Interviewed by Mae Hunt
Wonky Tonk is more than just music – she is a movement. In this long and heartfelt conversation, Wonk discusses not only her latest album, Lesson and Lovers, but she also details her music-making process, her life in Ecuador, and her latest projects (see her WONK ON video here. Read Part One of the Interview for an authentic and easy-going dialogue that illuminates Wonk’s compassion and resilience.
WT: Wonky Tonk TL: Twangrila
Twangrila: I am here with Wonky Tonk who recently released Lessons and Lovers with her band, the High Life. First off, I have to congratulate you on Lessons and Lovers. As you know, as I mentioned, I absolutely loved the album. I think that there is such grit and fearlessness to it.
Wonky Tonk: Thank you, thank you. I love that you like it. (laughter)
TL: (laughter) Before we get into the album, I’d love to hear a little bit about how you got to where you are today. You grew up in northern Kentucky, right?
WT: That is correct. I grew up in Fort Thomas slash Covington, Kentucky. I think how I got to where I am has such a broad answer— (laughter) Yes, grew up in northern Kentucky and always felt very out of place, so travelled and created in trying to make my own space.
TL: That’s amazing.
WT: Yes, and after all that time, I ended up at the equator. (laughter)
TL: Very far from home.
WT: (laughter) It’s true.
TL: I also read that you served with AmeriCorps for a couple years, is that true?
WT: Oh wow, I love that you know these things. It is true. I graduated college and didn’t know what to do, so I joined AmeriCorps, this Montana Conservation Corp and I went to Montana. We would pack horses 20, 30 miles into parks in Wyoming and North Dakota and Montana. And we would build and maintain trails. And then, I came home, and I joined one in Cincinnati called Children Hunger Alliance, where we went into low-income neighborhoods and taught health and P.E. in after school programs.
TL: That’s great. I also served with AmeriCorps for a year after graduating, so I had to give them a shoutout. I think it’s definitely an important experience, so I wanted to bring that up in this conversation.
WT: I love that. Maybe we can talk about that later because I’d love to hear about your experience.
TL: Absolutely. It was an integral experience for me, so I love to chat about it.
WT: Beautiful, I can’t wait to listen. (laughter)
TL: Great. So, getting back to the album, one thing that really struck me about it was the lyrics, and how raw and powerful they are. It’s just so clear to me when listening that they were written with such strong emotion. I’m wondering if you could elaborate a little bit on what the songwriting process looks like for you.
WT: Oh, my goodness. I always say one of my favorite songwriters is named Guy Clark. He has a song slash record, and there’s a lyric in it that says, “Some days you write the song, some days the song writes you,” and part of the reason I’m in Ecuador is, I’m quite a mystical person (laughter). I love magic and glitter and imagination. I really feel, I don’t think about a song, I don’t write it. I’m just in service to the song. I know this is kind of grotesque, but I always think about when you know you have to go to the bathroom. It’s like, “Oh, got to go to the bathroom. Have to find a bathroom. This is going to happen.”
So, it’s at any moment that happens with a song, and it’s not that it’s inspired by anything or I’ve got a melody, nothing. It just drops from the heavens and it’s inside my brain. If I don’t do something with it, it’ll go away, and it’ll find someone else who will do something with it. So, I always keep my voice memos handy. People don’t like it too much and think I’m unprofessional, but I don’t like to edit them so much, because often a whole song falls out, and then I have to listen to the voice memo to learn the song that just came through me. Does that make sense?
TL: It does! I think it’s a powerful process, and being on the other end of it, as a listener, it’s very evident to me that the songs are so created based on strong emotion.
WT: Yes, thank you. Again, with the Guy Clark quote, especially with records and songs, people always talk about songs being their babies. One of the things with this, I’m always like, “These songs chose me, and I need to give them their best life.” It’s not so much—aside from “Everyone’s got a Brian,” sometimes when someone makes me mad, I have to just take anger and create something else out of it, but the rest of the time, it’s more like, “Oh, these songs need the best life. How will the world hear them in the way they want to be presented?” not, “What do I want to say?” or “What do I want someone to understand?”
It’s kind of like being of service to them and letting them speak.
TL: Absolutely. It’s so funny that you mention “Everyone’s Got a Brian,” because I did have that as a question later on. I’m very curious, if you feel comfortable sharing, what your inspiration was for that song. I feel like that song in particular’s got to have someone or something behind it.
WT: (laughter) There’s a lot going on in the world. There’s a lot of -isms going on in the world, and when I would tour, I encountered many mean sounding men. One telling me there’s nothing he can do to fix my voice, another telling me, “Honey, that’s not an amp, that’s a monitor so don’t touch anything but your guitar now, okay?” Like really condescending.
And this particular fellow was at Fountain Square and my whole band was there. He was such a jerk face that it made the whole entire crowd at Fountain Square uncomfortable. We continued to talk about him for many band practices. It was just this joke slash release. Eventually, it became this song we loved to play the most, and I said, “You know what? This isn’t very Wonky Tonk in total understanding, but like, let’s just play it live.” Now, people when we finish playing, they’ll all scream, “Yeah, F that guy.” (laughter)
TL: It is an anthem.
WT: It is. It’s so much fun. And it’s really fun to create something from anger, right? You can really stew in it or whatever else. I don’t want to repeat the song and re-experience the anger, because that’s just poison in my body. So, how do I turn the anger into something that is like an anthem that is fun and blows off steam? And so, it became this beautiful High Life concoction of that creative rage.
TL: Absolutely. It’s a productive use of all that rage. I love that song.
WT: (laughter) Thank you.
TL: Speaking of your band, the High Life, they sounded amazing in the album as well. What was it like working with them?
WT: Oh my gosh, I love them. I love them, I love them. I always say I finally found some people that spoke Wonk, because I’ve had a lot of beautiful and talented bands, people in my life, but these musicians, we create. It’ll be during any moment where it’ll be like, “Oh.” We look at each other and we just start going off script or doing whatever else, and really just flowing with whatever the feeling is.
We just kind of bounce the creation off of it. And again, these guys and gals are all there for the sake of the song. So, it was never part of ego or skill. It was always like, “Oh, let’s put this piano in there. I hear it. I hear it. I hear it.” And so, they put it in, and we just dance. It was such a beautiful, drama-free, organic dance and creation. I can’t say enough about how much I love all of them.
TL: That sounds like an amazing experience. They sound like great people.
WT: That is a fact, yes. (laughter)
TL: Can you walk me a little bit through the recording process, where you recorded, how long it took, anything else about it? I know it happened pre-COVID, so it probably feels like ages ago.
WT: (laughter) Right? A whole other world. Certainly. We started recording up in Akron with an old, so I thought, friend of mine and awesome musician and recorded the majority of the base of everything. We laid down all of the tracks live. But then, this guy decided to take all the tracks, take my money, and never gave me anything. (laughter) Eventually, there was this beautiful, beautiful human being who saved my butt many a time. His name is John Hoffman, and he picked up the pieces when I finally got a hard drive of things.
And we recorded a little bit at Ultra Suede Studios, but then Ultra Suede got shut down. Then, we recorded a little bit in a basement somewhere, and then we recorded in a storage space, (laughter) and we had to convert all these file types, and I had to call in somebody else to do this. The logistics of that were painful, but the recording process was beautiful. Oh yes, and we recorded at the Lodge in Dayton, Kentucky. It just moved everywhere, just because sometimes, like in “Brian,” sometimes people can’t be people.
But John Hoffman saved my butt. We moved from space to space to space, creating and putting back together the pieces. The actual recording of it and the painting of those things was beautiful. Lessons, for example, we had finished recording a lot of the overdubs, like the piano and the extra, beautiful glitter parts. I remember going like, “This record, it’s not done yet.” I said, “John, can I go home and write the final song, come back and we’ll try it out?”
Again, I only had one chorus. We sat there and we just recorded the next day. I made it up, and we captured that moment, and then High Life added all the sparkles. It was this organic process, even through all that turmoil. So, that’s a very long answer because there are two sides to it, right? The logistics in this side, and then the actual creation. So, sorry I ranted.
TL: It sounds like it was a bit of a roller coaster, but it ended up all coming together, which is great.
WT: Yes. It fought to live.
Part Two of the Interview is coming soon.
Read Twangri-La’s review of Lessons and Lovers here
Listen and buy Lessons and Lovers here