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Wednesday Singer Karly Hartzman on Dating MJ Lenderman and Songwriting

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Wednesday’s genre-bashing fifth album, “Rat Saw God,” demands immediate attention. The Asheville-based quintet is fronted by powerhouse singer and guitarist Karly Hartzman, who spins vivid portraits of mundane American life (one gorgeous example, from “Quarry”: “Old bitter lady sits catty-corner to the aftershock from the quarry / She says, ‘America’s a spoiled child that’s ignorant of grief’ / But then she gives out full-size candy bars on Halloween”). Meanwhile, guitarist MJ “Jake” Lenderman and lap steel player Xandy Chelmis create a lush, shoegazey bed for the group’s songs, which thrum along with bassist Margo Schultz and drummer Alan Miller’s precise playing.

Ahead of the band’s sold-out show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on June 20, Variety spoke with Hartzman about how her unconventional upbringing brings a specificity to her lyrics, writing with Lenderman, her bandmate and boyfriend, and early plans for their next album.

Your songwriting is filled with lines that are so distinct. When did you realize you were able to create art out of these small moments of your life?

All of the art I appreciate is that same style. It’s very southern, an appreciation of slowing things down and noticing details. Vic Chesnutt is the person that comes to mind, someone that could write entire songs about a single detail pulled from a day of his life, and all the novelists I like that I talk about all the time, like Mary Karr and Richard Brautigan. You’ll read a chapter in a Richard Brautigan book that’s all about soup or something, but not in a boring way. All the things that can stem from little details which unlock other little details is just an easier way for me to write, rather than trying to write about an overarching idea of love or death or something.

Also, I have a photography degree. I’m not really into that anymore, but that’s another medium where you have to look at shit that everyone’s looking at, but find something worth capturing.

You really flex your vocal range on this album and are able to conjure an amazing scream. How do you determine the best time to deploy it, and what’s your strategy of nailing the perfect rock scream?

Recording “Bull Believer” was probably the third time I ever screamed in my life. I hadn’t had time or space to practice. I’ve honed it now because I have to do it every night, and I watched a lot of videos on YouTube of Flyleaf — the lead singer of that band describing how she takes care of her voice. It’s taken a lot of practice to do it in a way that’s sustainable. I’ve always wanted to scream in our music, but I knew that I had to write about this one particular thing that I really need to scream about in my life before unlocking like the ability to scream casually. I really needed to prioritize this memory that’s obviously very personal and had to get there first.

You grew up Jewish in a conservative Southern town. How did that inform your songwriting?

It was an experience that offered me an outsider perspective. I have a lot of songs that come from someone viewing something happening, not necessarily participating in the situation. I oftentimes felt like I was viewing Christianity from this safe space where I didn’t actually have to be involved in it, because I knew a lot of my friends that were growing up Christian were scared of their bodies and hell and magic and so many fun, exciting things. I was just so fascinated by that. I was very casually Jewish, so it was mostly food and family and singing. I just found Christianity really creepy and some of the stuff that some of my friends’ parents would say to me about being Jewish was just like, “Damn, I guess you can tell me I’m going to hell, but that’s weird because you’re my friend’s mom.” It wasn’t anything too traumatic, but always just like a one step outside of what a lot of my other friends were experiencing.

You’ve been open about your relationship with your bandmate, Jake. How do you think you impact each other’s songwriting?

We’re still figuring it out, as we tour more and more together. He’s in Wednesday and I’m playing guitar in his band, MJ Lenderman, on tour. It’s a lot of time we spend together. He writes his guitar parts for Wednesday, and he teaches me guitar parts for MJ Lenderman songs because he’s a lot better at guitar than me. I’m just thankful to be in his band because the musicians are just so amazing. I learn a lot of very basic things I never got because I’m self-taught.

I think in Wednesday, Jake’s able to express something in a completely different voice. We’re using different muscles through the two projects. I think it’ll adapt over time because both projects are becoming successful, but it’s almost seeming like we’re going to be on tour all of the time if we do both. It’s kind of the exciting part that it will change, but right now it’s one blobby MJ-Wednesday thing that’s slightly defined by the songwriting.

Wednesday’s such a prolific band. You’re finishing up a tour, but for the rest of the year are you planning on writing more, or recording more, or just taking some time off?

Well, the next album’s written. I don’t know when we’re gonna be able to get to it, but it’s done on my end because I write all the time. We’ve been on tour for eight weeks, and it will be for 10 weeks total. I don’t think I could do something quite like this again. I want to go everywhere, but I need more space in between. My songs are about home, and if I’m never at home it doesn’t really make sense. We were just home and for two days and I was like, “Damn, I live in the best place ever.” Just sitting on my front porch, that’s what I live for. My music is my therapy and my passion, and I love sharing music with people on tour, but I want to do a better balance of home and tour, relaxing and being able to take care of myself. Then, me and Jake are going to switch off releasing stuff because we both write a lot.



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