Karly Hartzman turns her laptop camera and points to the graying houses just past her faded green front yard. She’s showing me where her neighbor Amanda lives. “She’s just fucking crazy,” she says. I know Amanda too, from the odd, melancholic, engrossing world Hartzman has built through her band Wednesday’s songs. The breakout five-piece is rooted in their home of Asheville, North Carolina — from their “countrygaze” sound to Hartzman’s perceptive eye toward the South — and Amanda is just the sort of character you’d meet there.
“Gary’s,” off their 2021 album Twin Plagues, is a fitting introduction to her lyrics: “Amanda ripped the screen door off the house / She was screaming something at her boyfriend we could not make out.” Ever the neighborhood menace, she returns on Wednesday’s new album, Rat Saw God. “Somebody called the cops on Mandy and her boyfriend,” Hartzman sings on “Quarry.” “When they busted in they found that her house was a front for a mob thing.” It’s mostly true, Hartzman tells me: the yelling, the boyfriend, the cop call. No mob ties, though — as far as she knows. “She was probably in trouble for screaming at night or something.”
This is how Wednesday songs work. Hartzman is always “collecting” things to put into her lyrics — whether she’s listening to family stories, overhearing her neighbors argue, or watching TV. (Even the title of their new album comes from Veronica Mars.) But once those details are in her hands, anything can happen. On Rat Saw God, Hartzman writes songs like collages, fitting collected bits together with an eye more toward aesthetics than truth. When Hartzman was younger, she loved poring over the list of references in the DVD booklets for Gilmore Girls. “There’s so much stuff that’ll go over your head,” she says. “It’s so fun as a fan to look and be like, What is this screenwriter into? I love shit like that.” Now, Wednesday songs can feel the same way. Hartzman broke down a few of the new album’s many lyrical references — along with other aspects of her songwriting — with Vulture.
“Hot Rotten Grass Smell”
Hot rotten grass smell
“Fuck all y’all” down the wishing well
Neon sign at the nail salon turned off
And the streetlights turned on
This feels like great scene-setting not just for the song, but for a Wednesday album. Was it written with the idea of it opening an album?
It wasn’t written as the opener, but I always know what’s gonna open once we record it. The same thing happened with the noise at the beginning of Twin Plagues. I was like, This is the tone-setter. What’s it called when you have a sentence that kind of overarches like an essay? Oh, a thesis. It’s like a thesis statement for where I’ve been at this past year, for sure. And it sets the setting as Asheville and the South, obviously.
When you’re writing lines like this that aren’t narrative-based, but closer to an image, do those tend to come from specific moments?
That’s a good example of me sitting down to write and just racking my brain for anything mildly poetic that has happened in the past couple of days. I don’t remember the exact moment I wrote the lines, but I’m guessing “hot rotten grass smell” was written after my neighbor Collin cut the grass. We have a huge swath of land. It’s beautiful. And when the grass is cut, the smell is overwhelming.
Then the second line is a Bill Callahan reference, to “The Well.” When I hear that line, it reminds me of my friends and the shit we do, which kind of, stream-of-consciousness-wise, ties into Collin cutting the grass. So they’re all connected, but they’re just disparate memories that have the same tone. I definitely collect stuff by tone.
Collect stuff, you mean like taking notes?
Yeah, I have a lot of notes in my phone. We were in the tour van the other day, and I was driving so I couldn’t write, but the conversation was talking about getting emotional at commercials. I was like, Damn, that is such a loaded phrase, because someone is marketing you something but it’s making you emotional. There’s just so much to talk about with that line. So I turned to my friend in the passenger seat like, “Text me ‘Crying at commercials’ so I remember to do something with that.” I have a bunch in my phone, I have a ton of notes in margins of books, things I thought of stemming off of a line I read.
Passed out on a couch at a New Year’s party
I sat on the stairs with a never-ending nosebleed
You were playing Mortal Kombat
God, make me good but not quite yet
This is a point where the song shifts from being more figurative to literal. How do you know that that fits there?
It’s a long-ass song, ’cause it takes me a while to prepare myself emotionally to sing the end. Everything leading up to that line is giving myself time to get in the headspace of that night. That New Year’s party was the last time I ever saw my friend who ended up passing away that year. And I have to perform that song every night on tour, so I need that time every time we play it. That is the line where I force myself to open that door into the room where that happened and eventually access the grief I experienced once he was gone.
Was this a song that took you a while to put together?
It took me a while to put together in the sense that I hadn’t felt ready to write a song that confronts that. That was a memory from high school, so it took me three albums to reflect on it. I don’t go explicitly into what it’s about in the song, but in my mind it feels really explicitly about that. But the actual physical writing of the song happened pretty quickly once I gave myself permission to go there.
That reminds me of how I feel about a lot of your songs — I can definitely tell it’s about something very specific, even if that’s not fully apparent from the lyrics.
Yeah, I like writing that way too, ’cause when I talk to other people who have experienced grief or an emotion I’m hinting at without the specifics, they feel seen. Especially in a performance space. I tell people they can scream with me if they want during that part at a lot of shows, and when I hear recordings of it, there is a lot of people screaming.
The last line of that verse, the internet tells me, is from St. Augustine. How did that end up there?
That’s funny. I think that’s originally a St. Augustine quote, but I heard it in — we had just finished watching The Sopranos and then we went and watched Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie. She quotes it in there, and I was like, That is fucking genius. Just another thing I collected.
Halloween decides to beat me
Into a pulp till I try to just play dead
I broke the dark
My day is gone
I listen to what you had been thinking
“Love’s not the way to treat a friend”
This is the first point on the album where you harmonize with your bandmate and boyfriend Jake, who also performs on his own as MJ Lenderman. What’s it like to sing with him?
We’ve been singing together since I started making music, so easy is like the only word that comes to mind. It’s like our voices are meant to be together in a lot of songs. The song is about him and settling into our relationship too. We have a very natural thing going with our music. It’s kind of hard to describe.
When you write something like that, do you hear it in your head, like, That verse is going to be both of us singing, or does it come out as the band’s playing it?
The only thing I come to the table with is my guitar parts and my vocal. I let my bandmates follow their desires. I make final calls or whatever, but for the most part I’m just like, “What do you imagine here? Let’s try it.”
What is it like to bring a song to a person and be like, “Hey, this is kind of about you,” or maybe you don’t even say it and they read that into it?
There’s been a love song on every Wednesday album about Jake, so I think he’s probably just used to it. Any time we write about each other, I think the other person is just glad that that was a motivator to create something. Writing a song is a harder task than you think it’s going to be sometimes, and saying what you mean, especially when you’re talking about something like love. When he writes a song like “You Are Every Girl to Me” or I’m writing something like “How Can You Live If You Can’t Love,” I am like, Damn! We really put this into fucking words, this thing we’re feeling. We’ll like nod our heads at each other, but we don’t talk about it past that.
That last line, was that something that he said?
It’s Richard Brautigan. But that is such a Jake line, he loves that line.
“Chosen to Deserve”
I used to drink till I threw up on weeknights at my parents’ house
My friends all took Benadryl till they could see shit crawlin’ up the walls
One of those times my friend took a little too much
He had to get his stomach pumped
They took him over to the hospital and told us he was lucky to survive
You describe a really vivid, scary moment. But hearing you singing it, there’s this almost detachment in the way you’re delivering it. Tell me about making that choice.
That’s kind of the story I tell at parties now. That was eighth grade, so it’s long gone, but it really represents the person I was growing up. So I kind of am detached from it, ’cause that person is so different — I’m not really doing much experimental shit [laughs] with drugs, like I’ll have a beer at a party or smoke some weed at a show. I don’t really consider doing drugs an activity, whereas when I was in middle school, it wasn’t only an activity, it was a main goal in life for a while. And we would just do anything.
So I woke up the next morning, after we had done that. My mom woke me up and was like, “I had to take your friend home because he was naked walking around the house taking out all the keys from the deadbolts. What were y’all doing?” She took him to his parents and they were like, “Oh, whatever, he’ll just go to bed.” But then a few hours later, his parents showed up to my parents’ house and were like, “We just had to take our son to the hospital. He could’ve died.” It was like my first confrontation with someone my age dying. And it was so overwhelming. I’ve never felt more guilty in my life ever. Now I look back on it and laugh. I think that’s a result of having to look back on something so traumatic, or else you’ll be like, Fuck, that really sucked for the rest of your life. So yeah, I do have a detachment. That was part of the healing process.
Ultimately, this is also a love song. Maybe the reason it more comes off as detached is because you’re singing the song with the assumption that someone you love is accepting these things about you and you don’t have to worry about them.
I can walk on water
I can raise the dead
We joined the exodus
Headed out from Dollywood
What about religion is interesting to you as a songwriter?
Well, I have a very specific relationship with it as someone Jewish raised in the South. I was riding around the neighborhood with all my other suburban white-girl friends, but I would go to my friends’ houses and their parents would tell me I’m going to hell. [Laughs] That was something I had to confront from a very early age. And luckily, from the outside, I came off as someone who could blend in, but I always felt like there was something deep inside of me that made me different than a lot of my friends, and I couldn’t understand. Judaism is such a chill religion. There’s no fear in it. All the fear I had of being Jewish was coming from outside. Whereas all of my friends had this inner fear of their own bodies and going to hell, and it was being projected back at me in this way.
Both of my parents are Jewish, but they sent me to Vacation Bible School just to hang out with my friends during the summer for a few years. My mom has stained-glass crosses in the house just ’cause she thinks they’re pretty. People would give them to her just because, like, someone at work who didn’t know she was Jewish would just be like, “Here, Merry Christmas!” We would get a Christmas tree, but then we would also celebrate Hanukkah. It was just so fucking confusing. I’m still parsing out, How was I raised? What a weird circumstance I was in. I think it’s endlessly analyzable. And I will say, it wasn’t traumatizing. I throw around that word a lot to describe a lot of stuff [laughs]. It was just interesting.
Georgie set fire to acres of cotton settin’ off model rockets
The kid from the Jewish family got the preacher’s kid pregnant
But they sent her off and we never heard too much more about it
The sweet talk never lasts and you learn to go on without it
I read that George is your dad. Tell me about hearing that story growing up. How do you know that fits into a song?
So my grandparents live in the house that my dad was raised in. We would go on walks around his neighborhood, and he just had a million stories of him and his little crew of boys doing the stupidest shit I’ve ever heard. There’s a huge field by their house and it has power lines now. I’ve been running around this field my whole childhood. Once, he was like, “This used to be a field of really tall grass.” It wasn’t cotton, that just fit better in the line. And he said, “One time, I was trying to set off a model rocket, and it caught this whole shit on fire, basically, and I had to run home. I didn’t even tell my parents it was happening, like someone else called the fire department. They still don’t know it was me.” And that story has stuck with me since middle school. It’s on a long list of stories I wanna write into songs eventually.
Then it goes into this line afterward about a kid from a Jewish family getting a preacher’s kid pregnant; is that another story, or does that shift into fiction?
No, that’s about my uncle, his brother. There’s a church down the street, and my uncle got the daughter of the preacher of that church pregnant when he was in high school, and she just disappeared, had her kid somewhere. He forgot about it, and then two years ago, during the pandemic, we went up there for Thanksgiving, and he was like, “Y’all, I just found out I have another kid that I didn’t know existed.” My dad was like, “Yeah, I remember when that happened.” And my uncle was like, “I don’t. I blacked it out.” And my dad was like, “Dude, this was a whole issue with our family, like, we had months of you being grounded from this. Do you not remember?”
“TV in the Gas Pump”
TV in the gas pump
Blares into the dark
In the same way that “Hot Rotten Grass Smell” set the stage, these final lines feel like a moment in a movie where you end on that scene and zoom out. When did you know that that’s the ending image of the album?
Probably similar to “Hot Rotten,” like right when we finished. I realized the [feedback] at the end, too, ties into the beginning of Twin Plagues, which I thought was cool. Tonally, it was very obvious.
I read that this song was put together on tour. Some artists aren’t able to write on the road. What’s the experience like for you?
I usually can’t either, because it takes an amount of bandwidth that I don’t have. I maybe could if I had a tour bus, but we wake up, we drive all day, we get to sound check. I collected all the lines while we were in the van. I would see a swing set in a big field and I would write it down in my phone, and by the end of the tour I realized, Wow, I collected a lot of shit on this one, maybe I could form it into a song.
I imagine getting out of Asheville, you’re seeing a lot of evocative things that you’re not seeing all the time.
Yeah, and there’s a lot of crazy shit that happens on tour too. I try not to write on tour too much, though, because tour is not a relatable experience for a lot of people. So I was taking stuff that anyone would see if they were driving in a car on the road. Not necessarily like, “During sound check, blah blah blah.”
That’s why I think a lot of artists get overworked and have to cancel tours, because they realize, Wait, music was my therapy. If you’re performing songs about experiences that you’ve already lived, you’re not really working on yourself in the present. It gets really exhausting, and you have no time to catch up with yourself on tour.
Have you been writing since recording this album?
Next album’s written, ready to go. I’m always having to catch up with myself in the studio. It happens every time. I always learn a lot and I get better writing-wise with each album, which makes me really optimistic about my goal, which is to make and perform music until I’m an old lady.
This interview has been edited and condensed.