My relationship to the guitar is complicated.
It wasn’t my first instrument (my voice), nor is it likely my best (probably the piano, which I started playing at a much younger age). But, for whatever reason, my introduction to it coincided with a sudden realization: — that I had my own ideas, that I could use the skills I was beginning to acquire in service of my own voice. The idea of this changed my life — I was maybe twelve or thirteen, and I quickly became obsessed with unpacking my favorite songs, taking them apart to figure out how they worked, and using those lessons to tweak my first shaky attempts at constructing my own. Strangely, I had spent many years studying classical piano without this possibility ever occurring to me. But the inherent flexibility of the instrument, even within its limitations, was a combination that, for whatever reason, helped my brain put those pieces together. If my beginner’s fingers couldn’t execute something that I was hearing, I could just twist a few strings until everything sounded right. It was a revelation.
As a guitar player, I’ve never striven for virtuosity. For my purposes, it was never really essential — so many of my favorite players do so much with so little. Plus, I could never stop dreaming of new instruments to learn. I knew very early on that I would never be able to focus on any one instrument for long enough to truly excel at it. Instead, each was valuable to me as one of many tools that I would use in service of my true talent: — songwriting. I decided on this path early. My parents used to caution, “Jack of all trades, master of none” — but I didn’t pick up on the fact that this was anything less than a compliment. I just wanted to make songs.
So I got older, worked hard, and got a bit lucky, and found myself playing for bigger and bigger audiences. Due to the nature of the band I played in — a two piece with another multi-instrumentalist — I gravitated towards playing guitar onstage. By that point, I was comfortable, even confident, with it — but hardly virtuosic. Which, of course, was never my intention, and why it felt so strange to have the focus shift from my songs and ideas to my guitar playing. “This chick shreds!” “Hey, you can really play!”
Sounds fine on the surface, I guess. Imagine, though, that you’re on tour, and every single night you play with a different group of dudes who are truly — objectively! — equally or more capable at the instrument than you are. And no one draws any additional attention to them — it is taken in stride. Meanwhile, time and time again, you are fawned over like a child who’s just taken her first steps.
Intentionally or not, these compliments were underscored with an obvious subtext: — your very existence in your field is a novelty. Even being remotely capable at what you do is surprising enough to be remarkable.
Here’s where it gets a bit blurry: — of course, I don’t think these admirers were being insincere, or intentionally patronizing. I did work hard at trying to craft a style that was somewhat unique, and it’s great that people appreciate it. But I truly believe that the conversation about and general reaction to my creative output was directly shaped by the fact that I was, generally, outnumbered. And it’s not easy to talk about these feelings — if you bring it up, or try to call someone out on it, you end up looking ungrateful. Or self-deprecating. Or self-righteous. “Why can’t you just take a compliment?” It feels like being gaslighted by society at large. You’re always wondering whether people appreciate your ideas, or just the idea of you. It’s crazy-making, truly.
After a while, it became too much for my fragile creative spirit to bear. So I took a break. Fortunately, I was in the midst of learning how to record and produce music in a totally unfamiliar way, and I wrote our band’s next record using a very different set of skills. Same voice, different instruments.
It was never my intention to “abandon” the guitar — the instrument that introduced me to my own creative impulses. But, of course, marketing your music to the public is like playing a real-life game of telephone — all of your complex and nuanced ideas get reduced again and again until they’re an easily digestible shell of their former selves.
That’s about where I was when Reverend, a company whose guitars I’ve played for many years, offered to make the JW-1 — a signature Jenn Wasner guitar.
At first, I balked — for so many reasons, this idea was so unlike me. (Actually, my very first reaction was something like “Wow, wouldn’t that be hilarious.”) I think this is because, to me, the “signature guitar” was the realm of the soulless shredder — impressive, sure, but you’re missing the point. It represented the elevation of pure chops over invention, emotion, innovation, and truth. It was in direct opposition to everything I stood for!
It wasn’t until my partner pointed out that— perhaps this association is in part because so few women have been given the opportunity to do this sort of thing, so maybe that’s exactly why you should do it — that I realized I couldn’t say no.
So — here we are. I’ve got this crazy guitar that my amazingly talented friend April Camlin helped to design for me. (It’s also visually associated with a new project revealed today.)
I really hope that it doesn’t seem self-aggrandizing — it’s not quite in line with the “humble/hustle” approach to art-making that I’ve tried to adhere to. But I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to contribute to normalizing the image of someone who looks like me playing this or any instrument — not as a novelty, or an accessory, but as a tool to create exactly as I see fit.