- Earl Standerford
- Wolfenbarger's creative impulses range from "mild melancholy to abject horror."
Gwen Wolfenbarger's Seal Eggs has, for the past two years, been a solo project. Now it's turned into a band.
After growing up playing classical harp and piano, the musician ventured into ambient pop music on Sunday Will Be Snow, an impressive debut EP that situates the Colorado College senior's hauntingly processed vocals within dreamy electronic soundscapes. The result suggests echoes of Scott Walker and Anohni, who've both served as inspirations for Wolfenbarger's music.
This past month, when it came time to embark on a national tour, the artist recruited friends and collaborators Zach Koplan on guitar and Hayden Kesterson on synthesizers. The trio has just returned to Colorado Springs, where they'll be playing shows at both Shove Chapel and the Triple Nickel. Wolfenbarger will also be doing a lecture on looping, recording and DIY touring.
We caught up with the artist last week to talk about harp strings, electronic music and gender dysphoria.
Indy: When you're onstage, what do you use to manipulate your vocals?
Gwen Wolfenbarger: I'm singing into a computer and doing all the processing on there. Most of it is looping and Ableton, and doing a lot of digital effects. So I'm using a lot of MIDI controllers. I barely have enough limbs to control all the different things going on, which is why I needed two more musicians.
Most of us think of the harp as an instrument used in Celtic or Western classical music, rather than contemporary experimental music. Do you use it on any of your recordings?
On some of the new ones, yes. But the harp is not a realistic instrument to bring on tour. It's such a large instrument, and the three of us on this tour are all packed into a little Subaru.
Plus, there's replacing half of the strings at the last minute during sound check.
Yes, harp strings break all the time, it's infuriating. And having to tune the instrument, oh my God. You have to get to the venue like two hours early and let the harp kind of adjust to the space, the temperature, the humidity — so many factors that affect acoustic instruments.
The beat that suddenly shows up midway through the last track on your Sunday Will Be Snow album is one of those "didn't see that one coming" moments. Is that something you're interested in doing more of?
Yeah, that was really an experiment for me. I don't perform that song anymore, but I have pursued more songs in that vein. A lot of what I'm working on with Zach Koplan involves much more beat-centered music, with a lot of focus on programming and creating a mood that's inspired by techno.
Your vocals on Sunday Will Be Snow are really impressive. Did you have a lot of voice training growing up?
Not a lot. I mostly sang in choirs, but in high school I did do some opera training. But mostly, I was just singing to myself in the woods where I grew up, and singing inside the church, in school, whatnot. And ever since I was 5 or 6, I've been playing piano and harp very intensely. I actually played harp semi-professionally in middle school, but that wasn't the lifestyle I was looking to lead. I quickly found that the timbres were not creating the emotions that I wanted.
What were those emotions?
Well, most of my music comes from a very introspective place. Most of my songs portray different clouds of emotions — or at least that's the way I interpret or feel them... And those emotions range from mild melancholy to abject horror. Most of my music deals with a lot of internal processes, like depression and gender dysphoria.
In regard to gender and trans issues, what kind of changes are you seeing, either from a societal or personal perspective?
That's a tough question. I've grown a lot in the past year, gone through many painful experiences, and they have moved my attention away from transition largely. It's honestly something I don't even think about on a daily basis necessarily, but every once in a while there is a painful reminder. The longer I have gone through transition, the harder it is when I am suddenly reminded of the fact that I'm trans — those moments when someone misgenders me in public, or I get a very obvious stare that — even without words — undermines the foundation of my existence.
Is that happening as much as ever? I don't know if things are getting worse or better.
I don't know either. It happens less often, but it's more painful when it does happen.
Everyone hears music through their own set of filters, and yours sometimes reminds me of Anohni as well as Scott Walker. Do either of those artists resonate with you?
I love Scott Walker! I was actually listening to Scott Walker a couple of days ago. He is a huge inspiration to me.
He has a song called "Jesse," which uses Elvis and his stillborn twin as a metaphor for the Twin Towers, that's totally amazing. If you haven't heard it yet, I definitely recommend it. Especially if you want to be really disturbed.
Yes, usually that's the case.
And finally, what does your name mean?
Yeah, that's a funny story. In high school I was in a band with Hayden and Zach, the people I'm touring with, and that band was called Sea Legs. There was an inside joke among us, that one of us would go off and do a solo project under the alias Seal Eggs. And I took that joke a little too far and now I'm stuck with it.
Are you really stuck with it? People change names all the time.
Yeah, I'm sure they do. I've grown a fondness for it.