Small Wonder: Brooklyn Indie-Pop Goes Native

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Photo by Jane Bruce

Although Henry Crawford of Small Wonder has spent almost all his life in New York, his inner world is big. Having dedicated his life to music, he’s focused, but resists settling into a form. The experience of listening to his record is far removed from seeing him perform live. While both are solo acts that highlight raw emotion, the sound and energy are very different. Wendy brings us to tears as the sheer honesty (and, sometimes, wonder) of life seeps in slowly. Live, his delivery feels dire and immediately powerful. Small Wonder, in a way, subverts the fast-paced and digital quality of modern music. Henry’s digitally recorded songs feel solitary, soft and timeless, while his one-man folk-punk show seizes the moment and makes it seem huge.

I talked with him about dogs and punk and life and death in a nook on the floor behind the stage at Palisades. During his set he announced, “I had an interview before this. She asked me if I cared about what people think. I said yes. I lied.”

JE: What do you do in the band?
HC: Right now Small Wonder is just me. I had a band for a while but for now I’m just playing solo, working on new stuff. I play guitar and sing mostly, with a lot of recordings with synthesizers and electronics.

JE: Are you originally from New York?
HC: Yeah, I grew up in Brooklyn.

JE: Have you been here the whole time?
HC: Um, pretty much. I did a semester in Chicago for school, dropped out, and came back here. I was recording Wendy here and then Jack Greenleaf, who recorded it, lived in Chicago so I moved back to Chicago for a year to finish it. Then I was like, I don’t want to live in Chicago anymore so I came back here. So, outside of like a year and a half of my life I’ve pretty much lived here my whole life.

JE: How have New York and Brooklyn changed since you’ve lived here?
HC: I was pretty young when the New York Times “discovered” Brooklyn or whatever and when it became like Brooklyn, I was like 16 and had just started going to shows. But obviously it’s changed a lot. My dad was a punk in the 70s so I’ve kind of just known my whole life that New York is constantly eating itself. There are obviously political things that are fucked up about the gentrification of Brooklyn but like, at least culturally, I don’t buy all the death of DIY that people write about, just because some venue closes.

JE: What does your dad have to say about it?
HC: Oh, he’s one of those people that’s like “oh, you know Times Square used to be the coolest place in New York and now its like Disney-fied.” He’s like one of those people who likes to walk around and point out things like, “that place used to be a heroin squat!” I feel like everyone who was in New York in the 70s is like that. But even me, being 23 years old, someone will visit from out of town and I’ll be like, “that used to be Market Hotel and that used to be blah, blah,” and it kind of gets embarrassing because I’m like oh, fuck, I’m already like my dad. I’m already just like old codger. It sucks.

JE: I was looking through your tumblr and found a song you wrote about dog walking. Are you a dog walker now?
HC: Yeah, I’m a dog walker right now.

JE: Do you prefer the company of dogs to the company of people?
HC: I think it’s nice to be around dogs instead of people sometimes. But I do really badly when I’m alone, so, I like to be around people. I like dogs but it kind of sucks because like any job you have, after a while, even if you love it, the job starts to ruin that experience. Like, I’m getting to the point where I don’t even like being around dogs anymore.

JE: Yeah, plus it’s different when it’s not your dog.
HC: Right. You don’t get to have any of the fun parts of having a dog. You don’t get to sleep in a bed with it. All you do is go outside in the cold with it and pick up its poop.

JE: How would you compare being a solo artist vs. being in a band and collaborating with others?
HC: I know a lot of people who really, really prefer being in bands. Like, I was talking to Mitski and she says she doesn’t want to do solo stuff anymore because she feels like there’s too much pressure. And I sort of feel the opposite – I feel a lot of pressure when I play with a band. I started off as a solo musician so that’s sort of more of my comfort zone. I like to work out new songs live rather than just in my room and in band practice. It’s good for me but I know there’s downsides, like, you don’t have anyone to share the glory with if something goes well, which is kind of a bummer. But overall I generally prefer playing solo.

JE: So, live performances must be really different for you from playing privately.
HC: Yeah, I don’t really practice by myself ever. When I have bands we usually practice a few times before a show but I haven’t been in a band for years where we practice like once a week. But bands I’m in now, it’s like a week before a show we practice once or twice, which is cool.

JE: What other bands are you in now? Are they all in the Epoch?
HC: I’m probably the least busy of all the people in the Epoch. I’m in a band called Bellows and Small Wonder but then Gabby and Oliver and Felix [of Eskimeaux; Told Slant; etc.] are in like 5 bands a piece. I mean, pretty much everyone in the group grew up in New York City. I’ve known [most of them] since I was in high school. I’ve known Jack Greenleaf since I was I think 7 years old, so we’re just kind of naturally drawn to each other. It’s like, you start a band and you ask your best friends to be in it. So it just kind of naturally grew out of that.

JE: Do you feel like you guys have more ownership over New York than other bands that come from outside?
HC: Oh, you mean being locals? Um, I used to. A few years ago I used to feel very bitter about like NYU kids having bands and then blowing up and then being like, I’ve been here forever. But now I don’t feel that way anymore. My dad, who grew up in California but moved to New York in the 70s, would say during arguments, “You’re not a real new Yorker; a real New Yorker is someone whose too weird to live anywhere else,” which is a super silly thing to say. But I don’t feel bitter about bands that aren’t from the city playing in the city. That’s like what New York has been for like a hundred years, two hundred years.

JE: How did you come up with the name Small Wonder?
HC: I think I like the idea of really powerful things in really (not to be cliché) small packages; like, the idea of something being soft spoken but being powerful. I used to have this other band called The Mighty Handful, which is basically the same idea: of the few being powerful, which I think is a cool image.

JE: Your album Wendy has themes about not wanting to grow up. What’s your idea of being a grown up, if you had to define it?
HC: I mean, I don’t know if it actually exists. But in the context of the album it’s supposed to be like, an idea of the loss of wild and like, spontaneity and freedom. It’s supposed to be like, growing up is a decay of the things that made you who you were when you were a kid. And you grow up and become a person of comfort, rather than a person of action. I don’t feel like I’m ready to stop doing stuff and I can feel myself growing into my body and into my mind. I think that’s kind of the point of Peter Pan, like, the whole idea of you choosing between being young and wild and old and comfortable.

JE: Do you think you’ll ever be a grown up?
HC: Probably. I think there’s a long line of rock stars who have said they’re never gonna grow up and then die at 26 or 27 or just get old and boring. But David Bowie is still young and amazing.

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JE: Who are some people you look up to as a musician?
HC: David Bowie and Laurie Andersen. When I was in high school I went through a really, really long obsession with the 1970s New York art music scene. Like, the punks but also Lou Reed and all the people who were hanging out in the LES and at CBGBs. And a lot of my ideas about music are based in, not exactly the punk ethos as a whole, (although I do agree with a lot of that), but especially the idea that rather than punk is empowerment, punk is an actual intellectual idea, which I think is really appealing to me. Also, people who were songwriters before they were performers are big influences on me. And people who are constantly changing and don’t let the moss settle.

JE: Do you feel like your music has evolved?
HC: Since I started Small Wonder, definitely. And since I started playing music, really definitely. But even when Small Wonder started as a kind of post-punk band, it was like a 3-piece rock band, and then I started making this noisy electronic music and I wanted to make electronic folk songs. And now I have this album written (the next one) and I know what I want it to feel like but I’m still trying to figure out what it sounds like. The songs are a lot darker I think.

JE: You’ve mentioned that other musicians feel there are certain expectations. I’m wondering if you feel that way?
HC: What sort of expectations? Artistic expectations?

JE: Yeah, artistic expectations, evolving as a musician, staying true to your genre… do you think about those things?
HC: Yeah, definitely. I think Kurt Cobain dealt with those expectations by killing himself and David Bowie became a drug addict. But I think there’s this tearing; there’s an expectation from half the world where you either write an album that sounds like your first one and you get chastised for not evolving as an artist or you change too much and you get chastised for not staying true to your roots. But I think a lot of the expectation also comes from the artist [him or herself] and a perceived expectation from the outside world. At this point in my life, I don’t think there’s anyone sitting around like, “man, I have all these thoughts about what the next Small Wonder album should sound like.” I think at best people would be like, “Oh, it’d be cool if there was another album,” but could take it or leave it. But I know people who have found greater success and are really fucked up over trying to create something that’s true to themselves but also not disappointing to others, which I think is a super scary idea. It’s this weird thing where art is this thing you’re fed your whole life as the ultimate form of self-expression.

JE: Right, and authenticity.
HC: But there is no authenticity. It’s a completely bullshit idea – like the idea of an artist telling the truth, but then everyone loves the Beatles and they’re lying like all the time. Like, I like honest art but I think the idea that art has to be honest is ridiculous. All Lou Reed’s songs are stories about people that don’t exist. That’s what makes him so amazing, because he’s not talking about himself, he’s talking about other people who he feels like don’t get the chance to talk. That’s why he’s a genius.

JE: When you look back in 10 years, how do you think you’ll feel about yourself now?
HC: Um, I don’t know. I’d like to think really great. But if I look back at myself 10 years ago from now I hate who I was then. I think at best, hopefully, my life will turn out in such a way that I’ll just constantly be growing and I’ll have the privilege to look back on now and be like, this was like the worst time of my life. And the worst-case scenario would be that I’m 33 years old and I’m like, ‘God I wish I was 23 still.’ That’s a big trend in my family. Like a lot of people still wishing they were in their 20s.

JE: I get that. I’m obsessed with aging.
HC: I think everyone’s a little bit obsessed with aging. Or rather, everyone’s obsessed with dying. And aging is just the easier way of thinking about dying.

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