Devil In The Detail: Wednesday Interviewed

“I've always been averse to a sweeping statement...”

It’s 11 a.m. in Paris when Clash connects with Wednesday’s Karly Hartzman. Having played a sold out show at a punk club in the city’s suburbs the night before, she and her band are now packing up to catch a train that will take them to Barcelona to perform at Primavera. 

The group are a long way from Hartzmans base in Asheville, North Carolina, but following the slow burning success of their sophomore record ‘I Was Trying To Describe You To Someone’ they have become well adjusted to life on the road. 

“This is what we love to do,” Hartzman beams. Which is lucky, as following their brief stopover in Barcelona the group have a trio of sold out UK shows before heading back Stateside for further dates, returning to Europe and the UK later this year for a more extensive run. 

Having signed to Dead Oceans for the release of their stunning new record ‘Rat Saw God’, Wednesday are now on the receiving end of more exposure and opportunities than ever before. But their success has been hard won having never wavered from the path which piqued the interest of so many when they were starting out. Equal parts Tom T. Hall and Sonic Youth the band are an enigmatic mix of alternative country and fuzzed out college rock. Hartzmans lyrics are also delivered with a needle point accuracy, honing in on the little moments that make you feel most alive.

‘Rat Saw God’ is no exception and doubles down on Hartzmans ability to spin a story. “I use storytelling as a way to reevaluate my life,” she explains when asked about the themes of the record. It is a surprising response from a songwriter when most try to distance themselves from their characters. “It isn’t really a separation from my life,” Hartzman says. “It’s just a different way to look at it. In a way, I’m using characters to tell actual stories that happened.”

There is an almost overwhelming vividness to ‘Rat Saw God.’ Be it in Hartzmans country twang that can curdle to a scream at any stage, the piercing squalls of distortion and feedback, or even the sumptuous sway of bass and lap steel. It is a vividness that Hartzman also infuses in her words, trying to recreate for herself the meaning in micro moments that others have found before her. 

”I think even though it’s so specific, it ends up being more personal to people,” she explains. And with lines such as “They have scoliosis from constant slumps in misery / Flat parts on their crew cuts from laying their heads on their knees” from ‘Quarry,’ and the devastatingly crystal clear picture it paints, it’s hard to disagree. “I feel like adding details helps people unlock their own memories in a way that sweeping statements don’t. I’ve always been averse to a sweeping statement.”

Given the extreme variance Wednesday incorporates into their sound it comes as little surprise to hear Hartzman draws from a range of sources, that her band then run with when she takes her lyrics and guitar parts to them. “My bandmates fill in the gaps instrumentally to create the mood and support what I’m saying. They are very intuitive.”

But for the most part Hartzman writes alone with her influences. “I listen to music a lot while I’m writing,” she adds. In addition to putting herself inside her stories, actively listening to the work of others when writing is at odds with the creative process of many, something Hartzman struggles to relate to.  “I’ve never understood the isolation thing because I feel like one person can only have so much genius. Why not have all of the geniuses and artists in the world there to inspire you?”

A common theme across much of Wednesday’s back catalogue is addressing the past in the hope of making way for the future. Listeners are led into private worlds where secrets are disclosed and lights shone on the harshest moments. It is something that has mixed results for Hartzman, who manages to move beyond some facets of the past while still being plagued by others. 

“It depends on what kind of memory it is,” she explains. “If it’s something that I blocked out that I’m re-accessing, it can be kind of haunting. If I’m remembering new things about something that I didn’t realise, that may be fucked up, that can be really hard. But a lot of times the whole point is to let go. I think the goal is definitely to exercise those demons, get them out, so I can feel better. And it is very therapeutic.”

By being so open in her writing, Hartzman adds a level of complexity to performing live, having to relive painful memories night after night.  The love she has for what she does though has led her to creative ways to manage this. “You have to figure out how to survive during this,” she laughs. 

“It’s funny, because you’re staying in hotels and travelling and a lot of it is luxurious, but it’s also so hard on you and really pushes you to your limits in a lot of other ways. You have to figure out how to keep going somehow. I’ve gotten better at making it about letting go of my struggles of the day. I try not to think about specifically what I wrote about on stage anymore, because there’s no way to do that every night and feel okay.”

Since heading out on tour Hartzmans home state has brought in new legislation to ban abortions after 12 weeks. A vocal opponent to the ban and pro-choice advocate, it is something she has found herself directly addressing on stage. Something which at times – and especially depending on where she is – can be uncomfortable. “When you play country music and say you’re pro abortion, it’s kind of scary,” Hartzman explains. But subverting the expectations of bands from southern states has become the norm for Wednesday, and something they have in common with one of their biggest champions, Drive-By Truckers.

“They’re the blueprint for what I want to mean to people from the South,” enthuses Hartzman. “They figured out how to be political and still have a fan base and not alienate people. They’re my biggest role models in a lot of ways. I look up to them so much. And I’m so honoured that they take us out on tour. It’s really crazy to have your role model feel that way about you. It’s really cool.”

Wednesday are a band who continue to challenge and confound; making music defined by place and history, staying true to themselves and to their roots while foraging for a brighter collective future. It’s something that has struck a resonant chord with music fans – perhaps unsurprisingly – of all ages. “Our audience is really, really diverse,” says Hartzman. “It’s my favourite thing to see a range of ages and genders because I think that’s the hardest thing to achieve. So many different experiences coming together for my music is such a compliment.” Despite being four albums in, it feels like the swell of Wednesday’s wave is just beginning to crest, and the diversity and size of those audiences seems destined to grow and grow. 

‘Rat Saw God’ is out now.

Words: Craig Howieson

Follow Clash

Buy Clash Magazine