Karly Hartzman (Wednesday) :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Helmed by songwriter Karly Hartzman, Wednesday has evolved from an Asheville, NC solo project to a full-fledged band with five albums to their name. On them, Hartzman’s voice careens from a near yodel to a clear scream, sometimes within the span of a single song, melodic riffs periodically punching through. And lyrically, their latest Rat Saw God continues to embody that Southern smaller-town spirit, weaving in hometown references and encapsulating the teenage sweet spot of horror-meets-ennui specific to the band’s origin point. It’s music full of haunted spaces: Gothic, but not in the sense of black lace and The Cramps; warmer, more like a red hoodie and some Drive By Truckers.

We connected virtually with Karly, peering into her teenage, poster-clad bedroom as we spoke, the influences that formed her earliest musical leanings, from Lana Del Rey to Azealia Banks to Chairlift-era Caroline Polachek, surrounding and seeming to bolster her throughout the conversation. | m hobbs coons of Wilco Will Love You Podcast

Aquarium Drunkard: Do you get a lot of 90s kids who are real excited about the way you use “FINISH HIM” in “Bull Believer?”

Karly Hartzman: That’s the thing, it’s impossible to know what anyone’s saying about our band, because we aren’t very searchable online. So I don’t really know how anyone feels about anything, which is great. That [line] is more nostalgic to me, because I was born in ‘96, but I had a cousin who’s like 10 or 15 years older than me who was really into gaming. So Mortal Kombat was the cool shit that my older cousin was up to when he would let me hang out while he was playing. That’s my relationship to it. I feel like everyone’s got a different little nostalgic relationship to that game.

AD: That’s funny, what you say about your band not being very searchable, because I imagine now, when people search Wednesday, it’s all Jenna Ortega, who played Wednesday Addams in the Netflix show.

Karly Hartzman: Yeah, I don’t think it was a very good show. I watched all of it [so that] if anyone was trying to mess with me by slipping something in there about the show, I’d be like “I gotcha.”

AD: Since your band has been playing bigger festivals, you’ve been vocal about labor issues and compensation. You spoke out at Primavera Sound in Barcelona about Amazon’s treatment of workers, and that takes some serious balls.

Karly Hartzman: I think it’s pretty obvious stuff I’m talking about. I’m always surprised when people get up in arms about it. Because I’m like, “who is pro-Amazon mistreating their workers?” They put us on an Amazon stage at Primavera. You shouldn’t put a punk-adjacent band on a stage sponsored by one of the worst companies ever; we’re gonna say something. And it was the same thing about South by [Southwest]. I feel like it’s normalized, talking about it, and I thought it would be that way when I said something, but it just wasn’t for some reason? That’s the thing. I don’t think any of it is that controversial, but people just get mad about anything. [Laughs] I don’t know, that was just obvious stuff to me: Pay your workers and treat them well.

AD: It seems to shock certain people how values are informing more choices for artists just lately.

Karly Hartzman: I don’t think artists should act like they’re the expert on anything, because I’m certainly not — even about the issues I talk about. But if you have a microphone and you’re talking to thousands of people, and you’re performing on a stage that says “Amazon,” and you have that opportunity… I think there’s a little bit of a responsibility to be like, “yeah, fuck that.” Everyone moves on from stuff so quickly, so if you have an opportunity to hold anyone’s attention for any amount of time, might as well. Although, onstage I feel fine doing that, online I’m less inclined now, because that’s not a moment of their time: it lasts forever. People still are online with me about the South by stuff and I was like, “everyone’s moved on—why are you being petty about it, weirdo?” Just to have something negative to say, I guess.

AD: Right. It’s kind of the blessing and the curse about everything living forever online: people can go back and they can find earlier stuff of yours, albums that maybe didn’t get the attention that you’d hoped, but at the same time, they can also jump back in on whatever controversy they may have heard about concerning you and just decide this is their time to weigh in.

Karly Hartzman: Yeah. I say stuff online a lot less than I would, just because it’s scary. It’s too much responsibility. I look at Jason Isbell, how much he says stuff online. How [does he] have the energy? Especially when he’s confronting people that are the most petty.

AD: So you mentioned Jason Isbell. Drive By Truckers’ influence shows up a lot in your music.

Karly Hartzman: Yeah, we’re big fans. And we got to play some dates with them last summer. It feels like a fever dream. Because I can’t even believe that happened. Yeah, one of my favorite bands [and] favorite lyricists — in my Hall of Fame. The fact that they’re alive and I can talk to them and they’re nice puts them up higher on my list. I can’t believe that I’ve been able to hang with them at all. They’re very cool.

AD: Awesome. Yeah. They’re soon to become your best buds.

Karly Hartzman: I don’t know about that. I keep forgetting that that tour is coming up, because it’s so surreal that I have to get through a normal, like, Thursday afternoon. I kind of have to forget that’s happening in a few months. God, I haven’t even started to think about it, but it’s crazy. It’s fun. I have to make sure I’m not living in a purgatory state where I’m living my ideal life, because I’m dead or something.

AD: Well, I like dreaming wonderful things for you. Hit it off! Play on each other’s albums. How would that be?

Karly Hartzman: Oh, that’d be insane. Especially with all the shit he’s up to. I think he’s in a Scorsese movie that’s coming out.

AD: What is something that has changed for you since signing with Dead Oceans?

Karly Hartzman: We signed with them after working with a guy for a few years — one dude was like the whole label. So I was doing a lot more, like I made a music video for every song. I have a little less responsibility [now], which is really nice because I can just do music. Sometimes I’ll get on calls for the album, and there are like 15 people on there. And I’m like, “Who the fuck are y’all?,” but they’re working on our album. It’s nice knowing there’s a team. As much as I loved working with a smaller label, sometimes I’d be like, “Damn, [this guy has] a lot to do.” [Now] I don’t worry about having to pick up any slack, because there’s just so much support on their end. [Otherwise,] I’m still kind of living the same life, because we’re still in the same year that [Rat Saw God] came out. For now everything kind of feels the same.

AD: Having more support as an artist has to feel very lovely.

Karly Hartzman: It’s cool. I signed with Dead Oceans, because they have a lot of women artists well into their 30s [on their roster] which doesn’t seem like it would be crazy, but I want to make music until I’m an old lady; if you look at so many of the labels, they seem to forget musicians exist after they’re 28 or something. I want to work with people who not only work with artists and women artists over the ideal time for people to be young and hip or whatever, but also, some of those artists are their most supported and successful on that label. That was really important to me: that they don’t forget about me when I age. Basic shit over here, but harder to find than you would think.

AD: That is super important. Speaking of age and presentation, the aesthetic choices that you make for the band are very understated, but seem intentional as well. You sort of have a dressed down look on stage. In your music videos that are available on YouTube, you’re in a red hooded sweatshirt in multiple, which I love, and you have chosen to wear black lipstick a lot as sort of a wardrobe signifier. Can you speak a bit to those choices?

Karly Hartzman: Yeah. The fact alone that we are [not] from a cultural hub city  means that we have the opportunity to represent a place that a lot of people aren’t seeing when it comes to indie rock music. So I’m mostly just trying to authentically represent where we’re from. I think it becomes aesthetically incorporated because it’s associated with the music, but really I’m just trying to communicate things exactly as they are. Like the “Quarry” video. We filmed it in Kansas City because that’s what ended up being most affordable to work with the director we were gonna work with, but it was so freaking cold that I had to wear it the entire time and I was like, “Not the red sweatshirt again.” I could have just brought another sweatshirt, but I did not, so it ended up in a lot of music videos.

Then, yeah, the black lipstick: I don’t really know how to do a lot of makeup, but it’s a way to immediately have a separation between stage me and not stage me. I don’t want to incorporate the person I am on stage that much into my daily life because I think that’s where some weird shit can happen, where my art becomes all I am or something, and I really don’t want that to happen. I do a lot of stuff. I just don’t want my career to be my whole thing. So yeah, the black lipstick really helps me with that psychologically. It’s kind of a sign that if I don’t wear the black lipstick on stage, I’m in a really good place mentally that night, because I don’t need the physical separation of that barrier between stage and me. I can just kind of do my thing.

AD: That’s beautiful. I’m gonna be on the lookout for that then.

Karly Hartzman: Honestly, I think that’s a fun thing. I use stage banter as my therapy a little too much. If I’m not feeling good, I’ll be like, “Y’all, I’m not feeling great. I’m gonna try my best up here.” If there’s a way to easily communicate with an audience where I’m at that night without me having to explain, that would be great. That could be the code. No lipstick means I’m good; lipstick means I’m having a hard time.

AD: Yeah, and when you’re having a really hard time? Just black lipstick all over.

Karly Hartzman: [Laughs] Yeah, black eyeshadow…

AD: Concentric circles on your cheeks…

Karly Hartzman: Yes. Some code.

AD: Sometimes costume designers will really pride themselves on having characters wear an article of clothing more than once, because they feel like it adds verisimilitude. And you can accomplish that just by being cold in Kansas City.

Karly Hartzman: Yeah, anytime I wear anything that’s been in a music video, especially around town, I always feel like a doofus because I’m like, “They probably think this is all I wear.” 

AD: That might speak to some neurodivergent fans though.

Karly Hartzman: Damn. Yeah, I didn’t even think about that. It could be comforting. I was just thinking that it would be weird, but that is a good way to think of it.

AD: So Wednesday began as your songwriting project. (I mean, it still is.) And it expanded into the band that it is today. How did you go about seeking collaborators and what constitutes a good musical fit for you in a band mate?

Karly Hartzman: Well, in a small town—or a smaller town, like where we live—if you just go to shows, you’ll keep seeing people there, you kind of know they’re into the same shit as you, and then it falls into place a lot easier. That’s why I’m surprised more bands don’t stay in small towns, because you find your people very quickly, and a lot of them have free time (which is not the case in cities) or else just would like the opportunity to travel and be in a band. Xandy [Chelmis], our steel player, had house shows a lot; Margo [Schultz], who was playing bass when we first started, had a house venue, so I saw them as arbiters of the scene and I was just starting out. I kind of weaseled my way into their lives, because I was like, “I’ll do anything to somehow contribute to what is happening here.” And I was a huge MJ Lenderman fan. He was releasing albums before I knew him, really, and I was working at a coffee shop. I would play his first records, which aren’t even available online — and he was in high school, which is crazy — at the coffee shop and stuff. Then, once I had an opportunity to get to know him and possibly make music with him, I was fully a vulture, and I was like, “I am obsessed with your shit. I need to be in your life.” The gravitational pull of people in a smaller town makes it happen a little easier than other places, I think. And then the more we learned about each other, the more we learned that we were fully into the same like shit. There’s a little bit of variability — of course everyone grows up on different stuff, and having those different ideas kind of meld into one band is what I feel like makes a cool, original sound. And we’ve learned a lot about what works in a van 24 hours a day. I think that any changes that we’ve made over the years have been because something wasn’t quite right, and that just happens very slowly, but all pretty organically.

AD: Takes a lot of confidence, though, to approach these arbiters of a scene and be like, “Hey, do you want to play on my songs?”

Karly Hartzman: Yeah, I don’t even really remember the conversations, because when we all started, none of us were making money off of music. So it wasn’t some crazy thing where they were already really accomplished musicians. It was more like it was another way to make music in town.

AD: Can you tell me about your musical background prior to the moment that many people have written about being inspired by Mitski’s NPR Tiny Desk concert to start playing guitar?

Karly Hartzman: I had wanted to be in a band forever and ever, and I was a music appreciator. I had a ukulele in high school — I learned some stuff on that. But playing ukulele doesn’t really help you feel like you could be a musician and a rock band, necessarily, even though you’re playing songs. The divide between what that is and what I’m doing is so large. And so I got really self conscious and didn’t really try until later. Junior [year of] college is when I first bought an electric guitar finally, just to try it, and the thing that helped was that [Tiny Desk Concert]. I don’t think people ever really write the specifics of why that was so informative to me. I didn’t really know anything about theory — I still don’t — but I noticed [Mitski] was covering every string on the guitar, which meant that the strings were tuned in a way that you didn’t really need to know how to play; you could just hit every string. Then I figured I could buy a guitar, tune the strings in whatever way, and write a song. And I think that’s one of the most important parts of that whole anecdote: if people knew that was a way you could learn how to play guitar, more people would be learning, which I think would be great (obviously).

AD: That is a really awesome observation, and it takes a fair amount of musical knowledge in general to even make that connection, just noticing she’s not fingering the fretboard at all.

Karly Hartzman: Well, that was what was so intimidating about guitar in the first place: it seems so complicated. And so the second I realized it’s not that complicated. I was like, oh shit, I can do that.

AD: Before that, you said that you were always a music appreciator, so that probably means you’ve been singing for longer. Did you write any songs that were just acapella? What helped you shape your vocals and what singers influenced you along the way?

Karly Hartzman: The house show scene in Greensboro, where I grew up, was pop punk, so I was into Paramore. Belle and Sebastian was a big one. Best Coast stuff was really popular around then… I mean, I was just singing at my synagogue a lot. I’ve always had the same voice —  my inflection and shit hasn’t really changed. And it’s not very influenced by other singers that much. I’ve been singing the same way for so long.

AD: Jumping off of that very inspiring point about empowering people to play guitar, learning it’s not that complicated, you’ve also talked about fan participation in the music that you create and the ways in which they can access your songs — whether playing them themselves or finding their own experiences within their lyrics.

Karly Hartzman: I mean, I grew up learning how to play [by] looking up chords on Ultimate Guitar. Part of the shit that makes this so intimidating sometimes is you hear a song, like a studio version of the song, and you’re like, “Damn, that must be a really complicated thing.” But then, if you find out the chords are C G A or something, it becomes a lot more accessible. I think it’s really harmful to think that a musician is God. I was like that in middle school, but when you get older, I think it’s really harmful to have that type of relationship, as an artist and as an audience member. I don’t think it serves anyone. You should be able to appreciate music but also be like, “That’s a human being up there.” If the chords are simple, or whatever, it kind of eases people into that kind of mindset. I just like leveling the playing field by posting chords when I can.

AD: It sort of reminds me of something else that you’ve talked about in other interviews: recognizing that your parents are human. So there’s that sort of thread with you. It seems that in trying to recognize everyone’s humanity, and agency, you find inspiration for your art and your point of connection to people.

Karly Hartzman: Absolutely. That has been interesting about being able to meet people that are considered famous: the more people I meet, the more I’m like “everyone’s a human being.” (This is so gross, but this is what I think about it) everyone has diarrhea sometimes. Beyoncé has diarrhea occasionally. And the more people I meet like that, the more I’m like “Damn, this makes life so much easier.” I feel less intimidated by the idea of what success means. A lot of being successful is just celebrating someone’s talent. And when you think of it that way, I feel a lot more empowered to make music: They honed a craft. When you realize all those people just really decided art was what they were going to do and then got really good at it, it feels much more realistic than oh, this person is a born genius and unlike me in every way because they were able to write, I don’t know, “Sweet Home Alabama,” or something. Really, Lynyrd Skynyrd is just a bunch of dudes, just some random people that really wanted to do something and did it.

AD: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about how the Beatles were working class dudes—George Harrison’s dad drove a bus —and they’re probably what most people would think of as the most elite, upper class, untouchable band.

Karly Hartzman: Yeah. They just really wanted to do it and found the right people to do it with. That’s a lot of it, all the help I got from my bandmates—I never would have been able to do what we’re doing by myself. Treating people well, being friendly, and collaborating in a way that shows that you appreciate what your bandmates are doing is the best way to create any kind of thing. There’s a lot of ways people try to achieve success in music and I think it’s a little underrated to be kind and respect people’s talents.

AD: Right! As a band leader, you’re really creating that space.

Karly Hartzman: You have to, for people to feel fulfilled, because the only way to be sustainable is if people feel fulfilled. Yeah.

AD: That’s very wise. Your music has often been called ambitious — I don’t know if you look at the reviews, but it comes up a lot. What ambitions still exist for you musically, professionally, or personally?

Karly Hartzman: I want to get better at writing songs. I think that comes naturally with more practice, and that’s kind of what I’m doing. But the other thing I need to make sure I do is not get too exhausted touring. If I tour too much, there’s nothing to write about. No one wants to hear songs about touring, or at least more than a few songs about touring. It’s, in a lot of ways, my reason for living: to keep making music while I can, keep playing to audiences that care for as long as possible.

AD: It sounds like part of what you’re expressing, too, is a desire for a balance, right? Because you want to get better at songwriting, and touring can impede that, but you want to keep having experiences that inspire you.

Karly Hartzman: Yeah. And having a lot of time off. The tour we just did? We should never do that again. And actually we know for a fact that we won’t. There’s not really a lot of reason to. It was an insane tour.

AD: The European tour?

Karly Hartzman: Well, it was a European tour sandwiched between a full US [tour]. So it was four weeks on the West coast, two days off, fly to Europe, two and a half weeks in Europe, two days at home, then East coast for four weeks. I don’t even know how we did it, looking back. I hit my wall like six times. We should never do it like that again. I don’t think we will. I want to make sure I spend plenty of time at home, because that’s what our music is about, as much as I love playing live — and I do love it with all my heart. The next few years will definitely be about figuring out a balance.

AD: And you seem very equipped to imagine new ways of existing in the musical space.

Karly Hartzman: Yeah, it’s easy when you live kind of out of the way. I’m reminded constantly that indie rock is not the center of the universe where I live and I think that’s going to be very important for me going forward.

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