Last year, Jenn Wasner announced the revival of her solo project Flock Of Dimes in exciting fashion: Newly signed to Sub Pop, she reappeared with a surprise EP called Like So Much Desire amidst details that she was already in the studio recording a new Flock Of Dimes album. Once upon a time, Flock Of Dimes was viewed as a synthier, poppier counterpart to Wye Oak; but then, that wasn’t all that removed from Wye Oak’s own turn in that direction with Shriek. In the years since, Wasner’s proved that both of her projects are malleable, that neither is about certain stylistic constraints. Like So Much Desire suggested we were in for a very different Flock Of Dimes — it was an intimate, reflective, spare collection of songs.
In that sense, Like So Much Desire was a fitting introduction to this new era of Flock Of Dimes. Wasner’s new album Head Of Roses arose from great heartbreak, processing that loss within the isolation of the pandemic, and the resulting seismic shifts she felt in her own perception and identity. Wasner’s music has never shied away from delving into the deepest and most mysterious corners of human emotion. But something about Head Of Roses feels different. In an effort to speak more openly, Wasner’s come out with perhaps the most direct set of music she’s yet released.
That is not to say Head Of Roses is all one mood. In tracing the arc and decline of a relationship as well as stages of grief, it makes room for seething yet matured rock songs like “Price Of Blue” alongside strange yet infectious pop songs like “Two.” There are moments of transportive, dreamlike melodies. But along the way she does lean into a comparatively stripped-down approach, singing over guitar or piano with only a few accompaniments or embellishments. Head Of Roses presents a slightly older, ever so slightly wiser Wasner, a woman exiting a strange and tumultuous time with a completely altered idea of herself. The album is — as you might expect — strikingly beautiful throughout. But what makes it so powerful in the context of Wasner’s work is how she is now grappling with elemental, eternal human struggles through music that is emotionally raw but aesthetically subtler than some of the great cathartic Wye Oak moments of the past. She’s writing about the quieter ways storms can visit our lives, and all the destruction and renewal that comes with that.
Ahead of the album’s arrival, we caught up with Wasner, who walked us through the inspirations and themes of each song on Head Of Roses. It’s a rich, complex album that unfolds more with each listen. Now that you can hear the whole thing for yourself for the first time, dig in and read along below for Wasner’s stories behind how Head Of Roses came to be.
1. “2 Heads”
To me this song is this sort of disembodied hymn, a slow intro to the album. You actually wrote it back in 2015 before the first Flock Of Dimes album had even come out. Why was this a piece of music you knew, even six years ago, you wanted to hang on to as the opening track for the next Flock Of Dimes album?
JENN WASNER: That’s a question I actually had to ask myself in the making of this record. There’s something that can intuitively happen in writing where you know instantly that it’s either an opener or a closer, just based on the quality that it has. I think the opening line, “How can I explain myself?” — it’s a lyrical throat-clearing moment or something. I had this song, like you said, for quite some time, and I had accumulated quite a bit of material that could have gone on Head Of Roses. I pared it down to the 10 tracks that it is, but “2 Heads” still made the cut.
It’s impossible to get into that without getting into the essential themes of the record, so I’ll give you my elevator pitch for that just to start us off. This record is about having your heart broken and breaking someone else’s heart at the same time. It’s about the avoidance of painful truths and embracing that duality — it may make it more difficult to protect yourself from pain, but in the end it is a path towards growth and healing. So going into the record it was important that it tells a story.
I had to dig back into where I was at and what I was thinking about when I wrote “2 Heads.” That song is from a completely different time of my life and it’s about a completely different thing. That song is about unintentional self-sabotage, and the ways in which choosing a path of healing and growth can often lead you away from people and places and things you care about very deeply. At the time I had been writing “2 Heads” it was more about my relationship to my family and my upbringing. But I liked it so much as an introductory statement. In thinking about it, I realized it does make sense — I think when I wrote that song it was a moment in my life when I was just starting to pull the initial threads of a lot of the larger themes that came into play [for Head Of Roses], that I was sort of forced to contend with in a different way and to a deeper extent, with the combination of pandemic and heartbreak and global and personal crisis combined. Chronologically speaking, I think “2 Heads” was the beginning inkling of me taking some of those ideas apart, acknowledging a painful truth but trying to hold it and embrace both sides of it, embrace the love I have for where I come from but the desire to grow and change and evolve, and the space that exists between those two sometimes conflicting realities or choices.
I don’t think I would’ve realized that there was a connection unless I was forced to justify to myself, “Why is this going on this record? Why is it the first track?” But in that way, when I listen to it with a fresh set of ears, in the context of making it an introductory statement, it works perfectly. It was a wild thing. I couldn’t have come up with a better introduction if I had written this yesterday. That’s what I fucking love about songs so much, too. If you’re doing it right, they can really expand to fit so many different scenarios and circumstances. They’re sort of designed to be these beautiful little containers for whatever a person’s specific life experience might be. And it even works for me sometimes, if I wait enough time between writing and releasing a song, I get to have that moment of thinking, “Oh, I am in this thing.”
You brought up that introductory line, which did immediately strike me as a mission statement in terms of the image of two heads in your mouth and all the different angles on identity later on in the album. You didn’t tweak these lyrics at all since 2015?
WASNER: It’s exactly as it was written in 2015, yeah. This shit gets weird. You get addicted to it, I think, or at least I do. Because you start to learn things about yourself that you wouldn’t otherwise when you start to bring your subconscious to the party, you know? That’s the freaky shit. That’s what happens with songs so much. You get into this intuitive channeling headspace. You’re like, “I don’t know where that phrase came from, I don’t know where that idea came from. I don’t know what that means, it just came out of my mouth.” Sometimes you don’t have an idea of what it meant — or you have a new understanding of what it meant much later. It’s pretty cool when you learn things about yourself that you never realized you knew all along.
2. “Price Of Blue”
In a way, “2 Heads” is a prologue, and then “Price Of Blue” is this big, intense six-minute thing that really feels like the curtain rising on the album. I was actually thinking about this recently when Civilian turned 10 — after that, you were talking about how you just couldn’t write on a guitar again. So all these years later, what is it that draws you back to that rock sound? What leads you back to that place of thinking, I need this instrument to convey this moment?
WASNER: There’s an easy answer to that, and there’s an easy answer to why the second song is “Price Of Blue.” The record sort of unfolds in a semi-chronological way. “Price Of Blue” is an angry song, and in the stages of grief, anger is one of the first because anger anesthetizes us to our pain. I’m really proud of this song, but I have a lot of complicated feelings about it now because anger tends to be the stage of grief I move through most quickly. I have a hard time really sitting with my anger, and I think I have some embarrassment around it.
But, I don’t think there’s an instrument that can embody that emotion as effectively as a loud, distorted, fucked-up sounding electric guitar. It’s just a matter of being like, this is the tool that is needed for the job. I didn’t expect it to get quite so gnarly. In my mind I was thinking of it more as a wall-of-sound Cocteau Twins kind of thing. Sometimes you have to let go and let something turn into what it’s becoming rather than hold on too tightly to the idea of it you had in your head.
It does have this very ragged, weathered quality to it.
WASNER: It comes from a place of exhaustion, and confusion, and that feeling of having gone around in circles over and over again in your mind, trying to make sense of what’s happened to you. It’s a moving target. You’re second-guessing everything you thought you knew. Whatever person you used to use as an anchor for your experience has now vanished, leaving you alone with having to figure out how to make meaning of your own story by yourself. I don’t think it’s the deepest song on the record, I don’t think it’s as complex in meaning, and I don’t think it’s as far along in unpacking as a lot of the later songs, which deal with more of the complexity of entering into forgiveness. But there’s a time and space for feeling one’s anger, and it can’t be avoided, and it certainly can’t be repressed. Everything that’s repressed comes back tenfold down the line in some horrible, destructive way. That’s really what the purpose of the song is on the record, and what the purpose of writing a song like that can be.
Being that it’s an earlier song and this emotional space you don’t necessarily like to spend a lot of time in, do you feel more distant from this song than the others?
WASNER: Not yet. I haven’t played it nearly enough. It’s a hard song to sing. I’m still wrapping my mind around that. But no, I love this song, I’m proud of it as a composition. It’s kind of a perfect example of… I’ve said this before but I think it’s very apparent in this song especially. Sometimes there’s this cognitive separation between mind and body for me, where when I’m writing I’m trying to reverse engineer a feeling from the place of having an idea of a feeling first. That starting place of “This is the idea, this is what I want to express, these are the words, how do I reverse engineer a piece to fit that?”
A lot of the songs on this record came into being in a very different way. I was much more in my body because I was in a lot more physical and emotional pain. My higher brain wasn’t entering into the picture yet and I was able to bridge that gap. I honestly wasn’t aware that gap even existed, that ability to sort of numb out to my own pain. This is all to say, when you’re angry it feels good to play loud guitar, and this song emerged from trying to feel a certain way in my body.
When we spoke last year, you were saying it a bit more sardonically, but you were referring to having gone through a quarantine breakup. Did all of these songs originate from that period of time?
WASNER: Not all, but most.
When you’re talking about being very present, it’s a grief state in a lockdown.
WASNER: Yeah, the majority of these songs were written between March and June 2020.
There’s one sentiment in here that stuck with me, the idea of even when a person’s not in your life anymore, there are pieces of them that you carry on with you or that are sort of tattooed on you. In the context of this being an angrier song, is that something “Price Of Blue” is trying to burn away, or coming to a moment of acceptance that these people who are part of our past selves are always going to be a part of our current self too?
WASNER: I think I spent a lot of this year thinking about the parts of our selves and maybe trying to shine some light on the parts of my self that I have ignored, or haven’t been aware of, or that I’ve been ashamed of. It’s important to mention the difference between “burning off” — which to me sounds like a different way of processing — vs. avoiding and repressing. I think so much of what I learned about myself and what I’d like to think I’ve learned about people has to do with the pain that can be caused through avoidance, through an attempt to avoid one’s pain.
I think this is actually more of an invitation to sit with it and acknowledge it and embody it, rather than blow through it and rush past it. Because that’s what I generally do, especially when it comes to anger. I have tended in the past to deprioritize my emotional needs in the face of others’ emotional needs, and often that means not acknowledging when I’m angry or forcing myself to get through it more quickly than is healthy. That’s the way pain is actually worked through in a healthy way — forcing yourself to get over something before you’re actually over it just results in more pain and confusion down the line. I would say “Price Of Blue” is less about trying to exorcise it and more about trying to sit with the more uncomfortable parts of the emotional experience.
What does the phrase “Price Of Blue” mean?
WASNER: I’m trying to decide if I want to tell you… It was inspired by something very directly but I changed the wording slightly. I’ll just go ahead and tell you because why not? One of the books I’ve read many, many times in times of heartbreak is Bluets by Maggie Nelson. In it, she uses the words “Prince Of Blue.” I decided I wanted to change it. It’s more of a loose inspiration. Sometimes you see a pairing of words and you really like how they sit together and sound together and look together.
I think it would be tempting to read into it as blue being interpreted the way it usually is — a sadness, having the blues. That’s probably the obvious read on it. But if you read the book Bluets so much of it is about the narrator’s passionate, almost irrational love of the color blue in all its wonder and complexity. And it’s also the story of a great loss, a great heartbreak. To me, that couplet “Alone with you/ The price of blue” — in that context I think about blue less as sadness and more the depth and beauty and richness of experience. The loss — the anger, the pain, the grief, and the shock of it all — is the price that’s being paid for choosing to open yourself to the wonder and beauty and joy and complexity of connecting with another person.
In terms of the chronology, this one feels earlier to me — like the part of a relationship where you are falling for somebody but you get defensive about maintaining your individuality. Then musically it’s sort of the ebullient pop song on the album.
WASNER: Your read on it is accurate. It was one of the songs that was written outside of that concentrated spring 2020 period. It’s a beginning of a relationship song. Navigating, maintaining your sense of autonomy and separateness with your desire to connect and to merge. It’s one of those puzzles that I think everyone, to varying degrees, has to try and navigate. As human beings we need each other to live but I think it’s very important to understand the difference between interdependency, in a healthy way, and codependency, in an unhealthy way. When I wrote this song I was navigating a lot of these ideas in a more optimistic and upbeat kind of headspace.
But it’s also not just about that. I would say the first verse points to that most directly. The second verse is about not feeling at home in one’s body. Not feeling the entire spectrum of human experience can be expressed with the limited options we have available to us as dictated by what society expects or demands. Having to contend with ideas of masculinity and femininity and how to present oneself, all the trappings of personality we learn and the ways in which we try to make ourselves known and seen to the world.
The song is really just about duality in all its forms, and the great unanswerable question of that. My therapist gives me a hard time for my extremely binary thinking. Which is funny… with some perspective, I’d think of myself as someone who’s able to have a fair amount of complexity tolerance. But I think when I’m in a highly emotional, responsive state, I can sometimes want to lean into one extreme or the other. You want this easy concrete, simple, direct solution. But the truth exists in learning how to make yourself more comfortable in that strange, unknowable, undefined middle space.
Why was this the lead single?
WASNER: Because everyone told me to. [Laughs] Honestly, I feel like I’m sometimes the worst judge of what my music is and how it reads to other people. I tend to trust others more than I trust myself, in that. I really just can’t tell how people are going to react to certain things. This song is more of an obvious in. Sure, it’s an odd time signature. But it’s catchy and it’s direct. I think it sets the stage. There are a lot of really heavy, sad songs on this record, but it’s pretty varied overall. Coming out the gate with a song like “Two” sets a precedent of, “This record is not necessarily going to go just in the one direction you think it’s going to go.”
4. “Hard Way”
Once upon a time you thought this was a song of new love.
WASNER: I did. It can be read that way, too.
Now it could be a lost love song, but you’ve also talked about how there was a current of unease even when you wrote it, and you didn’t know it then. The very structure of the song feels that way to me. It’s not quite stuttering or stop-start, but there’s this way it keeps grazing up against something and not going all the way there. When did you realize it wasn’t quite the sentiment you thought earlier on?
WASNER: This is a perfect example of one of the things we talked about before, these strange inexplicable moments where you manage to pull something down from the ether that perfectly encapsulates something that hasn’t happened to you yet. I do think, in a lot of ways, if you take it at its most surface-level, it actually can be painting a picture of a sweet and earnest love song. “Just because I know/ Doesn’t mean I go.” It’s a promise, it’s an intention. In my mind, as I was writing it… I was taking a shower and it just popped into my head, the melody and the words. I could hear the progression, it was one of those moments where I had to get out of the shower really quick and turn off all the music and run over to the piano to get this while it’s here. I was thinking it was very sweet and elegant. Simple and pure. But not necessarily dark. But every recording I tried to make of it had this creepy darkness to it, it sounded foreboding and morose and dirge-y.
I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, and I still really don’t to be honest with you. I’ve spent God knows how many hours — and at this point, weeks and months and years — trying to make sense of my experience, and there are still so many questions that are unanswerable. The lack of certainty is one of the only certain things we have. [Laughs] I think the song embodies that for me.
I didn’t forget your initial question. As for when I realized that, I think it was much, much later — after that relationship had dissolved — that I was able to take another look at that song and see there was maybe more to it. There were some other songs from that time that were also more earnest, heart-on-sleeve love songs, that did not wind up on this record because there wasn’t a second reading of them to be had. So I was like, “Well, this is obviously trash.” [Laughs] “That didn’t work, what an idiot.” But this one, there was a second reading, something under the surface that I didn’t see but was just as real and true as the surface part of it.
There’s a moment here that almost has this country lament vibe to me, the way your voice works around “Are we 20 miles from nothing here,” and when that melody recurs with different lyrics.
WASNER: I think it’s one of those songs where the metaphor works on multiple levels. It is, quite literally, about one specific day and one specific walk with one specific group of people. But you can use the walk as a metaphor for the duration of a relationship. In the first verse there’s this uncertainty and questioning and spark. In the second verse, too, those initial feelings of connection and attraction. Then as the song continues it just gets more complicated. There’s a certain weight that descends. Then at the end it’s, “Alone again/ My time it is my own again.”
I think this year, a lot of people have been experiencing something I’ve always felt I’m keyed into, which is the strange circularity of time. Much of the way I’ve lived my life has felt very… like I’m tracing these loops. Tour is particularly reminiscent of what I’m talking about. You’re going to the same places, doing roughly the same activities. I think this year in particular because everyone was forced to spend so much time in one place, my experience with time, at least, had a very different quality. I like the idea of this song being a song that plays with the idea of time. You can listen to it and think of it being the passing of one single day and the description of the things that happened and the conversations and where it started and where it ended. It could also be the passing of a year, the passing of a relationship. It could be the passing of a life. There’s this way it can be expanded or contracted to fit whatever cross-section of time.
Yeah in a sense it very much felt like a traveler’s song to me.
WASNER: Absolutely, the pace of it and the tempo of it, the repetitiveness of it. It’s kind of meant to be played on a loop a little bit, you know? The pace of it is the pace of a leisurely stroll. I’ve never thought of it that way, but unquestionably. That feeling of perpetual motion is such a huge part of who I am and how my brain works. It’s been really reassuring in a lot of ways to realize that sensation, that quality of time and motion, doesn’t necessarily require actual, physical, tangible motion. It’s something else entirely. It’s a quality of time and presence and perception. So, yeah, I love thinking of it as a traveler’s song.