Look over the track list for Lo Wolf’s debut full-length album, Singe, and you might do a double take. Alongside songs like “Alabama” and “Sailor” on the Asheville-based singer-songwriter’s July 1 release are “Nicotine Wet Dream,” “Sex” and “Rape City, USA” — and even lyrics in the songs without salty titles feature refreshingly unfiltered takes on sensitive subjects, occasionally startling imagery and enough profanity for a “Parental Advisory” sticker for explicit content. While some listeners may label Wolf as sensationalistic for taking this approach to songwriting, the source of her artistic style is far more organic.
“I wish I was doing it on purpose — I really do. But it really is just my personality. It’s just who I am,” Wolf says. “I do know that some of what I’m saying could be considered controversial or, in the context of our society, it could be considered blunt or overt. But then, on the other hand, when I write songs, I don’t ever sit down and be like, ‘I’m going to write a song about this and it’s going to communicate this message.’ It’s more like a thought or an image will come to me, and I’ll just slowly write it over time. It’s a personal expression. It’s not a political statement, even though it becomes one, I guess.”
A native of Connecticut, Wolf grew up in a small town on the shoreline. At the age of 4, she heard someone play harp at a storytelling contest and soon started what she calls “the campaign of terror,” begging her parents to take lessons “every day for five years” until they caved and rented one for her. Unable to bring her harp to college in Philadelphia and wanting to take a break, Wolf set the instrument aside. After “bouncing around a few places,” she took a job on a Barnardsville farm in 2011, resumed her harp practic the following year and, in 2014, picked up a guitar and started writing songs.
Wolf plays both instruments on Singe, alongside such local talents as Laura Blackley (guitar/vocals), Jason Krekel (fiddle), Krista Shows (vocals), Mike Johnson (pedal steel), Valorie Miller (upright bass/vocals) and Will Younts (drums). The most crucial collaborator, however, is producer-guitarist Kayla Zuskin, who Wolf says “steered the ship,” and to her is “the best lead guitar player in town.” Prior to recording in August 2019, the two sat down and made lists of all the players they knew, and while the ultimate lineup came down to “luck of the draw of who responded fastest,” Wolf was deliberate about whom she asked and sought primarily women.
“Living here, once you’re tapped into the music scene — which took me a few years of playing open mics and opening for people — the depth of talent here, there’s such a deep field,” Wolf says. “I did not feel like I was not going to find people who were good enough to play on it. It was more like, ‘Oh, God — am I going to be good enough for them to play with me?’ But it really did work out.”
The ensemble’s smooth yet still plenty raw sound straddles the line between country and folk and serves as an excellent vehicle for Wolf’s achingly honest lyrics and rich imagery that come across crisp and clear under Zuskin’s studio guidance. The confident sound also belies Wolf’s intense emotions of feeling lost, confused, doubtful, scared and resistant that she experienced in the recording process, during which she doubled down on the notion that “just because something requires effort and time isn’t a reason to stop.”
A better tomorrow
Wolf’s plans to share these songs live were “twisted around” when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of her April 20 record release show at The Mothlight. She quickly realized that “the people who are most affected by COVID are going to be people who already have no money or no support” and started thinking about what she could do as an artist to support the community and make a difference on a local level. With Singe already paid for thanks to her crowdfunding the recording process, and unemployment benefits covering her necessities, she decided to release the album and donate 90% of profits in perpetuity to Asheville Survival Program — which, according to its Facebook page, “builds mutual aid networks with oppressed communities, and promotes solidarity and sharing” — plus organizations that address police brutality and systemic racism.
“It really is just giving back what was already given to me,” Wolf says. “Hopefully I can give back some extra.”
In addition to helping enact change on the social justice front, Wolf — who “will not be playing out for a crowd of any size until there is no more threat of [her] getting other people sick” — seeks to improve working conditions for musicians. She feels that because of the depth of local talent, there’s also a high capacity for abuse when it comes to venues censoring and not paying artists. With hardly any musician willing to speak up and say anything negative about a venue for fear of being blacklisted, the cycle continues. One of Wolf’s long-term goals is to run her own nonprofit venue that doesn’t “rely on selling beer to make money” and doesn’t pay out-of-town acts disproportionally more than local artists, thereby creating a more sustainable local economy. Until then, she urges her colleagues take the time during the COVID-induced shutdown “to band together as local musicians to demand better.”
“What I’m hoping is that we somehow figure out a way to ask for more. Something I’ve heard a lot is, ‘Save live music.’ But live music doesn’t need to be saved. It’s always been here, it always will be here,” she says. “We don’t need venues. We don’t. Venues are wonderful and it’s a blessing to be able to play at them and it’s a blessing to be able to go see shows at them, but we certainly don’t need them in order to do our art. I would love to see musicians being valued here comparatively to how much value they bring.” lowolfmusic.com