Furiously catchy garage punk and southern gothic sludge-blues, Vanderwoolf started as a solo project headed by songwriter Ashlyn Kersten before it blossomed into a band in the most natural way possible. Max Yassky (drums), Beau Croxton (lead guitar), and Henry McGrath (bass) all met organically through going to shows and watching each other play on stage. It was a kismet connection that when Ashlyn speaks on says, ” It’s never lost on me how lucky I am to be sharing this project with such talented people now.”
The group formed in 2019 playing shows with and crafting songs that marry all the elements of soul, garage, blues and 70’s punk into a wonderful family of harrowing danceable tunes. Their self-titled debut EP is a dark ride remisinstant of taking shrooms at a amusement park and having one of the best trips of your life. It’s darkly optimistic listening to frontwoman Ashlyn Kersten’s well trained howl sing lyrics such as “Show me any bridge, I’ll show you matches and gasoline….”
Having recently played packed-out shows at TV Eye, Berlin, and The Knitting Factory, the band will release their debut EP on February 24th, and will be celebrating by headlining a release show that night at Our Wicked Lady.
Who were your inspirations growing up listening to music and who are they now?
I didn’t really grow up with access to underground music. My cool uncle gave me a Green Day CD one Christmas and that changed my life. Looking back, Interpol and Jack White were also pretty crucial formative influences. As an adult, my biggest heroes are PJ Harvey, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Savages, The Gories, Amyl & The Sniffers. I take a lot of inspiration from the local scene here in Brooklyn too.
Your voice is literally incredible, smokey, deep, soulful…did you have any training? Did you grow up singing?
Thank you! Yeah, when I was two, I would take my mom’s tape recorder and sing random melodies into it. I started performing as a singer for real when I was five, mostly classical music. I think the high drama of arias really informed the way I think about vocal performance today. I was so weird, I’d be in the car with my friends belting, like, the Habanera or something, and my friends would be like “there she fucking goes again.” I had to unlearn a lot of that technique in order to be really expressive and vulnerable though. It took years to find that balance.
What is your family like and what do they think of your music?
Growing up, my mom was a university professor who ran her own small ad company (she’s a creative master of many trades); my dad is a physicist who studies space/time and is always designing and building things. They’re really accepting of my unconventional choices and have encouraged me musically since I was really young. I’m very lucky in that way.
What is the Vanderwoolf fan like?
The people who connect the most with our music tend to exist right at the intersection of being overwhelmed by existential dread and really wanting to dance. I think that actually describes a lot of people .
If you like Vanderwoolf you might like _______?
Crying yourself to sleep listening to Enya’s greatest hits. Haha just kidding, a few (but not nearly all!) of our collective favorite NYC bands to see live right now are (in no particular order) @damnjackalsnyc, @castle.rat, @towernyc, @joudyju, @certaindeathcertaindeath, @urboykyleduke, @fionasilver, @pan.arcadia, @95bullsnyc, @susu_supernatural, @coldsugar666, @spite_fu.x.x.x.
What was the most challenging song to write on the debut EP?
Maybe ‘the Valley?’ It was the first piece of the puzzle. I was really wrestling with those lyrics, trying to give myself permission to write stuff that didn’t feel super polished in service of being real. We tried to capture that in the recording too— it’s really, really raw and that felt important but was uncomfortable at first.
9. Which track is your favorite to perform and why?
Definitely ‘Order.’ It’s just so much fun. Everyone kind of gets to lose their mind a little bit. A few days ago, a girl who came to one of our shows described our performance of that song as “pussy to the wind” and I have never, ever, ever felt more validated.
Being the only fem in the band how do the guys support you? Do you ever have to deal with misogyny in the music world?
There’s a lot of people tactlessly inserting hitting on you into scenarios that should be professional relationships (barf), there’s a lot of being mansplained about gear (double barf), and there’s a lot of tolerating being under more scrutiny than your male peers (triple barf). I’m still learning how to just move on with my day when people say things to me like “I was looking down your shirt backstage before you went on and I saw your boobs! Nice!” (true story). It’s hard not to drown in your anger sometimes, but it helps that Beau, Max and Henry are the polar opposite of that. There have definitely been times when my opinion on how things should be done has been completely dismissed by a man we’re working with, and they’re always ready to back me up. I can see that these things affect them deeply and that gives me hope for this world.
What sort of career would you like Vanderwoolf to have?
At the end of the day, I think our most important goal as a band is to have people leave our shows feeling a little transformed. If we can inject a feeling of empowerment and joy into songs about situations that may initially feel hopeless or powerless, I think that’s really meaningful. It’s about marrying those opposite states of mind to elevate them and adding a little more fun into this ridiculous world, both for strangers and for our own sanity. I think that our stuff has a kind of cinematic vibe to it as well, so I’d be really thrilled to see our songs placed in film & tv consistently over the next couple years. Personally speaking, co-producing these songs (with my collaborator Kyle Duke) has been insanely satisfying; I’m really starting to invest in those skills to see where it takes me down the road. I’m just learning, but I think you always are when you really care about a craft.
The lyrics are deeply captivating, how do you come up with themes and subjects to your songs?
Usually it starts with one to two really strong images or statements in my mind that produce an emotional reaction. When I’m not sure why these images/statements produce a reaction, that’s when I get really excited. I try to follow the stream of consciousness breadcrumbs until I figure out what it all relates back to. I think the best lyrics happen in moments when you gain surprise clarity into your subconscious circus. So I guess lyrics for me are investigations into things I feel but maybe haven’t made sense of yet. The themes on this EP have a lot to do with mental health, my strained relationship with human society, and my healing relationship with myself.
Who is your favorite poet?
Lately I’ve been gravitating towards femme voices that are jarring and have no respect for form. I like the element of surprise; I like to be confronted by the work. I’ve been reading a lot of Galina Rymbu lately- she’s a Russian feminist poet and her work is abrasive, political, and deeply personal. Her collection Life in Space blew open a door in my mind. Ariana Reines’ ‘A Sand Book’ has been another really big inspiration of late. Yugen Blakrok’s album “Anima Mysterium” is a masterpiece. I think she’s one of the greatest living poets in the world right now. On the other hand, I’ve also been really influenced by Ocean Vuong, Marie Ponsot, Audre Lord, and my old poetry professor, Scott Hightower. And of course, Leonard Cohen.
Do you have a muse?
Quite literally yes. In my creative work I meditate a lot on Hekate, greek goddess of the crossroads; of witchcraft; of the moon. Mythology, occultism, and relationships to archetypes are pretty central to my perspective.
16. ‘Shake Rattle’, OMG –”Show me any bridge, I’ll show you matches and gasoline.” Thank you for seeing me.
Haha yeah that was a tough line to wrestle with. It felt good to put that on paper and offer it some acceptance. ‘Shake Rattle’ is a song about transitioning from a depressive to manic episode (I’m bipolar), and I’ve always been intensely private about that until now… writing so many songs about it has taken away the option of being ashamed anymore. I’ve had to seriously grieve the ways that learning to cope with the intensity and trying to keep anyone else from witnessing it made me into a rage-filled one-woman island for a long time.
18. How do you think NY has shaped your music?
There’s no way around the fact that this place can be brutal and isolating. But I take a lot of inspiration from the city- how impersonal it can be, the freedom that offers, the chaotic energy, the ugliness, the glamour, the history.
I love that your music is sing-along able but also sounds so classic. What is it like making music in today’s climate?
There’s a lot of pressure to make music for impatient and de-sensitized listeners. That can be frustrating. I love a really catchy chorus more than anything else, but I also enjoy dragging things out. I don’t think the sacrifices you make to be a musician are worthwhile if you’re just trying to match the content climate. I really believe that songs have their own mind about them; whatever pops into your head deserves to be realized the way it wants to be realized, not the way the external environment wants it to be. It’s like midwifing an idea in a vacuum, and if it fits, it fits. If not, too bad.
What is your guilty pleasure?
Onion Rings. Tequila. Rihanna. Dunkin’ Donuts. Spliffs.
22. Do you like playing live or recording more?
Damn! That’s like asking if you like breathing or drinking water more. I love producing because you just close your eyes and all of a sudden these sounds are a complete landscape, just a world of different colors and textures spaced out across the visual field. It’s like painting with invisible ink. In this stage there’s also no such thing as mistakes. You just keep trying things until you find something that makes you go “HOLY SHIT THAT’S TASTY” or until you make a mistake that’s so magic it’s like it belonged there and then you start building around it. Then again, there’s something that happens when you play live where your minds kind of meld; you’re all hyper-aware of the fact that you’re alive and in immediate danger of public humiliation and you’re totally feeding off of each other. So I guess that answer depends on the day. I think I’ll always feel that whatever we’re currently doing is the most exciting thing in the world.
What are some challenges in being a musician today?
There’s a lot of pressure to focus on content over songs. It can be a distraction from the OG creative process. That said, we’ve also had a lot of fun making content as well; it opens you up to collaborating with a lot of other creatives. Our friend Tommy Krause (@peter_rosenblum) shot these photos and it was one of the most fun nights we’ve ever had as a band.
If you could duet with anyone in the world who would it be?
Allison Mosshart from the Kills. Oh my god. What a voice.
TRACK BY TRACK COMMENTARY:
Order: This is an ode to brainwashing; a sarcastic take on how it’s easier to bury your head in the comfort of dogmatic belief systems than to look head on at the chaos of life and say “ah okay, this is pretty unsettling.” Maybe human life would be more palatable if I could stuff the entropy into a really strict framework of understanding. I was bitterly jealous of really religious people for this reason for a long time. Unfortunately that’s not really an option for me at this point; I have no choice but to let the unknown have a go at me if it so pleases, but there’s always that fantasy.
Shake Rattle: I really did wake up with bruises all over and blood on my knees the day I started writing this. I had been in a serious depressive episode for a while, and taking stock of my general condition really shook me. I remember sitting outside that morning at 6 AM watching this vivid red sunrise over queens and feeling myself transition to mania. It was actually a moment of great relief and desperately needed hope, despite the fact that I was trying to make sense of whether I should be afraid of it or grateful for it. I’m happy to report things have gotten a lot better since this song was written.
Panic: There’s a quiet understanding among the majority of bartenders here in New York that being trapped in this realm after death isvery real thing. New York bars are some of the most haunted places on earth. When I wrote this, I was working in an underground bar that had been the site of horrible murders and several freak deaths. A lot of strange things happened while I was working there; this song is a petite homage to the undead residents of that bar.
Rotary: This is actually a song about the relationship between my creativity and my self-destructive patterns. For a long time, those two things felt inextricably linked. I felt trapped by it. This song was just a fun way of working through that so I could let it go.
Vows: This is a really fun, straightforward one: “you need a love that leaves a little damage.” I realized I was seeking out hurt people who wanted to hurt people because it’s what I could understand and accept. I just didn’t want to feel sorry for myself about it anymore, I wanted to take away its power over me by making a song about it that wasn’t so serious. Being miserable about it had nothing to teach me anymore. Having so much fun playing it live helped me bring a feeling of power back into a part of my life I felt powerless over.
The Valley: I wrote this at the apex of a pretty serious turning point in my life. I was feeling, for the first time, a powerful sense that I was meant to be living. That my life had some purpose other than suffering and bitterness; might bear some fruit for me yet. I think this song will always be special to me because I was right. My life has more joy in it already than I ever imagined possible for myself.