After a pair of well-received singles back in 2016, Jasmine Dreame Wagner made the decision to do something very different from most artists, she decided to take her time. The subsequent four years have seen Jasmine pushing her songwriting and her ambitious musical vision, and discovering where it would take her. The result is an ambitious song-cycle that explores the sprawling American landscape, the first instalment of which we’re premiering today in the shape of her new EP, Switchblade Moon.
If you are perhaps at this point expecting some starry-eyed tale of the American Dream, in all its star-spangled glory, you’ve perhaps come to the wrong place. Jasmine’s vision of America is a much less sanitised take. She may dip into the nostalgia of Americana, yet this is a tale of climate change and economic recession, a dystopian vision that feels worryingly prescient to the here and now.
Jasmine’s sound is an intriguing one, it seems to float between different musical worlds, from a poppy melody to an ambitious orchestral flourish, from jazzy technicality to protest-folk, from Nina Simone to Weyes Blood, Scott Walker to Joan Baez. Perhaps this wide pallet comes from Jasmine’s artistic background, a multi-disciplinary artist working across music, film and in particular an acclaimed poet. Switchblade Moon is a record that seems to exist without boundaries, a genre-fluid re-imagining of the great American songbook that’s at once ambitious, exciting and a fascinating introduction to a songwriter not quite like anyone else you’ll hear all year.
Check out this most intriguing of EP’s in its entirety below, and then read on for our interview with Jasmine and a playlist of the tracks that inspire her.
FTR: For those who don’t know who is Jasmine Dreame Wagner?
I’m a poet, musician, and multidisciplinary artist from New York City, currently living in the Hudson Valley. I’d intended to stay upstate for the winter before heading out on tour, but thanks to COVID-19, I’m here for a while.
As a musician and an artist working across disciplines, I often collaborate with other people. I’ve published two books of poetry and also make short films. My music, performance work and poetry are emotional and visual responses to climate change, postindustrial life in America, gender, sex and mortality. My songs and poems take shape word by word and image by image, snowballing into recordings and music compositions, videos, poems, jokes, sketches and performances. Comedy and protest are sacred to me. Women’s stories, water, hope; animals and technological networks; humanity’s relationship to nature; connection, redemption, grace, and mortality are themes in my work.
When I describe my music, I like say that my impulse to create is linked to landscape and that I want my music to sound like a place.
As for my new record – Switchblade Moon is my debut EP. I’ve been working on these recordings for a few years, over the course of which I fell in love producing music and making films and film scores. All my artistic practices and interests come together in the process of writing and arranging a record, sharing rooms and shaping sounds with friends who are also musicians, filmmakers, and poets.
FTR: What can you remember about your first show?
My first show was at a pizza place in Brooklyn. My bandmate, who was also my best friend and roommate at the time – we carried all of our gear with us on the subway. Me, lugging my guitar and Fender amp up the stairs, and her, trying to help me, balancing an armful of mic stands, a microphone tucked into a vintage beaded pocketbook. We wore polyester mod dresses with our hair dyed and teased out and were so excited to perform that the gear felt weightless, even on the staircase – the effect of being hyped on nerves and pure adrenaline.
The pizza place was a family establishment. A red circular vinyl booth up front was informally reserved for the bands, who’d collapse into its cushions with a plastic water bottle and a pizza slice, or a battery-powered tuner and a pouch of adapters and guitar picks. People would scrape the Formica tables across the floor to make room for equipment and to pool together islands of friends. Our bassist and drummer met us there, and I remember feeling so thrilled to be one of the musicians who could throw a coat in the heap in the band’s big red booth.
Pizza slices were a dollar unless you bought a pitcher of beer, then they were free. We didn’t have fake IDs yet, so we bought the dollar pizza.
It was my first time playing electric guitar in front of people. My palms were so sweaty that I worried I’d lose my grip on my guitar, but I felt at home on stage, which was a patch of checkered tiles in a corner carved out at the back of the room. We blasted through five songs, including a post-punk cover of Kraftwerk’s The Model, the owner of the bar-restaurant twirling a pair of glow sticks while he flashed the overhead lights on and off. Performing live completely collapsed time. Our set was over before I could blink, and once the show was over, I wanted to play the whole night over again.
FTR: Why do you make music? Why not another art form?
Above all things, I make music to connect with other people. I make other kinds of art, too, from poetry to films. I make those things to connect with others, too.
Although I took piano lessons when I was young, my involvement with creating music – writing and recording it – grew out of participating in DIY culture, from attending shows at all-ages venues, to reading listings in the Village Voice (back when the Village Voice was a print newspaper), sitting around with friends after school, circling shows we wanted to go to with a pencil. Music was riding the PATH train to Jersey to see bands play or begging people to carpool to concerts in other cities. Music was social, a means of gathering with others and feeling intense exhilaration or joy – or the communal intensity of expression. And we didn’t just love the music. We loved dressing up. We loved looking at other people, recognizing people, learning who people were, conjuring our own private nicknames for people we’d admire from a distance, seeing them in other places and acknowledging each other with a look. I suppose we loved the scene, or the idea of scenes, different people orbiting each other, drawn to the same music and places as a result of an inner gravity. Going to shows as a teenage girl, I felt for the very first time that I could speak the same language as other people.
When I think back to my first show, not the first show I played but the first show I attended as an audience member, I remember feeling I was instantly part of something. The excitement of a crowd, its potential, the feeling of permission. Feeling like I could talk to anyone in that space. Like the rules that held people apart in school, from cliques to grades to age, dissolved in a music venue. There was also the adrenaline rush, the heat of being together in a crowd. I wanted to participate and felt a real sense of mutual recognition with other people in the audience, people in the bands, and with other kids making zines, taking photographs and videotaping.
I had two friends in particular who loved to go to shows— together, we tried to go to as many as possible. We drove all over New England to attend concerts, arriving early and waiting at the rear doors of venues to beg anyone for entrance when the shows were 21+. We’d see bands at Wetlands or The Cooler in New York City, and we’d drive to Providence, RI to see a band at Club Babyland, or Northampton to go to Pearl Street, or caravan to Boston to see a bigger act play at the Paradise and crash on the couch of someone we knew who’d moved there for college. We’d drive anywhere for music, kept scrapbooks of flyers, cut-out pages of zines and local alt-weeklies we’d collect from record and comic stores. We were on the internet but were also very much a generation that knew both worlds – the “web” and the world that came before it, its paper media and email newsgroups. Alone, I joined chat rooms and learned HTML, created a webpage for my first band, but together, my friends and I wrote a zine that we photocopied and stapled and handed out at shows. A couple of us started a band. We wrote, we drew, we performed, we sang. Often we were our only audience. And we found joy and felt promise in all of it. It felt like one common thread— the music, the artwork, the writing, and performing. That’s where the original impulse comes from, I think, to make art in several different disciplines, and why I don’t separate the disciplines from each other.
FTR: What can people expect from the Jasmine Dreame Wagner live show?
I had an exciting year booked, with shows and tours to promote the release of Switchblade Moon, however, the world had other plans. Thanks to the coronavirus, the dates have been postponed or cancelled. I also had several performances for an eight-piece ensemble to perform live scores to a program of my short films at film festivals and film venues – these events have been postponed and cancelled as well. I’m not alone in feeling heartbroken and disappointed to lose opportunities to connect with people in person, however, protecting our communities is the most important thing, and I’d gladly exchange touring and gathering for the safety of others. Musicians, arts organizations and music venue owners everywhere are waiting to see how businesses will weather the shutdowns, and figuring out how to prepare for the risks associated with indoor crowds – only time will tell when we’ll be able to perform again, the way that we used to. In the meantime, I’m remaining optimistic and reminding myself that opportunities are never lost, they only change form. Next year, something new will happen.
FTR: What’s next for Jasmine Dreame Wagner?
Right now, I’m working on putting together a solo livestream concert from either my attic or a secluded place in the woods. I’m writing new material, learning songs written by some of my favorite artists. Mixing tracks from the Switchblade Moon sessions for a second EP release. I’m also editing a short film that I made with friends this past winter and composing music for the soundtrack. Luckily, I have lots of time to commune with my instruments and keyboards. I’m also working on essays and a novel – It’s helpful to move back and forth between projects, allowing my subconscious to work out knots as I play somewhere else. I’m testing out new software. Donating to bail funds and Black Lives Matter. Writing letters to prisoners. Doing my best to remain involved and to continuing to channel the best of who I am into art and music.
They Listen To…
1. Nina Simone – Wild is the Wind
Nina Simone · Wild Is The Wind
Nina Simone’s Wild is the Wind is one of the first songs I fell in love with when I fell in love with music.
2. Phil Ochs – No More Songs
Phil Ochs’s independent spirit and political lyrics are an inspiration — this video features some haunting footage of Phil singing while wandering an abandoned building.
3. Roberta Flack – Compared to What
Singer and songwriter Gene McDaniels wrote incredible soul hits and epic resistance songs, including “Compared to What,” which Roberta Flack sang flawlessly in 1969.
4. Pharoah Sanders – Harvest Time
There is such richness, fullness, in this song — I feel like I can listen to it forever, lean backwards into it as though I’m floating in a deep, warm pool.
5. The Screamers – 122 Hours of Fear
The Screamers were one of the first punk bands with keyboard-led riffs — however, I’m actually recommending this video for the moment (2’52”) when a guy at the back of room says, “you suck” and Tomata du Plenty screams, “you better shut up and listen!” (We’ve all been there, right? Inspiring.)
Switchblade Moon is out June 26th via National Gold Music Publishing. Click HERE for more information on Jasmine Dreame Wagner.