Name: Wendy Eisenberg
Occupation: Improvising guitarist, banjo-player, vocalist, poet
Current Release: Wendy Eisenberg's new album Auto is out now on Badabing Records
Recommendations: I recommended this in my list for Tone Glow but I think about it a lot, especially in light of what I’ve communicated here: most if not all artists should read Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. The last thing I read that made me cry, though, is the short story “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin. It has the best writerly description of what music is and does that I’ve encountered in fiction, save perhaps for “The King of Jazz” by Donald Barthelme, which I love dearly but do not recommend as highly as the Baldwin.
If you enjoyed this interview with Wendy Eisenberg and would like to know more about her, the best places to start are her website and facebook account.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing songs when I was around 12 years old and had been playing guitar for around a year. I was really interested in jazz and jazz harmony and the American songbook at the time, and I still am. Even the earliest songs I wrote had the formal conventions of the songbook in their DNA, which feels lucky.
I started producing music when I was 23 or so with a four track tape recorder when I was living in Boston. For a few years, when I was in jazz school, I forgot that writing songs was a legitimate art form, forgetting that jazz is song-music as much as it is not. I am grateful for my time in Massachusetts that reminded me that songs are holy.
What drew me to music and sound was their capacity for the immediate transmissions of emotions. Words can do it too, and so can art, but something about the presence of a musician, the filling up of the room - it’s such grace.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
As I mentioned, my background and training is in jazz music, which is a curious landscape in which to develop because it at once prioritizes the personal voice and requires that you play within particular conventions. I guess that’s true in most genres, but in jazz, mostly because of its institutionalization in the academy, it felt more rigid. I was told that chords were supposed to move in certain ways, and that you were supposed to spin your melodies in certain ways within those particular chord progressions, for the music to be jazz.
When I began to improvise freely, both by the inspiration of Ornette Coleman and at the behest of noise artist Brian Blatt, one of my first and most important bandmates, I really began to feel the truth of that jazz music, and by extension most 20th and 21st century improvised musics, could only have come to being through the abandonment of the “requirement” paradigm. The music just had to be what it was, had to reflect the particulars of your ear, for it to exist and breathe.
Codification happens later. It was then that I felt I could write songs again, and let the harmony tell me where it wanted to go.
I think besides jazz the most important influence on my work was this group of songwriters who congregated in and around and through Brattleboro, VT - I’m thinking Chris Weisman, Ruth Garbus, Zach Phillips, Christina Schneider, and many others. These people used some of the techniques of jazz harmony in their own specific ways, but with a casualness and intimacy closer to Joao Gilberto. I think I was liberated particularly by Weisman’s engagement with harmony and the jazz language - you could hear that he really knew the music, but did not feel bound by it, which was a new dynamic for me to hear. I think my early music took a lot of inspiration from him and his cohort, and showed me that songs are whatever is possible.
However, as I’ve aged into my songwriting process, I can feel myself deviate from the influence of that coterie, and embrace some of the techniques from my free-improvisation process towards a more personal expression in songs.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I feel like my compositional challenges change from song to song, and I’m always engaging with their ever-shifting valences. I don’t feel like I have any “main” compositional challenges - every song has different requirements and teaches me different ways to solve musical problems. (I have many production challenges, but they are boring technicals and that is why I outsource).
Songwriting, composing, is not necessarily challenging for me, especially because as I’ve grown as a writer I’ve learned to trust my ideas more. That makes the act of writing a joy - it’s just me and the guitar and my voice in conversation with each other, informing each other, touching each other, teaching me how I feel about things in real time.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
My first studio was a Yamaha MT100 four-track tape machine. I still use it, though it’s making a terrible clicking noise these days.
I began using tape machines because I love the hiss. Because I’m not fond of the clicking noise and have been a little too preoccupied with other aspects of my life to find the right repairperson, I’ve evolved toward using an Apogee Duet 2, Ableton, an SM7B, and a Unisphere 1 dynamic mic. That’s how I recorded Dehiscence and all the mysteries subsequent to it.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
This is an interesting question for me because I more than occasionally conceive of myself as a machine, a guitar operator machine, at the same time as I conceive of myself as a machine-operator of the guitar, if that makes sense. I use the aforementioned pieces of gear in addition to my guitars, but conceive of my voice as something other than machine, maybe something truer ….
I think humans excel at navigation, ingenuity, the inside mysteries of creation; machines at their best facilitate and inspire, but often overcomplicate or repeat the worst of human impulses and ingenuities.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I think my life project is actually to figure out how to describe the co-authorship between myself and my tools, so it’s bonkers for me to just be asked that point blank (I love it). I think I’ve gotten to the point as a guitarist where anything on the instrument is available to me, save specific vocabularies and certain speed trials, so at this point songwriting seems less like a force of will where I strangle something into being and more like a communion between the truth of my voice and what the guitar wants to tell me that day.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I could not have made this record without Nick Zanca at the helm. Aside from Brian whom I mentioned earlier, Nick is my most important collaborator. He is a sonic visionary. I don’t like to write songs with other people, but feel I lack in presentation, and he really tied the room together. Not only is he a wizard in the studio and on seemingly any instrument, but our discussions about music, culture, literature, the Music Machine, gender and queerness, have changed me and the way I move through the world for the better.