Since relocating to Durham from her lifelong home of Baltimore two years ago, Jenn Wasner has been getting used to her change of scenery. She's been adapting to new people, new places, new noises, new sights. Sometimes, these discoveries have come unexpectedly, as on one occasion when she stepped outside for an errand and was startled by a visitor.
"Something big and hard and large fell out of the sky, right in front of me," she says. "I looked down, and it was a fucking snake!"
The rogue wildlife encounter was a jarring reminder of Wasner's change of environment: a serpent falling at her feet from on high wasn't the kind of thing she'd encountered in her hometown (though it isn't exactly common here, either). But in the short time she's lived in Durham, Wasner has experienced a necessary, refreshing shock to her creative practice.
Wasner has spent the last decade or so as one half of Wye Oak, issuing moody rock albums on Merge Records. More recently, she's struck out on a sunnier, more electropop-inclined endeavor with her solo project, Flock of Dimes. She lives in a small, heavily wooded neighborhood that's roughly equidistant from the centers of Durham and Chapel Hill, though it's technically within Durham city limits. Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn of Sylvan Esso once lived on the same narrow gravel road, and after a tour with Wasner in the spring of 2015, they mentioned to her that the house next door was available to rent. It was a lightbulb moment for Wasner.
"At that point, I realized that I could afford to live alone in a house in the woods here and still be around friends, but have a place like that all to myself. That was something that I really never allowed myself before," she says. "I kind of impulsively jumped on it."
- Photo by Alex Boerner
Living alone in a new city was a big leap for Wasner, who says that for most of her life she expected to stay in Baltimore forever. Though she'd long wanted to live alone, the financial and logistical constraints of living in a major metropolitan area made that impossible. She was used to the consistent low din of life in a bigger city, and was, at first, spooked by the unsettling peace and quiet of suburban life.
But that original impulse has been paying off in more ways than Wasner can count. For one, she no longer feels limited by the expectations of people who've known her forever. Though it's comforting to have a long-running history with people, she says, that same long history can make life much more complicated.
"When you're in a place for your entire life, so much of your identity revolves around being known by the people in your immediate vicinity, people you interact with every day. You're a known quantity by pretty much everyone," she says. Being the new person in town, she says, has freed her from the burdensome interpersonal elements that limit her creativity.
"It allows me to think about who I want to be today, and not necessarily who I always have been," she says.
Wasner's personal growth has done wonders for her creative side, too. She says that at the height of her busiest touring schedules and living in warehouses in Baltimore, she lived a hypersocial life that resulted her in forgetting how to carve out the space she needed for her art. She fell into patterns of too much social input and not enough personal output, resulting in a backlog of unexpressed ideas. Those patterns were often compounded by guilt—Wasner felt as though she were selling herself short, not being productive enough, and not doing her best work.
Living in a big city with multiple roommates also meant that Wasner had to work around several other schedules in order to get the unrestricted time she needed to work on songs. But now she's got the time and space—a spare bedroom that she's converted into a compact personal studio—to do whatever she wants. She can get up in the middle of the night and record drum parts, or work out a vocal melody as she cooks dinner for herself.
"Knowing that there's no one around to observe what you're doing opens your brain up to possibility in a way that, if there's any sort of inhibition whatsoever, most of these things will just be lost to you," she says.
These days, it's more important than ever for Wasner to hang on to those moments, as she's at the forefront of two more-or-less full-time projects. A year ago, she and her Wye Oak bandmate, Andy Stack, issued Tween, an eight-song collection of material that didn't make it onto the band's 2011 album Civilian or 2014's Shriek; they're currently at work on yet another full-length record. And last September, Wasner released her first LP as Flock of Dimes, If You See Me, Say Yes, a resplendent clutch of songs that are open-hearted and easygoing.
- Photo by Alex Boerner
In addition to her immediate recording projects, Wasner continues to hone her long-term artistic vision. She's been working on giving herself even more room to grow, and in that process, learning how to be kinder to herself.
"I'm quintessentially too hard on myself. It's something I'm learning and trying to work on," she says.
To combat her harsh inner critic, Wasner has begun approaching her work with a focus on creating something just for the joy of making it. She recognizes the value of self-editing and clarity, tools that she uses in her efforts to further sharpen her songs; she wants the rest of the world to see her as she sees herself. To that end, rather than getting frustrated when someone misinterprets her work, Wasner has adopted a music-making mantra: "It's not their job to understand you, it is your job to make yourself understood." And whether she's in North Carolina for the long haul or not, it seems as though the lessons Wasner has learned—and will continue to learn—are going to stick.
"I've learned to rely more on myself for my sense of happiness and well-being. I wouldn't trade that for anything," she says.
"I feel like that's something I'll probably take with me wherever I end up, from here on out."
This article appeared in print with the headline "A Flock of One."