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This conversation originally aired in the Nov. 19, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.
Asheville indie rock band Wednesday has had an eventful 2023 so far, releasing an acclaimed album and touring the U.S. and Europe.
Wednesday is based in Asheville, North Carolina, and consists of singer Karly Hartzman and her partner Jake Lenderman on guitar, Xandy Chelmis on lap steel, Margo Schultz on bass and Alan Miller playing drums.
Wednesday made big waves with Rat Saw God when it came out in April. The music site Pitchfork gave it 8.8 out of 10 and named it Best New Music.
Before Wednesday set out on a big European tour, Inside Appalachia Host Mason Adams caught up with Karly Hartzman.
Adams: When I saw y’all play at Cat’s Cradle this summer, you talked about the importance of remaining in the South and staying where you’re at. So what compels you to stay in Western North Carolina there in Asheville?
Hartzman: The more places I see, the more I’m convinced that it’s the most beautiful place on the earth, and my favorite place on the earth. The more I travel, the more I’m affirmed in that. So I genuinely do just love the surroundings. I like the culture. I think Southern culture is one of the most intact. That’s one of the things about people being conservative, is they want to retain a lot of historical things. There’s a lot of negative stuff that goes along with being conservative, but there’s also a preservation of culture in a way. When it’s not a negative thing, it’s actually an interesting thing.
I went into an antique store the other day in Burnsville, [when] I was getting my license renewed, and there’s this super old guy. This lady was talking to him about all the stuff that she needed fixing around her house. And he was like, “Yeah, I can fix literally all of that.” Antique lamps and antique this-and-that. I just feel like a lot of that stuff is still intact here. There’s a lot of people who can’t stay here for fear of their life, obviously, and I totally understand them feeling like they need to escape whether it’s because they’re queer or they’re Black, with the police violence here. But if you’re not scared for your life, and you’re willing to fight for those who can’t, I think it’s a really good place with a lot of room to be productive.
There’s a ton of grassroots organization and people who are so passionate about change. And yeah, just the best food, too. I mean, they don’t got Bojangles anywhere else. So why would I live anywhere else?
Adams: There’s so much about the band that resonates with me, from its sound to the apparent musical influences. But the songwriting is just so incredible. It’s impressionistic and visual and rooted in place — but it also feels universal. How do your surroundings and experiences make your way into your music and your songs?
Hartzman: With any writing, I just think I’m impressed with people that are able to describe their own life in a way that captures how original everyone’s life is. It’s harder than you would think to find the things that make you and your life what it is. It’s a muscle, and obviously I’ve really worked it since I was a high schooler writing. I did poetry for a really long time and tried to find the little things that were interesting to me, and it tended to be outside of myself.
I find it really easy to get bored with my own thoughts in my own brain, so I look outside myself. That’s the one thing that I feel like a lot of people bring up about my writing, is that it’s kind of like a spectator. I try to look really closely about what’s going on that is specific to where I’m sitting, or where I’m at, at that moment. And once you build that muscle, it just comes to you. I find writing is the easiest part of the whole process because it’s happening around you all the time. If you live in a place that you’re inspired by — that’s why I am so attached to North Carolina and Asheville.
Adams: There’s so many songs I love on this record, but I wanted to ask you about “Bath County,” partly because I’m from Clifton Forge, which is adjacent. “Bath County” sprawls between eastern Tennessee and western Virginia, and it’s got all these memorable lines and visual images. Can you tell us just a little bit more about that song?
Hartzman: Jake’s mom is from Bath County, and she likes to go every, like once a year, maybe once every two years, to visit and go around her old stomping grounds. They’ll rent a house and we’ll go out there, and a lot of the visuals from that are from the drive up there. I saw a high school football game going on. It was the kind of game that happens around here, where you can just walk in and watch. There was a kid drinking a Fanta or maybe a Gatorade, I can’t remember, but it was fluorescent red and “Fanta” sounded better. So I went with that.
The other kind of section of that song about the guy who overdosed in his car was about something me and Jake saw on our way to Dollywood. We were going to go run around and try to have a good fun time, but on our way there, we stopped at a Chik-Fil-A, and the guy was surrounded by cops. I thought I was seeing a dead body for the first time, but luckily he sat up, but it took him a really long time. I was just struck by those two things. They had a similar tone, and that put them into the same song. That’s how a lot of my stuff is written.
Adams: So you all have just come off this long national tour and you’re getting ready to head to Europe. How’s traveling and going on the road affect your perspective on home and where you live?
Hartzman: I think we’re still figuring that out. I think in the long run, success to us is really gonna mean that we’re able to spend more time at home. Right now, we’re not really able to do that. But whenever I talk to my bandmates, their goals in a lot of ways — except our drummer Allen loves being out on the road, he’s a total road dog — but everyone else is, ideally we would be able to do a month’s worth of touring instead of six months of touring or eight months, whatever we’ve been doing, and be able to sustain a life that’s comfortable at home for most of our time. Xandy just built a farm on his property, and it’s really hard for him to be away right now. Of course, I’m lucky because I have Jake out there and he’s my romantic partner, but everyone else was away from their loved ones. It’s really hard. So I think our dream would be to be able to spend the majority of our time in the place we love the most, which is Asheville. We love playing shows, but like yeah, it’s a pretty intense lifestyle.
Adams: Y’all have had such a big year this year with the album coming out and the sold-out tours. What wisdom have you taken away from these experiences you’re having?
Hartzman: Gosh, I mean, I learn something every day. I’m a huge introvert, there’s no way I would have the type of human connection that I have with my bandmates, the kind that comes from spending 24 hours with a group of people a day. It really shows me that human connection, even though it’s really difficult for me, is probably the most nourishing and important thing of life. Another thing I’ve learned is a lot of self-care stuff. I’m still figuring that out, because I don’t drink at home or really at all, but on tour it’s kind of necessary for me to get on stage sometimes.
So I’m trying to figure out my relationship with that, and I go to the sauna a lot when I can on tour. A lot of musicians end up being workout people and run. When they are on a tour bus, they’ll run during the day. I think that’s something I’ll have to start implementing. I never really understood why so many older musicians were such juice heads, but I understood, yeah you feel like sh*t on tour if you don’t do that, because there’s so much exposure to not the best food and a lot of drugs and alcohol. Which are fun, and I like to partake, but you’ve also got to balance that out with taking care of yourself.
Adams: What are y’all working on next?
Hartzman: Well, Jake’s album is going to be coming out. And then, our next album is written. We haven’t really practiced it as a band yet, but all of my songs are ready. It’s mostly just about finding time to practice them and then record them. It takes forever for that kind of stuff. But yeah, that’s something I really want to reaffirm to our audience, because the thing I hate most is when a band is received well, and then pivots in another direction or breaks under the pressure and just doesn’t release anymore good music.
I’ve been so intense about not letting that really affect how I write, any good or bad press. But I just feel, really, all the songs still feel the same to me as before. I feel like I’m still the same person writing. That’s what I’ve been trying to keep intact. But yeah, next one’s written, we’re just trying to figure out when to get it all down.