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An Interview with Yoni Wolf of Why?

(Yoni Wolf has been making music since the mid-nineties and has been frontman of the band Why? since it formed in 2004. Why? released the album Moh Lhean in March 2017 and is currently on tour through the US.)

EE: Hey! Thanks so much for doing this. You’ve started off on tour lately—how’s that going?

YW: We’ve been on tour for about three weeks now. It’s fine, we have a day off today, so I’m walking around with my lady friend; gonna do some cooking, gonna do some laundry, et cetera.

EE: We wanted to ask about your latest album, Moh Lhean— is it pronounced Mo Lean?

YW: That’s fine.

EE: You’d been on a little hiatus until it came out, right? It’s a lot of new songs — I was wondering if you could tell us a little about what went into it: process, time frame, inspiration…

YW: Well, we recorded this one at home, so it went on for a while, as things tend to do when you have as much time as you want to work on them. I wrote the first song in 2010 and just sort of had been working on the songs since then, and pieced it together through the course of much time.

EE: Right! It’s a different creative process altogether when you have as much time as you want to work on something, right? You can move it around until you’re really happy about it.

YW: Yeah. I mean, eventually you’ll have to set some deadlines, but yeah—we definitely spent some good time on it.

EE: Well, I’ve been having a great time listening to the album. I know that a lot of reviewers are saying that this feels really mellowed and mature, saying that it’s a contrast with some of your earlier work, that was more intense and emotionally jagged. Do you agree with that; do you think there’s a change going on here?

YW: Well, it’s hard for me to say, but there does seem to be a break in it: I can only say for myself, as the writer, that I’ve had some developments in my own life, and I think that those have seeped into the music some; I think part of that is an attempt to be a little more acceptant and settled, and less angry or jagged, as you say. So yes, I think that what you’re noticing is there.

EE: Right! So it’s not so much that you’re deliberately pushing the music in different directions, but you’re changing as a person and artist, which is reflected in your art.

EE: I’m not a musician, but I am a poet, so I’m really curious about the songwriting process. Do you start with writing lyrics and then write the music? Do you begin with a feeling, with some words—how do you fit the music and lyrics together—how does that process go?

YW: Usually, I let go and let God, so to speak, in terms of writing the poems. I sort of just try to be in an open state, and usually — I write a lot as I’m falling asleep, or I write when I wake up, or something like that — I don’t have a great routine for writing. But I sort of, if I’m in the right space, I will start to gather up couplets or phrases, and then it begins the long process of constructing and editing and stuff like that, which is more internal. But hopefully the seeds of the things come from something outside of me, or maybe underneath me, in terms of consciousness.

EE: Thank you for explaining that! So your lyrics — they’re very personal. How does it feel to be performing such confessional lyrics?

YW: Well, in fact this new album is not as confessional as my previous work. To me, this new one is —not quite more universal, since it comes from my life—but to me this new one is less intimate, for me, in a gross way, than some stuff.

EE: Right! I was wondering, also, about the persona of your songs — whether you invent characters or write autobiographically, or something in between. You didn’t really lose your hand in Chicago! What is your relationship to the persona you take on in your lyrics?

YW: Well, I mean—just like anyone else, I write things partially from my life, partially from my imagination, partially metaphor— I deploy all those techniques that people use. I’m not writing from a consistent character necessarily; I think that maybe I’ve done that more so in the past, to an extent. I think my album Alopecia, which came out ten years ago, is more of a weird amplified version of myself that’s this sadsack, dark, brooding, sarcastic, cynical version of myself. On this album I don’t really feel like I’m building a character at all—maybe I am, in some way, but it’s not intentional.

EE: I was also asked to ask you this next question—as a singer-songwriter, who’s writing poems when you’re writing your lyrics, what was your reaction to Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature?

YW: Oh, I don’t know—I think it’s warranted! When you have a guy who’s had a career like that, you know, I wouldn’t say that all of his work necessarily works on the page, and I don’t know if that’s a criteria for winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. But there is a good hunk of his work that does sit very well on the page. And I’m all for it.

EE: So was I! It was exciting news.

EE: So, I am involved in student radio, and we are pretty divided up by genre. We have the punk and DIY radio department, and the hip-hop-R&B department, and they more or less refuse to overlap. How do you feel about the categorization of your music by genre? Where would you tell us to play this album on the radio—which department should broadcast it?

YW: All of them! I don’t know, I don't think a lot about that stuff. I think it’s pretty archaic to think in terms of genre in those cut-up and defined ways. I think we’re at a point now where everyone listens to every kind of music. I don’t know anyone who thinks of themselves as “I’m a punker” or “I’m a hip-hopper” anymore. When I was growing up, for sure, the black kids listened to rap music and the white kids listened to heavy metal. It’s just not that way anymore. Everyone kind of listens to everything. And most music has a ton of different influences. I think it’s almost disingenuous to say, “We do strictly reggae”, or something; it’s almost a shtick if someone does that. “We’re a punk band”—it’s almost ironic, you know, to be that singular. It’s not realistic.

EE: That makes a lot of sense. Genres aren’t distinct, they’re all drawing on each other…

YW: But even beyond that, I think it’s strange — today we were up on a restaurant’s roof patio and they were playing all this 60s soul and R&B — I find it really interesting to consider: what is music, and how did it turn into these three-minute pop songs that we all still kind of do? What is music of the past, from different cultures; what did it mean, what was the purpose of it? And what about music of the future: what will its purpose be? I think, at its purest, it’s always had the same purpose, which is to feed the soul of the human being when you’re playing and when you’re listening to it. Now that it’s monetized it’s really morphed into these little morsels that can be bought and sold. It’s very interesting to think about, for someone like me, being in it.

EE: Right! There really is no clear reason why the conventions are what they are.

EE: So Moh Lhean just came out, and you’re on tour — are you working on any new songs? Or is it too early to think about next steps?

YW: I’ve got some stuff I’ve been working on, parallel to Moh Lhean, so I imagine I’ll get back into that at some point, though I haven’t really had time lately. When I’ve got some time off I’ll reevaluate what I have been working on, and go from there.

EE: That sounds great! I don’t want to hold you up much longer, but was wondering—what should we expect to hear when you come through Boston? Old stuff, new stuff, all of it?

YW: All of it! We play a lot from the new record, a lot of stuff from albums past—it’s a good mix.

EE: I’ll be there! Thank you again for joining us.