The solo musician and Wednesday guitarist in the middle of a thriving music scene in Asheville, North Carolina
If you’re familiar with the work of MJ Lenderman it might come as no surprise to discover that his response to recent successes is largely one of quiet bemusement. The singer-songwriter has had a stellar eighteen months or so on two fronts; first, as a solo artist, having released Boat Songs in April of last year, a lo-fi alt-country collection that took his vulnerabilities and lyrical idiosyncrasies and dressed them up smartly, in layers of fuzz and off-kilter melodies; then, there was his work with Wednesday, who have had one of the breakout indie rock successes of this year, with their fifth studio album. Rat Saw God will trouble the business end of many of 2023’s best-of round-ups and deservedly so – Lenderman plays guitar in the band, which is fronted by its principal songwriter, Karly Hartzman.
There are palpable similarities between both the musical sensibilities and the lyrical outlook of Lenderman and Hartzman, who live together in their native North Carolina. From an unassuming house on the outskirts of Asheville, the pair have quietly carved out their own niches within the alt-country canon, reimagining Americana for post-Trump America, and, in Lenderman’s case, evoking the ghosts of his major influences, conjuring visions of what Jason Molina or David Berman might be writing if they were still with us.
After a run of releasing his own material via Dear Life Records in Philadelphia, a label run lovingly by his friends, Boat Songs brought Lenderman to wider attention, and he has now signed, rather fittingly, with ANTI-, an imprint with a roster past and present that strongly marks it out as less a label and more a haven for singular musical oddballs (Cass McCombs, Ezra Furman, Katy Kirby, Neko Case). As if to underline the point, the A&R who brought him to ANTI- is Allison Crutchfield, of Swearin’.
His first output for them winged its way into the world earlier this summer, in the form of a pair of singles: first ‘Rudolph’, a charming, slightly grungy rocker, and then ‘Knockin’, a pretty, bluesy affair. Both tracks suggest Lenderman’s preoccupation with country will inform his music all the more going forwards, and both have an expansiveness that suggests the deal with ANTI- has emboldened him.
“It’s hard to say what the next album will actually sound like,” says Lenderman, who is MJ only to his burgeoning audience – everybody who knows him calls him Jake. “The new songs will sound like me, still. I’ve approached it like a standard rock band again, but there’s some more acoustic instruments in the mix, and there’s some fiddle and some upright bass. A lot of guitars. Nothing crazy.” If it feels as if he’s beginning to nudge beyond the parameters he set for himself on Boat Songs and, before it, 2019’s debut LP, MJ Lenderman, it’s partly because of a modest increase in budget and partly because both of those albums were effectively made under lockdown conditions.
Since then, he’s come to again appreciate the art of collaboration, not least through having worked with Hartzman, an artist with a similarly distinctive style. “I’ve learned a lot about the beauty of working together just from playing in Wednesday,” he explains. “We all write our own parts. My own stuff has always been all written by me, and recorded by me for the most part, but once I started to play live I realised there was something cool about not giving my bandmates too many parts to play. I give them freedom, and that feels like collaboration in its own way.”
It might be Lenderman’s personal relationship with Hartman, though, that has helped to shape him as a songwriter the most. “We live together, and I think that probably means that artistically she’s more of an influence on me than I even know, and vice versa. I didn’t really read that much before I met Karly, and that’s become a big thing for me. I realised she’s a lot more disciplined with her creative projects than I am; she’s always realising her ideas, she’s always working on stuff. So that was inspiring; it got me into better writing habits, for sure.”
To hear Lenderman talk about influences on his writing is beguiling. He carries off his lyricism with a breeziness that can make lines feel throwaway to begin with. The lyrics that stick with you on the first through runs through Boat Songs are the charmingly everyday ones: on ‘You Are Every Girl to Me’, he chimes, “Jackass is funny, like the earth is round”, whilst on what might be the record’s standout track, ‘Tastes Just Like It Costs’, he spins a seemingly comedic yarn about a couple falling out over the wearing of a stupid hat.
Scratch beneath the surface, though, and you realise that not unlike his heroes – Berman in particular, with Will Oldham being another touch point who springs to mind – Lenderman is adept at using humour and a sort of straight-faced innocence to reveal deeper emotional truths, like the class clown who unexpectedly scores straight A’s when the exam results come out. ‘You Are Every Girl to Me’, really, is swooningly romantic, while ‘Tastes Just Like It Costs’ is actually an astute chronicle of a minor tiff revealing deeper fissures in a relationship.
“It’s not like I’m trying to write…comedy music,” he says, turning the phrase over in his mouth as if wondering whether that’s actually a term. “But the things that are funniest to me tend to be funny because there’s some poignancy or some sadness to them. So it’s important to me, and it’s just a good way to get started on a song, too. I’ll try to open them with a line that’ll make me laugh, and that goes hand in hand with it sounding kind of conversational – like, I won’t use words in a song I wouldn’t use naturally anyway.”
Lenderman’s ideas are expressed nonchalantly, but collated carefully; he is now an avowed bookworm. “I think reading is probably the biggest influence on my writing. It’s part of the cycle, collecting ideas, words and phrases, even things that I might take the meaning of the wrong way, they can still be their own thing in my songs. It keeps me sharp.”
He then refracts his ideas through a kaleidoscopic lens of influences, including the likes of Molina and Berman, but not limited to them. “Especially the later Magnolia Electric Co. records,” he interjects when Molina’s name comes up. “There’s some humorous stuff, some clever wordplay. But another band I really love is Drive-By Truckers; they have a lot of lines that’ll make you laugh, but their stories have a level of sadness and, some of the time, anger to them as well. A lot of movies that I like are like that.”
He cites the iconoclastic American director Todd Solondz as his favourite, he who helmed the likes of Welcome to the Dollhouse, Storytelling and, in Happiness, a strong contender for the title of the blackest comedy ever. “All of his movies play with that kind of thing. Sad, upsetting stories that, I think in his mind, he would consider comedies. A little bit like somebody like Richard Brautigan, the poet and writer, he did all of that too.”
The rise of Lenderman as a solo artist, as well as the gradual emergence of Wednesday as one of indie rock’s hottest properties, had a lot to do with the way in which the Asheville music scene nurtured them. His own community remains close-knit; his drummer lives next door, in a house that Lenderman approximates that every member of his band has called home at some point. As an Asheville native, who until recently was working at the same ice cream shop that he’d been serving cones at since high school, he’s seen the city’s fortunes wax and wane in recent years.
“I never thought about moving away; it’s a great city and a great community,” he says. “But I think it’s harder to grow as a band in Asheville right now, because the venue that was really important to us, The Mothlight, closed over COVID and now there’s nowhere like that space for bands to build, to get great opening spots and get in front of an audience. Our lease is up soon, so we’ve been thinking about places to go, but I’m not sure we’ll move. Everybody we play music with is still here.”
For now, his thoughts turn to the many irons he has in the fire; finishing his first ANTI- record, putting out a live album, playing on the new Waxahatchee record, and touring with Wednesday until at least May of next year. Characteristically, though, he’s laid back about the timeframe for the follow-up to Boat Songs. “It’s likely that I’ll put out my record next year, and then, you know, I want to tour it to the extent that Wednesday have. Beyond that, who knows?”