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 reminiscent of taking shrooms at an 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.
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 of 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, the Greek goddess of the crossroads; of witchcraft; of the moon. Mythology, occultism, and relationships to archetypes are pretty central to my perspective.
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.
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.