Artist Spotlight: J. Wiegold

    Since they first started sharing their music online, Jack Wiegold has gone from making improvised drone metal, to loud, distorted shoegaze, and now delicate ambient folk in just a few years. Hailing from Great Yarmouth, UK, the musician’s first releases were under the alias Alphabet Holds Hostage, but you won’t find any of them on digital platforms, save for a couple of collaborations with another enigmatically ethereal project, Katia Krow. A year ago, Again and So Soon saw AHH’s sound move in a gentler, more refined direction that they’ve fully embraced since adopting the J. Wiegold moniker. Citing Ichiko Aoba, Dilute, and Natural Snow Buildings as some of their influences – though I also hear echoes of Skullcrusher in their evocation of liminal spaces and hazy memories – Wiegold put out their newest album, the stunning Norfolk Serpent, last week. Recorded in their bedroom as well as a forest near Norwich’s University of East Anglia, the follow-up to Esmé showcases Wiegold’s growth as a musician and producer, with songs that feel gorgeously arranged without losing the tender spark of improvisation, while also imbuing their songwriting with the emotional nuance that makes them feel interconnected. In the process, Wiegold finds glimmers of hope and the possibility of catharsis, all spinning away in the same dark, complex web.

    We caught up with Jack Wiegold over email for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about their songwriting journey, their musical influences, the process behind Norfolk Serpent, and more.

    When did you start making your own music, and how has your songwriting process evolved over time?

    I started making music properly over the course of the first COVID-19 lockdown in England – about early 2020-ish, so I was 16. It started with me recording drone metal improvisations on my phone (I was listening to a lot of Boris and Sunn O))) at the time). I had absolutely no production experience so I would usually just import them to Audacity and “EQ” them, export them, and upload to Bandcamp. They were absolutely awful! Listening back to them now is equally endearing as it is totally embarrassing, but luckily I deleted them a few months later before anyone could properly hear it. I was then curious about ‘proper’ DAWs and started trial-ing Cubase and Reaper. Though I didn’t have a microphone, I used an app called WO Mic that essentially let me turn my phone into one – the music I made with it was equally as awful, but it had drums this time! I also started to properly structure songs, started to become a little bit competent at production, etc. It encouraged me to buy a microphone, and start using Ableton. The first thing I made with it was a whole bunch of amateur-hour shoegaze under the name Alphabet Holds Hostage. Really distorted guitars, loads of digital effects because I couldn’t afford pedals, MIDI drums, the whole nine yards. Some of it still holds up but I also wiped the lot of it clean from the internet because I just can’t stand listening to it (or having other people be able to).

    About a year into the Alphabet Holds Hostage project, a few of my friends were telling me the drum sound I was using sounded really plastic and obvious, and I was beginning to realise my cheap microphone couldn’t really bring out the depth in loud, distorted shoegaze guitar – and since I was starting to develop a massive interest in folk music, I took both of them out. The last AHH album I made, Again and So Soon, is probably the biggest indicator as where I was going to go with the music I’m making now. It was a lot softer, used barely any distortion, and my whispery vocals hit their peak. I have absolutely no training in singing so I’ve just sort of had to adapt my own voice over time, and see what fits and what doesn’t. Turns out I have a really high register despite having a pretty deep speaking voice! It was both fun and mortifying figuring out what my voice really sounds like, being socially anxious and living with three other people isn’t really conducive to vocal experimentation.

    The actual lyrical content of my music hasn’t really changed over time in terms of style. I’m really bad at writing earnest lyrics despite the amount of emo and skramz I listen to, so I tend to latch on to these themes I really want to write about then just make them super cryptic. It has produced results I’m really proud of, but it does take a hell of a lot of drafts to perfect. I often tell people I don’t really care about lyrics when I’m listening to music, which is broadly true, but I become such a perfectionist when it’s my own – even though I focus on making the music as rich as possible months before I sit down to write lyrics. Since realising I am non-binary, not long after those awful drone recordings, my lyrical content has focused almost exclusively on the struggles of gender dysphoria and outward representation. ‘The Life and Opinions of the Last Enby on Earth’ and ‘Mimicry’ are probably my favourite sets of lyrics under that theme. I find it so cathartic to write about the clothes I wear as an enby, the to-and-fro nature of my dysphoria, discrimination I’ve faced, non-acceptance, things like that. I’m not always miserable though! I also like to write pretty standard love songs if I have the time, almost always dedicated to my long-term partner. ‘Stephenson 218’ is the best and newest example of that. I do find it hard to write a more ‘standard’ song like that sometimes, so it can take weeks and weeks to even get a first draft of some lyrics, instead of a couple days for a more loosely structured song. Funny how that works. 

    Who are some artists that have shaped the way you view music?

     Huge question! I have been actively listening to music since I was about 4 or 5, so I could probably make a very long list. The big catalyst however was some random skateboarding video I was watching on YouTube when I was like 13. It had in the background Toe’s song ‘Goodbye’ and I was absolutely enamoured. I was desperate to find more music that sounded like it and I ended up stumbling across math rock. That was probably the biggest event in my music-listening life so far, because I felt like it was music made specifically for me. I always loved Foals but my favourite was Antidotes, I listened to loads of Don Broco when I was 11 and 12 but my favourite bits of their songs was when they went heavy with the syncopation – and here was a whole genre full of it! I couldn’t believe my luck.

    Since then, the biggest artists in that style that have had the biggest impact on my actual perception of music have to be the bands Pretend and Dilute. The way they both construct these incredibly intricate harmonies but then also have them set to the craziest drum patterns in the most ludicrous time signatures – it makes my hair stand up. I just adore it when artists subvert what is expected of them in terms of songwriting; no choruses, no 4/4, no flashy solos (not including the tons of jazz I listen to) – it’s pretentious as fuck, but it’s my jam. You can really see it in Norfolk Serpent in particular – some of the harmonies are very much inspired by Dilute’s album Grape Blueprints Pour Spinach Olive Grape. Anyone who knows me knows I am totally obsessed with that album.

    Outside of math rock though, since trying to actively broaden my music taste the last few years, I have to list Autechre and Natural Snow Buildings as not only two of my favourite artists but also artists who are doing shit I didn’t even know was previously possible. I thought math rock was pretty bold when it strayed away from a lot of the tropes I was used to hearing in my favourite indie records, but the first time hearing NTS Sessions (now my favourite album of all time) or Daughter of Darkness was just mind-boggling. I’ll probably spend my life trying to figure out how to make art as incredible as that. 

    What draws you to this particular style of ambient folk, both as a musician and a listener? 

    Ichiko Aoba, basically. Well, not entirely, but close enough. Her albums Origami and 0 are what got me into this really sparse style of folk and so I tried to emulate it in my own way. The way she makes a few chords sound absolutely monumental is awe-inspiring. “灰色の日” from Origami is like, six chords strummed every few seconds with massive gaps in between, and it makes me bawl my eyes out. She works such vivid emotion into everything. Then artists like Stars of the Lid, Giulio Aldinucci and of course Natural Snow Buildings, combining the organic elements of Ichiko’s music – the instrumentation, the sparsely written guitars – with these massive, all-encompassing drones. It’s a combination I don’t see all that often, so I decided to try and recreate it, mostly for my own gain since I love reading novels to Stars of the Lid and I just wanted more of the same, but it ended up coming out excellent. I properly produced it, wrote lyrics for it, and it became ‘In the Heart of the City’, which is now on my album Orca. I don’t even know if “ambient folk” qualifies as a ‘real’ genre at the moment, but I hope someday it does because I love making and listening to it. The two things just work so endlessly well.

    Repetition seems to play an important role in how you construct a song. How do you decide which patterns or harmonies are worth saving, or how far they should stretch out?

     You’re right, but that’s quite a hard question to answer without just saying “I just do,” because that’s basically the gist of it. A lot of my songs are birthed out of 10, 20, 30 minute sessions of playing the same arpeggios over and over again and seeing how I can harmonise with them in different ways. Sometimes I’ll come up with something that sounds amazing on the day and then come back a week later and think its shit. Sometimes the opposite! ‘Regicide’ was sat on my hard drive for like two months because I hated it but forgot to delete it, but when I accidentally opened it into Ableton whilst looking for something else (the consequences of naming everything ‘track1’ or ‘track2’ or ‘idea5’) I was like, “Hey this isn’t so bad.” Now it’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever produced, especially the second half. ‘No Coward Soul’was also very very close to not making the album.

    In terms of stretching things out, it’s a constant toss-up of how long I want something to last and how much I think other people will want something to last before getting bored, because otherwise my albums would be like triple their lengths. I’ve been using my own song ‘Fifty Suns’ as a template for that because it’s the first time I really went heavy on the repetition, and I loved it. The difference is, a lot of the songs on Esmé were fully written before I recorded them; Norfolk Serpent has a hell of a lot of improvisation, and I can get really into improvising these harmonies. ‘Last Enby on Earth’ was recorded almost entirely on the spot, and there are parts where you can really hear me getting carried away with the enjoyment of it all, and playing really fast or messing up my timings. The silver lining is though, since I overdub all my harmonies, I can adapt the overdubs to my own mistakes and end up having the song be in a completely different time signature, or have these strange bits of syncopation that all feel so natural compared to the complex songs of mine that purposefully written to be so. Working out when to stop repeating the same set of notes is almost the same process as working out when to change chords or working out how I’m going structure this piece whilst I’m in the middle of playing it – it just naturally comes to a close.

    Were you surprised by any of the lyrics that grew out of what you call “random syllables”?

    Yes! The syllables were really in place just as like memos for the vocal melodies of certain songs, but I was just sort of pronouncing words in a random order as if I were actually singing. Like I said earlier, the gap between composing a song and writing lyrics for it can be months, so if there’s a specific melody I really like but don’t have any lyrics to accompany it, I will just sing random words over it because my memory is dreadful. The song ‘Stephenson 218’ grew entirely out of this process, since one of the random collections of words I sung happened to be “a thousand times ove”’ – which is now the hook of the song, “You eclipse the sun a thousand/ Ten thousand/ A million times over,” and even how the song got its title, from the star Stephenson 2.18 which is as far as I know the biggest star humans are aware of. In reality it’s like 10 billion times bigger than the sun, so I was quite a ways off.

    You’ve described Norfolk Serpent as being about “representation, love, suffocation, euphoria, suicide and the places where they weave together.” Can you talk about how those in-between places came to light? 

    My music has been about my own mental health issues for as long as I’ve been writing lyrics, but I felt a lot of my older lyrics had a bit of tunnel vision inherent to them, in that I would talk about a single topic for a single song, move on to the next, et cetera. Since that realisation I’ve been trying to write more multi-faceted songs, talking instead about how all those topics interact with each other, rather than how they operate by themselves. Not only that, but the landscape of my mental health has been changing quite a lot the last few years as different issues come to light and others go away. Going from high school to college to university and working a first job and becoming an adult and all of these things happening within the same three years of the life of a very anxious and depressed person was fucking exhausting.

    One-topic-per-song wasn’t really adequate to cover all that I wanted it to anymore – not only that, but getting really into literature the last couple years and getting all this inspiration from writers like Thomas Hardy, Leo Tolstoy, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Rachel Cusk, made me want to write more in-depth lyrics; but I wanted still to write the odd song about how I do have good days – songs like ‘Stephenson 218’ and ‘Fifty Suns’ which both cover the topics of love and euphoria. The songs about days that are the opposite of good are now just written with a bit more nuance and optimism. ‘Regicide’ is about struggling to find ways to represent myself in an overwhelmingly binary world but it also has points where I remark about feeling really good about myself on occasion. ‘Last Enby on Earth’ is a song about dysphoria driving me to the point of suicide but it also reckons with the idea of me being perfectly acceptable as I already am. 

    How did the physical spaces where the album was recorded accentuate those themes?

    To be honest, my idea to record away from home was mostly to combat noisy neighbours fucking up my recordings, but it did grow into something a little deeper, both in terms of aesthetics and emotion. Being surrounded by nature whilst singing lyrics inspired by poets who spent their careers doting on it was a pretty special feeling (after a while of feeling silly about singing into a microphone a public space). Not a lot of the forest-recorded vocals actually ended up on the album save for ‘No Coward Soul’ and the second half of ‘Regicide’. The feeling of playing guitar whilst sat in an empty forest right at the end of summer though, that was incredible. Some of my best improvisations came out of those sessions because I just didn’t want to stop, like the entirety of ‘Viviette’, which I named after Lady Constantine from Hardy’s Two on a Tower as a way to connect the experience of recording music surrounded by nature with the experience of obsessively reading his novels that have these huge, entangled descriptions of it. I felt like a character from a really clichéd romance movie for a few days, it was great. 

    Are there any specific differences between the songs you recorded in your bedroom and the ones you tracked in a nearby forest? What was the atmosphere there like? 

    Not that nearby, actually! The forest is adjacent to my university which is about 30 miles away from where I live – takes 2 buses and a couple medium-length walks to get there but totally worth it. I found it a lot easier to work in such a remote space, my microphone picking up some of the background noise really gave depth to a lot of the songs that were less intricately written, or not caked in reverb. The atmosphere was definitely unique – I go on nature walks and birdwatching all the time so it wasn’t like my first time discovering trees but given England’s drought in 2022 making everything a little bit desaturated, a little limp, it was almost like the petrified look of the forest was being woven into the themes of my lyrics. For a time, the album was actually named The Drought – the closing track still retains that title – but I decided to change it to Norfolk Serpent, thinking it a bit more unique and also tracking the place it was recorded in (Norfolk) a bit better than just The Drought.

     ‘No Coward Soul’ is a reference to Emily Brontë’s ‘Last Lines’. What significance does that poem have to you?

    It’s less about what the specific poem signifies – although I do love it – and more what she signifies as a writer. Wuthering Heights and by extension her poetry were so carnally obsessed with nature and will as destructive forces that it was sort of like the evil twin of the romanticist era (which I am doubly inspired by). The idea of euphoria being mixed with depression and suicide is something that the album has in droves. No Coward Soul Is Mine is to me the crux of the themes that appear in all her work, though in the extreme – talking of “withered weeds”, “suns and universes ceased to be” – I’ve read it so many times I could recite it backwards. My song named after it doesn’t so much trace a singular story like the other songs but is in a similar way more of a summation of the themes of the album using Brontë as a reference point. It’s the album’s centrepiece in a way. 

    You explain that you originally were planning to make a different kind of dream pop record, but recording it during a difficult period in your personal life turned it into “something much more delicate.” What struck me is that doesn’t sound like it also became a darker record – there’s still a lot of light seeping through. Why do you think that is?

     Most likely because the music that makes me the most cathartic is stuff like Bjork’s ‘Undo’, Beach House’s ‘Real Love’, William Basinski’s ‘Watermusic’, M83’s ‘Intro’ – nothing you would really associate with sadness over something like Deathconciousness. I tend to respond emotionally way more to stuff that sounds really beautiful rather than stuff that is designed to elicit a sadness, and since what I love to listen to so often pops up in my own music it’s probably why there aren’t many dark sounding songs (sans ‘Mimicry’) despite a lot of them having pretty depressing lyrics. Not only that, because I compose almost exclusively with harmonies and improvisation nowadays, transmuting those songs from dream-pop to folk worked pretty smoothly because I always have the same sort of structures and sounds in mind no matter whether I’m playing them with an electric guitar and drums or just my acoustic.

    What are some things you learned from making Norfolk Serpent, and how do you hope to carry them into your work going forward?

    Every time I make something new I discover things about my voice, my guitar, my DAW, my capabilities as a composer; it always feels fresh when I start a new project and I’ve always tried not to make the same thing twice. Norfolk Serpent feels different though, it finally feels like I’ve found a sound that I’m wholly comfortable in and could whisk away hours of material with. I had so much fun over what was generally a really tumultuous year just hammering out these repeated chords and I’m so happy people seem to be enjoying listening to them. In terms of future records, I want give myself even less restraint – try my hand at some of the progressive folk I really enjoy listening to, and improving my ambient production. This album is easily the best piece of art I’ve ever made, but hopefully in a year’s time I’ll have something even better.

    J. Wiegold’s Norfolk Serpent is out now.

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