Q&A With Bird Of Youth

Bird Of Youth has no business being this good. Really. If writing and recording a really beautiful album was as easy as Beth Wawerna and her crew made it look, wouldn’t everyone do it? That’s sort of the story here. For most of her decade or so in New York, Wawerna was, in the words of her pal Timothy Bracy, “the consummate green-room insider.” Her background in journalism and her unerring taste had led to a number of indie-rock acquaintances who eventually became friends. It sounds like a pretty good time, hanging out in Brooklyn with the Mendoza Line’s Bracy and Pete Hoffman, Will Sheff of Okkervil River, Carl Newman, Charles Bissell of the Wrens, Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws and others.

But it turned out Wawerna had a secret stash of her own songs, which she’d worked on and demo’d and never, ever let anyone hear. Eventually, as she explains below, she decided it was time to set those songs free. Her pals not only liked them, they helped her form a crack band—guitarist par excellence Clint Newman, drummer Ray Ketchem, bassist Johnny North, keyboardist Eli Thomas and accordion player Elizabeth Bracy Nelson—and recorded them. Sheff and Phil Palazzolo (New Pornographers, Ted Leo, scads more) produced. Bissell contributed a terrific guitar lead on one song. Caws sang. Members of Okkervil River and the National played.

If the result had been an Okkervil River record with a warm female vocal on top, that would have been hard to complain about. But Sheff and Palazzallo put Wawerna’s songs and voice first, adding touches and flourishes that add to the power of the songs without ever overwhelming them. The finished album, Defender, was released in May, just in time to give your summer a worthy soundtrack.

Wawerna will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week, and some of those same friends will be dropping by. We caught up to her in the swirly days between the album’s release and some East Coast tour dates.

“Bombs Away, She Is Here To Stay” (download):
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/BombsAwaySheIsHereToStay.mp3

MAGNET: Let’s start with the moment that fascinates me most: when you decided to go ahead and share these songs with your friends. That’s a big step for anyone. But when your friends are Will Sheff, Timothy Bracy, Charles Bissell—whom I would argue are three of the best American songwriters of the last 10-15 years—that step seems especially daunting. How and when did it happen?
Wawerna: It was definitely daunting. I had essentially been writing in a vacuum for almost 10 years. A lot of self-doubt and fear and apprehension has time to build and multiply in that time. It can feed on itself. But at a certain point, that stuff turned into fuel. The whole time I was writing (in relative secrecy), I was watching a lot of my friends that were in bands, and they just kept putting out records and playing shows and working hard and they had fans, etc. And here I was, still sitting at home with a notebook by myself. And eventually it was just a now-or-never kind of thing. I thought, “Well, I guess it’s time to find out if I suck at music. Because if I do, I do. I suppose I should be putting my energies elsewhere.” I just could not bear the thought of looking back at my life and saying I never tried. Anyway, in the beginning all I had were these lo-fi demos I’d made on ProTools at home. I was a little insecure about my voice, because I’d never really sung out loud for anyone, so I’d doubled and tripled and quadrupled it to the point where it sounded like a chorus of Beths. It makes me laugh when i think about it now, but I just wanted to hide any imperfections. Anyway, I’m fairly certain that Tim Bracy was the first person I sent them to. I met Tim in my early 20s when I first moved to New York. He was playing in the Mendoza Line at the time, which is/was without a doubt one of my favorite contemporary bands. I remember us all getting together back then and getting drunk and singing Gram Parsons songs and Neutral Milk Hotel songs until 4 a.m. And there’s this wonderful energy that Tim has when it comes to music. He genuinely loves making it and playing it, and he is all-inclusive in that he unquestionably believes anyone can make music if they have the desire. It doesn’t matter how experienced or inexperienced you are; he will encourage and support you just the same. I think it’s one of his best qualities. So anyway, I think when I was ready to share these songs, I started there. And I remember hitting “send” on the email and then just wanting to barf. It’s like jumping out of an airplane. But once it was done, a huge weight was lifted. And Tim responded and was very enthusiastic, and he said, “Beth, you must record these songs.” And that gave me the courage to then send the demos to Will and a few other people, and it just sort of grew from there. The other thing is that I didn’t have a “band” at that point. And here’s where Tim’s benevolence comes in again; pretty much immediately he was like, “Well you’ll need a guitar player. Have you met Clint? May I send him these recordings?” Clint was the latter-day guitarist in the Mendoza Line, and I think we’d met once at that point. I said, “Well sure you can send them to Clint, but I have no idea why a total stranger would want to play in my band based on these demos.” But he did. And I owe Tim for that, because Clint has since become an invaluable partner in this band, both on the Defender recordings and as part of our live show. He’s just one of the most talented musicians I know, and I’m honored to play music with him.

Here we offer a dispatch from Bracy with his recollections:
Bracy: In the summer of 2008, my dear friend of many years Beth Wawerna wrote to me requesting that I have a listen to a “couple of her demos.” This was something of a surprise- I knew her well as a superb and insightful critic of music and culture, and I knew she played a mean guitar. But I hadn’t known that she had been writing, and indeed “demoing,” a series of new remarkable new tracks that happily echoed and rivaled the best work of her stated musical inspirations: Nick Lowe, Squeeze and especially Elvis Costello. Beth took such care to undersell her efforts that I felt nearly required to manage my expectations. Well, turns out the joke was on me. Suddenly my inbox began overflowing with great song after great song—songs I wish I had written on my best day: “The Great Defender,” “Spearfish,” “Sex, Blood And Fire.’ It was one after the next. Fully formed, catchy, immediate and ambitious. By the time I heard the ingenious, barrelhouse stomp of “Stop Staring,” I knew full well I had found amongst my quietest friends a truly great American songwriter. Naturally I could not wait to spread the word. “Son of a bitch,” thought I, “this woman has solved music.”
We return now to our chat with Beth Wawerna …

These also happen to be really nice people, so they would have been polite to anyone. When did it become clear that you were really in the club? I mean, these guys didn’t just say, “Hey, nice work there.” They were enthusiastic enough to help turn these demos you had into a fully realized record.
Am I in the club? Ha. I’m not sure. Those guys have been doing this for years and years. They have lots of fans and records and tours under their belts, and I have a lot of work to do to catch up to that. That said, all I can do is take their word for it and believe that they heard something in those demos that was worth pursuing and putting out there. But it took me a while to get to that point. At first, I did think they were just being polite and patting me on the head and then turning around and rolling their eyes at each other. But in reality, they weren’t just saying, “Oh, that’s nice” and then changing the subject. They were genuinely encouraging me to get into the studio—and what’s more, they were offering to help. And I thought, well, if they’re just blowing smoke up my ass, that’s some pretty time-consuming and expensive smoke, so they must believe in these songs. And once I came to that conclusion, I gained a lot of confidence, and it became a lot easier for me to move forward with the record.

Backing up a little: Did you always write songs? As you were reviewing music and interviewing artists for Spin.com and MAGNET and other publications, were you always working on your own music? Or did that come later?
When I was in high school and college, no, it never really occurred to me that I might write and play music. I loved music, I was a huge fan, but it was never something I ever thought I would do myself. I’d played the piano my whole life, so I did have some musical background, but I was playing classical music, not pop music. And for whatever reason, no, I never thought about writing songs at that time. But when I moved to New York after college, I got a job with Spin magazine working for their website. Now, at that time, websites weren’t a big deal; they were still just sort of the ugly stepchildren to the print publication. The rise of music blogs hadn’t really happened yet. We had a tiny staff and one digital camera, and we really didn’t have to answer to anyone. We could do whatever we wanted. Imagine being 22 and having free rein to run all over New York City interviewing bands. Anyway, we wanted a great deal of our content to be audio and video based, which believe it or not was a new-ish idea at the time. We had bands coming in and out of the office constantly, and we would tape interviews and acoustic video performances in our shitty corporate conference room. I met so many amazing musicians during that time, and I think that’s when the seed was planted in my head. I was so inspired by these people and so enthusiastic about music in general, and I started to think, “My god, why didn’t it ever occur to me to play music?” I think maybe that’s what I always wanted, it just took me a while to figure it out. And it was around this time that I met Tim and the other Mendoza Line folks. And as I said earlier, I was just having the best time being in New York and being a part of this scene. And one night Tim and I were hanging out at my apartment, and he said, “You know, you should really brush up on your keyboard playing. Or why not learn the guitar!” I said OK, and I’m pretty sure that night he taught me the chords to “Fuck And Run” by Liz Phair, and it was the first song I ever learned to play on the guitar. And that was when I started writing songs. I only knew about five chords on the guitar, but I wrote and wrote and wrote, and I’m sure the songs weren’t really any good, but at least I was writing. And throughout my 20s, I kind of kept at it, though sometimes I’d go a year without writing a note. It was really cyclical that way, and I wasn’t sharing anything with anyone. But at a certain point, I got really focused, and I started sifting through all these old notebooks and revising and re-writing and really working hard to mold these songs into something I thought was worth sharing. So some of the songs on Defender actually contain little snippets of these older songs, whether it’s a few notes of a verse melody or even just a lyric line or two. And that’s what’s really cool about this album to me. In a weird sort of roundabout way, it’s a scrapbook of my 20s and a living, breathing document of the long, winding road I took in terms of writing and playing music. Like these songs underwent this protracted, painstaking evolution—almost a molting process—into what they are today. And I think that’s what makes this record special. It captures a really unique part of my life and my experience in New York in a way that nothing else ever can or will. It’s very personal.

You reached a summit of cool recently when you sang with the Wrens at Maxwell’s while wearing a Squeeze T-shirt. How did you come upon some of these bands that clearly shaped your taste and your sensibilities? I mean, I was and am a huge Squeeze fan, but I’m the right age. I was 15 when they hit.
Ha. That Squeeze shirt makes a cameo in one of my guest-editing posts this week. Also there’s a video floating around of me singing that song with the Wrens, and if you listen closely, as I’m walking up to the stage, you hear some guy go, “Is she wearing a Squeeze shirt?!” But he’s not saying it with excitement, he’s saying it with revulsion. It’s pretty hilarious. I actually have a whole blog dedicated to this very topic, so I won’t ramble on too much about this. But my music taste has a lot to do with my older brother, who was 14 when I was born. Since he was so much older, we really didn’t even live under the same roof very much at all when I was growing up. But I always remember visiting him at whatever apartment he was living in at the time, and he’d tell me about certain bands he liked. I also liked to rifle through his old LPs, and I’d pull out whatever I thought looked interesting and then play it. That’s how I discovered R.E.M., the Pixies and a ton of other stuff. Squeeze in particular is funny because the cover of that Singles album is seared into my brain. I swear seeing that cover is one of my earliest memories of being a kid and looking through my brother’s record collection. Same with NRBQ’s Tiddlywinks, Exile In Guyville, They Might Be Giants’ Flood and many more. But his absolute favorites were the Replacements and Elvis Costello, and he passed those two down to me in a huge way, along with other stuff like Nick Lowe and Big Star. But again, I’m gonna save some of this because I have a whole blog piece about my brother and his influence on my music tastes.

Connect some dots for me. You’re from Atlanta, went to college in Austin, wound up in New York. How did all that happen, and what role did music—writing about it, being near it—play?
I grew up in Atlanta, yes. When I graduated high school, I had it in my head that I wanted to be a writer of some sort. I had no idea where I wanted to go to college; all I knew was that I absolutely did not want to go to a small liberal-arts school. I wanted to go to a big school, in a big city. That was non-negotiable. So my dad researched a bunch of state schools in cool towns with good journalism programs, and the University of Texas at Austin was one of them. I’d never even been to Austin. But my brother told me it was the coolest city ever and that I had to go there. So my dad took me there to visit one weekend, and I fell in love. I went there knowing no one. It was actually a really exciting time. I think I dropped acid during freshman orientation with a bunch of strangers. But yeah, I knew I wanted to write when I went to college, but I hadn’t really considered being a music writer just yet. In fact almost all throughout college, I worked for The Daily Texan student newspaper as a news reporter and editor, and I went to the state capitol every day to cover higher education policy. That’s a long way from indie rock. But it was invaluable training for me as a writer and observer. I learned more in that Daily Texan basement than I ever did in a classroom.
But my junior year I took a small feature-writing class. At that time, I had just started to get into stuff like Yo La Tengo, Guided By Voices, Elliott Smith, the Spinanes: contemporary indie rock. And I thought, “This is way more fun than politics—maybe I should write about music!” I told my professor this, and he just so happened to know the editor of Spin at the time, who was about to be in town to speak on a panel during SXSW. My professor told me to take my resume and some writing samples, go to his panel, introduce myself and tell him I wanted an internship. I was mortified, but I did it. And I ended up interning at Spin in New York the summer between my junior and senior years, and then they hired me full-time after I graduated.

How did you feel about music writing in general? I eventually stopped doing reviews for MAGNET because I just didn’t feel good about ripping some artist’s work. If I didn’t care for it, maybe that was my problem, right? And at least they were working at it. Maybe the next one would be a breakthrough. Why piss on that? At the same time, I had the chance to have really good conversations with some terrific artists. What did you like and dislike most about it? What were some of your best experiences? Did anyone really let you down? That’s the other big danger. As a sports writer, I’ve found I don’t consider many athletes to be real heroes.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t really enjoy writing about music now. I stopped doing it years ago. For many of the same reasons you did. I loved my job at Spin.com because our goal was first and foremost to help and promote bands that we genuinely loved. We had 100 percent editorial control over the website, and that job was all love. And that felt really really good. I met people back then that are still my great friends, and it was a wonderful experience. But it only lasted a couple of years; eventually they dissolved the website and laid us all off. I was devastated. So I started freelancing a bit for some other music magazines. Writing features was OK, that could be kind of fun, but writing reviews, I did not like. I didn’t feel right sitting up on my high-horse magazine masthead and publicly criticizing someone who is trying to make music. And in retrospect I do think that coincided with my starting to write my own music, while simultaneously befriending a lot of musicians via my job. I just saw what they went through and the shit they had to eat to even get noticed, and I saw a lot of them get ripped up in the press, and I just hated it. Eventually it got to a point where if I had to write a review, I would be very strategic about it and try to only review albums I knew I was going to like. Maybe that made me a pussy in some people’s eyes, but whatever. I don’t think I was ever cut out to be a “music critic” for that reason. And I’m OK with that.
But to your other question, yes, I absolutely had some amazing experiences at the website. I got to interview Elliott Smith in person, and it was one of the most intense and moving conversations I’ve ever had with someone. I was shaking the whole time, I was so insanely nervous, and I had pages and pages of interview questions. I wanted everything to be so perfect. That was the thing: I wanted so badly to learn from the musicians I interviewed, not pick them apart. I wanted to soak up what their lives were like, how they made their art and what inspired them. I had no desire to be adversarial or ask “the tough questions.” Because on some level I knew maybe that one day I would muster the courage to put my own music out there, and I was just so curious about the process.
But yeah, that Elliott Smith interview was really incredible. It felt very real to me in a way that’s hard to articulate. It was a full press day for him, and I was his first interview of the day. And at the end of it, he kind of looked out from under his cap and shook my hand and said, completely stone-faced, “That’s probably the best interview I’ll do all day.” And at the risk of sounding completely corny, moments like that are what made my job as a music writer worth it. Also when we hosted a live chat with Snoop Dogg, and he smoked out our entire office. That was also cool.

In High Fidelity, Nick Hornby ponders whether certain people are obsessed with music because they’re “miserable”—I think we can extend that to cover anyone with a kind of introspective or introverted demeanor—or if listening to all this pop music makes people depressed. Where do you fit on this spectrum? And do you think it would have been easier to be someone who liked what was on the radio and didn’t care quite so much about this stuff?
I think it depends on whether I’m answering this question as a music fan or as a songwriter who is trying to put themselves out there. I think the main character in High Fidelity was miserable. But I’m not wholly convinced that’s because he was obsessed with music. But to speak for myself as a songwriter, my relationship with music began to change a little bit once I started writing my own songs and was attempting to get noticed for them. As a teenager and throughout most of my early 20s, I genuinely believe that my love of and fascination with music was essentially pure. I listened to music because it made me feel good. I was excited by it. I wanted to learn about it. I wanted desperately to discover new things, whether it be a contemporary band or an artist from 40 years ago. But once I started to write my own music and share it with people, I hit this little glitch where my relationship with music got a little complicated. I started having these moments where I realized I was looking at music a bit differently—in a more analytical way that sometimes made me question myself and my own work. By that I just mean I started comparing myself to other bands/artists out there. I would read all the blogs and look all the buzzy bands and try to figure out what they were doing differently than me and why they were successful. But thinking that way is just poison. It leads to really counterproductive thoughts like, “Maybe I shouldn’t wear pants onstage anymore. People seem to respond to that.” You know? It’s just poisonous and pointless, and it will destroy any ambition you have and shatter your self-confidence. And once I realized that, I was able to find a healthier middle ground. I still pay attention to what’s happening and what people are listening to, and I read blogs and all that, but I’ve also found a way to distance myself from that. It’s the only way I can continue to write and be productive and stay true to myself and have a healthy relationship with music. And believe me – it’s not always easy, but I do try.

Tell me a bit about making the record. Will produced along with Phil Palazzalo, who has worked with Neko Case and Ted Leo and the New Pornographers. You had some of the aforementioned friends chipping in. Was this like rock fantasy camp after being around music and musicians for so long? Was it daunting to step in front of the microphone? One reason I ask is that your singing is so assured and distinctive, this sounds like maybe the third or fourth album by a really talented, evolving artist.
Making the record was a great and surreal experience. Obviously, I’d been in and around studios before, but it was my first time making my own album. It was very intense and it forced me to face a lot of my fears and insecurities in a very short period of time. You say fantasy camp—and it was—but at the same time, it was also like boot camp. I mean, I’d hardly ever even sung in front of people at that point, and here I was cutting basic tracks with half of Okkervil River as my backing band, and I’m having to sing scratch vocals and it was just incredibly weird. But at a certain point, it goes from just being these little songs that you wrote in your bedroom and never shared with anyone to being a legitimate album. And once that transition starts to happen, the fear sort of washes away, and it gets replaced by a sense of excitement and energy and pride.

The next step, then, would be live performance. You’ve been to a million shows. You know half the crowd is just there to have a beer or because a friend wanted to see someone else on the bill. I guess the analogy would be someone who was always shooting spitballs and talking in class suddenly having to teach a high-school class. Was it tough to get up there at first? And did that make it more gratifying to do well? I’ve been to a couple shows and the room goes silent when you start singing. Even for the quietest songs.
I have definitely been to a million shows, and I have definitely been that person that stands at the bar and talks over the opening act. I’m not proud of that, but it’s true. So yes, leading up to our first live show, I was really, really nervous. Obviously I knew that we were going to have to start playing out at some point, but I think I was sort of intentionally putting it off a little. It was just such a new world to me. I’m not very comfortable in my day-to-day life being looked at or being the center of attention, and here I am about to walk on a stage? It was crazy. But. I’m good friends with Carl (AC) Newman and his wife Christy. And one day I got an email from Christy asking if we wanted to open for Carl at the Bell House in Brooklyn. Clearly I could not say no. So that was the moment I just sort of held my breath and jumped off the bridge, so to speak. And yes, every experience I’d ever had at a show came rushing back to me. My brain was saying, “Everyone in the audience is either not listening, talking to their friends or silently judging you.”
But despite all my fear and anxiety, that first show was really fun. I couldn’t have asked for a better room to play in, better bands to be playing with, and everyone was just great. And after you get that “first show” out of the way, you never have to play a “first show” ever again. That’s the reward. And now we’ve played a lot of shows, and honestly it’s hard for me to even imagine a time in my life when I didn’t do that. And yes, that is most definitely gratifying.

That brings us to your voice. Who are your favorite singers? I thought of people like Chrissie Hynde or Aimee Mann: strong, authoritative voices even when they’re vulnerable or heartbroken. When the words matter—and they clearly do here—do you think it’s more important to get them across than to yodel or warble like some pop singers of recent vintage?
My favorite female singers, well, you mention Chrissie Hynde, and that’s a big one. She has this way of being tossed-off and flip, but still very musical and melodic when she wants to be. The way she marries those two things and often switches gears between the two over the course of a song is really cool. There’s also a toughness to her singing style that I aspire to a lot. Recently, I’ve also become obsessed with Judee Sill. I have never in my life heard a voice like hers. There is so much emotion and feeling just inherently present in the natural god-given tone of her voice, and there is just zero affect. She can hold one note for 30 seconds, and in that one note you can hear sorrow, joy, anger, anguish—all at once. It’s just remarkable. Her voice is like a knife.
People often say that my singing sounds detached and matter-of-fact. And I think that’s true. Why? I don’t know. It’s just the way I sing. Or maybe it’s just the way I sing these songs. Regardless, I think it pairs well with my lyrical style on this record, and that together they convey a whole, complete personality and point of view. And that’s what I wanted this particular collection of songs to have. They are telling a very specific story, and I don’t think it’s one that would necessarily benefit from a lot of vocal histrionics and showmanship or, conversely, from that sort of sweet, airy, non-threatening way of singing that you hear a lot. With this record, I just want to tell a story. I don’t want to tell you how to feel about it. You know? And I think that’s what people are hearing when they say “detached.” And I’m totally cool with that. I’ve already rambled a lot but to briefly finish off my list of favorite singers, I’ll add some men to the bunch: Mark Eitzel, Jarvis Cocker, Chris Lopez of the Rock*A*Teens (who I am writing a whole guest-editor post about for this), Alex Chilton, Colin Blunstone, Rick Danko, Nick Lowe, the list goes on and on and I touch on some of these other folks in my guest blogs so I’ll shut up now.

As for the writing itself, I’m struck by how tightly connected the words are to the melodies. Sometimes you sense the words come first and the composer essentially adds music to a poem. Other times, you really feel like the words are appended to existing melodies or sound beds. Your songs mostly feel like the words and melodies mostly came at the same time. Or maybe I’m projecting because your background is in the written word?
Typically, the melodies come to me first. I sit down with the guitar and strum a bunch of random chords, and I’ll sing some nonsense words over that until something sounds good. If I’m lucky, a chord progression and a melodic line will sort of lock into place simultaneously. Or at least a little snippet of it will, and that becomes the starting point, and I build out and around it from there. I usually don’t write lyrics until after I’ve got the melody and song structure pretty much mapped out. It’s almost a separate exercise for me. I’m not sure why that is. I guess I take writing lyrics very seriously, and I feel it deserves my full attention. I can’t really write them as I’m strumming the guitar or whatever. I need to be fully focused on the words in front of me.
But the funny thing is that sometimes, I become so used to whatever nonsense word or phrase I was singing when I wrote the melody, that it becomes impossible for me to separate the two. And so there are a lot of songs of mine where the first few words of a line or chorus are actually the bullshit mumbly words I was singing when I wrote it. I’m always very amused by how this seemingly nonsensical word jumble often means more than you think it does when you’re singing it, and that it can inspire a whole set of lyrics about something actually very meaningful.

A lot of your songs feel like the sharp observations of someone who is more comfortable a bit off to the side, taking in the scene and the people in it. Is that fair? And what happens when you’re not off to the side anymore? Do you find your writing evolving as you play more shows and become more confident?
I think I probably answered a lot of this in one of your above questions about playing live. And yes, I do think that I am more comfortable being off to the side and being a background player, but I am not happier that way. I knew that music was something I wanted to pursue, I’ve known it for a long time. But the reason I waited so long to do it had everything to do with comfort—more specifically a fear of pushing myself outside my comfort zone. And that’s no way to live. Remaning in your comfort zone at all times would be pretty fucking boring, so I knew I had to just go for it at a certain point.

So what’s it like to hold the CD in your hand? To know it’s being released into the world? At this point, it’s hard to even know what to expect when an album comes out. I have a friend who is a remarkable songwriter and his big hope is that some established artist will record one of his songs so he can get paid some royalties. I guess what I’m asking here is what your hopes and expectations are, and are you in this for the long haul? Will Bird Of Youth go all in and tour and continue to record?*
I’ve worked so hard to get this record finished, as have a lot of my talented and selfless friends, and so holding it in my hand feels great. It’s been a really long time in the making, and I’m just so relieved we were able to get it done and get it out there. In terms of my expectations, I try so hard not to have any. This is my first record, and I believe in these songs, and I can only hope that some other people out there feel the same way. I have every intention of making another record. I’d love to get back into the studio again immediately to be honest. I know a lot more now than I did when making this record, and I’d love to take that experience and apply it to album number two. I’m also excited to be writing new songs and trying new things. I don’t plan on stopping.

—Phil Sheridan