work, but I was excited to take an artistic risk and see what happened. I already had worked with Andy on his Chiptune/Gameboy music (Stenobot and Supercommuter) and I thought he was a total genius. I knew I wanted an electronic element to this album, and he seemed like the perfect candidate to recruit! This album was all about me taking creative risks and being really open to letting other people be a part of shaping my vision; I wanted to let go more. I sent him a few demo songs for him to just play with… and when he sent them back to me with what he’d written, I loved it. His melodies totally shifted my songs into a new and exciting direction.
You’re not really a stranger to this type of project — the integration of traditional songwriting with electronic sounds — as you contributed to The Postal Service record once upon a time. Were you involved in the reunion activities for that record at all?
I sang with them on their 10th reunion tour at the Key Arena in Seattle – that was the first time I ever got to sing with them live! I was so very happy to be able to do that and to see all those rad people again; it had been at least 8 years since I’d seen most of the band. The minute I walked up on stage for soundcheck I was greeted with smiles and big hugs, they made me feel so welcome and accepted… It was a pretty profound and surreal experience for me. I’m really grateful they invited me to be a part of it.
You also worked with Alex Westcoat on Wilderness. What is it about his playing that leant itself to these songs?
Alex is the most intuitive drummer I’ve ever worked with. He had the technical and emotional depth to help craft a strong platform for my songs to stand on. What was so great is that Alex actually listened to what my vision was for each song; I would tell him the vibe I was going for or I would give him a loose idea of a drum beat and he would take that information and create the most amazingly perfect parts.
On “Where Real Love Is” you address your experiences with the Christian church. Do you practice a faith today?
That song is partially about Mark Driscoll and how his toxic and oppressive agenda not only impacted the larger community here in my hometown (Seattle) but also how he personally damaged people that I love and respect, who at one time were entangled in Driscolls’ horrible, ugly web. I always knew that it was just a matter of time before that place went up in flames; it was a house of cards. My heart goes out to people who got caught up in his evil and manipulative tactics… I hope that over time they will find healing and peace amongst good, honest people.
No, I don’t practice any specific faith. I’m definitely a spiritual person, but I have my own unique take on things. I don’t normally like to talk about my beliefs because I’m very sensitive to other’s beliefs/feelings around religion (because organized religion has severely wounded a lot of good people) and to me, it’s a really private and personal issue. I like to be cautious and sensitive to what other’s beliefs are. I was raised by two Moms back before it was socially more accepted, and the beliefs within mainstream church at that time were very hurtful to my Moms and to my family. We as a family personally had to defend ourselves against bigotry and hatred, luckily we live in a fairly liberal and progressive city, so we didn’t have to experience hate and condemnation on a constant basis. Most of the time, we felt safe and felt like we had a strong community of loving and accepting people around us. However, Driscoll came around and suddenly started changing the culture here (poisoning it) in Seattle… it was really hard for me because it put me on the defense, where I felt like I was having to defend my Moms for being gay. The whole thing was such a mess and I am relieved he is gone from our community.
The record was recorded in several different studios. Did the record require that variety and change of scenery? Was that part of the process purposeful?
Some of it was intentional. We knew we wanted to track the drums at London Bridge studio and the piano at Litho. Due to a limited budget, being an unsigned (indie) artist, we had to record the rest of the record at small home studios, which worked out perfectly.
Wilderness was also released in Japan. Do you have plans to bring your songs to Japanese fans in a live setting?
The label (& Records) has extended a formal invitation for me to tour in Japan, but at this time there are no solid plans. I’m more interested in doing some mini tours in the U.S first and then maybe going to Japan. I loved touring in Japan in 2004, seriously one of the best tours I’ve ever done, but it’s a very expensive journey, and so it’ll have to wait. Unless I win the lotto.
Are you touring the U.S. as a part of this album cycle?
I want to for sure! Nothing is planned yet, but I’m hoping that I’ll be invited to tour with some other bands…. I need to put the word out. I miss touring! I don’t have a manager or booking agent, so these types of big plans take more work. I’m hopeful some cool things will happen in 2015. Who wants to take me on tour with them?!
It has been decades since you released No More Wading and I imagine you’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way. What are some of those that have changed you at your core for the better, both artistically and personally?
Artistically, I think I’ve finally learned to really trust my instincts and value the gifts and talents that I’ve been given. I spent a lot of time doubting myself and letting fear of failure and/or success impinge on my forward momentum. I was always creating music from a place of vulnerability, and sometimes after I would make a record, I actually was too afraid to follow through and let people see me perform the songs. When I look back, I can see the patterns now and how I sabotaged the very thing I created and loved because I was afraid of being rejected and/or misunderstood etc. I would sort of always just go halfway to the finish line and then I would run the other direction and try and hide from the world… sometimes the pain and sorrow I was writing about and/or experiencing was almost too much for me to even deal with. Not to sound dramatic, but its true. I’ve also always sort of been a loner and I used to try and do everything by myself… because I’d been hurt a lot in my past, unfortunately I learned early to not trust people, so I got scared off easily… I wanted to love and be loved but I kept people at a safe distance; this also really made it hard for me to want or even know how to be a part of a “team” … it’s sad, I just ran away a lot… even from people who genuinely cared about me and wanted to help me. It was my survival instinct, my self-defense mechanism. I know I’m not alone in this either, and it is something that people like me can overcome.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found more confidence and strength within myself and I don’t want to go halfway on things anymore. I really want to see a project to full completion. I want to trust people more, not less, and I want to be a part of a team, a family, and experience the love and joy that comes from that. I think as I’ve learned to be more forgiving of myself, my mistakes and flaws, it’s allowed me to be better at extending that same forgiveness to people around me. That has been very healing. I’ve learned to stay, to stick around and not keep running. At first it was terrifying, I had to face a lot of my demons and ghosts from my past. It’s been a long process, but I put the work into it because I knew I needed/wanted to make a change in order to be a happier and healthier person. I want to honor myself and my dreams. I want to love what I create, not destroy it. I want to continue to inspire people with a message of hope and love. I also want to keep taking creative risks. This album was so fun and rewarding to make because it felt like I was making something new, I was making art, not just another record.
You’ve also collaborated with Jeremy Enigk in the past, right? Do you have plans for future collaboration with him?
Yeah, I sang on his record “World Waits”, which is in my opinion one of his best solo albums. There are no plans to collaborate, but we’ve joked about it and it’d be great to work with him again. Maybe I should ask him about it again J
We actually crossed paths in real life when you were on tour with Aveo. You guys spent the night in my basement and camping in my backyard in Dayton, Ohio. Do you recall that? Do you still rub elbows with the folks from Aveo?
Wow! That is amazing! I vaguely do recall that… what a fun tour that was! I don’t ever see the Aveo guys, but we’re all in contact via facebook … William (the leadsinger/guitarist) is the one who I’ve mainly kept in touch with, but he lives in Sweden and has lived there for years now. I did get to see Aveo play their reunion show in Seattle about three years ago and they were awesome! He sent me some demo songs a couple years ago and of course they were great. I really wish he would make another record!
(Listen to Jen Wood here: http://jenwood.bandcamp.com/.)