Flock of Dimes: "The most beautiful part of the process is always the imagining"

We catch up with the inimitable Jenn Wassner in the afterglow of the release of her most profound record yet.
Posted: 13 April 2021 Words: John Bell Photos: Graham Tolbert

"I can see it all now", realises Flock of Dimes' Jenn Wasner on "2 Heads"—the icy, coruscating opener of her second solo full-length Head of Roses. "The world beyond my knowing / Bodies that I drag around / While going through the motions / Devoid of every instinct / The spirit is not willing". For Wasner, perhaps like many of us, it took the 2020 global standstill to finally let the shadows of her past and soul catch up with her. 

A prolific writer and collaborator, the Baltimore-born multi-instrumentalist has always been involved in one project or another, be that her own (Wye Oak, Dungeonesse), or as part of the likes of Dirty Projectors, Sharon Van Etten, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus or Titus Andronicus. She was about to head out on a huge stadium tour as a member of Bon Iver before the world shut down and confined her to her apartment. Coinciding with a particularly hard break-up, Wasner was finally, truly alone.  

In many ways then, Head of Roses is Wasner at her most solitary and honest. But as on last year's EP Like So Much Desire (which made our Top 10 list), built on top of her characteristic textural swirls and swells, the idea of the self is considered in the plural, questioning the extent to which we can ever truly understand ourselves separately from those that make us feel alive and help define us in the first place ("Can I be one / Can we be two?"), and by extension, taking these lessons into a wider, social context. 

We spoke with Wasner about the personal value in creating Head of Roses, the importance of collaboration and the inspiration behind the feeling of failure inherent to the creative process.

First of all, I love this album. Although it’s typically dynamic and unpredictable, it feels more grounded, with a little more grit and presence than on your debut If You See Me, Say Yes, which felt more smoky and ethereal. Do you think that’s a fair distinction? If so, I’m interested why you think this difference came to be.

Honestly, I’m probably not the best judge of what my records sound and feel like to others, as I don’t have much in the way of perspective at this point. But I do feel as though I know enough to say that they’re quite different from one another, and the process of making them couldn’t have felt more different, too. It might sound obvious, but I think it’s impossible to really make the same kind of record twice—I am intertwined with my work, and I’m always growing and changing as a person, acquiring experiences, and refining my skills as a writer/producer/instrumentalist—so I think it stands to reason that the things I make are going to need to evolve along with me. 

How did you pick the singles—that all sound very different to each other—to take on the task of teasing this new album and the kind of work it is?

Honestly, the process of choosing singles was harder or less obvious this time, because I feel extremely proud of every single song on here, and they are all so different from one another. So I tended to rely on others’ perspective a bit more this time around. I’m not always the best judge of how my songs are going to be perceived by others, so I tend to just focus on making sure the record itself, as a whole, feels how I want it to, and try to have faith that people will find their way back to that eventually. 

You’ve talked about how you always feel an element of failure, or at least the feeling of it, with each release. I was hoping you could expand on that. Is it failing the alternate routes you could have gone down when writing and finishing a song perhaps, or is it more than that?

Is this about my tweet, haha? I think what I’m referencing here is less specific and more abstract. It’s a feeling that exists in the early stages of the creative process, of chasing something, feeling a sense of infinite possibility, and trying to take steps to make that thing tangible and real. But the catch is that a real, finite object can never truly compare to the idea of something, because something that doesn’t exist in reality is exclusively possibility. It has no flaws. So there’s a part of the creative process that always feels like a failure, or at least, a bit of a let down. But of course that’s not an entirely negative experience, either, because if you truly felt like you had ultimately and fully succeeded in what you were trying to do, you’d have no desire to go back to the drawing board and try again! 

I guess what I’m getting at is that, for me at least, the most beautiful part of the process is always the imagining, when things are still a bit liminal and less tangible. I tend to want to hang out in that space for as long as I can.

Will it be a feeling you have with every record do you think? Have you learnt anything about yourself from making it—both in a practical sense of making an album, but also looking into yourself and caring and healing as you've mentioned?

I mean, what you’re describing is kind of the whole reason I do this, to be honest. To learn something about myself (and others, and the world at large) through deep and honest self-exploration, and then to share those things in a way that hopefully helps others feel seen and understood, is what the album making process is, to me. If I haven’t learned anything about myself in making a record, now that would truly feel like a failure. But I truly can’t imagine that, because there wouldn’t be any songs! It’d be like trying to make a birthday cake without flour, or something. Impossible. 

I’m guessing doing this yourself as Flock of Dimes has given you more space to do that than it might have done with some of your previous projects and collaborations?

Sure! I mean, there are certainly some things about it that I enjoy, and some things that are more challenging. Everything has its place. For me it’s about having a multitude of creative outlets, not necessarily trying to arrange them in some kind of arbitrary hierarchy. 

Though saying that, you did allow friends to help you produce the album didn’t you. What lead you to that decision do you think?

I think collaboration allows for you to transcend your limits and create something beyond what you could have imagined or been capable of making on your own. It’s an act of faith, in a way, but in many ways it’s the whole purpose of the thing. It’s not entirely unlike being a human, in general—I think learning to be in healthy relationship with others can make us better, stronger, more evolved versions of ourselves. 

How do you go about "Searching for intimacy"?

I don’t know if I’m really searching for intimacy, so much as trying to learn how to experience it naturally, in a healthy way? If you have any tips please feel free to send them my way. Right now I’m trying to focus on having a better and healthier intimate relationship with myself. 

If you don’t mind, can you talk me through this time last year when you’d recently been hit with heartbreak and then went into lockdown. Was the first step immediately to get writing? Or did it take a while of festering?

Well, with the timing of everything coinciding the way it did, I hit a pretty big wall. Without realising it, I had assembled a life in which I was very high-functioning, but also avoiding some pretty majorly uncomfortable truths about myself and my patterns. It was exceptionally difficult to face all of this at once in isolation, but it’s an experience I’m exceedingly grateful for. I’m not sure if I would have had the time and space to do the kind of deep inner work that was required of me had I not had all of my various distractions and coping mechanisms taken away all at once.

Writing is the easiest and most obvious path towards self-examination for me—I kind of never stop doing it, even if the process is not always successful. It’s a way for your front-facing, conscious mind and your subconscious to work together and reveal parts of yourself that wouldn’t have been exposed any other way. So that process was pretty much immediate. And there were many, many songs that were a part of that process that didn’t end up making it to the record—they were more stepping stones along the way. 

You also released the EP Like So Much Desire last year – how do you think it sits next to Head of Roses? It feels similarly bittersweet and cathartic as a listener.

Many of the songs on LSMD were originally meant for a FOD LP2, before I had any idea what that would look like. I think these songs were all written fairly close together and they are absolutely connected. I love the way that EP turned out, especially given the circumstances, and letting some of those songs out into the world in a different way allowed me to tell a very specific story with Head of Roses.

How do the next few months look for you now? What are you most excited for?

Oh, gosh. So many things. I’m excited to be able to see more of my friends and family safely. I’m excited to get to watch the beautiful place I live in go through another cycle of rebirth. And I’m especially excited to play music with friends.

Head of Roses is out now on Sub Pop

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