Tone Glow 033.5: Wendy Eisenberg
An interview with Wendy Eisenberg for a special midweek issue + 15 book recommendations
Wendy Eisenberg is an improvising guitarist, banjo-player, vocalist and poet. Along with performing in bands such as Editrix and Birthing Hips, Eisenberg works solo and self-released the album Dehiscence earlier this year. Later this month they will release their new album Auto on Ba Da Bing. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Eisenberg on September 25th, 2020 via phone, discussing their father, the relationship between playing guitar and their non-binary identity, and the events and influences that informed their new record.
Photo by Ellery Berenger
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello, hello!
Wendy Eisenberg: Hello!
Is this (in a squeaky voice) Wendy?
(laughs) It is!
Oh my goodness. How are you?
(laughs) I’m good!
How was your day?
My day was great. I woke up, instead of moving my car to another parking spot I went to the beach.
Whoa! What beach?
There’s this one in Red Hook that I really like.
Did you go by yourself, or were you with someone?
(laughs) No, I was with someone.
How’d that go?
It was great! It was a dream of a morning.
How long were you there for? What did you do after that?
I was there for a little bit. Then I drove my friend back to work. Then I had a little Zoomy-Skype date with someone I met when I was TA-ing at Harvard, who is a good friend. We talked about gender stuff and then listened to the test pressings for the Editrix record, and now I’m talking to you!
Oh yeah, awesome! I just finished teaching classes. I’m a little scrambled because I know next week we have a virtual open house so I have to make a video or something for that. I need to figure out the best way to make sure parents think I’m a good teacher.
They will! You’re so charming! You’ll be fine.
Whatever, whatever (laughs). I’m just a guy.
Just a guy (laughter).
Alright, let’s do this! Let me ask you this: I know you were raised in Maryland, were you born there too?
Yeah! Well, I was born in D.C. but, you know, same diff.
What’s the earliest memory you can remember of yourself that feels emblematic of growing up in Maryland?
(silence preceding long laughter).
It’s a hard question, I know!
Okay so this is immediately darkening the mood, but I have PTSD, so I have a really shitty memory from that, but something about the way you asked that made all of these beautiful memories from childhood blossom up.
Wow, well I’m happy that happened. Let’s hear one of those beautiful, blossoming memories.
That you made me remember! So yeah, I think one of the most formative, emblematic early memories was that behind our house we had all these bushes of honeysuckles. I don’t think they’re unique to Maryland at all, but one of the most formative memories from growing up was just my dad teaching me how to eat them.
Woah, that’s awesome!
Eating flowers, very Maryland.
I’ve never eaten a flower before, am I missing out?
Oh, you gotta get into it. My friend Neil has the best garden in the whole world. He makes these incredible salads and he puts flowers in them.
Amazing. I guess I have eaten flowers in dishes at restaurants, but I’ve never done it, like, on my own in the wild.
Find a honeysuckle bush, I’ll teach you! I’ll become my own father (laughter).
Are you close with your father?
Yeah, we still are.
What’s your relationship like with him? Tell me something you like about your dad, besides him teaching you how to eat honeysuckles.
(laughs). He’s an incredibly imaginative person when he lets himself be, which isn’t very often. My favorite parts of my dad, a lot of them are located in childhood because that’s when he was around a lot. My parents split when I was 11 or so. When he was there he would tell these unbelievably well illustrated stories about the Germantown witch, which was the next town over from me. There were all these evil henchmen of the Germantown witch, and these were just incredible, fabulous stories. He’s so creative, he really has a great mind for that.
He does pensions law, so he doesn’t really engage with it all that much, which is one of the total tragedies of the world, because he’s a very good storyteller.
I love how you mentioned that. I think a lot of times there are things that—and this is something I keep thinking about as I get older—I might not know I would enjoy or be good at because I may be too focused on one specific lane. Even for myself, I can’t see myself being a teacher until retirement. I feel like I would need to be doing other things. I guess you talking about your father in that way made me think about that. I guess, to turn that into a question instead of me just going on a tangent—
Not everything has to be functional!
That’s true. Even if it is a tangent, though, I feel like it is functional in terms of us just having a nice conversation.
Let me ask you this: is there something you feel like you could be good at or enjoy but have not spent a lot of time doing? It can be music related or not.
That’s a really hard question for me, because I have been so totally and monolithically focused on the possibilities of the guitar my whole life.
That’s why I wanted to ask!
That’s cool, you’re looking outside of the structure of my life. I feel like… hmm, this is cool. (thinking). I feel like I could be really good at writing fiction, and maybe that’s not taking myself too seriously when I say that because I know writing fiction is really hard, and I’m not saying that with any lightness. But I do a lot of reading of fiction. I do a lot of critical writing, and I think if I let myself be uncomfortable more actively I could make it happen.
Uncomfortable in what sense?
When you’re writing fiction you have—and people talk about this like they’re in a cult, and maybe they are—writers who do it say they let the characters be themselves, if they’re writing character-based fiction. They just follow what they do. I’m not a control freak by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think that I want things to be good. I care about the results of something being up to a certain standard, so I feel like I wouldn’t be comfortable letting my characters breathe and teaching me about themselves.
The skill that I would have to practice if I was to focus on becoming a fiction writer would have to be that freedom, letting the different parts of my brain that are not the conscious mind dictate the actions of these specters that I would be creating.
Photo by Ellery Berenger
I know there is a autobiographical element to your albums—is that why your new album is called Auto? I don’t know! But—
(laughter). There’s reasons!
How do you approach writing lyrics and how do you see that as being different from writing fiction?
With writing fiction, it’s less epigrammatic if you do it a certain way. A lot of the writers that I really like to read—like Renata Adler, Carole Maso and David Markson—they do these epigrammatic things. I’d probably end up writing that way because I’m kind of a follower I guess (laughter). When I write lyrics it’s so much about fitting them in scansion. They don’t have to rhyme, but they have to be really honest and they have to fit to a melody that is incredibly specific. I think sonically first, and then the lyrics are just kind of whatever happens. I just kind of shit them out—not to be gross—but it’s true (laughter).
Despite you shitting them out, are there any lyrics that you’re particularly proud of that you wrote for this record? Does anything come to mind? There's stuff I like, but I’m curious what you like.
Yeah, the lyrics of “Urge.” God damn… yeah, I think the lyrics to that are the best lyrics that I wrote for a while. I was really proud of them when I wrote them because they kind of fell out, and they were so fucking mean and cagey and interesting. As far as the closest, or the most accurate to the way I think in the world—as a talker—I think “Hurt People” is the most direct. I’m proud of those. I like “When I win I win a lot / When I lose I lose alone” because I like the repetitive thing of it. I also think it’s true. Maybe I hurt people more now, I don’t know. At the time I felt like there was a chapter closing on inadvertent cruelty to other people. The act of writing that song was performative in this way that let me know this time of my life where I was being less careful had closed.
Wow. It’s funny, because I actually had those two songs down as two of the three or four I thought had really great lyrics, so that’s fun. It’s interesting how you talk about how the act of writing helped you with the process of getting to where you’re at. Do you feel like the same is true when you’re writing specific instrumentation?
Yeah, I do. It happens on a more sensory level. When I’m writing something as creamy as “Urge”—it’s so smooth, you know?
You know what it reminded me of? It says, “There’s an urge I have to be the one that you despise.” It reminded me of vocal jazz, but it reminded me specifically of Julie London, during the later part of her career, the stuff people don’t really talk about. She had come into this mode, playing this stereotypical role of a woman who had fallen out of the limelight, who’s now jaded and can say whatever she wants because she doesn’t give a shit about how anyone views her. There’s still decorum because of the music, but there’s something more than that there. Sorry, I totally cut you off!
No you didn’t! Not at all!
So you said “Urge” was creamy. What about that song instrumentally told you where you were, helped you realize something?
It was about falling for someone, and all of the gestures and voices are descending. That’s a hopelessly literal interpretation of my own work, but that’s what I did I guess, so I’ll ride it out (laughter). Just the mathematical Ellingtonian thing of it seemed like it was describing and performing an old feeling. Resigning myself to something. The relationship that came out of that song… well, it didn’t really come out of the song—that’s crazy—but [the relationship the] song was describing, the beginning of it felt like that. This was somebody that I had a connection with that felt like we had known each other for a very long time. There’s an age dimension of it. I feel like that speaks to the harmony of it. That’s like ’40s, ’50s harmony.
The Julie London thing is totally on. I love people’s later records. I love 2006 Scritti Politti, [David Sylvian’s] Blemish obviously. All of these weird—this João Gilberto record from 2000 called João Voz e Violão.
Yes, I know that one!
Isn’t it incredible?
You know, I think so many of the Brazilian artists who people talk about, who are beloved, they have so many incredible albums later in their career but no one ever talks about them.
Totally, yeah. I’m into experience. I feel like when I listen to that record—which I didn’t know was a later record until I listened to his early stuff and was like, “His voice is higher!” (laughs). That was one of my first introductions to him, which was weird—a little backwards, but whatever. I was really struck by how it sounded like he was a mountain singing to me, a sexy mountain.
A sexy mountain, what does that mean?
I don’t know, like he’s been there forever. He doesn’t sound like he’s a grizzled person, he just sounds eternal in a way.
(laughter). I love that, I love that.
Oh hell yeah! Glad to rep!
Before, when you were talking about fiction works you said you see yourself as a follower. I’m wondering, with this album—and this could be with any medium of art, it could be with the lyrics, with the music, with whatever—can you talk to me in detail about the stuff that really influenced it? And then with that, tell me how you feel like you made it into something that was distinctly you.
Sure, I can try (laughs). It’s funny, before I was listening to this I was listening to my rock band [Editrix], and it’s totally different. I totally should have prepared by listening to my own work or something.
When I was writing it, the influences were just directly what was going on in my life. The text painting stuff we were talking about with “Urge” earlier, how everything musically describes what was happening—it’s full of that stuff. The earliest song on the record might be “Far Be It,” and that was a really different time in my writing process, when I was really into riff-y kind of shit. Maybe “Centreville” is older, “I Don’t Want To” is also really old. These are kind of old songs!
I feel like they all came from this period of when I was trying to play with the difference between my head and my body. I was really into this book by Julia Kristeva about severed heads and capitalism. That’s a really non-musical influence. I feel like I wasn’t even into Blemish until I met Nick [Zanca], who produced Auto. I was coming from a Chris Weisman/Ruth Garbus place, thinking about that. I didn’t want it to have the demo feel of Chris’s music where it exists as pure potential. I wanted it to be fleshed out.
At the time, I was reading a lot about the difference between people who are motivated by their heads and people who act in service of their emotions. The whole growth of the record, even the way that we sequenced it has to do with prioritizing emotion over theory.
Is that something that’s easy for you to do?
Theory is fun for me and I like to do things that are fun so like, no, because it’s hard for me to resist, you know? But I can’t write without feeling. Also, every theory that I’ve personally come up with in my life has come from a really emotional place, so I feel like maybe I set up a false binary.
Can you give me an example? What’s an example of a theory that you came up with from an emotional place?
I was just on a call with my friend today; I hadn’t really told her explicitly how I came to identify and move through the world as a non-binary person. This is a very personal theory, I guess it’s a theory of myself for myself, which is hopefully going to touch somebody, but it was very self-involved, like me.
And that’s fine, it’s for your health and benefit and happiness.
Totally for my health! A lot of the reason that I feel non-binary has to do with the fact that I’m a machine operator by trade. I operate the guitar, so my body doesn’t end at the skin, it ends at the guitar, or the last wave emanating from the guitar. There is a sort of post-humanness that happens. Also, if you’re a machine operator, of course it could be classically considered male, but it’s not. It’s a totally gender neutral thing, you’re just a body that’s operating a machine.
Early on in my musical character—I’m assigned female—my gender was kind of mythologized. It would be like, you’re a female guitar player, or there would be an “I’m only hiring you because you’re cute” kind of energy. My way to retaliate against that was to get insanely virtuosic at the instrument. Whether or not I actually am is up for debate, but it’s a thing that I strove for for a long time.
When I came out as non-binary it was less a result of not feeling femme and more that I, in some way, theorize myself as an actor on an instrument over a sexed body, because being a sexed body had led pretty directly to trauma. I’m being a little less cogent than I was on the Skype call with my friend, so I’m sorry, but basically if I was to boil it down it would be: There’s some link between technical virtuosity and the sexed body and it’s negation. I wouldn’t have come to that conclusion without living the way that I do, touring the way that I do, prioritizing the work over… not my humanity, because that’s dramatic, but over almost anything else.
If you are going to play virtuosically, there’s an innate spotlight put on the machine, and that sort of prioritizes the instrument over anything else, so I get what you’re saying.
Yeah, totally. You become choreographed by the way you activate the machine, so you’re in service of something that’s also a part of you. That kind of negates the idea that gender—or sex—is a biological function, because it’s after that. Your function is less like a sexed body doing a certain thing or indicating a certain thing, it’s like a constant reorientation about a machine.
How long have you been playing guitar?
Since I was 11.
You said earlier that you worked almost entirely on guitar, that that’s your thing. How has your relationship with the guitar changed overtime? I guess in a way that’s also like asking how your relationship with yourself has changed over time. How have you changed the way in which you approach the guitar, the way you think about it, the way you feel about it?
At first I did it because it wasn’t the piano and it was easy for me. Then I did it to win at jazz (laughs).
What does that mean?
I was in jazz school, and I wanted to be a rippin’ bebop guitar player, then I wanted to be a Ben Monder guitar player, which is so funny (laughter). Something happened to me, some personal stuff happened, some vague shit happened at some point and I realized that trying to sound like anybody else, like Ben Monder or Barney Kessel or whatever is really stupid and vertical. They already did it, you know? You should be trying to make sound that means something, I hope. Or, if it doesn’t mean something, it feels you, it feels through you. Then, all of your recordings become a byproduct of that feeling through you as opposed to a perfect representation of your skills at the time.
I kind of adopted this no gods no masters mentality. At first I was very macho about that stance. Now I conceive of the guitar—kind of ironically, this is me kind of doubling back on that—but I want to play the guitar with a level of intensity and fierceness and uniqueness that someone like Cecil Taylor approached the piano with. No one else could do it like that. There’s the heat that is undeniable. That presence!
Right, it’s palpable. It draws attention. It demands attention, rather.
Yeah! I want it to be present. I really care about presence. That’s why I like Blemish so much. Because it’s right there!
Talk to me about why you like Blemish and why it proved to be an influence on this album. Then we can get talking about Nick too.
Oooh, gossip! Gossip about Nick! (laughter).
Yeah! Tone Glow writer Nick Zanca, he’s going down in this conversation!
We’re going to burn the witch! (laughter). We’re going to wake the witch!
I love it!
(laughs). Me too. So Nick showed me Blemish—it had some Derek Bailey on it, and you can’t deny that. Sylvian sounds like he’s howling into a Jack-o’-lantern.
(laughter). A Jack-o’-lantern!
He just sounds like a Jack-o’-lantern man, howling into the void. It’s so good. All of the elements work! The songwriting is so loose and totally the opposite of the way I would do it. Everything feels immediate. The art sucks, which I like.
That art sucks? The cover?
I feel like it makes sense for the music.
I don’t! I think it’s some DeviantArt stuff, you know?
Okay, I didn’t ever think of it as DeviantArt but now that you say it… (laughs).
But I like that! I’m not a very visual person. I can engage with art and I appreciate it, but I’m such a lil’ sound guy. I like that it seems clear to me that for this record that is so evocative and so eerie—I mean, “Late Night Shopping”, are you kidding me? And then you have that cover? It’s so funny! (laughter).
Yeah, well I’m never going to forget this DeviantArt thing now.
I think that’s something Nick said. It’s just so funny, like who approved that? That’s an album that needs a hoity-toity art photo, you know what I mean? I’m really glad it doesn’t have that!
There were hoity-toity art photos for his previous album covers. I just like how you can’t see any skin besides his face. His body seems separate from his head, kind of. It looks like he’s in a straight jacket or something, but not really.
It does, yeah.
That part, something about his confinement and the fact that he’s looking directly at you but you can’t actually see the other parts of his body really, and how that meshes with the background too. I don’t know, his head almost seems like it’s floating there.
It is. I think it’s also cool that it’s a representation that’s looking at you instead of a real image. I guess any image would be a representation but you know what I mean. It’s not a real photo looking at you the way my record is.
Were you trying to also have a photo where you were looking at the person looking at the cover?
No, I wasn’t really. I guess it works. Hmm, new dimensions, new connections, you love to see it (laughs).
What was it like working with Nick, with him being on production? This album sounds different from your previous albums, just on a production level.
I am the first to admit that I’m not a very good… I’m competent, but I’m not an artist in the studio. I write songs, that’s my gift. Then I can move on and let someone else handle it, aka Nick!
With Nick, there was a sense of homecoming because he reached out on Facebook messenger saying like, “I want to produce albums! I can produce your album!” And I was like, I haven’t talked to you in a minute.
How long had it been since you two talked?
I don’t know! We kept in touch a little bit. When he was on his touring Europe laptop guy shit we talked a little bit.
How did you first meet him? How do you know him?
I know him because we went to a performing arts summer camp together.
How old were you at the time?
We were in our early teens. 14-ish.
Very funny. He was Old Deuteronomy in a production of Cats.
Oh my god.
Yeah that’s the tea.
I was just going to ask if you had any embarrassing stories about Nick, but I guess you already answered that (laughter).
Coming in hot!
So he reached out to you. What was the process like when you were working on the album?
He’s a very warm, emotionally open person. He wanted to get into the headspace of the record. We would send each other these unbelievably long flourishy Google Drive drafts that were a little unhinged. Really detailed shit about references. I have this master document of the meanings behind all of the songs that is the sort of grimoire of it all. If I ever die and anyone can uncover that it’s gonna be a very juicy piece of work (laughs). The people at Ba Da Bing have it because I guess I don’t care about privacy.
I shared a bunch of shit with him about the history of the songs. He sort of just became part of the family, and we just did it. The process was really clear. He’s a really smart producer and knows what things sound good on things and has a really good sense for how to use references and how to make them vanish from the association. Sometimes with a producer you can say, “I want it to sound like this.” And then it sounds like that, and you’re like, aw crap. But with Nick, he always listens to what the song’s DNA might have. Because he’s such a freak he has such a reference bank [of music] and then uses that, and no one knows them because they’re so weird.
Sometimes it’s annoying when a producer’s fingerprints are clearly all over an album. Sometimes it totally feels like it’s more of the producer than the actual artist. I hate that, though really it depends on who the band and producer are.
I don’t think Nick is capable of that ossification. He cares too much about dreamy Thomas Bernhard shit to ever calcify a sound. This is also the first thing he has produced for another person, I’m pretty sure.
Yeah, I don’t know of anything that he’s done for anyone else.
I’m really flattered to be the first. It’s very, very good work that he did on it. Everyone’s going to be like—I always joke with him—”Everyone’s going to want to work with you! They’re gonna hear the record and be like, the songs are fine, but what’s going on with that Wurly?
Naturally, since you mentioned how you have this huge document with all the meanings behind all the songs, and that you’re not a private person—
(laughs). Oh no! What have I done!
You can pick, I’ll let you choose—what’s one of the songs on the album that you’d be okay with sharing the origins or background story of? Did you also feel like you writing that song had to have happened in order to feel some sort of completeness or satisfaction or growth?
Hmm… god. (thinking).
I’m hammering you with all these questions that you should be given multiple hours to think about, maybe.
No, I love it! I’m an improviser, so this is how I theorize. I think… hmm, shit! (thinking).
Take your time, we can wait!
No, I just wanna give a generous answer and not a self-contained answer, you know?
I’ll take any and all generosity.
Yeah, I know you will, because you’re a generous person too. (thinking). God, this is weird. This isn’t the answer I was expecting myself to give.
That’s an interesting thing to say but okay, I’ll allow it! (laughter).
“AOB” was a song that nearly didn’t make it on the record. I’m not going to say what it stands for because, frankly, it’s dumb—
You’re not going to say?
It’s a very flimsy little thing, I’ll tell you later in life (laughs).
Oh my god! You’re such a loser!
Hey! (laughter). Okay, it stands for “All Over Boston.”
Why is that dumb?
I don’t give a shit anymore, who cares! (laughter). It stands for “All Over Boston” because at the time I was being very promiscuous and I was sleeping with people all over Boston, which I don’t really love getting out there. But—
Photo by Ellery Berenger
Why do you feel most comfortable, of all the songs’ meanings, saying that one right now?
Well, that song needed to happen. It’s the saddest song on the record. That little guitar solo is fucking depressing! That’s what [Nick Zanca’s boyfriend] Hunter says is the saddest part. And I trust Hunter because he’s the best. There’s something really direct about the lyrics to “AOB,” you know? The other lyrics on the record are better, doubtlessly. Even the guitar part is really simple, that’s the easiest song. If I showed you over Skype what the guitar part looked like you’d be like, “That’s barely music.” But there’s something really desperate about it in a way that compels me.
The backstory for it is that I was running around doing stupid shit all the time in Boston. I was just being horrible to people. I was acting like I was in my early 20s, which I was. I was being promiscuous and disrespectful and dehumanizing and I just feel a lot of guilt about that. I feel like the song—its simplicity, its openness, its basic nature, its form—is so simple. All of that shit. It’s from such a different place than the rest of the record. Can I actually be honest with you about something?
As opposed to the whole rest of the interview where I haven’t been (laughs). Just kidding! What was really happening was that my promiscuity was really hurting someone that I cared for. I was acting selfishly, but if I was to answer your question really honestly, that song needed to happen for me to understand that what I was doing was terrible. I learn by reflecting musically. I’ve never done that before or since, and I feel an almost pathological level of guilt about it.
Don’t beat yourself up about it. I’m happy that you’ve grown and reflected and learned. I’m thankful that you’re being honest right now.
I don’t ever wanna—we’re friends, and I like you a lot already, and I don’t want to lie to you. Especially not about my work. So if I’m being honest with you about the work, that song, it’s got this fucked up juju to it with how I was acting, and it’s really vital. It’s not a stand out, it’s not a good song, you know.
But it is meaningful.
Yeah, it’s got heft.
I appreciate that one line: “I fill their cups with oil and the images of girls they think they want.” Something I think about is just the way in which, for many non-men, the way they may feel they can get any sort of intimacy from a cisman is through sex. It’s a shame because it often comes at the sacrifice of what someone might actually want in order to receive intimacy. So there is this pressure on the partner to find this intimacy through sex because it can seem like the only way, especially since many men are bad at providing intimacy in ways that aren’t sexual, you know?
And then non-men are pressured such that the relationship becomes a situation where the guy wants something and will ask for it and it’s normalized that the other person has to eventually concede. There’s this miscommunication and disrespect of boundaries, and it’s one-sided. Men will ask for things, will want things—sexual or not—and then it’s okay for that to keep happening and for the non-man in the relationship to just deal with it. That, coupled with this notion of men not being able to provide intimacy, and intimacy being something that has to be provided through sex—it makes everything so much messier.
It asks so much of physicality that physicality shouldn’t have to communicate.
Yeah that’s the perfect way of putting it. Physicality has what it can do, and there are things that so many other modes of intimacy can do that physicality can’t.
Yeah. It’s like what we were talking about [in a previous conversation] on the phone, about relationships versus friendships, and intimacy, and trying to determine what the boundary is. Maybe what you’re suggesting happens a lot in cis-hetero ascendant relationships, in normative relationships. People end up in these shitty archetypes. I was really feeling that when I wrote that song. I was in a thing with somebody who wanted so much emotional commitment from me which I just couldn’t do at the time, so I spread out, and way too far, and in so doing I crossed a major boundary of his. I’m a Sagittarius, it’s my cross to bear! I mean, that’s meaningless but I’m bringing it up anyways.
There’s just so much there. Honestly the lynchpin to understanding the entire record is “AOB.” It’s all about representation. Like, “I fill their cups with oil and the images of girls they think they want”—I want to be different. All of the fucking I statements in that are just so basic and so open. The rest of that stuff, you can look at words so much that they stop meaning anything. The more complicated and insinuous and open they are, there’s something that is going to be hidden because you’re making the listener do the work of translating it. Especially translating it in time as the music is going linearly over you. In “AOB,” time stops.
(silence). Sorry, I’m getting emotional (laughs). Thanks for sharing all that. Wendy, I just want to say I love you.
I love you too, I really do.
(heavy silence). I guess I’m wondering—having written this song and having reflected, how do you feel about yourself now. Who are you now?
Given that my life radically changed again a month ago, it’s hard to say. I’m definitely not the person I was when I wrote the record. I don’t act that way now. Hell, I’m terrified of relationships. All of them (laughs).
Are you afraid of our friendship?
Okay, I’m afraid of romantic relationships, thanks for the clarification (laughter). Throughout the course of that record, everything that I had had: my love relationships, most of my friendships, my band Birthing Hips, the house I lived in, where we recorded stuff, the fucking part of the country that I lived in—by the end of this shit, by the time that this is released, all of it will have changed, or has already changed. That is insane. You can do the Cate Le Bon thing of making chairs and changing your life or you can have a record that has taken long enough that it just decimates everything. The process of this—Nick’s still there, he’s family—but, fuck! Everything got lost in the creation of this thing.
I wrote the Dehiscence stuff after, that was all newer stuff than Auto. That was just about a breakup. I think the songwriting on that is some of the stuff I’m most proud of. But I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to write now, because everything is different. It’s hard to say. Honestly, the answer to that is listening to the song “Hurt People,” because that’s who I was during all this shit. I would drive around, and I would reflect on my stuff, and I would work a little bit and think about what it meant to work, and be alone and be slow. Now, everything is so fast and New York-y, and mind boggling.
Sorry. This has sort of devolved or something! (laughs).
No, I think this is great, I love all this.
Me too, it’s just nice to be able to share this experience with you.
I appreciate it, I think that’s really nice. I do think it may be an important thing for people to read. I don’t know, communication is always hard.
It’s really hard! Especially because we have these ideas of what a relationship should look like that completely forecloses any opportunities for real intimacy. If I was to be actually intimate with the person that I hurt, I would have seen that. But instead, I was totally closed off from that shit. I thought that a relationship was like cruising, essentially.
Having this be public is not a fear-of-reputation thing, though I don’t want people in my private life to know that I acted that way. I’m ashamed of it, and I worked through it, and I’ve done a lot of reckoning on it already. The whole record is my guilt for that. I just don’t like explicitly airing dirty laundry. Especially when it might retrigger stuff for the person, you know? I don’t know if he will read this stuff anymore. We don’t talk, obviously, but I just don’t want to do anything that would hurt him further.
Have you talked with him about how you acted?
Yeah, I’ve really owned up to it with him. I have accepted responsibility to him. I mean, look—I keep saying look, it’s so damning, the fuck! (laughter). I’ve been honest with him. This was years ago now. This all went down in 2016. I can’t believe I opened up to you about this. I’m so grateful to you to have the space, but I feel so funny about having said it because this was really private between the person and the other person that I hurt.
Is this something that wasn’t in the thing you sent Ba Da Bing?
It was alluded to, but I just trust you. Goddammit! (laughs).
No, I just don’t want you to think less of me because I acted that way.
Wendy, I’m gonna stop you right there. I do not think less of you.
I absolutely do not. If anything, the way I’m approaching this and processing it, the fact you were willing to share with me, the fact that you reflected and were honest with yourself—obviously you’ve grown and wanted to grow. There’s literally no reason for me to think less of you. Maybe if you were still like, “I don’t give a shit that I did all this” then maybe that would be a little weird.
I’m really the opposite of that (laughs).
Also, everyone is always in a process of growth, and you’re never really taught stuff about relationships so that can especially be tricky. Either way, I’m your friend, I care about you. And I’m excited, just from this experience you had, how you can continue to be a person—as you said—that doesn’t hurt people in whatever capacity that may be in, whether it’s a romantic relationship or not. I think having reflected on it, it’s impossible for you to not be a better lover now, you know?
I know. I really hear you, and I really feel what you’re saying. I’m really grateful for you. It’s intense, you know?
I get it. You’re good. You know, I don’t really know what to ask anymore, but I do want to end with this one question because I think it’s important—
Wait, no! There’s so much more to say!
Is there so much more to say?
I don’t know if there is. Fuck it, it’s all there. What were you going to say?
Can you tell me one thing you love about yourself?
Oh no! (laughs). After all that? Holy cannoli!
I have to do it after all that, of course! You can’t let guilt win!
(contemplative silence). I love what you just said. You can’t let guilt win, holy shit. What the fuck is this interview even gonna be, I’m terrified! (laughs). I should have just talked about fuckin’ “Slow Down,” God! (laughter). Okay, right now, today, a thing that I love about myself is that I never let whatever knowledge or skills that I may have accrued in times of self-hatred obliterate my emotional intensity towards the world.
I think so.
What sort of emotional intensity do you feel towards the world? Can you give me an example of what that looks like?
I just care so much about my friends and the people who I meet, and also the people I don’t know. I also care about the possibilities for life outside of these horrible neoliberal structures that we’re all finding ourselves in. I feel like the emotional intensity that I feel towards the world is actually an all-consuming love for it. It’s an annoying transcendental kind of thought, but I lived in Massachusetts for six years, forgive me!
I just think it’s really cool that any way to obliterate a miserable system is to become—the idea is to become minoritarian to resist fascism or something. I think you can only do that, you can only become minoritarian through sensory emotional relations with other people, or with ideas. I’ve been lucky enough to put myself in situations where that’s cultivated and not ignored.
I love that.
I feel so vulnerable right now! (laughs).
Is that okay, though? Do you feel okay?
I feel like I just took psychedelics! Yeah, I feel okay, I mean…
Do you feel like having opened up to me helped you come to better terms with who you are?
Yes, and I wasn’t expecting to go that deep today.
I wasn’t expecting it either.
I hope it’s okay. This is also the modality of the emotional intensity I was talking about.
It’s okay! For all intents and purposes, the interview is done (laughs).
I mean… this is… I pretend I do not see (uproarious laughter). I’m so grateful for your time! I just can’t believe… you’re a very transformative person for me to talk to.
I’m happy I can be that.
Me too! I’m just going to be processing this for a minute. This is the opposite of any other interview I’ve ever done. It’s emotional! You interview from the heart. I’m not saying that other people don’t, but you hit something. Is every interview you do like this? You must be so tired!
It’s not every interview, no. I feel like the conversations I have with people in general can sometimes be like this, though. If we’re going to bring up astrology, I’m a Cancer.
I mean, I know. (laughter). I’m a Cancer Rising. We vibe.
We do vibe. Also, I know nothing about astrology so that’s the end of my understanding of astrology—that I am a Cancer, and am representative of what a lot of people think of Cancers.
You're emblematic, you’re a total Cancer. It’s beautiful.
Purchase Auto at Bandcamp.
I asked Wendy to create a list of books they enjoy and would recommend. The 15 books listed below are presented in the other in which they sent them.
Corregidora by Gayl Jones
The World I Live In by Helen Keller
The Changing Light at Sandover by James Merrill
Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai
The Dream Songs by John Berryman
W, or the Memory of Childhood by Georges Perec
Zombie Notes by Maureen Owen
Transit by Rachel Cusk
Riot by Gwendolyn Brooks
The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz
Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis
In the Break by Fred Moten
Perspective as Symbolic Form by Erwin Panofsky
Black Sun by Julia Kristeva
The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker
Photo by Ellery Berenger
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