Music

Faye Webster Tells Us Why Nights at the Symphony Were Just What She Needed

It was just an audio call. But it was easy to sense a shrug and a sly smile from Faye Webster, all the way from a tour stop in Brisbane, Australia, when asked about deeper meanings in the title of her new album, Underdressed at the Symphony

“I mean,” she says, “my thought about the title is always just quite literally, ‘I’m wearing cargoes at the symphony’ or whatever.”

No metaphor for her life, she says. It was her life, at least part of it. Atlanta Symphony Hall is just a short skip from her Midtown home. As she set to work on this album, her fifth, she was dealing with both a rough break-up and various emotional and creative challenges in the face of rising acclaim over the last few years, and with it rising expectations. 

Faye Webster performs at Laneway Festival on February 11, 2024 in Perth, Australia. (Credit: Matt Jelonek/Getty Images)

Nights at the symphony were just what she needed. Whatever she had on.

“It kind of served as therapy for me,” says Webster, 26. “So yeah, I think it became an important part of this era, when I was making this record.”

Often she would just go, last minute, not even knowing what was on the program.

“Yeah, all the time. I would randomly be like, ‘Is there a show tonight?’ It was just really therapeutic to me.”

It worked. The album is an engaging, personal statement, fashioned into a colorful array of sometimes folky, sometimes jazzy chamber-pop with her tight-knit band: pedal steel player Matt “Pistol” Stoessel, keyboardist Nick Rosen, bassist Bryan Howard, and drummer Charles Garner. Strings and winds pop up here and there, including guest appearances from pals old (Lil Yachty, a close friend since middle school) and new (Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, who became a fan and friend when Webster opened for his band on a 2021 tour). 

At its core is Webster’s poetic account of her inner struggles, her confusions and doubts, captured in words at once spare and vivid. Take the song “But Not Kiss”:

I want to sleep in your arms but not kiss

I long for your touch but don’t miss 

Don’t want to regret any of this 

That’s one of just three short verses, the rest of the song merely her repeating the word “yeah” a couple of dozen times, her slightly quavering voice lilting over evocative chamber-folk. Most of the album’s songs are no wordier than that. She says what she needs to say, nothing more. 

“I call that one an ‘anti-romantic’ love song,” she says. “I was going through a time where I had so much love and care for a person, but it was not good for me. Like, it was bad,” she says. “I was kind of looking for other songs that were portraying this really anti-romantic-but-still-in-love feeling, and I couldn’t really find them. So that’s why I wrote that one.”

She still hasn’t found any others. But she stopped searching. “I’m not really in that mindset anymore,” she says.

Underdressed at the Symphony

How is it now, singing that intense song with the feeling having passed? “I don’t know,” she says. “When I’m playing live, I’m just, yeah, singing my songs and not really trying to emotionally get into it.”

Quickly, she takes that back. “I mean, well, that’s not true.” She laughs at how that had sounded. “Sometimes,” she says, “sometimes, yeah, I don’t know…Sometimes songs can change meaning for me over time, too.”

Those emotional shifts mark the album. She wants something. She doesn’t want it. She needs something. She doesn’t need it. She’s in the moment. The moment passes. She’s there. She’s not there. Even talking about the symphony she is vague. Did any works move her? Any composers? “I just really admire orchestral music and like symphonies.”

But then she springs to life. There is a performance that she holds in her heart. Not something she experienced in person, though, but a recording. Still, she talks about it with such joy, it’s as if she had been there. “I have this record from when Hatsune Miku performed with a symphony,” she says. “I’m obsessed with it.” Hatsune Miku, literally, was not there — or anywhere. She’s not a person.

“She’s a vocaloid,” Webster says of the synthesized creation — a.k.a. CV01 — that in the guise of a 16-year-old animé Japanese girl became an international pop sensation. “They had her hologram projected over the symphony,” she says, glowingly. There’s a photo on the back of the album. “I saw a video once,” she says. “I listened to that vinyl a lot.”

Real or not, no matter. “I love her! I love her so much!”

I wanna quit all the time

I think about it all the time

It’s the attention that freaks me out

— Faye Webster, “Wanna Quit All the Time”

Webster, of course, is flesh and blood. She’s uncomfortable with attention. But she relishes connecting through her music. “Touring is some of my favorite moments, because I just get to physically be there, physically see fans,” she says. “That’s the most meaningful thing to me. What I look for in music and what I hope that everyone sees in my music is, like, feeling understood, or related to.” 

That is happening. Both her artistry and fan affection have exploded in the last few years. Her last album, 2021’s I Know I’m Funny Haha, reached No. 35 on the Billboard album chart, with word-of-mouth momentum building considerable anticipation for the new one.

Wilco’s Nels Cline has watched it closely. Listening with Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy to Webster and her band from the wings off stage in 2021, Cline was impressed by the then-understated performer.

“Very beguiling and alluring sounds!” he says in an email. “Jeff added in a whisper something like, ‘Her lyrics can be really funny.’ And it’s so true!”

And each night Webster would join the headliner on Wilco’s “Impossible Germany,” her favorite song “of all time.” (She loves the band so much that her original title for the new album’s opening song “You” was “Wilco-type beat.”) Recently, though, Cline has seen something more. “I sat in on a show in Chicago last year and witnessed not only what has become a show — light design, set design — but the swooning and screaming of her young fans. Wow! It was really quite a night.”

(Credit: Michelle Mercado)

Cline and Tweedy are not the only older fans. Former President Barack Obama, no less, has shouted her praises, featuring the song “Better Distractions,” from her third album, Atlanta Millionaires Club, on his annual year-end music favorites list for 2019 — a choice he credited to his daughter Sasha. 

And Mark Mulcahy, who led the 1980s-‘90s alt-rock band Miracle Legion and fronted the house band on the ‘90s alt-TV series The Adventures of Pete & Pete, has included Webster’s “Jonny” on a new album of him covering songs by young artists, mostly women, he was turned on to by his kids.

“Faye’s phrasing and maybe her voice a little remind me of Melanie,” he says, also in an email. “Love her. I’ve watched her a bunch live on YouTube. She’s free and relaxed, and it seems every night’s a little different.”

This has been evolving since she was a pre-teen. By high school she was in a rap group with friends. But the music she first embraced was more rustic. Her mom played guitar and fiddle, and folk and country were household staples.

“A lot of Alison Krauss,” she says. “Her vocals were just beautiful. I remember hearing her and being, like, ‘I can’t believe people can sing like this.’ I think my vocal style is still really inspired by her, ‘cause she’s so delicate and gentle.”

That’s prominent in her first album, Run and Tell, which she released herself when she was just 16 — Hatsune Miku’s age, as it happens. It’s straightforward modern country, nicely sung, but nothing standing out. It’s streaming if you want to check it out, though she doesn’t ever listen to it. 

“No,” she says, crisply.

A few years later, she signed to Atlanta rapper Father’s label Awful Records, opened for Sean Rowe on a dozen tour dates, and released what she considers her true debut, Faye Webster.

“After high school, when everybody was like, ‘Okay, you gotta figure out what you want to do now,’ that was when I was like, ‘Oh, well, there’s only one thing I know how to do.’” She laughs. “I feel like that’s when I was really taking it seriously and trying to find myself.”

Her search took shape in her Atlanta community of rappers, punks, and rockers. Her band coalesced into a strong, supportive unit, with Stoessel’s steel its signature feature. Soon she signed to indie powerhouse Secretly Canadian, and with Atlanta Millionaires Club and I Know I’m Funny Haha the growth in songwriting and expressiveness continued impressively. 

And last year she took a revealing side-trip with the Car Therapy Sessions EP, showing the extent of her vocal abilities, singing songs of hers arranged for, yes, a full orchestra. The Symphony album is not a continuation of this, in title or approach. But Car Therapy gave her a new sense of ambition and achievement leading into the new album. 

“That was one of my favorite projects I’ve ever done,” she says. “It’s just really beautiful.”

Overthinking in my head again

I’m good at making shit negative

Right now I hate the color of my house

—Faye Webster. “Wanna Quit All the Time”

So what did she do after giving her voice full rein on the EP? She buried its beauty in Auto-Tune.

“I had Auto-Tune on everything,” she says of the early recordings for Symphony.

It didn’t last. “They made me take if off, like, five songs,” she says, “they” being bandmates, friends, anyone she asked for their thoughts, who said it was “distracting or something.”

“I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll take it off if I can keep it on this one where it makes absolutely no sense.”

The song she kept it on is “Feeling Good Today.” It’s another case of mixed feelings, half-way emotions, little shrugs:

I got paid yesterday

I’ll probably buy something dumb

Because I am pretty childish

It’s not really ill-fitting, the electronic voice alterations embodying the uncertainties she expresses. There’s a video for the song in which she hides herself beyond just the voice, girded in layers of prosthetic flesh to look rather dumpy. 

So what dumb thing would she buy? What does Faye Webster really want?

There’s a song about that, too.

She wants a Lego ring.

I want a Lego ring

It’s a mood ring

It’ll pick for me 

“It was just something I wanted,” she says. “I wanted a Lego ring! So I just wrote about it, I guess.”

“Lego Ring” is the song that features Lil Yachty, who wrote and raps a verse at the end of the song celebrating their friendship — “You and me are like a dream team / Always together like string beans” — and appears with her in the video, the two of them on a sofa playing a kids-level rock band-like video music game, just being sweet, goofy friends. 

She is, well, happy.

I’m depriving myself of happiness

Something I’m really good at

— Faye Webster, “Underdressed at the Symphony”

“Every time I feel like I’m going through a hard time, I’m kind of dwelling in it,” she says. “If I’m feeling sad, it’s all I want to do. I feel like I let myself live in that moment.”

And there’s the album, her whole approach. It tells the story of those moments.

“I think it does,” she says. “I’ve always joked about the album telling a story, but in a really confusing way. I don’t feel the track list is in the order of the story. But at the end of the day, it you listen to it you’re going to get the story.”

There’s “eBay Purchase History.” 

“You could learn a lot about me,” she sings. “Always bored and I’m never satisfied.”

She doesn’t want your sympathy. She just wants you to feel along with her. It comes clear in the closing song, “Tttttime,” a meditation on, well, time — two short verses and then the title word repeated, stretched, savored.

“That’s a really lighthearted one for me,” she says. “I was finding myself really isolated, spending a lot of time by myself. I think it really reflected into my songwriting. I just feel like when you’re alone long enough or bored long enough, like I have thoughts like the lyric about calling my mom.”

I get lost in a song

Take a walk, call my mom

Don’t go out anymore

In half an hour I’ll be bored

“I never would’ve wrote that song if I wasn’t, like, so…” She laughs, unable to find the words to complete the thought. “I was just writing about little things. Should kind of matter a lot.”

Originally Published Here.

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