For musicians in lean times, it can be tough to maintain a sense of gratitude. Yet musical couple David Wax and Sue Slezak, who perform together as David Wax Museum, are soaking in it. Not because the Virginia-based band has a hit single — they don't — but because they've survived long enough to reach their fifth album, Guesthouse, which was released back in October.
"Sometimes I'm in awe that we're still doing it," says Wax as Calliope, his baby daughter with Slezak, murmurs in the background. "You see a lot of friends encounter the same challenges. Some of them make it work, and a lot of people don't."
Much of Wax's musical approach is marked by a love for Mexican folk music that dates back to his student days at Harvard. The singer-songwriter lived in Mexico while writing his dissertation on indigenous musical genres, an experience that inspired his 2008 debut, I Turned Off Thinking About. A year later, Slezak joined his band as a singer, violinist and percussionist who plays the quijada, a traditional Latin American instrument made from a donkey's jawbone.
Six years later, they're a family, one that extends from the principal duo to their band to the fans who support them. In fact, each of their last three albums has been made possible through a crowdfunding campaign.
"I feel like there's been a cultural shift and a sense of awareness that this is the reality most artists are living right now," says Wax, "and I think it's just part of the whole community."
While David Wax Museum has always embraced a meld of traditional and modern sounds, this latest album pushes further, adding synthesizers to the mix. Yet Guesthouse is also their warmest, most intimate album, capturing more of their live performance vibe after a couple albums chock-full of overdubs.
The album's centerpiece is woozy garage-folk track, "Young Man," which sounds like a collision between The Hollies and The Band, in which an ambitious young man and his elder counterpart discuss the downside of success. "Do you ever wonder why you're striving," he asks, "or is that a question you're afraid to ask?"
The song was inspired by a conversation between Wax and his longtime musical mentor Scott Avett. The Avett Brothers frontman told Wax "not to let the ambition set the agenda."
"I think you just lose perspective on what you are really doing, why are you in it and what are you giving up to get it," Wax says. "There's this trap we get into, where it's 'Oh if I could just get that next thing, then I'll really have made it.' But by the time you get to that point, it really doesn't matter anymore. You're already past it."