Wet's Kelly Zutrau is ready to take over 2016
“I don’t wanna be your girl no more” — the lyric, crystallized into being by Kelly Zutrau’s voice, hangs in an electric thrum of sound. The song behind the lyric, “Don’t Wanna Be Your Girl,” is part of indie band Wet’s 2013 self-titled EP; after emerging from the depths of Soundcloud, the song made its way into mainstream music culture, including former The New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones’s best of 2014 playlist and, um, a Khloe Kardashian Instagram post. Since then, the band’s been releasing solid singles like summer slow jam “Deadwater,” touring with bands like SOHN and Tobias Jesso Jr., and preparing to release their debut album, Don’t You, on January 29.
Outside of her music with the three-piece group, vocalist and songwriter Kelly Zutrau’s voice skews low, fragmented with constant vocal fry, her speech peppered with languid laughs. HelloGiggles had the chance to speak with Zutrau at the band’s manager’s house in Beachwood Canyon. Surrounded by verdant vegetation and a silence broken only sporadically by the puttering of passing cars, we discussed the two-year gap between their first release and their major label debut, sadness in songwriting, and loving your sisters.
HelloGiggles: I’ve been listening to your band for a long time! I’m really excited that you’re rising in profile and releasing an album soon.
Your band’s name is Wet, your first single’s name is “Deadwater,” your website is KanyeWet.biz, and within the album, there’s a lot of water imagery, and your sound is very, um, wet — did you have a lot of formative memories growing up about water?
Kelly Zutrau: I definitely spent every day of summer, as a kid, swimming, either in a river or the beach or pond; my mom was very like, every day, we’d have to find a place to swim. So me and my sisters would swim and stay in the water for hours.
How exactly does that relate to the music? I don’t know, but water has always been important to me, and I remember the summer that we went to make the album, we were living in western Massachusetts, a rural part, and we had rented this little barn and would work there, and then take breaks to go down to this river and swim. That was a big part of the experience, and it was so necessary to take a break sometimes.
I also think that the music, the way the music sounds, for whatever reason, has just evolved for us to sound muddy and underwater and hazy. That has a lot to do with Joe [Valle, another member of Wet], his production.
HG: It’s so remarkable that now, your popularity wave is starting to crest (to use some more water imagery). Sometimes these things happen overnight, but you guys have had a thorough, organic build. How has that evolution been?
KZ: I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently, because when there’s buzz about a band, you hear, “Oh, people are excited about it! It’s gonna take off! It’s gonna explode any minute!” Not that we thought that, but we always thought there was a chance of that happening. A part of you wants that to happen, because it’s easier and means that you’re really good if that happens, but recently I’ve been feeling grateful that it’s been a slow build.
That gives you a chance to develop the live show, your sound — all of that is starting to happen for us now. We’ve been playing live shows for two-ish years and we’re starting to really feel confident and comfortable in our roles and in the band. If you have commercial success or too many eyes on you too soon, it leaves you exposed. That can be great, or that can be really hard. I’m fine with the way things have gone.
HG: One of the things that I noticed with your music, the earlier demos and the EP you put out before, is that even then, you’d built this really solid trademark. Your voice is so distinct — it cuts through, like a hot knife through butter. How did you start developing your voice, and when did you get involved with singing? Which vocalists were you listening to, growing up?
KZ: My mom is a really good singer, and she was always singing around me and my sisters, and we’d be singing with her. We were in the car a lot, and I remember singing Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and other ‘90s radio music, but always slow ballads, strong female vocalists. I also did some musical theater when I was younger — I was in plays for a few years of my life, and I really loved that.
But other than that, I didn’t have that much formal training. It was always a fun thing for me, something I love to do, something that was social. My friends and I, in middle school, formed a singing group, and that was just for fun because we didn’t want to go to recess. We didn’t want to be around boys; we didn’t want to play sports. So, we’d go up, during recess, to one of the classrooms, and just play SWV or Destiny’s Child songs that we liked for each other. We’d sing them, and we’d do little performances — it was very much for fun. [Wet] is the first time in my life that I’ve taken this, singing, seriously.
I’ve taken a couple of voice lessons since starting performing, because it’s very different, having to sing live night after night on tour.
HG: Even someone like Adele, her voice wears out. That makes sense.
What productions were you in, when you were a kid? (I used to play in pit bands, so I know a little bit of that world.)
KZ: They were all community theater productions that were made-up plays. There was one that was about Snow White, one that was about bees, and I was the queen bee and it was a very hilarious role, because it was based on Mae West? That’s a really sexual character, and I was, like, ten, making sex jokes on stage. I’ve seen videos of it recently, and was like, “This is so inappropriate.”
I was in a musical production of the movie Big; it wasn’t that crazy. I was in seven or eight plays, growing up.
HG: It’s always interesting to know where people are coming from, how they developed their performance style. What are some of the differences, besides frequency, between touring songs versus working on them for a set recording?
KZ: Just practice; I don’t drink before going on stage, besides a lot of water. I warm up . . . I’ve started noticing that by the end of the tour, I’m much better at singing. If I do it enough times, hundreds of times, at a certain point, it becomes really easy, but it’s always hard in the beginning.
Right now, we’re going into rehearsal for our first headlining tour, and I’m learning how to sing songs from the album live. They don’t sound good at first, it takes singing them live, at a show, forty, thirty times before it even sounds normal. So we’re gonna do a lot of rehearsing.
HG: What kinds of things can we expect from your first headlining tour?
KZ: There might be some water references in the lights and set design, but we’re trying to make the show feel more like a live show. It’s really hard, when you’re playing electronic music, to know how to translate it live. It’s slow, too.
We’re gonna bring a live drummer with us, which will bring a lot of energy, sonically and visually. We’re working with someone to develop lights that are going to emphasis the emotional moments, these peak moments during the show, and make it feel more intense and keep people engaged the whole time. If you don’t have things to look at . . . it gives it a real show experience.
We’ve opened a few times, but that’s just been us on stage, doing our songs. People like that, so that’s a good sign, but once we have everything else, it’ll be a lot better and more fun for us too.
HG: You’ve mentioned in the past that you grew up with sisters. What’s your relationship with them like?
KZ: I have five sisters; two I didn’t live with growing up, but I grew up with my three younger sisters. We’re really close, we’re really similar, and we’re a lot like our mom. They’re my really good friends, and when I go home for the holidays, it’s a very nice feeling to go home to a lot of people. I like the chaos and waking up in the morning and hearing people running around.
Now, my mom wakes up first and then I wake up, and my sisters sleep in until very late. But it used to be the opposite, because I’d be the teenager who’d wake up and hear them watching TV or playing. It’s a really comforting, happy feeling for me. I’m glad I grew up with a big family.
HG: That’s really sweet! When you have someone to be, not your sidekick, but . . .
KZ: Someone who understands what it’s like to be you in the world. To have the same parents, to have a lot of the same genes, to come from the same background. They have a very similar experience to you, and it makes you feel nice, like when I’m having a hard time, I like being around my sisters. I feel like we help each other a lot.
HG: Especially during teenage years, and going through puberty and stuff. I used to be really mean to my younger sister.
KZ: Me too! Reeeeally mean. The one right below me, I was so mean to. The other two younger ones, I was really nice to.
HG: Maybe because they’re the next generation, they’re coming up. But then as you get older, you reflect on it, like, “Why was I so mean?!”
KZ: It’s horrible! I know, I feel so bad.
HG: When you’ve been on tour so far, how long were you away from your family?
KZ: Usually a month, but I’ll go a few months without seeing my family. Well, now that I’m older, one of my sisters lives in New York, one lives in Massachusetts, one lives in Boston, I see them all pretty often, but less so all at once.
HG: Do they give you feedback on your songs as you’re writing them?
KZ: Yes, they’re actually super helpful. I have two sisters in high school, one in college, and then one who’s fresh out of college. I like to send them songs and be like, “What do you think of this? What do you think of this versus this?” It gives me a sense of what someone their age would say.
HG: One of the things that comes up a lot in your music is this settling of feeling. It’s not really sad, but the music also isn’t not sad. How do you build your songs, and is that emotional setting intentional?
KZ: My process is that I usually start, I have this instrument called an autoharp and I try to sit down at it every day and come up with ideas. But, usually the times that I write songs that end up making it onto something, are times when I’m struggling with something in my life, or struggling with feeling a certain way — feeling depressed, sad, having a hard time dealing with a situation that I don’t know how to make it better —and I’ll write a song, and the best songs end up taking that feeling of not being in control and turn it into this moment.
Usually, it helps me a lot. It doesn’t solve the problem, but it gets me out of that place and in control again. I’ve made something and have communicated it; I’ll send it to Marty [Sulkow, the third band member] and Joe and our manager, and get feedback, and focus on that. I re-focus my life on making art and not getting stuck, or too caught up in emotional dramas and existential dramas. Life is full of them, and you don’t want them to stop you from living and from making things.
It’s really great to have this new thing that really helps me process my life as I’m living my life. It’s happening in real-time, and the best songs, people can relate to because they’ve experienced something that’s conveyed in a song.
HG: Even from your first EP, the songs are very peaceful, and come, at least to my ear, to a resolution. How do you know when you’ve finished writing a song?
KZ: It depends. Sometimes, you don’t know. There are certain songs on the album that I think are the weaker songs on the album; it’s not clear that they’re done. That’s not always the case, but my favorite songs, “You’re The Best” or “Don’t Wanna Be Your Girl,” those happened in one sitting and they were done. They were written: The chords, the melodies, the lyrics, just at the autoharp in an hour. Then, the boys produced them out.
Those are my favorite ones, because they feel really clear — they sum up the feeling of exactly where I was at for that hour. And sometimes, you have to keep working on songs, and sometimes I’ll get confused because I’m in all these different emotional states when I’m working on them. It gets a little watered down, so I like to set myself up to write a song in one sitting. But that’s not always possible, and plenty of good songs are written by other people, and by us, that don’t happen that way, but that’s my favorite.
HG: It’s nice to feel like the Muses have touched down.
KZ: Exactly. That moment of clarity: Oh, there it is! I started and finished it! It’s a little moment packaged up for me, and it’s so satisfying.
HG: It’s the way for writing anything.
KZ: Right, that’s so true! That seems like it must be true for a lot of art, and writing. If you can just. . . there are those moments when you’re on, and you know how to start it, you know how to finish it, and you made something really good. That’s what I’m always striving toward, when you feel really clear and good about what you’re doing.
Pre-order Don’t You here. Stream Wet below:
Images courtesy of the author, Columbia Records, and Milan Zrnic.