Artist Spotlight: Wednesday

“There’s something moving over me/ I want to remember everything,” Karly Hartzman sings on ‘Cody’s Only’, a highlight off Wednesday’s new album Twin Plagues. As the band drifts through the chaos of memory and between the realms of shoegaze, noise-pop, and country, that something remains as elusive as the everything is overwhelming – a haze of trauma and anxiety percolating underneath her and Jake Lenderman’s distorted, feedback-drenched guitars. On their third album and second as a full band, the Asheville five-piece – which also includes Xandy Chelmis on pedal steel, Margo Schultz on bass, and Alan Miller on drums – expand on last year’s stunning I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone to deliver a collection of devastating beauty and striking dynamism. Hartzman’s vocals barely crack through the swirl of instrumentation; the music mirrors the emotional weight of her writing, which is both painful and tender, evocative and surreal, often alluding to a real-life car crash and other events from her upbringing. The effect is immediately transfixing, sometimes disorienting, always compelling, and ultimately cathartic: try to remember everything, they suggest, and something new might come along.

We caught up with Wednesday for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the band’s relationship to country and indie rock music, the process of making Twin Plagues, and more.

Part of the conversation around your new album revolves around a sense of nostalgia for a certain type of indie rock, but hearing that cover of the late Nanci Griffith’s ‘Love at the Five and Dime’ with Xandy on pedal steel reminded me just how much of a country influence there is in your music. Could you talk about what draws each of you to country music, and how do you think it intersects with your interest in heavier music?

Karly Hartzman: It’s hard to avoid a country influence when you’re from the South, because you’ll go to the grocery store and they’re playing pop country, or like, in the car, most of the stations we have autosaved to our thing is country stations, outlaw country music. Lyrically, I feel like the most out of anything I’ve been affected by country music, like, Lucinda Williams kind of stuff is more who I’ve been taking writing inspiration from. Anyone that talks about their life in detail and what it’s like living in the South is going to be a country song, even if the instrumentation isn’t country at all, because that’s just how it feels to describe where we live. It’s always going to come off that way, and I find that really comforting.

Xandy Chelmis: It’s funny that you just brought up Lucinda Williams, because it actually made me think of something that I’ve never really thought about. And that’s like, when I was growing up, everyone including myself was like, “Oh yeah, country sucks. I like every kind of music but country.” But I’d totally get down to Lucinda Williams and really liked that music a lot, and I just never realised that it was country. Same thing with like Johnny Cash and just older stuff. People always say that they don’t like country, but I feel like everybody definitely does, they just don’t even know.

Jake Lenderman: For me, what got me into country music was like – you know, we get compared to a lot of ‘90s bands, and the first country music I got into was the alt-country music from the ‘90s like Drive-By Truckers, Richmond Fontane, Sun Volt. That’s some of the most formative music to me, but it got me into older stuff, and the thing I like about it is that it’s simple music, but it’s really lonesome music. And it’s really funny music and clever, and I think just the prettiest. It can be anything.

KH: I think the element of humour especially is something that country music does the best. Almost nothing is going to connect faster to people than sadness and humour, and a mix of two that emphasises both and brings out the beautiful parts in both. Because being able to laugh at pain in the way that country music kind of helps you do is like, transcendent.

Margo Schultz: I’m from Maryland, which really pushes away the southern identity pretty aggressively. I feel like I’m probably the latest comer to country music out of everyone in the band, but I just love it so much and it makes me feel even more at home here in North Carolina than almost anything else.

Would you say that getting into indie rock and other kinds of alternative music was kind of a reaction to what was always in the background growing up?

KH: Yeah, for sure. I feel like I actually got more into alternative and indie stuff because my friends that would carpool me to school every morning were playing Christian radio stations, and it can be country-adjacent sometimes, the music on there, and I never felt more alienated by music. I was Jewish, and so being in a car with a group of people that just seemed to know the words to these songs, I literally had never even come close to feeling what they were feeling. Definitely in middle school I found indie rock to be a safer place for me to bond with people music-wise.

XS: I had a cool older friend who sat me down and made me watch Garden State when I was 13 years old. [laughter] No, I know, but I was like 13 years old and like, hormones coursing through my body and I was like, “This is it. It has to be.” Him yelling in the rain, and I was like, “Hell yeah, I love indie music.” [laughter]

To me, it’s kind of limiting to view it as nostalgia for a certain genre, because it also is nostalgia for a physical place and the personal memories that are attached to it. And the kind of nostalgia that’s not necessarily musical is a little bit harder to pinpoint, but on the album it’s evoked in such a way where the listener can relate to it regardless of where they grew up or what kind of experiences they’ve had. For you personally, has writing and releasing these songs made you reflect on your upbringing any differently?

KH: Yeah. My motivation for this album as a whole was to close the book on any trauma I had experienced in high school, any memories I kind of wanted to write about so I would never have to think about them again. I’ll be like, “Okay, here’s the song I wrote about this, now I can move on emotionally.” I definitely learned through that process that that’s not how that works. Reflecting on your past in the first place is always going to just reopen the box of pain – newer music I’m writing still is dealing with old memories that I’m just sitting on and that affects me every day. Because in a way, your upbringing never goes away – I grow more every year that I live, obviously, and I’m growing in a positive direction, but I’m also constantly reminded of the things that got my brain to where it is now, like in the way of certain things are harder for me now because of things that happened in the past. I mean, that’s how trauma works, but it never goes away, even if you really – the point of the album was to make it go away, and that’s not how it works, and I think that was a valuable lesson to learn. So I learned a lot from making it, but I didn’t necessarily achieve what I set out to do. I think I’ll just always write about my upbringing and my past because that’s literally the only thing that makes a person who they are, otherwise you’re not writing about yourself, in a way.

There’s a line on ‘Cody’s Only’, and even though it comes late on the album, it feels kind of like starting point: “There’s something moving over me/ I want to remember everything/ I cannot figure out what I meant/ By living all those ways I did.” I was wondering how early on in the process of making the album those lyrics came to you.

KH: I think ‘Cody’s Only’ was probably the first song I wrote for the album, I don’t know if it was intentionally a starting point. That song is probably the most abstract; I think that song just overall is based on wandering around your house trying to figure out how to deal with pain. And I have this vision of myself in my junior year of high school, just not knowing how to be at my parents’ house anymore. Like, emotionally, how to live in this space where I’ve experienced something terrible happen to me. And I guess it is like a starting point in a way, emotionally, but it was completely unintentional for the writing process. This isn’t a concept album in any way, like I couldn’t have planned any of the songs or how they interact with each other. Because I just write the songs I have to to feel better, is my process.

Something the essay that came with the release of the album made me think about is how it can make the listener reflect on their own past selves. It made me wonder how everyone else in the band was affected by or saw themselves reflected in these songs before it came to building them to what they are now.

MS: Good question! I feel like whenever Karly writes one of the demos that’s basically just lyrics and guitar, I always listen to it like crazy and try to, a) imagine how it would sound, but b) also just think about what the lyrics mean and how that would match the music. And I feel like there’s certain songs that definitely affect me more than others, lyrically. I feel like ‘Cody’s’ probably the most; from my interpretation, it just sounds like a song sort of about being depressed but still feeling hopeful. I feel like the lyrics are very beautiful and abstract and poetic, but I mostly connect really hard with the music itself, the whole fleshed-out product.

XS: For me it’s like, I hear a demo and I like it and I can hear some stuff in my head, but especially with lap steel and the way I play it with Wednesday, it’s usually when we’re playing all together and fleshing out a song – I’m not even listening at that point to the lyrics as a totality, there’s some lines that will stick out but mostly I’m just responding with my instrument. And it’s not usually until we have a decently fleshed-out demo where I can hear Karly’s voice, and then I’ll start listening to it, and then… It’s kind of like a lot of music for me, even my own music that I write, when I revisit it or listen to it, wherever I am in my life it usually means something different. But I really like these songs because they are really meaningful to me consistently.

When it comes to fleshing out the songs, did you have any conversations in terms of where they sit emotionally, or was it something that came more naturally?

MS: I feel like we throw these songs into the pit. [laughs] We just get together and we’re like, “What are we thinking?” And we try every single thing anyone’s thinking, and it’s a beautiful mess. And then it’s a song eventually.

XS: I feel like it’s usually not a conscious emotional response that we’re trying to invoke. It’s probably more intuitive.

JL: You can talk about something all you want before you try doing it, but it’s never going to turn out how you talk about doing it, so it’s kind of pointless.

KH: Actually, I feel like, what usually happens is… I don’t use a guitar chord if I don’t feel like it translates to the emotion I’m going for, and so we usually have a pretty good idea – a good example is ‘Birthday Song’, when we were first playing that, I bet when we were practising it in the space they couldn’t tell what I was saying, but they could tell that it was painful and they adapted to that and they made the instrumentation work around that. And usually there’s a moment down the line after we’ve already fleshed out the song where I’m like, “This is what this song is about.” I usually wait to tell anyone what it was even about until after we’ve already decided the instrumentation.

I remember once me and Xandy were sitting in this venue where we both used to work and listening to our last album through the PA after a show one night, just sitting around in the dark, and as each song went by I was explaining what each one meant to me. It’s hard for me to get into what they’re about in the moment, too, because it’s hard stuff to talk about. And I mostly just kind of blurt out whatever the song is about whenever I feel like I’m in a place to talk about it.

XS: And that night when you were telling me about those songs, we’ve been playing them for like months at that point. It was kind of wild to suddenly get context gaps filled in.

I was actually going bring up ‘Birthday Song’ in relation to what you were talking about before, especially with the line “Couldn’t laugh at it yet/ Wasn’t far away from it yet.” To me, it’s a reminder that just because you get to process something through songwriting, it doesn’t mean it won’t come back or that you won’t revisit it in the future. But with it being tied to the album now, are there any joyful memories that you associate with the recording process that you think will also stay with you in a more positive way?

KH: Songwriting is extremely painful and dwelling on the memories is painful, but when it comes to like, I got to make these songs with my best friends and record them with people I would say I capital-L love now – I mean, every album we make, every song we write, every tour we go on, we get closer and we understand each other more. And Jake was added to the band like a year ago, but him and Xandy are already telepathically communicating with each other on stage, and Margo does shit on the bass somehow which, I didn’t know the bass could be an emotional instrument to me…

MS: [laughs]

KH: But Margo does stuff sometimes that makes me completely nuts, because she understands the unspoken meaning of the song emotionally and how to translate that into a bassline, which I don’t understand how she does that. And then Alan, I have another really special and happy bond to because he started playing drums right when I started playing guitar, and so we’re learning our instrument together from the ground up. And he’s not in this conversation right now, he’s not here, but I mean…

MS: You can say whatever you want Karly, he’s not here.

KH: [laughs] I don’t know, I have like an insane bond with everyone in this band now that would be impossible to replicate. And I think that has made most of this experience happy. It’s hard to translate that this has been like a happy experience.

JL: You’re not mentioning that there was a pool in the studio.

KH: [laughs] Oh yeah, there also was a swimming pool in the studio, so…  But overall, very positive experience. And the thing is, if I’ve written a song about it, I have moved on in a way that makes me comfortable to talk about it, and that is a healing moment in itself. Even though it doesn’t solve the problem, it doesn’t make it go away, it puts my brain in a space where I can remove myself from the situation and figure out what had I learned, what did I gain from that, even though it was some of the worst stuff that could have happened.

MS: And recording was so fun. It was in the middle of such a horrible, horrible time, I feel like it was everyone’s depression peak – it was such a fraught and depressing time for everyone individually, but together, it was very joyful. Because I know I was really depressed, I feel like I had a conversation with each of us one-on-one where I was just like, “Yeah, this is the worst my life has ever been. But I’m happy I’m here, and there’s a pool. [laughter] And Xandy and Jake have been playing feedback for two full hours, that’s really cathartic, just listening to a feedback recording session happening in the background.” It was amazing, and I feel like it’s even more cathartic now to see such a positive reaction to it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. 

Wednesday’s Twin Plagues is out now via Orindal.

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