Today, Brooklyn-based band Wet heads on tour for its new album, Still Run. "It's about me trying to be a more authentic version of myself and what losses came about in the process," says front woman Kelly Zutrau. Our host Julia Bainbridge sat down with Zutrau to discuss that process, her work, and, of course, loneliness. Read the interview below.
You're about to go on tour. What is life like on the road?
It's a disorienting lifestyle, being on a stage and doing this really intense thing, then breaking down [the set] and getting back in the car. It's just like, "Where am I? What time is it? Where are the people I love in the world?"
What does the title of the new album, Still Run, mean?
It's the same title as one of the songs, which is about loving someone but realizing the relationship is dysfunctional, and choosing to leave it even though that's the harder thing to do. It started out being about a romantic relationship, but it extended to address a lot of the relationships in my life. As I wrote it, I was getting older and taking stock of my life, doing inventory... I think this all comes down to my relationship with my mom, really.
[Laughs] Doesn't it always?
[Laughs] Yes. We're very co-dependent, me and my mom. She's a single mom, and we were running around for the first three years of my life, couch surfing, staying with her friends...all of our stuff was in the back of her car. So I clung very tightly to my mom. She was really smart and powerful, but also so young, and she had no education, no money, no man, nothing. It was just me and her [before my sisters came along]. So I formed into this sort of malleable person, who thought that to survive, I just need to be liked and likable.
I'm just starting to realize that I've formed a lot of these important relationships in my life the same way. I've thought that the way I'm going to get what I want is by being liked and making decisions that I think will make them happy. But I got to this point where I wasn't happy with the music. I thought, "I'm not making the art I want to make. This is my work. These are my words. This is primarily my project and I feel disempowered by everyone around me." It wasn't their fault. It was a dynamic that had been established, and I had to break out of it. So I cut people out for a little while to get in touch with what I wanted.
At times, that process felt overly brutal, and I wasn't not sure if it is necessary. I'm still not. But I know that it's important to make boundaries. No one taught me how to do that, so I'm trying to teach myself. It's not always graceful!
Are there any other songs on the album that stand out to you?
"Lately." The chorus is, "What have you done for me lately?" I didn't mean it to come off as sassy as it sounds, but it feels like an important question to ask. "What are we doing for each other? Is this relationship helping us grow and live, or is it because we're comfortable or scared?"
What's your writing process like?
For this album, I wrote a lot on tour, but there's definitely always a period when I need to focus in and be alone and really figure out what the body of work is going to look like. I did that a few years ago to make our first album, moving to western Massachusetts and living in a cheap house by myself. And I went away a couple times for this album. It was intensely scary, and I was sober then, too. I was trying not to drink or do any drugs so I could get in touch with what I was actually feeling. And it was dark! But one of the songs I wrote during that time is one of my favorites on the album. It's called "Out of Tune" and it's about losing Joe [Valle, my band mate], in a way.
Is he no longer in the band?
No, Joe is still in the band, but our relationship profoundly changed. Our lives were too entangled, and I had to get some distance from him to be able to get in touch with my vision for the art and the music—and also my vision for my life. I felt like I was clinging too tightly to him, as well as Marty [Sulkow], who's no longer in the band.
Do you take time off from drinking often?
Addiction is in my family, and I've struggled over the years with drugs and alcohol. I dropped out of high school when I was 16 and was in and out of rehab centers in Boston and really kind of lost the plot for a while. I don't have a clean, simple relationship with drugs and alcohol. I get out of bed and I mostly do my job and I'm functioning better than I ever have as a person but yeah... I go in and out of trying to be sober.
Tell me more about your upbringing and how you got into music.
I grew up in Boston. My parents were never together; it was a quick thing between them. My dad's a chimney sweep. My mom was a waitress when I was growing up and she now does real estate, but at her core, she is an artist. She grew up in Brooklyn going to auditions and in her heart she always wanted to do music and acting, so she really encouraged that stuff in me. There were community theater centers that she'd take me to and we didn't have any money, but she was very savvy about getting financial aid and navigating around those challenges. She helped me get into a private arts high school that gave me a full scholarship, but it ended up being too hard for me. It was two hours from where we lived, so I had four hours of commuting every day.
So she didn't discourage you from having a creative kind of career, then, which so many parents do because it's not exactly a stable way to make a living...
No, my mom was very good about that. She grew up dirt poor, in a garage with no bathroom, and made her way through with no high school degree and no college degree. She told me I could be whoever I want, and she was evidence of that.
I'm painting the nice side of it, but there are a lot of fucking issues! We're all crazy and none of us have money and don't know how to get money or keep money. But she did a good job. All of my [three younger] sisters are amazing people and do amazing things in the world because she told us that we can do whatever we want. "The only thing that gets in the way is resources sometimes," she said, "but there's a way around that. There's always help." It's powerful to hear that a lot growing up, and she lived it, too. She's very spontaneous. She doesn't follow rules. She's just floating out there doing life her own way. The world was not made for my mom, but she's found her way in it, and that's inspiring. That's a good role model.
I mean, it wasn't perfect, but she was always trying. She was like, "You're an artist. I see that in you." I was always painting and putting on shows and singing. My mom was a very on-the-run type of woman, and she'd be like, "We're leaving today and we're not coming back for a few weeks." And I'd be like, "Okay!" She'd put us all in the van and we'd all sing from the few Whitney Houston or Madonna or Mariah Carey cassette tapes she had. If I had to say my favorite song it would probably be "I Will Always Love You," because it means so much to me and my sisters and my mom. I just have memories of really happy times with women.
So you grew up around all these women, and now you're in a band with men!
Music spaces, in general, are mostly male. There are not usually women working in venues as sound engineers or tour managers. And there are so few women producers. I'm constantly in a room with five or ten men, and it can be exhausting. There are subtle ways in which it becomes clear that they think women are a little worse at stuff like that. They're not aware of it, and they're not bad people, but it's a big-picture problem. My opinion, even though I'm at the center of the project, even though I'm the sole writer on the album, is usually heard last. And I have to say it over and over and over again. Not always, but even the best men I've worked with slip back into it, and you see how powerful misogyny is in the world. People assume I don't know what I want, and that's because I'm a woman, definitely.
It's a messy process, making an album, but I needed to be in control of it, and I was, in the end. I wanted the songs to breathe a little more, and I wanted production to be simpler. I wanted to hear more organic instruments and for them to be in service of the voice. I'm mainly interested in vocals: the words and what they're saying and where they're coming from. That's my access point into music.
Your music is so personal. Do you ever get nervous to share it?
If it's not connecting with the audience, that feels really bad. A loud crowd that's not really paying attention when you say a particularly vulnerable line? I feel like a loser. That's generally not the case, though. Mostly, playing live reminds you why you're doing this. When I look out on a sea of girls who look like all different, who all come from different places, and they're singing the words to "I Don't Want to Be Your Girl," I feel like the luckiest person in the world. I get to express this thing that felt really powerful in my life and then have it shouted back at me, affirmed by hundreds of young girls.
I absolutely love "You're the Best" from the first album. The first lines really struck me: "All I know is / when you hold me / I still feel lonely / lonely when you hold me." Can you explain them a bit?
I wrote that song when I was at a point in a relationship that I often get to in relationships: I'm there. I am finally with the person I wanted to be with. And then he falls asleep and I realize I'm still alone. As much as I try and want to be bonded with this person, the dominant feeling that I feel at all times is a loneliness. It just doesn't go away. And I think that resonated for a lot of people. Relationships don't make that go away. You can be more lonely in a relationship sometimes than you would be on your own.
Loneliness is such an interesting thing. I feel like I really take it with me everywhere. On tour, sometimes I can lose myself in that feeling of connectedness. I think, "Wow, we're really in this together and I really love everyone for being here." But I have noticed that, in romantic relationships, I'm really confronted with that loneliness.
Where do you think that feeling comes from? Is it because of how you grew up? Is it just part of the human condition?
I don't know. I really think about that a lot: "Does everyone feel this way? Am I more in touch with it or am I less capable of handling it?" Sometimes I wonder if it's a chemical thing. "Was I just born this way?" Both my parents are loners at their cores.
My mom's currently in the process of moving for the fourth time in two years. Still Run is as much her album as it is my album, because a lot of the stuff I'm touching on are my mom's issues, too. It's interesting how connected we are, even at a time like right now, when we're not talking very much. We're the least connected we've ever been right now, but we're intertwined with each other forever.
You mention Rosalie in a line in "You're the Best." Who is she?
My boyfriend at the time, that was his ex-girlfriend, and he was not over her. So, that was part of our relationship. [Rosalie] became a fan of the band and she's totally sweet—I never had any issue with her—but she was the other women occupying a lot of that boyfriend's headspace. That's part of why I was probably feeling lonely: He wasn't totally there with me. He was still caught up with her.
What is "Deadwater," from the first album, all about?
I was reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, and she called a whiskey "a glass of dead water," which I think is beautiful. I wanted to write a song about drinking and my mom and all this stuff, but I didn't have a nice way of putting it...dead water just seemed really poetic to me, like it's water drained of its life force.
That first album was so well received. Have you had any experiences with fame since then, and what does that feel like?
Maybe in the venue, but, generally, no. We're not pop stars or anything. I have some friends who can't walk down the street without people taking their photos, and it was really good for me to see that. You assume that the goal is to get bigger and better, but watching what happened to this person made me grateful for where I'm at. I've achieved a certain level of success. I'm allowed to do music as my job and I also don't have to deal with fame. That brings profound changes and I don't know if you can change it back. So, selling out Webster Hall? Maybe that's the level that's fine for me.
You released the music video for "Lately" last Friday. Do you like working on music videos?
I struggled with them in the past, but I actually shot and directed this one and really enjoyed the process. I thought, "I went to art school, I am an artist." I bought photo lights, rented a dance studio, got a VHS and a tripod, and just danced around and made this video. It was a reminder that I can do all this stuff. I know the most about this project, more than anyone, because it's coming from me, so I can make a music video for it if I want to. People might not like it, but I'm happy with it. I think its really intimate and it might be interesting for people to see what I would do on my own rather than what a crew of thirty people who don't know me would put together. It comes back to that idea of trying to be in control of your own process. You can make it fun or make it however you want it to be.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.