Interview: Dungeonesse

Barry Walters

By Barry Walters

on 05.17.13 in Interviews

Jenn Wasner is the Leslie Knope of pop. Not only does the Wye Oak frontwoman’s speaking voice resemble that of Amy Poehler’s beloved Parks and Recreation character, but she also has a similar earnest thoroughness about her: Just about every point in her account of how she made the transformation from indie-rock singer to dance-pop siren in Dungeonesse — her new project with fellow multi-instrumentalist Jon Ehrens of the band White Life — needed to be edited to fit this article.

Like Knope, she’s insanely proud of her town, which in her case is Baltimore, where she and Ehrens live in a tightly knit community. Ehrens’s dad even works with the father of Andy Stack, Wasner’s partner in Wye Oak. The Dungeonesse duo’s friendship began when Ehrens’s band Art Department opened up for Wasner and Stack at their first CD release show when Wye Oak were still calling themselves Monarch. As she explains below, Dungeonesse is an outgrowth of their goal to become a songwriting and production team for other singers. During their conversation with eMusic, Ehrens dropped out from technical difficulties, but Wasner more than compensated.

How did Dungeonesse begin?

Jenn Wasner: Dungeonesse is what I’ve referred to as a pen-pal pop band. I was touring like a crazy person with Wye Oak, and Jon had just moved to Los Angeles, so we were either on opposite coasts or god-knows-where, but we’ve always been mutually interested in each other’s songwriting. At some point Jon sent me tracks that he had been making in L.A. He was trying to find some starlet out in California to do them and I was like, “No, let me do it!” Jon made the tracks on his busted-ass laptop, and I recorded them on mine, and we sent them back and forth. After a while, we realized it wasn’t just a fun little thing, and that we were actually making a record, one that we were excited about. Thus Dungeonesse was born!

Your album may be Secretly Canadian’s most mainstream-accessible release yet. How did Dungeonesse sign to this quintessential indie label?

Wasner: I have this solo project Flock of Dimes, and I was on tour with my good friend Sharon Van Etten last spring. Sharon’s on Jagjaguwar, so all the Secretly Canadian label folk came to our show in Cincinnati. Chris Swanson, one of the main honchos, was there. He was in the green room watching a video of The-Dream. So being the loud, obnoxious person I am, I walked up to him, and was like, “Oh shit, The-Dream, that’s my shit!” So we start taking about our favorite pop music and over the course of the night, we have a few drinks. And by the end of the night, I had enough to say, “You know, I make pop music!” and so I played him some of the songs. The next day, I’m like, “I’m a drunk idiot.” But I got a really nice email from Chris saying how much he liked the songs. So we sent over what we had, which was basically this record, and he wanted to put it out. Even looking back on it now, it seems like a bit of a miracle.

Do you consider this a side project, or is this now the main thing for both of you and your other work is on hiatus?

Wasner: I’m now deep in the writing game for Wye Oak and deep in the mixing game for Flock of Dimes and Jon’s always makin’ some shit. I don’t think we have any desire to limit ourselves or even necessarily focus on one thing above another. One of the problems I had with being on tour so much — traveling all over, feeling really distraught — was that I had been limiting myself to a small window of creative expression. I played the same songs off the same record every single night, and regardless of how strongly you may feel about any material that you have to repeat to that extent — it’s limiting for me, I’ll just say that. Why limit yourself? The best part of [being a musician] is making new things.

How did the songwriting for this album differ from your previous projects?

Wasner: A couple of these songs came to me fully formed. “Drive You Crazy” and “This Could Be Home” were songs that Jon pretty much completed and I just tried to interpret as my own. But for the most part, I would receive tracks from Jon and I would do in the pop universe what’s called the top line. In a lot of ways it freed me up melodically and lyrically to do what I thought was best and most appropriate for the songs and to use my voice to its fullest potential, which is something maybe I’ve shied away from. I love to sing pop music, but I’ve always disguised my voice in other projects.

Jon Ehrens: This is the first time I would write the baking track and make all the chord changes happen before I knew what the melody was.

Several of the songs have a “This is what I am” message to them. In “Drive You Crazy,” you’re serving notice that anyone who hooks up with you may be seeking psychiatric assistance.

Ehrens: At the very least!

Wasner: If they’re lucky!

Have you ever said as much on a date? Like, “I’m gonna mess you up so you better brace yourself?”

Ehrens: I won’t say that upfront but I will say something weird.

People often associate guitars with reality and synthesizers with escape. Is your work with Wye Oak autobiographical, and is this your alter-ego?

Wasner: With a band like Wye Oak, it’s a very heart-on-sleeve style of songwriting and I think sometimes people confuse that with it being “me.” People who’re familiar with what I’ve done in the past may be inclined to assume that Dungeonesse is more of a persona, more of a costume, but if you’re driving around in the car with me, nine times out of 10 I’m playing modern Top 40, rap, and R&B, or the Grown & Sexy radio station that plays Barry White and disco music, and I’m singing along with it at the top of my lungs.

Were there particular new or old songs that acted as models for what you did with this record?

Wasner: On the modern end, Usher’s “Climax” has moved me to tears on more than one occasion. Miguel’s “Adorn,” that’s fucking amazing. Jon and I are really big fans of Robyn; she’s done totally transcendent songs that will stand the test of time. I love Kanye West and “Runaway” in particular. It gives me chills. As far as older stuff, how do I even begin? I’ve been listening to — no, I shouldn’t even say it because I’m planning on covering it! I listen to a lot of Teena Marie and Aaliyah. I think about Arthur Russell a lot actually. He transcended genre and was all over the place; his disco records are some of my favorite things he’s done. Ariel Pink is amazing: “Round and Round” is one of the best pop songs of the last 25 years, easy.

Do you agree that the recession has made DIY more a part of American culture than it’s been in decades?

Wasner: I think that a lot of people are taking the creation of pop music into their own hands, and it’s not as tightly controlled by a small corporate minority of incredibly rich and morally suspect people as it used to be. I’m all for the masses taking this style back and reclaiming it because it ideally should be made by the people that it’s made for — and that’s everybody.

Neither Jon nor I have the desire to be a pop star. Especially not me — that just seems like a nightmare. Performing is something I’ve had to work at to get good at, and I’m still not entirely comfortable with it. I’m not a dancer. I’m not a fashion plate. I don’t mind being on stage but don’t think it’s my true calling. But I could totally see myself, and I think Jon does similarly, as someone working behind the scenes and making the best songs that we can, even if we’re not the ones getting up on stage and singing them.

Your transition from indie rock to pop isn’t unprecedented. Greg Kurstin of the Bird and the Bee started in Geggy Tah, an arty band on David Byrne’s record label, and now he’s producing or songwriting and/or playing on every pop and rock record from Pink to Foster the People.

Wasner: I’m going to be totally honest with you and say that is my absolute 100 percent ideal dream situation. If I can continue making weird records for myself, perform only when I want to, and make pop songs for other people that have huge audiences, I think I’d be the happiest. That’s not to say that I want to give up being an artist, but it would be great if I didn’t have to rely on that. I wouldn’t have to tour myself into the ground to make a living. Like most people, I want to be stable. I want to have a home and have belongings and live in a city and see my friends and my boyfriend.

You sometimes have a slight country twang to your singing voice.

Wasner: I was born in West Baltimore and grew up just over the county line. The creative community is unparalleled and I am a proud and grateful resident of Baltimore and a proud member of this small but really supportive community. I love it here. There’s no other place I’d rather be. I’m just grateful that I don’t sing with a Baltimore accent ’cause that thing is a nightmare.

Divine aside, I can’t imagine the people who populate John Waters movies singing pop songs.

Wasner: Oh, they’re real. That’s not an exaggeration. That’s Baltimore.