Wendy Eisenberg :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Wendy Eisenberg is an improvising guitar and banjo player with an extraordinary command of their instruments, flitting effortlessly from intricate, off-balance jazz riffs to oblique 20th century classical motifs to rock and folk and Latin sounds.  Trained in classical music and jazz, the artist employs considerable skills in the service of what sound like enigmatic pop songs, which draw on soul-wrenching experiences in a very formal, well-regulated way.  Their latest album, Auto, on the BaDaBing label, merges both these elements—the shit-hot guitar playing and the poised, oddly distanced self-revelation—in one of the year’s most intriguing releases.  We talked as one of the weirdest summers on record drew to a close about Eisenberg’s technique, their fascinating with auto-fiction and the way that really demanding musical structures can provide a layer of protection when songs are very personal. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: The thing that fascinates me about your music is the way you weld really difficult, complicated guitar parts to what seem like pop songs. How do you think about these two elements individually and how they come together?

Wendy Eisenberg: I think I have a really inborn pop sensibility, but I also don’t like to waste things. One of the luckiest things in my life has been being able to embrace jazz and improvised music as a deep study. I think about writing as a way to bridge the complexity of what I’m capable of on the instrument and what’s possible from a musical theoretical space into pop without it being pretentious. That’s my goal: to wed those things and play with the dialectic that they seem to pose for a lot of people.

AD: It sounds like you’ve had some pretty serious training on the guitar.

Wendy Eisenberg: Yeah, I have. I was actually pretty much self-taught as a guitarist, though I did have a teacher show me some theory stuff when I was a kid. I learned jazz theory from a bass player, but he never taught me how to play the instrument itself. Towards the end of high school, I hooked up with a guitar teacher, and then I went to music school and studied guitar at the pre-professional level. I’ve kind of moved on with my career as a guitar player first, treating it as a divining rod, and then developed as a writer second. I think that’s what’s so exciting about this record. It feels like it’s combining the guitar playing and, the writing in a more intimate way.

AD: Yes, I agree. Which music school did you go to?

Wendy Eisenberg: I went to New England Conservatory for graduate school, and I went to undergrad at the Eastman School of Music.

AD: So very serious academic background in music. That’s not surprising, because I’m hearing all kinds of things in the music part of what you do. Jazz and rock and bossa nova and 12-tone classical stuff. Can you talk about what kind of music inspires you the most right now?

Wendy Eisenberg: Right now [laughs], all of those influences are major.

I wouldn’t write the way that I did without having a classical guitar teacher at Eastman show me the work of Leo Brouwer. And that has always stuck with me as a genius of harmony and rhythm and proportion.

AD: What can you tell me about him? I’m not familiar.

Wendy Eisenberg: Because I sense a magic in his work, I’ve kept my level of information about his person to a minimum, which is something I have feelings about sometimes. But yeah. I don’t know much about him.

He wrote these simple etudes for the beginning classical guitar player that take from …it sounds like bossa nova harmony. I forget what country he’s from [He’s Cuban]. He’s got a different sense of common practice harmony than any other guitar writer. Most of the writers for beginning classical guitar write in a straight up, like, ripping Mozart kind of way. And he doesn’t do that. And it’s just really bitonal and just amazing. But he’s an early influence.

Recently I’ve been listening…a friend has been turning me on to a lot of stuff in the Baltimore noise scene. I’ve been listening to Jason Willett and Nautical Almanac.  

AD: I like what you said about the title, Auto, that it refers partly to cars and partly to the way that playing can become automatic but also to auto fiction, which I gather is a form of autobiography. Can you tell me a little bit about that and how you use personal experience in your writing process?

Wendy Eisenberg: Pretty early on as a songwriter, the idea that I should never tell a lie when I wrote bubbled up to me from the ether. I’m very wary of writing in a fictional mode or an allegorical mode, because I really aim for precision in everything that I do. I feel like the subject that I can be the most precise is my emotional range in life.

So, auto fiction is literary technique. It’s been pretty popular for the past 10 or 15 years. But it comes from W. G. Sebald, who wrote Austerlitz and other books that are just about his experience of walking or noticing. My favorite auto-fiction writer is probably Rachel Cusk. She writes thinly veiled, half fictional but not really fictional accounts of the end of her relationship and being a mother. It’s really powerful work, and when I write I realized I was using a lot of the same techniques. They tend to be pretty epigrammatic. They’re divided into small sections rather than having to be a long, flowing narrative. Something I pride myself on as a lyricist is doing that.  

AD: That’s an interesting thing, because these songs are about some very personal, deeply felt things, but they have kind of a formal quality.

Wendy Eisenberg: Thank you.  

AD: Do you filter raw experiences through a craft to help you distance yourself from them?

Wendy Eisenberg: I’m proud of the way that I’ve been able to do that as a lyricist. I never want to feel cloying, but I also never want to feel diaristic in a way that would make the audience or the listener feel like a voyeur. That’s not really of interest to me. It’s got to be more about the formal function embodied by the content.

AD: Are things like cadence and word choice very important to you?

Wendy Eisenberg: Yes, but the work…I work hard on that work in the pre-production stage of writing. Like I really try to have a pretty generative reading practice. And then the writing…I never really edit my lyrics. I just spit them out. Because I’ve done all this work as a reader and a really critical reader, the rhythm of the line comes out more naturally than if I were to work it over.

AD: What are you reading now?

Wendy Eisenberg: Lots of stuff. I’m reading an earlier Rachel Cusk thing again. I’m all about her. It’s called The Last Supper, and I think that’s probably the most relevant just in terms of the language that I’m using. I’m also reading a lot of Gilbert Sorrentino’s short stories.

AD: Do you tend to gravitate to things because of what they’re about or how they’re written or a mix of both?

Wendy Eisenberg: It’s a mix but I prefer how it’s written. My favorite, one of my favorite books of all time is this weird poetic epic called The Changing Light at Sandover.  It’s by James Merrill who is a really formalist, snooty poet. It’s like a Paradise Lost almost. But it’s written with a Ouija board, so he uses the chance function. That’s exactly what I want to do as a lyricist. Is like channel some stuff the way he did and then make it formal and beautiful.

AD: Ben Chasny uses this hexadic system as part of his writing process. That sort of thing, the element of random in music, that’s really interesting to me.

Wendy Eisenberg: Yeah, me too. I think that you have to allow for these glimmers of chance. Otherwise it’s too staid.  

AD: The thing is it’s not completely random. Say you’re using the tarot and you see a card, what you think about that card will still be coming from inside you. It allows you to discover different things that you were probably thinking about anyway.

Wendy Eisenberg: That’s so insightful and also very amazing that you mentioned that because there’s a lot of tarot hidden on the record.

AD: Really? I wasn’t picking any of that up. Do you read tarot?

Wendy Eisenberg: Yeah.

AD: I’m always getting the bad cards online. It’s always death. I just stopped doing it.

Wendy Eisenberg: We should do a reading. There are no bad cards.

AD: Anyway, the first song, “I Don’t Want To” is about your home where you grew up.  It sounds like something you have really mixed feelings about. Can you tell me a little about where you grew up and what that was like?

Wendy Eisenberg: There’s a lot of my childhood on the record, especially in that one. I grew up in Maryland in a suburb of Washington, DC. But it’s pretty far out west. It’s close to farmland. I don’t know why I’m telling you that. As if it’s like a justification for the aesthetic demise that is living in the suburbs but…whatever.

That’s the last song I wrote as a child. And in terms of just musical information, it’s the most classically jazz of all of them, in terms of harmonies. It’s like a Disney song, essentially. I feel like I’ve been moving past that framework.

Mostly, when you’re a kid you have all these strange obligations that don’t come from you. The song is about that. Like what people require from you as a performance as a mode of being. By writing the most staid jazz harmony into a song and making it an improvisational thing, it’s about a rebellion from that kind of restriction.

AD: Was it the typical suburban thing where you felt like you didn’t belong?

Wendy Eisenberg: Absolutely. I’ve also always had a monolithic interest in music. Since I was maybe 11, I’ve been pursuing this and taking it really seriously. There’s always a sense of otherness because no 11-year-old should choose their life path. That’s just a crazy way of being.

AD: So, what is the scraping, friction-y, sound at the beginning of that song?

Wendy Eisenberg: That might be my rubbing my pick on the strings. I’ve been doing a lot of that. I don’t really prepare my guitar because, frankly, it’s a really special guitar, and I don’t want to hurt it. The fetish characteristic of prepared guitar …it appeals to me in an abstract way, but I’ve been doing a lot of work with fingernails and picks and trying to make the guitar sound the way Polly Radfield plays violin.

AD: Tell me about “Centreville.” That’s the one about the assault I think.

Wendy Eisenberg: It is. Yeah, I…

AD: As much as you want to say. If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine.

Wendy Eisenberg: No. I am an open book about it. It happened. I’m just not sure where my entry point is for some reason. The song itself, as a song, is so much about building up a technical sense of resistance to an experience. Like to play this song, you really have to dislodge your brain from your body. It’s such a rigorous piece.

“Centreville” is sort of Afro-beat-adjacent and it’s got this repetitive trilling riff.

What happened to me in the assault that’s of interest to anybody is that I could feel myself disassociate. I could feel my body doing things, and my brain doing different things. What was important to me about being able to write a song like that to try to reclaim some of the virtues of embracing that Cartesian split from a technical standpoint. If I could make some kind of leap where my body could be totally different from my brain, that implies that the brain can be free. You can be free from some sort of bodily perception of things.

That’s a dangerous line of thinking. It can become carceral or a way of managing a subject. For me, I thought it was important to try to get a disassociated piece as a possibility, because I have the luxury of the skill that I’ve been able to develop. Just being the guitar player that I am.  I want to play with what’s possibly anyway. Why not make what’s possible as personal as possible?

AD: Is it upsetting to play that song? When you go out and do it on the road and you’re doing it every night for a month, is that going to be hard?

Wendy Eisenberg: Well, that presupposes that touring is going to happen again.

AD: Oh, it’ll happen again someday.

Wendy Eisenberg: I love your faith. I should have some, too. But yeah, you know at this point — this is really dark — the disassociation is kind of fun. I enjoy it. Being dexterous on the instrument is a source of pleasure to me. Not to be a hammy guitar god, but it feels good to play. It feels especially good to play something I wrote that’s so completely what I meant to do from a philosophical standpoint. I feel a level of resonance with the song that’s separate from the experience that I was trying to describe by it.

AD: I wanted to ask you about “Urge” also, which is arranged as a classic late night jazz torch ballad, with the brushes on the snare and the acoustic bass and all that. But it’s kind of venomous lyrically. It’s like a love song musically but something entirely else lyrically. Can you tell me about that song?

Wendy Eisenberg: Absolutely. Yeah, so I had become enthralled with a person after Birthing Hips broke up. After I had ended this relationship pretty catastrophically, I was about to see this person. I was just like, there’s no way this is going to last. And ultimately it didn’t and that’s okay. I had no faith, but I’m such a romantic that I wanted to embody that musically as well.

So yeah, the song is about boundaries and what you offer to other people. It’s not just this very commonly discussed thing of you viewing somebody and not seeing them because you see the image of them. That’s a little old of an image for me. It’s way more about who you are and what you’re capable of giving to that partnership. And also, it’s about how different it is to be a friend than a lover. And in the process of writing this, when I was falling for this person, it’s very important that I said that I was not his friend, because that was the thing that allowed us to become partners. In some way that precludes a friendship. Which is weird because I can’t really tell the difference. The difference can’t just be the sexual dimension of a relationship. That’s just so cynical. It’s a very murky subject, and I’m glad you singled it out, because I think lyrically it’s one of the most sophisticated and adult.  

AD: Do you have a favorite bit or a sound or a lyric on this album?

Wendy Eisenberg: Oh god. Yeah. You know, I’m really proud of my performance in “Slow Down.” I think that song, it’s just the open bottom four strings of the instrument. So, it has to sound sort of like you’ve crashed your guitar against the wall really gently? And trying to get that repetitively and the feeling, to get that kind of Jade Visions Bill Evans feeling there, I feel like the conviction and the feeling was just so present. That performance, which was done live and not to a click track or anything, the intimacy of that is something that I feel really transcends. I didn’t think I was capable of it. But as far as sounds, there’s this really high pitched note at the end of “I Don’t Want To” that my producer Nick [Zanca] put in, and it’s kind of a reference to this record by Camille where she has a drone the whole time, in a really high pitched way. I love how it makes me feel. It perks up my ears. But that wasn’t my decision. That was him being a genius.

AD: Tell me about the people you worked with on this album. There are a few other musicians on here.

Wendy Eisenberg: Yeah, there’s a bunch. I developed this record over a much longer period than I’ve ever worked on any other record. It’s a real labor of love. So, I worked with a ton of people, some of whose contributions didn’t make it ultimately to the record, but they ultimately tanned the hide of the thing. So, I think the most important person for me in actualizing it was Nick, the producer I mentioned, Nick Zanca. I’ve know him since I was 14. He used to go by the name Mister Lies and did downtempo, chill wave-y stuff. He has a really sophisticated understanding of sound and its capabilities, and he really helped me realize a lot of things.

As far as the instrumentalists, the acoustic bass is by this genius Boston-based bass player called Brittany Karlson. And then I have two drummers on it. One is Nick Neuberg and one is Austin Vaughn, and they both have toured and composed. They have really opposite styles from each other. So, having both of the voices on there became interesting in how it delineated songs from each other.

AD: And that’s it. Just the bass and drums.

Wendy Eisenberg: Well, Nick the producer played a lot of other instruments, but also my ex-boyfriend [Nick Bisceglia] played the electric bass on a few of the tracks right after we broke up, which is an insane dynamic.

AD: How do you feel like this album fits into your body of work? Are you trying something different? Have you gotten better at certain things?

Wendy Eisenberg: I think it’s a development. It’s a major step forward about the realization of songs for me. This record forced me to edit and to consider what’s possible outside the craft of my songs. In the creation of a gestalt or something.

AD: Is there anything about you that people don’t get or that they always get wrong?

Wendy Eisenberg: [Laughs] That’s such an amazing question. I think recently, and this is very recent. I’m sure a lot of people in my life who I’ve not been talking to as much, but recently, since I moved to New York, I’ve been getting this reputation for being kind of chill. Which is not true. I’m pretty intense. So, whenever anyone thinks I’m chill, it’s a really insane lie or it’s a false thing. But I’m sure if you talk to anybody in Western Mass, they will say Wendy is not chill. That’s a crazy self-conception not worth commenting on.  

AD: Are you working on any side projects? I know you’ve got other bands.  

Wendy Eisenberg: Yeah. I have a solo guitar and banjo record recorded at Firehouse 12 a year or two ago. That’s based on these text pieces where I wrote a ton of long prose poems and then tried to memorize them and then played them as scores from memory. Those are really silent pieces, paradoxically. They’re coming out at some point next year. Editrix is one of my other bands.

AD: I’ve seen you do that.

Wendy Eisenberg: That’s amazing. I’m so glad you’ve seen it.

AD: You played with CP Unit at the Root Cellar. I was quite surprised how rock it was.

Wendy Eisenberg: Yeah, it’s not straight ahead by any means, but it’s definitely a rock band. We have a record coming out also next year on Exploding in Sound. And then what else do I have? I’ve recorded a few duo things with various people. I have a lot of small things to do. And a lot of things in the pipeline that are like that, but mostly I’m focusing on seeing where this goes.

AD: Do you do any writing outside the context of music?

Wendy Eisenberg: Yes. Privately. I mean, not privately really. Like if I’m going in a …I write in a critical mode sometimes. I’ve published some work about critical gender in music stuff, and yeah, so I’ve done some critique work, but not anything that …it’s very academic. Right now, I’m in a grad program that is encouraging me to do more performative writing and other styles.

AD: What are you studying?

Wendy Eisenberg: Performance studies at NYU.

AD: How are you doing with the pandemic and the lockdown and all that?

Wendy Eisenberg: Thank you for asking. The first couple of months, I was enjoying the hell out of myself, because I didn’t have to tour and I could finally sleep. But then it wasn’t like then, all the sudden, the human toll started to affect me. I was more thoughtful than that.

AD: Were you in New York in April?

Wendy Eisenberg: I was not, and I think it really changed for people that were here, from what I can tell. I was in Western Mass for most of it, and that was how I realized I should move. Beyond the fact that I got into this program. I was feeling like if I wasn’t going on tour all the time, it was hard to live there.

It’s been a journey. I love the solitude and the hermetic aspect of it, but I hate the lack of togetherness because I’m a really social person. I’m not an emotional vampire, I hope, but I need to suck people’s energy.

AD: Are you doing any online or socially distanced shows to get the album out there?

Wendy Eisenberg: I don’t have anything in the books yet. I did a lot of livestreams early on in the pandemic and I found it really alienating, even though I was glad to take part in that. And I haven’t really talked to the people at BaDaBing about whether I should do one. But I think I should because I think it would be amazing to perform these songs solo again and see what it would sound like. Nothing’s really planned yet.

AD: I’m all out of questions. Is there anything I should have asked you that I didn’t?

Wendy Eisenberg: You’ve asked about a lot of interesting stuff. It’s been great talking. I don’t…it’s hard for me to say what you should have asked. I’m not sure about how …I may be appearing. I don’t know how to make a whole thing about it. Does that make sense?

AD: Yeah, I just ask that because sometimes people have things that they very specifically want to talk about and, you know, why not?

Wendy Eisenberg: Yeah, I guess, what’s important about this record as a work, it’s not just that it’s auto fiction and that it’s such a personal account of a period of my life that was characterized by a lot of interpersonal losses. It’s so much about the community of people that it’s possible to make good collaboration with. I mean it’s sort of a weird note, but yeah, I don’t think I would be at the level of chill that people are perceiving in me, if it weren’t for the fact that this record exists. I lost so much during the creation of this record. I gained a lot, too, but mostly it was like all of the things that characterized my life before I started production vanished by the end of it. All that was left was the work that I have with these people. And a sense of a future. And so, I think if you listen to the record, I hope that sense of loss isn’t so palpable that it overscores something from it.

It’s a really heavy thing. It’s a piece of serious work for me.

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