A few years ago I met the band Wet, then a trio, in Western Massachusetts where they were all living and originally from. It was late 2014, and in rented houses buried in feet of snow they were meticulously editing their debut album, Don’t You, for Columbia Records. Turns out my story was a bit early: it’d take over a year for that album to come out.
Upon release, Don’t You wasn’t received as the genre-skirting, older-Lorde indie-pop breakthrough that once seemed possible. Though ’90s R&B was ultimately a minor part of Wet’s sound, it was a common reference point in the press, and in the time from recording to release, that association took them from the front-ish of a trend to the back. Pitchfork gave Don’t You a 4.0, putting the album in the bottom 3 percent of all music they’d reviewed since 1999.
Listening again, there are incredible melancholy moments, but parts do sound oddly tight — and after catching back up with the band, recently, it turns out that tenseness was due in part to shaky dynamics within the group. For their follow-up, Still Run, Wet have become a duo. They’ve also brought in key collaborators: Rostam Batmanglij produced two tracks, their brightest-sounding to date, while Daniel Aged, of cult favorites inc. no world, added new depth with bass guitar and pedal steel.
Earlier this summer, I met Kelly in New York, where she has lived for a while, to learn the stories behind the album, some rawer and deeper than I’d even expected. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
“If you guys aren’t down for this, I’ll quit Wet and you can keep doing it.”
KELLY ZUTRAU: “For our first album, I was a lot younger. It was the first time, and we just had no idea what we were doing. We had all of these people wanting different things, and it was such a learning experience knowing when to push back or not. There were a lot of mistakes I feel we made where we listened too much to managers or label people and kind of went with their plan. Every decision we made was made democratically, even though it felt like the consequences were more on me than anyone else. It all went fine in the end, but it was really intense. It felt unnecessarily hard.
“When Wet started, we presented ourselves as a band of three equals: me, Marty, and Joe. That always felt sort of disingenuous to me, but we kept doing it for a lot of reasons, until I got to point where I couldn't answer when an interviewer would ask, ‘Who writes the songs?’ With a few exceptions, I've always written the chords and the lyrics and the structures, but I couldn't say that in front of the guys without it being awkward and weird. I don't want to take away from their very hard work, but I never felt like I could take credit because of our image as a band. I wasn’t taking credit to spare their feelings.
“When the first record came out, I had no idea why we were presenting that way anymore. As a woman, it started to feel really fucked up that I was doing this labor that wasn't recognized. I started having conversations with Marty and Joe, just saying that didn't feel right to me. I said, ‘I need to make music that is my own and that I have control over, or I'm not doing it anymore. If you guys aren't down for this, I'll quit Wet and you can keep doing it.’ It was really sad and messy and dramatic and painful, because they were my family. I felt horrible. At the end of the day, me and Joe got through it, and me and Marty didn't get through it, and Joe settled into a support role.”
Now Wet is just Kelly and Joe Valle, which doesn’t necessarily make things easier. Though it wasn’t part of the band’s public identity, practically since they started Kelly and Joe had been a couple. Around the same time of this bigger reset, they broke up. Kelly headed to L.A., where she stayed for three months in a guest house behind where Rostam lives.
KELLY: “My life had kind of fallen apart. I had so many feelings and I felt fucking crazy. I just deeply needed space to try to get in touch with my vision for the music and my vision for my life. I felt like I had established this pattern with everyone — with family members, with Joe, with Marty, with managers — that was not based on what I needed or wanted. I was trying to appease people in this really dysfunctional, disempowering way to get them to give me the life that I wanted or the art that I wanted.
“And that’s what the whole record is about. It’s a snapshot of this time. In L.A., Rostam would hear me working and pop his head in and be like, ‘Make that bridge better.’ Or it would be two in the morning and we'd be at a party and he'd be like, ‘Your voice sounds really cool right now. Let's go to the studio right now.’ And I'd be like, ‘I don't want to, I'm drunk, I'm at a party.’ And he'd be like, ‘No. We gotta do it. Let's go right now.’ And it was awesome.
“After a few months, I got tired of L.A. and came back to New York. There were times when me and Joe weren't working together, but I kept going back to him. There's something about our process that feels important and really valuable to me, and I think he's a really special producer. It was co-producing, and he co-produced almost all the songs on the album. He has a really specific voice, and we’re at our best when we work together. We actually worked much more collaboratively this time. I'd be sitting with him while he'd be producing and I’d say, ‘Try it like this.’ Or I'd jump in and play a keyboard part.
“We could work through a lot of our shit and have this document of it, to have this insane energy go into something.”
“The good days were better than it had ever been, and the bad days were so incredibly frustrating and depressing and lonely for both of us. There was a part of us that knew it was a little strange that we were continuing to work together. I was like, ‘Are we holding onto something that we shouldn't be holding onto? And are we helping each other or are we holding each other back?’ Our relationship used to have so many different layers — family, romantic, friendship. It was so many things and then it was one thing. It was just music.
“But we hit on something that sounds unique, that specific sad tone that we have established together. It sounds like Wet. On a personal level and in the band, Joe works incredibly hard and his dedication to the project and willingness to put in endless hours is something that I don't think I could pay someone to do. We have so much history and baggage, but we're getting through it. And I think it was really an amazing opportunity to have this project, where we could work through a lot of our shit and have this document of it, to have this insane energy go into something.
“And so it is both of our albums, even though this is the album where I took control and said I'm going to have final say on every decision and feel in control of it. And he said OK, and I respect him so much for being OK with that. I don't doubt that it's an extremely difficult thing to do. Like, it wasn't a clear easy like, ‘This is what I want and this is what I'm doing.’ It was a painful, slow negotiation that is still playing out right now. We're on tour together and some days are great and some days are really hard.”
Listening to songs like “Lately,” it’s clear this is Kelly’s album: “You never like how my song sounds, but you give nothing of yourself / What have you done for me lately?” meant such a specific thing to her, but it works whether taken in the context of work or love or life. Her newfound clarity of perspective combines with more ambitious production to make Still Run feel like the realization of Wet’s initial promise. It’s funny, Wet was always a very romantic band, but now, somehow, they sound more romantic than ever.
KELLY: “I had a lot of reservations about putting ‘Lately’ out. It felt kind of petty and a little specific. I wrote it really early on when I was frustrated with how things were going and I felt like no one was listening to me and that no one liked what I was doing and yet still wanted to be a part of the process. This was in every area of my life, not just music. I was working so hard to try to hold things together and over-communicating to make it work for everyone, but everyone's still unhappy all the time for whatever reason. And I was like, ‘No one's looking out for me. No one's doing these same things for me, so I'm gonna check out now and, like, fuck you all for a little while. I don’t need to do this emotional labor that's not being seen by anyone.’ It was a little bit brutal. But I felt like that song captured that real thing that was happening.
“So then Joe worked on it. I was scared to show it to him for months. When I finally sent it to him, I was like, ‘Just want you to know, this was the time when were really fighting and it's not just about you. It's about everyone, like…’ And he's like, "Oh no, I love it. I think it's some of the strongest writing you've done. I don't care if it's mean about me."
“In the music business, no one in this world gives a shit about your fucking song. No one cares about your career. You're one in a million to them. That's true about our managers, the label, every producer I've ever worked with. That's why I work with Joe. Because he’s not just a producer, he is a part of Wet and he is willing to go back and back and back with me. No one cares, but Joe does. That's what I love about Joe.”
“In the music business, no one in this world gives a shit about your fucking song. No one cares, but Joe does.”
The night of my interview with Kelly, Wet plays the first of two headlining shows at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. I meet the band in the green room while the openers, True Blue, shake the floor from below. “Oh, this is a Joe low-end,” someone jokes. He produced their record too; apparently, “he likes his teeth to rattle.”
Between glances at an ongoing Celtics game on TV, Joe looks over string arrangements and lighting patterns and tells people where to go when. They’ve slimmed down the group to record, but live Wet is bigger than ever, and that night they’re a stage-filling nine-piece.
Joe is the bandleader, and Kelly is getting ready, watching a video on her phone that someone sent of themselves singing “Don’t Wanna Be Your Girl,” one of Wet’s first and most popular songs. She says they get these every day. Looking stressed, intermittently hugging herself, she takes a beta blocker to dull her fight-or-flight response. And then they head onstage.
“I’m so nervous I can’t breathe!” says a girl next to me, when I’m deep in the crowd. Her friend compares Kelly to a young Angelina Jolie. She has the sort of stage persona to say, “Feel free to sing along if you feel like it,” and her fans love her for it.
For most of the set, Joe is to the side on backing guitar or drum pads. When they get to the title track, Kelly asks him to step forward to play acoustic, but he can’t make it to the center of the stage because the cables only go so far.