Wednesday’s goofy-sad South
On the latest episode of The FADER Interview podcast, lead singer Karly Hartzman tells David Renshaw about treating the world as her therapist and the beauty of country lyricism.
Wednesday’s goofy-sad South

Wednesday's music conjures a world where beauty and grime live side by side, a combination of squalling, reverb-heavy guitars and unorthodox outlaw country undertones. Frontwoman Karly Hartzman sings about lukewarm bath water, hospital trips, and “piss-colored bright yellow Fanta," highlighting her unusually sharp eye for detail.

“Chosen To Deserve,” from the band’s new album Rat Saw God, for example, is about the unguarded conversations of a couple who are past the stage of pretending they’re both perfect people. Hartzman reflects on stomach pumpings, bad trips, and cul-de-sac sex as if she’s ritualistically purging herself of every bad teenage memory. There’s a purpose to the cringe, though, as she basks in the glow of her long-term relationship with her bandmate, Jake Lenderman. It’s full of romance and allergic to vanity — it’s the perfect Wednesday song.

When I spoke with Hartzman last week, she discussed her love of Cruddy, a graphic novel by like-minded cartoonist Lynda Barry. Barry, like Hartzman, writes about an America that exists in the muddy cracks between cliches. Coming from the DIY scene in Asheville, North Carolina, the band are loyal to the south — specifically the marginalized populations too often dismissed in sweeping generalizations of the southern states. Wednesday’s music is specific to the region it comes from, its country influence emerging from a place deep inside the band’s lived experience. It’s the sound of growing up with the background hum of country radio and holding out hope that your favorite punk band might someday play in a nearby city, but knowing they likely never will.


You've spoken about your songwriting developing over the years. Particularly, in the past, you held back, worrying about your parents’ reaction. What was it you were worried about saying?

I care about my parents a lot, obviously, and I knew they were doing their best when I was in high school. But I thought that if I wrote about that time of my life honestly, it would be apparent to a lot of people that they didn't realize what was really going on. I didn't want my parents to internalize that, because I think it's really normal, and they just happen to have a kid who's writing about it and publicizing some of the shit they did. Every kid drinks in high school, and experiments with drugs and sex and all that stuff. But if you have a kid who’s sharing that information with a wide audience, you might… I don't know. I just never wanted them to think that they didn't do an amazing job being my parents, given the situation that they were in when I was growing up. But I've talked with them about that specifically since then, and they know they were great parents, or else I wouldn't have been able to… My sister's a doctor, too, so they did fine.

Also, being truthful with not only your parents but those close to you about feelings of sadness is scary. It's like the world is your therapist at that point because everyone knows your shit. There's not a level someone has to reach with me personally to know about me, that I have stuff going on in my life. It's a vulnerable place to write from and share publicly, but that's the point.

Rat Saw God feels like it’s written by someone who's coming out of the chaos and unsure footing of their early 20s into their mid/late 20s, where they’ver got a bit of hindsight and can look back and assess what happened and speak about it from a distance when you're going through it. And that then ties into relationships with parents, which change over time; you can kind of speak more as peers than you could in the top-down relationship you had with them as a child. Were these things running through your mind as you wrote the album?

For sure. The more I’ve changed my relationship with my parents, the more they're willing to share with me about my family's history and their past. So there's a lot of their stories on this record: my dad burning down a field with a model rocket, his brother [getting] a girl pregnant in high school — he gave me permission to use that story. They’re more willing to share the parts of themselves that mirror the parts of myself I'm revealing, and it helps my life make so much more sense, knowing I have so much of them kind of reflected in me.

The other relationship I'm exploring is with my partner, Jake. It's my first adult relationship where you really bare your soul to the other person — good and bad aspects — and stop caring about being cool, like, "I guess we're in this for life, so I need you to know everything about me. And if you still like me after all that, I guess we're meant to be together.” “Chosen to Deserve” and “Formula One” are both about that point in a relationship.

And then I guess just the final [relationship]… It's like in Sex and the City when they say the other main character is New York City. I'm always trying to figure out my relationship to the South and where we're from. That's like every other moment in the album. I love talking about that and writing about that.


“Chosen to Deserve is a great song that, in the best possible way, paints an often unflattering portrait of you. How did it feel to be that unflinching in the writing of that song? Did it feel exposing at the time?

I feel like the stories I tell in that song are less difficult to share than, say, songs about my past depression, because they’re just actually stories I tell at parties about my past. They're far enough away that they're kind of funny, and I mostly just wanted to log those memories in the history book of this band and my life. But the last verse of that song gets into that feeling I was saying is more embarrassing, like not being able to drink anymore because of stuff coming up that I don't want to think about. The first three verses are just goofy, funny anecdotes. And then the fourth is like, "And this is the stuff that will affect me forever. That stuff's harder to share than the funny stories.

Writing a song about your relationship with Jake, who's in the band — people might know him as MJ Lenderman for his work outside of Wednesday's music — at what point are you presenting them with the lyrics and the ideas? Is it when you're in the room with the rest of the band? Or is it more personal?: "I'm thinking about this, what do you think? Should we take it to the rest of the guys?" Is there a system that you've got in place for this kind of thing?

I've never even analyzed the dynamic of how that could work because me and Jake, at the end of the day, know we’re both just trying to write good songs. We know our relationship is on the table to write a good song. It's one of the foundational things to write a good song about. Sometimes, I'll bring it to band practice. But if you're doing a PA-in-your-living-room situation like we do, a lot of the time we can't even hear the lyrics until we get the recorded version. So it can be a surprise.

“We know our relationship is on the table to write a good song. It’s one of the foundational things to write a good song about.”


We're talking a lot about what the subjects you're writing about, but I want to talk a bit about the way you write about these things. In “Bath County,” another highlight on the album, you describe piss-colored, bright yellow Fanta, which is just the most lurid, evocative image. Do you generally have a fondness for the grotesque side of life?

I think this album has a certain griminess to it that runs throughout the lyrics and the whole aesthetic. If you're describing the world accurately, that's just how it comes out, especially where we live. There's always this undertone of grime and darkness, given all the contradictions that are present in the south. This area where we live is just something I'm always trying to describe to the best of my ability. And I think it does come out that way.

I’ve been inspired by a lot of novelists who write that way about the south, and I think lines like that are me trying my best to emulate how accurate they're depictions are. Harry Crews is the first person who came to mind. He's from Florida, but he just writes these very tonally accurate depictions of this place we're in. I just kind of call it how I see it. I saw a kid drinking Fanta and I said, "That looks like pee," and I wrote it down in my phone. That's how a lot of my writing ends up happening.

What is it that you most want to share with the world about the area you're from? Is there anything in particular you want to spotlight that you feel hasn't really been said before?

The main goal is just communicating that the people who live here have stories worth telling widely, like anywhere else. It’s becoming a much bigger issue; people feel really unseen here, and I think that leads to all of our problems. There's this deep loneliness and misunderstanding of a lot of the people here, and a lot of it ends up turning negative. But it's also so dynamic when you analyze it. You could spend your whole life trying to describe the people here.

The other thing I want to communicate with this album is how good country music is. My favorite compliment is when people are like, "I do not fuck with country music, but I love this music," because I think the people that don't fuck with country music just don't have enough exposure. The best lyricists of all time are in country music, in my opinion, and some of the most talented [musicians]. The pedal steel is inherently such an insane instrument. The fact that there's so many masters in country music of that insane instrument…

The album is a treasure trove of references and imagery. You could use it to create a list of other things to go check out. One thing the album turned me onto — which I wasn't aware of previously — was Cruddy, the graphic novel by Lynda Barry that’s referenced in the song “Quarry.” Why does her work resonate with you so deeply?

I referenced Harry Crews earlier as someone who really captures the griminess and the reality of the south. But Cruddy — because it's from a young girl's perspective and that's where I was writing from — was another thing that pointed me in the direction of where I wanted to go tonally with these songs. The illustrations are just a perfect picture of the world I imagined when I wrote “Quarry,” and her writing style is just so goofy, sad. It's similar to country music. That's my favorite thing to go for tonally ever, and my favorite thing to hear and read.



Do you do any of that type of work? Will you be writing poems, short stories, graphic novels?

Before I was writing songs, I wrote a lot of poems because I liked that kind of freedom of the structure. Ever since I discovered songwriting, though, it's been my favorite medium to work in because you can write about a certain emotion with the lyrics and then the fact that you can add another level, make it 3D with instrumentation, just add that other level, makes it so much more interesting. Writing a song has become my favorite way to express anything. It's the only writing I do anymore. But when I'm trying to write for fun, I write letters now because it's low pressure. I've never tried anything else since I discovered songwriting, because it's the best.

You talk about country music and the way it's perceived by people who say they don't listen to it — which, in this day and age, it feels like maybe the only genre people will still proudly dismiss offhand. I think that's maybe because of the political connections and ties that run through the genre and are very much a part of that world in Nashville. But obviously, it's not the whole story. Who are some artists you feel have progressive values more in line with you and your world who’ve shown you a different path into country music?

There's a whole sub-genre of country music that’s almost punk in those exact ways you're describing. Outlaw country music is anti-establishment. It's changed over the years, but it started out as a way of being anti all of those tropes. Drive-By Truckers are a modern version of a band that's outspoken about a lot of those political issues. Lucinda Williams is a perfect example, Vic Chestnutt. To me, it has so much more weight from a band that’s in the thick of it. There are just as many layers to country music as there are to rock music. It has its own punks and outlaws, if you take two seconds to look, which is what I’d urge anyone who says they don't fuck with country to do. They're everywhere, just people who are really going against the — I mean, even the freaking Dixie Chicks. That's pop music. They were outspoken about politics. The assumption that people making country music are a certain way politically is just a lack of creativity on a listener's part, I think.

Wednesday’s goofy-sad South