It's snowing in Western Massachusetts. Outside smells like wood fires. Up here, five local colleges support a professional class beyond the schools and their faculty: doctors, lawyers, therapists in big country houses. And living in their guest houses, in rented rooms, a cache of post-grads are figuring things out.
Joe Valle lives in one of these guest houses. You enter through the owner's garage. By the door, Joe's got a white upright piano and a blue lava lamp. Strands of shells hang from a few nails driven into exposed wood beams. Plants with long arms reach over their pots and tickle the ground. Everything here has been chosen well, and everything has its place. On his tidy desk sit white flowers, some framed woodcut prints, and a silver iMac, and you can just tell its files have been backed up.
Joe and one of his bandmates in Wet, Marty Sulkow, scroll through their work-in-progress debut album. Both are 26, and about the same height, though Marty's hair is much taller. Joe has quizzical eyebrows, Marty piercing eyes. The record with which they're tinkering—Wet's first major label effort—is due out this fall on Columbia, and the band is making a last round of edits before sending their songs to be mixed. So far, these two have done most of the production work themselves, delegating tasks roughly according to expertise: Marty is better at rock band stuff, like playing guitar and recording vocals, while Joe, more of a computer guy, handles digital percussion, textures, and tone. One of them will make edits in private, then send them to the other, who'll make more edits and send them back.
Kelly Zutrau, Wet's singer and songwriter, sits thoughtfully hunched in a baggy sweatshirt and L.L. Bean boots, jotting ideas in a thin notebook. She's 26, too, and more than anyone, these songs belong to her. She records demos, and Joe and Marty make them sound better. "They don't know what half the songs say," Kelly tells me. "They don't know the lyrics, and they don't care. We're neurotic about different things." She's got a sharp jaw that conveys confidence and a small mouth that suggests restraint. When she speaks her voice can sound downtrodden, but when she sings it's athletic, with a sturdy mid-range that's always bending into another harmony. It's a little bit country and a lot R&B. Everything Wet does is in service of that voice; production-wise, her bandmates mostly stay out of the way with soft pads, muted guitars, spare drums, and silence.
The three consider whether they like how Joe has multi-tracked one of Kelly's lines in the latest iteration of a song that, like their album, still needs a name. Now I have you here to hold me, she sings, then it doubles up: Make me forget I have—forget I have a body. That last word pirouettes out in three notes: bah-ha-dee. Kelly asks for the vocals to be "softer and washy," and Marty clicks and drags to make changes. He spots an unfamiliar vocal track buried somewhere on Joe's rigorously color-coded Ableton timeline: the sounds of someone screaming, played in reverse. "I can't believe you snuck those in," Kelly tells Joe, but they all agree the odd sample makes their song sound bigger and better, somehow.
The gas fireplace kicks on. Joe gets up to offer me some vanilla seltzer water, and I notice that everyone's wearing wool socks. They seem so comfortable here, but part of the message of Wet's music is that they rarely actually feel that way. One of Kelly's lines from an early song, called "You're the Best," stands out: I feel lonely, even when you hold me. On Joe's refrigerator door, he's hung a piece of newsprint with words painted in black, arranged alphabetically, signaling vaguely at some existential threat: "Alter ego, Brutalism, Cage, Diet…" On top of the refrigerator is a handgun.
That night, Wet drives to a nearby restaurant best described by the price of its buttermilk fried chicken: $18. They're joined by a few friends: a gentle-seeming woodworker with a missing front tooth and a gay couple who're both named Sam. The joke, someone says, is that here, all the scrappy young Brooklyn transplants seem rich, with their own houses and cars. After the meal, the snow outside turns to glopping, freezing rain, and everyone makes their way to a dive bar, where old beer cans line the walls and Black Sabbath plays over the stereo. A plastered thirtysomething in a button-down shirt engages Joe and Marty in a game of pool while Kelly sits and talks to the Sams. Joe switches to darts and gets at least six bullseyes, and eventually he and Kelly leave. Marty stays for a while longer. "They're both very private people," he tells me. "More so than I am. I'm down to hang all the time, always." Around closing time, the rain stops, and he walks home, his car left parked on the street. Sometime in the middle of the night, it gets towed.
“We’re just the three that consistently showed up.” — Joe Valle
Wet was founded in New York, but it's a Massachusetts band. Joe's from Swampscott, an oceanside town on Boston's North Shore. His dad, a lawyer, had grown up four doors down. Kelly's from around Boston, too, in the more urban-suburban neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, where she and her friends came up on R&B—commercial stuff with a tender streak, like Brandy and SWV. Her parents split up quickly; they hadn't graduated from high school, and neither did she. But she got her GED and applied to art school, enrolling at Cooper Union, in New York City, at the same time Joe and Marty—upstate New York childhood, adolescence at a Western Mass boarding school—both arrived at NYU.
Following a series of coincidences, including mutual friends from sleepaway camp and a shared love of old synths, the three became friends. In 2007, as sophomores, Marty and Kelly helped form a band, called Beauty Feast, which soon grew to some seven members. That was the first time Kelly had written music, and she smooshes her hands into her face when the topic comes up today. "It was a fun thing in college," she says, "but when I look back, my songs don't feel completely genuine. It seems like we had no vision, or no style, and were just doing folk music because everyone was doing folky, DIY, lo-fi music. Some part of me feels ashamed of doing that."
As the band naturally dissolved, Kelly continued writing on a hard-to-tune autoharp, a technique she still uses today to sketch every Wet song. One of Beauty Feast's members had been a guy named Chris Smith, and Kelly started emailing him tracks. "Getting a demo from her in my inbox was just a present every time," he remembers, speaking over the phone from Georgia, where he lives now. "She would play and sing, and then I would add other elements to it. I just sort of got where she was coming from." Their back-and-forth continued while Kelly went on to the Rhode Island School of Design, where she got a master's degree in art and teaching. Soon Marty got involved, too, and he brought in Joe, who was then living in L.A. "Joe was, like, my friend who knew how to open Ableton and program some stuff," Marty says, which almost sounds like a slight until Joe describes it himself. "I do consider myself a musician," he says, "but only because I'm in a band, not because I know how to play things."
In the summer of 2012, Kelly and Joe moved back to New York and in with Marty, in Bed-Stuy. "We were all really depressed and had nothing going on that was meaningful," Kelly remembers. She broke up with her boyfriend and bottomed out. "It was traumatic and dramatic," she says. "It involved a whole group of our friends, and lots of what I perceived as betrayal. So I focused a lot of toxic emotional energy into something that was sort of productive"—Wet. The tacit support of her bandmates, playing along to songs she wrote, validated her feelings, or at the very least, told her they deserved to be taken seriously. On "Take Hold of Me," an early track with more strummy guitar than Wet uses now, Kelly sings: You are near the end of a nightmare/ Though it's cold and grim/ There's some light within/ You can feel this love all around you.
"I focused a lot of toxic emotional energy into something that was sort of productive." —Kelly Zutrau
From the outset, Wet's music has carried this odd, everywhere feeling of being made in the city but meant for the country. It's hard to explain—an aimless, modern sense of claustrophobia and escape, of desperate camaraderie, of moving between hugeness and smallness. The urban-feeling side of their music—fluttered, cut-and-paste production and R&B harmonies—combines with an old-fashioned quality in the faintest twang in Kelly's voice and the directness of her appeals to be loved on her own terms. There's lots of baby, please, and lots of on my knees, and then she tells him that she doesn't want him. In both sound and emotion, there's real power in Wet's refusal to be pinned down.
Around 2013, the band started getting attention in the usual sort of way, by booking countless shows around Brooklyn and posting some tracks online. At the time, Marty and Joe were working part-time jobs fixing voting machines, and Chris was the only one with a full-time gig. "I've never really lived the band life," he says. "I had to get up at 5:30 in the morning, so it wasn't gonna be sustainable for me to be playing a bunch of shows at 11." His work gave him another anchor in his life, something the others didn't have, and he was phased out of the lineup. He's married now.
Looking back, Wet's entire existence has an air of coincidental epiphany, a group of twentysomethings banding together until something else happened. "We weren't expecting to be full-time band people," Kelly says, and Joe agrees: "We're just the three that consistently showed up." Chris credits a big part of Wet's existence to Marty. "You need somebody to write the songs, of course, but you also need somebody who really, really, really wants it," he says. "And that's Marty. I don't know if Joe and Kelly would be in a professional band at this point if he weren't around."
"We just wanna make good pop songs." —Marty Sulkow
Marty's apartment these days is one of four in a large house in Northampton, the more cosmopolitan center of Western Mass. Inside, soggy shoes form a line on the floor against one white wall, and books of critical theory and philosophy form a line on the floor against another. On the walls hang old, National Geographic-style photos of faraway places. His furniture is mostly well-made antiques, though a table for a synth is comprised of stacked milk crates. All of the lamps seem to be desk lamps. It's like everything's been half-planned. Kelly waters a plant by the window, and everyone is excited to see new growth; it had been sitting on a radiator, and Joe points out that the leaves are looking dried out, so Kelly moves it to another room.
Since moving to Western Massachusetts earlier this year to focus on their album, the members of Wet have embraced being together but separate, each with their little house and little quirks. They come together to make big calls, but given the choice, Kelly says, "We try to email about it because it's less emotional." Today, the three are together, and while they listen to more songs and make more edits, Kelly realizes that one of her vocal runs sounds like something Taylor Swift did on 1989. Joe reminds her that she recorded her part before ever hearing Swift's album, but Kelly still wants to take a break to listen to "Wildest Dreams," the song on 1989 that, with its punctuation-mark kick drums and downcast strings, happens to sound the most like Wet. Joe would rather not; it's too much pressure to compare their music back-to-back.
When Wet signed their first deal, in early 2013, it was with Neon Gold, a boutique label with a reputation for graduating its acts to the majors. At the time, Neon Gold held a partnership with Columbia that essentially allowed the larger label to claim any artist for itself. Lizzy Plapinger, Neon Gold's co-founder, says Wet won her over in their first meeting when they "referenced wanting to make big Drake and Destiny's Child-level pop songs." The label helped develop the band, advising them to delete the Bandcamp uploads of their less-polished older material and connecting them with Noah Beresin, one of Neon Gold's regular producers and engineers. Beresin co-produced three of the four songs on their self-titled debut EP, which came out on Neon Gold that fall. It was a solid success. "Don't Wanna Be Your Girl" racked up six million plays on Spotify, and Khloe Kardashian posted an Instagram of herself whipping her hair to it.
"Our mission statement from the beginning was to provide a platform for artists that, at the time, were too left-field for the mainstream but potentially too pop for the indie world," says Plapinger. "It just so happens that over time those are the artists who have now redefined the [mainstream] space." After releasing Wet's EP, Neon Gold switched their partnership to Atlantic, and Wet found themselves fielding offers from a number of majors. In the spring of 2014, they signed with Columbia, joining a roster that includes Beyoncé and Billy Joel. The band Haim, also formerly of Neon Gold, are signed to Columbia too; now they're touring with Taylor Swift. Joe might not be ready to listen to Swift today, but she might very well be listening to Wet.
Consider it the overall indie-ing of pop. Accessible software and more readily attainable information about music production have lowered the barrier of entry for self-starting artists trying to achieve a full-bodied pop sound. At the same time, a combination of social media, streaming, and a cottage industry of tastemaking labels like Neon Gold have redefined distribution, so that smaller acts can make bigger waves with fewer resources than they could've a decade ago. If pop is Everest, base camp is creeping up higher, and the stars up top are marching back down to where the action is. These days, every major album seems to have a minor helper on it somewhere, whether it's Arca and Kanye West, Jack Antonoff and Taylor Swift, or Caroline Polachek and Beyoncé. More than ever, across the board, the artists guiding the movements of pop come from the world of DIY—not because DIY was what they aspired to, but because that's what was available to them. "Grimes is on Roc Nation," Marty sums it up. "Everything is kind of up in the air."
Wet's album features some more assistance from Noah Beresin—as well as Chairlift's Patrick Wimberly, who helped arrange strings; the Dirty Projectors' Nat Baldwin on occasional upright bass; and their old friend Chris Smith, who sings backup on two tracks—but they've taken the dominant hand in producing everything. That self-reliance makes a statement, but it can also be limiting. "We definitely don't know how to make a song all by ourselves that could be on the radio yet," Kelly says, explaining that they're planning a trip to L.A. to work with Rhye's Robin Hannibal in re-recording the song of theirs most likely to be the first single. (A previous big-name collaboration, produced entirely by the Drake and Kendrick Lamar hit-maker DJ Dahi, resulted in a solid track that didn't ultimately match the vibe of the album.)
"We just wanna make good pop songs," Marty says. Wet's website has always been a Kanye West gag—kanyewet.biz—but the joke that they're in totally different leagues is getting less funny. So far nothing has come out of it, but Kelly says Kanye's camp recently reached out looking for demos. She sent them some songs she'd started on the autoharp.
“They don’t know the lyrics, and they don’t care. We’re neurotic about different things.” —Kelly Zutrau
Kelly is the only member of Wet with an entire house to herself, out in the town of Hadley, where the band convenes for dinner one night. A snow-covered valley, dotted by open-field farms, stretches endlessly out of her backyard. Around here, you have to pay for trash collection; Kelly doesn't, so she's got a stack of cardboard boxes and trash bags in the kitchen. Marty opens a bottle of sake while Joe sets up a Blu-ray player that Kelly's dad gave her for Christmas. They're having tacos, and Kelly cuts an onion and cries, and Marty cuts a tomato, and Joe washes dishes for everyone to use.
Kelly has the sort of cozily stuffed home that, when you sink into its couch, seems to hold you there in a hug. "Every time I think about going to Australia, I get upset," she says, anticipating the inevitable tour. "I find touring to be traumatic. I like playing shows when it goes well—there's no better feeling—but sometimes I think about touring and that life, and then I think about my old life teaching and in grad school, and I think this would've made more sense for me five years ago."
That raises the question of Wet's stability as a band. By their own account, Wet's existence is partly owing to feeling lost and stumbling into a collective purpose. At some point soon, their album is going to hit store shelves, and in that moment, as the band and their bosses wait to see if people buy it or don't, their lives will be once again all up in the air. But even more than how well their record is received, Wet's future depends on Kelly. She seems to know this. On their album as it stands now, following a series of songs about how relationships have left her feeling unwanted and unfulfilled, the very last track arrives with this crowning realization: These boys, their ways don't ever change/ Cause it's me, me, at the end of the day.
So far, she's never stopped writing, which bodes well. "I feel like we're halfway done with the next album already," she says. But her writing also points beyond that. "I'm constantly talking to our A&R person about the songs I'm working on and sending demos over, and she's really excited about me doing writing specifically for other artists," she says. "So far, it's a lot of planning and thinking. We have a trip that we've been talking about where we're gonna go to Nashville for a week with our publisher and try to do some country writing." She says she's been keeping folders of demos on her computer arranged by genres for potential recipients of her songs: a folder for country, one for pop, one for R&B.
Earlier, Kelly said her bandmates don't always know what she sings about, but that's not exactly true. "I think one of the driving feelings behind a lot of the songs that Kelly writes is fear of relying on someone else," Joe says. "Just being scared that to be in a relationship you have to give up a lot of control of your life, and you're just letting someone—like, it could go bad. It could go really bad. That's a fear I really identify with. Fearing that you really don't have control over when things start or stop. You have to just have faith. That's scary." He's speaking about how she describes romantic relationships, but just as much, he seems to be summing up the state of their band, maybe the state of all 26-year-olds trying to make their confusing lives work.
The next day, the three members of Wet pack their bags for a week of work in New York. They pile everything into Kelly's car and, leaving Massachusetts, listen one more time to the album they're trying to let go into the world. On the highway, wind blows their car. No one really talks. Kelly drives.
Styling Jessica Willis. Hair/Make up Sierra Min. Special thanks to Odin, Working Title Shop, Sincerely Tommy, and Fanmail for providing wardrobe.