by Andrew Doty
Wormwood is a dream-inducing IDM duo from London, Ontario. They released their debut album in 2013 before signing with Austin-based label punctum records in preparation for their upcoming Microdot EP. Vocalist Christina Willatt and I swapped a few emails to talk about her lyric-writing process and Wormwood's compositional approach.
Andrew Doty: How did Wormwood form? How did you meet Andrew [Wenaus]?
Christina Willatt: Andrew and I met in high school and started experimenting with home recording, electronics, and songwriting. None of these experiments were intended for public release, but over time, as these experiments started to sound good, we decided to release Sunfloating, an album of material we had worked on from 2009–2013 (though "Utopia" was 2007). Originally, we wanted to combine our love of instrumental electronic music and musique concrète textures with poetry/lyrics. We were and are always fascinated with the idea of playing with song form. Typically, we approach each song in its own terms, so some may have a freer or through-composed nature ("Sunfloating"), while others resemble more conventional pop song forms ("Jawbone"). Most of the poems are written before we start working on the music. Then I sculpt them to fit our formal plans and the feel of a song as it begins to take shape. I tend to write a lot of poetry in fragments and short forms, so often one song will be an amalgam of pre-existing texts. "Leaves Like Lemons," for example, was made from two poems. The longer makes up the verses, while the shorter is the chorus. In "Jawbone," the text is comprised of fragments from three poems, combined with a list of words, all of which relate to the word "carry;" this process was inspired by British writer Jeff Noon's Metamorphiction (a writing technique that remixes text). Usually I am trying to create a unified whole out of fragments.
AD: When you were putting Sunfloating together, did you utilize lyrics you had already composed that were waiting for the right project, or did you wait to hear Andrew's compositions before penning the right words?
CW: While the framework of a song may come before the lyrics, the melodies almost always come from the poetry. The words can also be adjusted to fit the music if necessary—it's always a plastic process. “Handbrushes,” “Starworks,” and “Utopia” were all composed with keyboard and words before we began the electronic arrangement. In contrast, “Mullingspot” and “Leaves Like Lemons” were almost entirely arranged as instrumentals before they were stripped down to accommodate lyrics. Probably the most fragmented of our songs is "Lapse," though it may not be apparent on the album version. The original song was called “Arcadia's Moat” and was written by Andrew and Travis Legare, a bandmate in Andrew's first band, Codebreaker, when the two of them were in high school. Travis wrote the original melody and lyrics. Later, we re-recorded it with a new arrangement and I altered the words; some words are retained, while others are replaced with words that sound similar—it's a sound paraphrase. Though the newly recorded version no longer sounded like the original Codebreaker track, the song form was the same. Finally, as we were preparing Sunfloating for release, we decided to resurrect the song. This time, we sampled only my vocals from our "Arcadia's Moat" remake. The track was new. I also added a new poem which became the basis of the chorus and bridge:
Paradise is in our dreams:
That island getaway that makes me feel
The dead can come alive without regress
The new title, “Lapse,” came from two things: the long evolution of the song itself and the feeling I get when I listen to the beat!
AD: Accessibility in visual poetry and accessibility in lyrical sound can mean radically different manifestations. Where the purposes of both may be simply to affect, the tools at their disposal require playing into different hardwirings in their audiences' brains. Your lyrics to "Jawbone," for example, cannot possibly affect the reader in the same way as the listener. The written words flow linearly, begging for association, while the effect of the song itself is in every way disorienting and scattered, evoking the sensation of complete intoxication in the middle of a crowded dance floor. Are the reader and the listener distinct targets in your approach, or do you hope for an audience who will compare the visual and audial in relation to each other?
CW: I think in most songs the words are somewhat inseparable from the music. “Jawbone” didn’t exist wholly in a written form until the song was finished. It was a challenge to represent this particular piece in writing. The disorienting and scattered nature of the song is intentional—I didn‘t think about it this way before, but it does seem to present a stream of conciousness; I wasn’t seeking so much to capture this feeling with the written lyrics. I felt that knowing what the words are reveals or clarifies their meaning when you hear the song. But knowing the words is extra, and not entirely necessary for the affect; the written lyrics in this song are more or less there for the curious.
AD: You stated in an interview with Jordan Darville at Chart Attack that your lyrics dwell on the idea of seeking out paradise as timeless experience, and the lyrics in "Lapse" tell us that "[p]aradise is in our dreams." Indeed, your lyrics and vocal style, in concert with the music behind it, both invoke particularly dream-like atmospheres. Are the lyrics in songs like "Lean and Dream" and "Leaves Like Lemons" psychoanalytical in nature, exploring the narrator's self-discovery through the free association of the subconscious in a dream state?
CW: Paradise. It is timelessness, not only is it in our dreams, it is our dreams. As I understand them, dreams happen in an instant, they are aspirations, they are hazy, atmospheric and veiled in mystery, but dreams are also internal worlds in which we experience the infinite and can be very vivid. We love to share our dreams with each other, why? I’ve always found it distressing that we can only tell our dreams, that we can only share a dream-like experience. There is always a blaring separation. We are alone in our dreams, alone with ourselves. I don’t like being alone. Sharing dreams is often aimed toward the ends of self-evaluation or self-discovery. In sharing our dreams, perhaps we also want to make real/manifest our brush with the infinite. For me sharing dreams is not only about transcendence; it’s about coming closer to the core, intimacy, closeness, immanence. Dreams are pure, unmediated experience, and are intensely personal. So are a lot of the lyrics for Sunfloating.
The lyrics for “Lean and Dream” and “Leaves Like Lemons” were not necessarily crafted to represent a dream state, but are the product of daydreaming; actually most of these poems were written from indoors looking out a window. The verses of “Leaves Like Lemons” were inspired by the image of a tree in early fall; half the leaves had turned yellow and had either fallen to the ground or were holding on by a thread, the other half were still green. And they shook gently in the wind. I wrote the poem at this moment. “So close are love and vanity, longing to become,” my little aphorism, came to me while looking out the window during a lecture on the analysis of 20th century music. “Ahead, two images mirror. I have forgotten which has begun,” the central image from “Lean and Dream” was also inspired by a window projecting the image of the lit indoors onto the outdoor winter scene at dusk. And the “I lean and dream…” part was written after crossing a significant intersection lined with bright yellow leaves in fall. You could say I project my desire on the world of objects around me; I use an image as a meditative starting point for inspiration. There is an intermingling of external stimulus and those thoughts that are always running through my mind. And likely these objects play little or no role in the final poems themselves. The sound and flow of the words is also important, especially because I’m usually thinking in terms of potential lyrics. Another thing, the “I” of the lyrics is not necessarily always meant to be the subjective singer. It is more, as you’ve suggested, an unnamed narrator. That’s one of the difficulties with singing your own poetry. The poetry comes from an intensely personal place, but is not necessarily meant to be exclusive or limited to that viewpoint.
AD: In "Leaves like Lemons," what does Arden refer to? Is it a personal reference, or is there more of a recognizable allusion that informs the lyrics?
CW: Arden refers to the “Forest of Arden” from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. On a more personal note, the women’s sports teams at the high school my parents went to are called Ardens.
AD: Whose lyrics and music inspire you these days? What musicians are you particularly admiring for their innovative or remarkable approach?
CW: Can I throw a long list at you of music/words, specific and general, that inspire me? This is a list compiling singers, songwriters, musicians, composers, and poets that I was listening to/singing/reading intently while working on Sunfloating: Aphex Twin (Drukqs), Beth Gibbons (Out of Season), Björk (Vespertine, E. E. Cummings songs), Bowie, Blossom Dearie, Chris Clark (“Growls Garden”), David Gilmour (“Comfortably Numb”), E. E. Cummings (73 Poems), Elizabeth Fraser, Emily Dickinson, Erykah Badu (Baduizm), Flying Lotus (Cosmogramma), George Crumb (Apparition), Gerard Manley Hopkins, György Ligeti (Clocks and Clouds), Henryk Górecki (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), J. S. Bach (BWV 52), Jeff Buckley (“Hallelujah”), Jeff Noon (Cobralingus and Needle in the Groove), Joan Baez (“The Trees They Do Grow High”), Joni Mitchell (Blue), Jónsi (( )), Lisa Gerrard, Maria Callas (“Depuis le jour”), Maynard (Lateralus), Minnie Riperton, Monteverdi (Orfeo), Nancy Sinatra, Neil Young, Nick Drake (Five Leaves Left), P.J. Harvey (Is This Desire?), Paul Giovanni (The Wicker Man soundtrack), Rachmaninoff (Vespers), Rautavaara (Thomas), Robert Plant, Samuel Barber (“Nocturne”), Samuel Beckett (“neither”), Squarepusher (Hello Everything), Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar), Thom Yorke (Amnesiac, The Eraser, and Amok), W.B. Yeats, and William Carlos Williams.
AD: The lyrics of "Foggy Hip" are made up entirely of the words to Yeats' "He Tells of a Valley Full of Lovers." What significance does this poem hold for you, and what dictated the name change?
CW: Andrew and I originally wrote a song for guitar and voice for a family member’s wedding that used the Yeats poem. Later, Andrew was working on an ambient track that he called “Foggy Hip;” this has nothing to do with being “hip,” but refers to a “foggy” pain he had in his leg/hip while composing this track. We both felt it needed words, and I had an idea that the melody line from our Yeats song would effectively accompany the ambience.
AD: Congratulations for making Silent Shout's Top 30 albums of 2013. The positive attention Sunfloating has received from other sites like No Fear of Pop and Open 'Til Midnight, along with the recent platform boost punctum records has been giving you, must have you stoked about the creative work you've been putting into Wormwood in the last seven years. Are you planning to record or tour after the upcoming Microdot EP, or is Wormwood more of a side project for you at the moment?
CW: Yes, we are very excited about the project right now. Though we have been plugging away intermittently on the music for the past seven years, it’s only been in the past year that we’ve devoted some serious attention and thought to the project. Recording is an ongoing activity—since we record mostly at home, we are able to work on music whenever we're free. A tour would be amazing, though there are no concrete plans in the near future. We do have a lot of yet-to-be released material. We’ve written most of the material for a full-length album and would also like to release a few more Microdot EPs soon.
Many thanks to Dan Rudman of punctum records for arranging this interview and to Christina Willatt for being so forgiving of my frequent epistolary tardiness. You can see Wormwood perform with labelmates Shivery Shakes, LIP TALK, Roger Sellers, and The Young Vish on Saturday, May 29 at The Silent Barn in Brooklyn; catch even more punctum bands the rest of the weekend (more details on the full three-day event at punctum's website).
Andrew Doty is the sole editor and creator of Lyricism. He is a professional freelance editor and unprofessional musician currently calling St. Louis home base.