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Personal Playlist: Jack Tatum Gives The Stories Behind Four Wild Nothing Songs

On September 6, 2018

Welcome to the first edition of “Personal Playlist,” a new recurring interview series at Vinyl Me, Please, where one artist picks one song from each of their albums to talk about (or one song from every band that they’ve been in). Here are the four songs Jack Tatum chose from each Wild Nothing LP, including Indigo.

In 2009, Wild Nothing’s Jack Tatum uploaded a dreamy cover of Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” and it spread like wildfire from .mp3 blog to .mp3 blog. Then a 21-year-old college student at Virginia Tech in quiet Blacksburg, Virginia, Tatum was hard at work on his debut album as Wild Nothing, 2010’s Gemini. The internet attention led to Captured Tracks releasing the LP, which was an excellent first full-length that highlighted Tatum’s near-obsessive fascination with ’80s music like Cocteau Twins and the Smiths. But more than that, it showcased a budding songwriter who could create his own gauzy and nostalgic world with a studious ear for timeless melodies from his dorm room.

Because of his talent and knack for developing lasting hooks, it’s no surprise that initial .mp3 blog hype wasn’t a flash in the pan. Over four albums and almost a decade of recorded music as Wild Nothing, Tatum has constantly honed even the most compelling parts of his debut. 2012’s Nocturne, which was the product of his move from Virginia to Savannah, Georgia, and later, New York City, was a more intentional improvement on Gemini, in part due to the fact it was recorded in a bonafide studio. His 2016 return Life of Pause, which was recorded in L.A., found Tatum expanding his musical palate through subtle inspiration from soul music like the vocal melodies Al Green and Marvin Gaye. Indigo, his most recent effort via Captured Tracks, is his most confident yet. Recorded near his home in Los Angeles, it’s full of songs that cue from other acts like Roxy Music or Prefab Sprout but funneled through a lens that’s distinctly Tatum’s. Now a resident of Richmond, Virginia, Tatum has literally been unable to stay in one place, not just sonically.

“Live In Dreams,” off Gemini (2010)

Jack Tatum: I chose this one for a few reasons. I mean, it’s the first song on the record, but it’s also, if I remember correctly, the first song I ever wrote for this project and it just seemed like a cool place to start. The fact that it fades into the record always seemed like such a good introduction to this world, you know? I love fade ins and fade outs, even though some people hate them. When I started writing the first record, I was actually living in Virginia but I was spending the summer in Savannah, Georgia, because I had some friends down there at the time. I was hanging around in Savannah and just staying in my friend’s living room and I’d set up a recording zone there. That was the first song that I made.

At the time I didn’t really have a clear picture for what I wanted the project to sound like, I was just making stuff as I went and seeing what happened. I was obsessed with the Smiths at the time and the impetus was just that I wanted to write a song that sounds like "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out." It was basically in my own way of trying to copy that song but it ended up turning into the sound of that first record, unintentionally. And so I think through making that song, I kind of created a framework for the rest of Gemini in a way. It’s actually one of the few songs on that record that I never get tired of playing.

VMP: One thing about listening to “Live In Dreams” now is that the first line, “Sitting on the cigarette butt front porch” takes me immediately back to where I was in college when I first heard it. Do you have that same sort of transportive nostalgia?

Yeah, it is interesting. Especially just after this summer and living back here, it’s definitely brought back a lot of memories, obviously. It does the same thing for me too. I rarely listen to that record these days, more so than the other records, because it feels weirdly painful. I look back at it now and I was so naive and so overly nostalgic about just everything in my life, which was really the charm of that record. I recognize that, but it’s hard for me to listen my record because it does pull me back to this time or it pulls me back to this person that I’m not anymore. It’s such a perfect time capsule for me that it creeps me out.

“Nocturne,” off Nocturne (2012)

You moved back to Savannah after Gemini took off. How did you handle all the attention?

That was a strange year. There were so many things about my life at that point that seemed really uncertain. We started to tour quite a lot on Gemini, which was all very new to me. I played in bands in college and had been working on my own music since I was a kid, but really not on that level. We had started touring Gemini basically right when the record came out. We were touring quite a bit and I decided that I wanted to move somewhere else and I had friends in Savannah. I moved to Georgia and I was touring so much when I lived there, I never really settled in a lot ways. I only lived there for a year and, basically, I was just either touring or when I was back I was working on Nocturne. That album basically became my life when I was living in Savannah and the only thing I was doing was just working on that record.

You’ve said in interviews a few times that you were very obsessive and sort of solitary while making this. Did that intense focus really color the way you perceive the album now?

Yeah, for sure. I don’t know if it was a lonelier record than Gemini, even though I did all of my debut by myself. The writing process for Nocturne was very isolated, and driven by being in this new environment where I never really felt like I had the time to fully settle or immerse myself in the city. In that sense, I just threw myself completely into the writing of this record. Around that time that I set this precedent, which I didn’t really mean to do and it’s kind of like a habit, but I realized that I’ve moved every time that I’m about to release a record. I don’t know if I’m subconsciously or doing it on purpose now or what. It’s funny. I moved to New York right around the time that I was finishing Nocturne up, after that, I moved to Los Angeles before Life of Pause and now before Indigo I’m in Richmond. I don’t know, it’s weird

What specifically do you remember about writing and recording the title track?

With some of these songs, I picked them because like with “Live In Dreams” what that song did for Gemini, the title track did for Nocturne. It set this precedent and set this tone for the whole record. With “Nocturne,” I was just like, “OK, this is the sound of the record.” That usually happens where there’s this one song and it’s just something about it that just clicks and every following song revolves around it in a sense. The original demo is also very true to the way it ended up. In some ways, it was me trying to introduce more of a pop lean into my songs. Which isn’t to say that the first record didn’t have pop moments but I think with “Nocturne” I was looking to Fleetwood Mac and figuring out why I love that band so much and how I can write songs like that. It really just boiled down to these pop song structures and that became really important to me. I’ve always been a fan of like the classic verse/chorus structures and finding a way to do that so I don’t feel like I really need to fuck with it. It just works.

“Whenever I,” off Life of Pause (2016)

This song wasn’t released as a single but looking at the streaming numbers it’s the fan favorite off the album.

I had a feeling about that song when I wrote it. When it was in the demo phase, it sounded a little bit different and I didn’t know if I could include the song on the record. To me, when I first wrote it, I thought it sounded like a mainstream pop song, at least the way that it was in the demo. I might’ve gotten too deep into my own head there. In retrospect, there’s always songs where I think it should’ve been a single. It’s equally discouraging but encouraging to see that the song in particular had been streaming so well based off of nothing other than just fans liking the song. It’s amazing to see but I keep thinking it should’ve been a single.

It’s my favorite song on the record, too, for a number of reasons. I like that it has a pretty intentional hook on the chorus. I like that it’s a pop song that also has roots in a lot of soul and R&B records that I was listening to. I still love those records but especially when I was making this record, I was so much more into The Isley Brothers, Philadelphia Soul, Delfonics and that kind of stuff. I had abandoned all of these ’80s references for the time being and was wondering how I could do something different with this record.

What about those records?

I think it boils down to melody. The thing that pulls me in with those records are vocal melodies and forming good hooks through melodies. I think it’s also the fact that those records just sound so pretty but they don’t sound too nice. There’s something about the way it all works with the melodies, the instrumentation, and production. I appreciate technical skill a lot more that I’m older and I appreciate hearing those studio musicians more and more.

One thing I love about this song is how ambiguous the lyrics are. Especially the lines, “And I thought you’d be good for me / But I know what you are now.”

I find myself doing that a lot and I don’t know if it’s really intentional. I think part of that, it’s a reflection of my own experience. Whether or not it’s directly related to anything in my life, I think it is true to the way things are, you know? Love is never so clean cut. I feel like love is never so clean cut. You can have complicated feelings. It’s about tapping into the gray area always. That’s where my interest lies.

For whatever people’s opinions of that record are, I really love Life of Pause. I think a lot of fans kind of didn’t know what to do with that record but I feel like I’ll always have this song. This song was the perfect encapsulation of what my intentions were making it. “Whenever I” is not only a favorite song off that record, but it’s probably one of my favorite songs that I’ve written, ever.

“Wheel Of Misfortune,” off Indigo (2018)

In the press materials for this LP, you’re quoted as saying, "My life has become less about chasing these creative bursts and more about learning to channel my creativity.” What did you mean by that?

Really what I meant by that was, earlier on, writing songs for me was more about waiting until a grand idea would strike and then I would just jump on it. A lot of the songs on Gemini were like that, where I’d have an idea and record it in one day and move on. There might even be a few weeks where I wouldn’t record or work on anything. Whereas with this record, I finally set up a studio space in Los Angeles, that was kind of separate from my house so things had to be more intentional. It was weird. This record was much more about getting into a schedule of creativity, which sounds really dull but it was actually really interesting and just a different way to work. It was just like, “OK, I’m going to go into the studio to work for a little while and just see what comes out of it.” I think through doing that, it changed things slightly by trying to always be creative instead of being only being creative when the moment struck.

So to piggyback off that, how was writing “Wheel of Misfortune?”

It’s kind of funny. I picked this one because in some ways the creation of that song was a bit separate from that mentality: It was one of the only songs on the record that I wrote in one sitting. I was just at home and I think my studiomate, who I was sharing my L.A. space with, was using the studio, so I was just at home. I wrote that song on acoustic guitar, which I rarely do except for maybe one or two per record. I started strumming around on some chords and wrote the lyrics, which I also rarely do. I’m such a procrastinator when it comes to lyrics. It was just a song that came together very quickly and I feel really proud of it.

To me, it sounds like a classic pop song. It’s got all the things in my mind that, that I love about listening to bands like Fleetwood Mac or Prefab Sprout or any reference point that I’m constantly looking to for inspiration. It’s very concise. It’s also got a bit of that gray area to it lyrically where I actually personally think of it as an encouraging song about love but also has the vibe of that everyone is going to get their kicked teeth in. It could also be cynical about things as well. It’s up to people, which is always fun.

Profile Picture of Josh Terry
Josh Terry

Chicago-based music journalist Josh Terry has been covered music and culture for a number of publications since 2012. His writing has been featured in Noisey, Rolling Stone, Complex, Vice, Chicago Magazine, The A.V. Club and others. At Vinyl Me, Please, he interviews artists for his monthly Personal Playlist series.

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