In December of 2019 Brooklyn, NY-based experimental alt-rock trio Yeasayer called it quits after 13 years. Within the next few months, as life began to shift worldwide with the onset of the pandemic, former Yeasayer co-vocalist Anand Wilder found himself back home with his wife—a nurse and first-responder when COVID hit—and kids, and fragments of solo material he had already been conceptualizing.
“As a professional musician who has alternated between long stretches of tour and long stretches of homebound life, it wasn’t that different from my normal home existence,” says Wilder. “I’m one of those people who can stay in a house for as long as there’s enough food in the refrigerator, and even then I’ll find some dried goods in a pantry somewhere so I can avoid going shopping.”
The result of his homebound state is Wilder’s solo debut I Don’t Know My Words, set for release in 2022, and the first single “Delirium Passes,” a delicate folk-pop narrative on family, divorce, and those fluctuating waves of anxiety, accompanied by a music video adapted by Wilder and Derek Howard, based on the James Joyce novel The Boarding House.
Wilder spoke to American Songwriter about how self-worth and songwriting go hand-in-hand, life after Yeasayer, and tapping into the psyche of David Crosby.
American Songwriter: 2020 was an unprecedented year, to say the least. Tell me more about the challenges you faced this past year and everything that led to I Don’t Know My Words.
Anand Wilder: The pandemic lockdown did feel unprecedented and totally unexpected, despite all the warnings and news stories that were going on from late 2019 on. To put it into perspective, my grandmother died in 2019 and was born in 1919, so she lived for 100 years and missed the Spanish Flu and SARS-COV2, lucky her.
I remember going to a John Maus show in February of 2020 and a friend was talking nervously about, “what if it comes here?” and we all thought he was being crazy. Then, Italy went down hard, and I talked to my friends in Berlin and they were already locked down. Then, mid-march, of course, hit New York City like an avalanche.
Much of my home life is shuttling children to a from school and activities, and one week it was, “of course we’ll be staying open, this is New York City, we’re not scared,” then the next week it was, “we just need to shut down for a while to ‘flatten the curve” then eventually everything was cancelled and remote life began.
In some ways the pandemic relieved a lot of duties, my kid’s piano lessons became remote instead of an hour commute. We tried to take a “Life is Beautiful” approach of maintaining a positive outlook for the children, who really didn’t mind being at home with their parents all day long. My older daughter actually thrived in Zoom school—she’s very talkative and each school day was like a new performance on her own personal YouTube channel. Now, I’m just trying to help her correct that computer hunch back.
My wife’s work as a midwife continued unabated, and her continued trips to the hospital were stressful, especially because the protocols kept shifting, and there were PPE shortages. But I just tried to put any anxiety or feelings about news reports I was reading into writing new songs. I’m pretty sure we both had COVID during that first wave and survived it, and my wife suffered some long-term effects with her sense of smell, but I was fine after some difficult night breathing and fatigue.
The band had already broken up, and I was so grateful I didn’t have to convince the other guys to do some zoom performance or whatever it was bands were doing to keep engaging with their fans. The split was long overdue, and I felt liberated to keep working on music, because what else can you do.
AS: What is the significance of the album title?
AW: The phrase was one of those early childhood grammar mistakes that my youngest daughter made when she was frustrated because she couldn’t figure out how to express something she was feeling, “I don’t know my words!!” It became this funny joke because my wife “didn’t know her smells” I think it’s called Parosmia where your brain starts confusing smells, she had dysgeusia too where taste is altered too, I think it’s actually a pretty common long-term COVID side effect. But the title also has this double meaning, which has to do with Words and Worth being almost homophones, and for me there’s a direct correlation between my feelings of self-worth and my productivity as a songwriter. When I do interviews for press, or rehearse songs for a live show, or any other efforts that I logically know have value and are necessary for a career in the arts, I don’t derive the same sense of accomplishment as when I even write one little verse or chorus. A song that you write out of nothing is like this little secret victory that makes you wanna live another day.
I always thought the phrase kinda had a David Crosby ring to it, you know like “If I could only remember my name,” and actually there’s this Crosby documentary [‘Remember My Name’] where I think Cameron Crowe is interviewing him, and Crowe asks “would you trade all your successes in music to have had a better relationship with your family?” Or something like that. And Crosby says, “Nah cause singing in front of people is the only thing that makes me feel worth a shit.” I pretty much agree. And with a band, I can take credit for the other guys’ creativity, and they can take credit for mine, or I can distance myself from them, so it’s not a one-to-one connection from the band’s worth, to my personal worth.
So this album is kind of the first time I’m putting myself out there without anybody else to blame, figuring out my self-worth through song.
AS: “Delirium Passes” has roots in divorce, and an unexpected attachment to Gary Stewart’s music—again about more divorce—and reconnecting with a sound more evocative of Plastic Ono Band. Tell us more about “Delirium Passes” from your perspective.
AW: For me, it was from this conversation with a friend who was so happy about getting divorced and asked me “how about you?” So that gave me the first line, Gonna do it one day soon, even though it was actually pretty far from my mind. Another friend recently shared Gary Stewart’s music with me, and damn he has a lot of divorce songs, and they’re all pretty amazing—“Single Again” “Out of Hand” “Quits.” So anyway, I built the song around this clangy bell riff, which I called “teacups” and almost cut from the record, because it really is the only modern soft synth sound on the album, but once I removed it, the song lost all its forward momentum. But it was a real turning point for me in terms of writing the album because a friend of mine said “I like the teacups sound and all, but have you ever recorded anything without any irritating sounds? Something more stripped down like “Plastic Ono Band?”
I’m always up for a friendly challenge so from then on I tried to keep most of the songs on the album pretty organic, and if I was using a guitar, or a piano, I’d try to be more considered about getting the notes being played to fit well within the song arrangement, instead of just doubling notes and making it sound freaky. I eliminated soft synths, tried to keep effects outside of the box, twiddling knobs on guitar pedals to keep things dynamic. It was a very different process than Yeasayer in that way, where we were always trying to get the weirdest sounds.
AS: How does “Delirium Passes” thread into the remainder of I Don’t Know My Words?
AW: Well, it’s the first kind of fully fleshed-out song after my introductory song, and it definitely ties into some themes of marriage insecurities and family that I touch on in other songs.
AS: What is the dynamic like writing for yourself now as opposed to Yeasayer?
AW: Well, with Yeasayer I’d always have to present songs for approval from the group, then we’d figure out how to make the recording group appropriate, and ultimately we would have to collectively figure out how to make a song presentable in a live format back to back with other songs from our catalog. With this album, I was able to revisit some older songs that were rejected or didn’t fit quite right with the band aesthetic. And I leaned into some of my penchants for irregular meters, or slower sad ballads that were discouraged by the high energy festival-primed dance band thing. I was never one to force songs; if someone had a snarky comment I would usually tuck a song away and redirect efforts towards something that other members showed more enthusiasm towards.
I played all the instruments on these songs which was great fun, but also a new challenge for me, to take a song from an idea all the way to the finish line (with the help and cheerleading of mixing engineer Eric Zeiler, who started working remotely with me about halfway through the project).
AS: Do you feel like songs still come to you (and come together) in the same way?
AW: I don’t really have a set way of writing songs, but it’s very difficult for me to compose a song from beginning to end without the aid of recording, and editing ideas together. Then once it’s recorded I can start to play it all the way through, and make a song feel more free-flowing and natural. Sometimes I begin with a simple live phone recorded voice memo of a guitar or piano chord progression and some melodic ideas. I have thousands of these on my phone; it really is the best way to capture and give titles to little ideas, and maybe if you’re lucky you record some mistakes that are better than the original intention. I’ve also had success with recording a beat with a computer and playing around with samples and synths and midi and improvising vocal ideas on top of the bed of sounds. Usually, this method reduces the amount of chords used because looped beats love a droning minor chord.
With this album, because I was going for a more stripped-down organic sound, it was mostly the former method, a lot of snippets of voice memo chord progressions and melodies that I would bring into my computer and then keep adding from there. On one song I actually kept the uneven rhythmic wobble of the demo, because aligning it to a strict time grid made it lose all its mojo. Harder for editing, but a fun technique to keep songs alive. I also used a lot of Varispeed on this record, just to give these acoustic guitars and piano sounds a little spookiness and atmosphere.
As far as lyrics, I still use all the Jimmy Webb tools-rhyming dictionary, thesaurus, and I also like to steal phrases from poetry books and short stories, like Delirium Passes is from a James Joyce short story. I journal a lot, especially as a way of purging some nagging looping thoughts, and sometimes snippets of journal prose make their way into songs upon review. That’s where I’m at right now, I have a full book of 2021 journaling that I need to apply to new songs.