May 18, 2016
Bird of Youth’s Get Off: A Brooklyn Songwriter Grapples With Her Father’s Death
Beth Wawerna writes about grief because that’s what she knows. Punky, bold and self-assured, she sings about topics that lesser writers would side step or gloss over. In her early twenties Wawerna faced an extensive period of self-doubt and perpetual fear about pursuing her desire to be a musician. At 28, she finally stopped writing songs in secret, stepped out into the light, and began chasing down that dream; her debut album, Defender, came out shortly after that in 2011. But as she began working on the follow-up record her father unexpectedly got sick. The fall out from his sudden death became the fulcrum for the eventual release of her second album Get Off. But first, there was the long slog of grief, a trek swallowed the next several years.
Those who have been through this particularly grim, gripping kind of pain know exactly what Beth was facing as she reckoned with her own mortality and a deep sense of loss. Even the lucky few who haven’t experienced it will still be drawn in by Get Off‘s bold excavation of these murky depths. In the midst of the tailspin, Wawerna wrote intermittently about nursing her father on his deathbed, her immense anger at the senseless, unexpected nature of loss, and the emptiness of the drinking, drugs and sex she used to cope and numb herself in the aftermath. The result of her unflinchingly self-assessment is a record that careens through darkness with its brights on, hooky riffs and reeling melodies rush headlong toward bitter failure, wrenching grief, and the balm of memory. Perched at a cozy bar right above her basement practice space, Wawerna talked with us about the long, strange trip through grief, how anger can be empowering, and the many meanings of the phrase “get off!”
Your first album, Defender came out right before your father died. What was the timeline there, and how did his death impact the work on your follow-up?
The first record came out right when my father passed away in 2011. He died after he was in hospice or about a month. It wasn’t necessarily his death that delayed the follow up as much as my nervous breakdown. Basically our first record coincided within three months of his passing–I was taking care of him while he was in hospice while doing things like looking at proofs for the album art. After he died, it was about five years of stops and starts. Lots of bad nights. Grief is really crazy. During the time he was sick, I was in this mode: eyes straight ahead, I’m strong for him, I’m strong for my brother, I’m strong for everyone. Then, he passed away, and the crippling grief didn’t happen right away; it was relief.
I think relief as some form of closure is a really common first response. The harder, deeper grief often comes way later.
Yes, it was a really profound sense of relief, and then I would feel guilty about that relief. I remember I flew home from Arizona–where he had been when he was sick–and it was a Friday I went to bed that night, slept like a baby, and I woke up on Saturday and wrote ended up being the emotional core of the record, “Dad” and “Dad 2.” Those two songs are explicitly about death and dying, about watching that happen to someone you love. And they were effortless! They’re two of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written; it was almost an out-of-body experience. After that, I don’t think I sat down to write again for like a year. I couldn’t access that part of my brain.
After he died, I wrote those two songs really quick, and it was so easy. I thought it would all be like that. It was a couple months later when the slow creeping grim real grief kicked in. That’s when I started drinking more than I ever have and doing more drugs than I ever have in my life. I was trying to numb it out of my system. Once I started doing that, I wasn’t writing because I wasn’t accessing those feelings. I couldn’t, I didn’t want to. As I eventually became healthier I was able to face some of that stuff and write about other things, too. The record is very much centered around my father, but it’s about aging, and getting older, and trying to be an artist in this city.
Were there aspects of your grief that you were hesitant to make public?
Not really. The most satisfying thing about this record is how much people who have gone through something similar are really affected by it. They react in a way that feels really profound. I think I was excited to write about the death and the grief part. The parts of the record that I was more nervous to put out there are the personal dark moments in my life–drugs and alcohol and depression and sex. Those are the things that I was like do I be honest about this part of my life? That’s a really hard part of my life that I’m not proud of. I’m not ashamed of it, but it wasn’t pretty. I wanted to be numb to everything. Anything I could get my hands on. That was the part of the record that initially I felt might be too much.
With grief, you really have to go through your own form of darkness to come back out of it.
You have to be alone with yourself, and I think that I wasn’t able to do that for several years. I’m only really coming out of that a little bit just now. The record has been done for about a year, but I think I’m still very much going through the feelings I had on the record. Not as intensely and not every day, but I’m not out of the woods yet with all of the grief and depression and all of that. I’m curious to see what happens when it’s finally birthed out into the world. There’s this beautiful notion that exists in the world that you go through pain, and then make art out of that pain, and put it out into the fucking world and it’s awesome. What I’m realizing now is that the good feelings out of releasing the record into the world have less to do with me moving onto a new phase, but more to do with those moments when someone else tells me that song really encapsulated their experience with the death of someone. Those are the moments that are going to add up, but it takes a while.
Something that struck me about your record is the album title. It’s very ambiguous but it’s also very aggressive. And I love that.
That phrase came to me–well it’s actually in a song I had written way before I even thought about naming the record. And one day I was singing that song in practice, and I hit those two words and I was like Wait a minute… At that point, all the songs were starting to come together and I knew what selection of songs was going to be on the record. I had a better sense of what the record was about. That phrase is very angry. It’s full of anger and pain, and when I thought about that and all these different interpretations of that phrase, I was like Oh, that’s it. What I like about it is it does have many different meanings and they’re all applicable to this record in a way that’s kind of insanely perfect. Get off drugs, getting off meaning sex, get off meaning get the fuck away from me, fuck you–more of a kiss off. It’s all of those things.
When there is a combination of women, pain and art, people often expect women to embody this tortured and fragile side of pain. What I like about anger is I think it’s actually a really positive thing. It’s usually portrayed as an emotion we shouldn’t have, but it can be really positive and strong to use anger in an empowering way.
I agree and think that’s a really interesting point. When it comes from a place of defiance and feeling pissed off, like Why did this happen? kind of feeling, and writing a song about grief and about death from that perspective. Even the two “Dad” songs, they’re not angry, but they’re very resolute. It’s not the trope of a sad girl with her guitar. That feels really empowering to me. I’ve noticed sometimes when I play shows, and when I play those two songs specifically, I pay attention to the people who are watching. It makes people uncomfortable to hear such a straightforward discussion of that anger–and there’s a power in that anger. No, I don’t have to be sad. I can be straightforward. This fucking thing happened to me–I fed my father on his deathbed. Making people sit with that themselves, there’s an interesting power to that. It gets me off.
Get Off is out this Friday, 5/20 via Kiam Records. Stream it above and get it here.
The release show for the record is tonight at Union Pool–event details here.
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