Kelly Zutrau has always had a special ability to capture the in-between-the lines-moments of relationships in flux. With her band Wet, she’s written songs that are less about relationships falling apart and more about what it takes to keep them together. “Baby you’re the best, we’ll figure out the rest,” she sang on 2016’s gently auto-tuned “You’re The Best.”
“Do whatever you can to make it work and if you can’t, take space from it,” she says over the phone, pulled over at a gas station on I-5 in between the Bay Area and Los Angeles (“Apparently they have extremely good tacos.”)
But the road to the New York band’s third album, Letter Blue, out October 22nd, took a lot of soul-searching for Zutrau and Wet’s other two members, multi-instrumentalist/producer Joe Valle and guitarist Marty Sulkow. In fact, Sulkow left the band before their 2018 album, Still Run, as the band grappled with the dynamics of Zutrau as their leader and core songwriter. But now for Letter Blue, the band returned to that original trio and are now back together just as they were on 2016’s breakthrough Don’t Run.
Some other things have changed as well, namely that the band exited their relationship with the major label Columbia and have put Letter Blue out independently via AWAL. A tight-knit cast of collaborators including Toro y Moi’s “Chaz Bear,” Frank Ocean keyboardist Buddy Ross, Florence + The Machine guitarist Rob Ackroyd, and Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes have lent a hand to the album and the result is Wet’s most diverse offering yet. Zutrau’s hallmark emotional pop lyricism is as sharp as ever on songs like “Clementine” and “Blades Of Grass.” But there’s a new edge to songs like “Larabar” and the dance music-inflected, Chaz Bear-produced “Far Cry” that feel like taking the kind of chances that yield innovative pop with room to grow.
We caught up with Zutrau to talk about the ins and outs of Letter Blue and why she’s happy with an album for the first time in a very long time. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
What went into bringing the three of you back together again as a band and to make this album?
Me and Marty hung out and talked for the first time in a while a couple years ago and then the three of us slowly started being friends again. It wasn’t like we weren’t friends, but we just weren’t really in touch for a good two years. We started hanging out again and it was so natural because everyone had kinda worked through a lot of stuff. We realized that we really missed making music together and were like “Let’s do a session!” and then “Alright, now let’s do another one. Ok now let’s run all of these songs together.” I think for me it felt like it was necessary to make an album that was fun and came from the same place that the music started from. A place with no expectations, no major label expectations. Something that I liked and that was fun to make and that was really important to me. So it made sense that we had a return to form.
I know that you had to overcome some inherent issues with the way you looked at the band. You and Joe kept doing your thing and split with Marty and you were able to overcome that I guess?
It’s just not easy, because we had been working together for ten years. It’s really hard to work with anyone — especially close friends — when boundaries are blurred. We took some space and I’m really grateful that we came back together, because I think that’s what a lot of the album is about: Taking stock in the last 10 years and taking a look at what you got out of it and what you have to show for it.
The best part of it after learning a lot is about these relationships with these people that you’ve toured the world with, is that they might drive you crazy, annoy you more than anyone. But they also know you better than anyone, you really love each other and have this unique experience of the world together. That’s a big part of the underlying themes.
You’ve written pretty literally about some of the band relationships on Still Run and obviously always about romantic relationships. What do you think it takes to make relationships work?
Just an acceptance that things are very imperfect and always in a constant state of change and flexibility; they just go through phases. You might not be talking to someone one year and then something happens and you come back together. And it’s not just about trying to solve relationships, but more about just being in them and figuring out each other’s boundaries. Do whatever you can to make it work and if you can’t, take space from it. I think no relationship feels good all the time. I think rarely there’s even a relationship that feels good most of the time [laughs]. Something I’m realizing as I get older, is that I’m so grateful to have people in my life that I’ve known for like 10 or 15 or even 20 years, that know me through these different stages in life. You don’t get that many more friends like that in life, who knew you in high school or during your first romantic relationship. So you want to hold on to those if you can.
So then is this why you’re most comfortable with this lineup of the band?
Yeah! We know each other really well and have been through a lot of conflicts between the three of us over the years so we know how to recover from them. You know, to know how to fight with someone is a good thing to have in a relationship. But I love the way it sounds when the three of us play together and that’s why we made the band in the first place. The way Marty plays guitar is such a big part of the sound of Wet and it’s so obvious now that he’s back playing live and it’s clicking for me a lot more.
This is the first album you’re releasing independently. What was different about that process creatively?
There were a lot of good things about being on Columbia, but it was just getting to a point where it wasn’t working for us creatively. There was a lot of changeover, so the people we had been working with had been swapped out with new people who didn’t necessarily know us or weren’t really aligned with what we wanted to make. You have these big budgets, but you don’t always have access to them and you have to plead your case as to why you need X, Y, and Z. And it’s just this long, bureaucratic process that probably does work for some people — like really big artists. But it just stopped working for us and when we asked to leave, they let us. And it was a pretty easy transition as it was clear that the relationship wasn’t really working anymore.
So on this third album, there was no other reason to make it than to make something that was intuitive and creative and coming from a real place of needing to make music and wanting it to feel good to us. Something I would stand by no matter the commercial reception it had. I think it’s okay to be focused on making money but for this, it was one of those things that if you want to make money, you should go into a different type of work, cause that’s not why you’re making music [laughs] I had to identify what I love about it, because a lot of this wasn’t working for me. I was miserable and close to quitting. And then there were these things that are amazing, with other artists and my bandmates and making stuff intuitively. We basically just paid to make it ourselves, with very little money, and then found a small independent label. They give you a little bit of money, but you have A LOT more control and that’s what I wanted. The freedom to move quickly…like “I want to go in the studio with this person tomorrow,” so just get in touch directly, do it and figure it out later.
It sounds like you got to a dark place that you were describing where you almost quit. I know you were featured on other people’s tracks… like that DJDS track “New Grave” with Kevin Drew, which really hit me like a freight train. DId stuff like that keep you going?
Yes, exactly! That track and being on the Toro y Moi record (“Monte Carlo”) and Rostam’s record (“Half-Light”). I was finding that to be so loose and free. You hit on something in the studio and there it is. It was moving a lot more quickly and creatively. That sorta inspired the process of the next album. I wanted to work with Chaz and Buddy Ross — who I had done some sessions with – and I wanted to keep it really tight, with few close collaborators. Have it be more collaborative and less precious. Less defining “Who are we?” or “What does Wet sound like?” Just let it be what it was going to be and trust myself. And I trust in this small group of collaborators. I know them really well and they’re all really talented. And I’m really happy with the album and I don’t usually feel that way.
Tell me about “Far Cry” and working with Chaz on that track, cause it sounds different from any Wet track I’ve ever heard.
That was one of the first songs that came together for the record. Right when I got off of tour, I wanted to get back in the studio with him. We met when he asked me to be on his album and then he came to a show and we went on tour with him and then started writing together. We wrote “Far Cry” and also “Only One” together and he really helped us shape the beginning sound of this album. Like, wanting to have some dance influence, which you hear on “Far Cry” and letting it be a heavy song, but also feel good at the same time. How it mirrors living with those two emotional states. Cause that can be what it feels like sometimes in these layered relationships that can be both sad and happy and that’s what we were going for there.
Do you feel like you’re still building your body of work and where you want to take this? Is the future still very much a work in progress?
Totally. It’s constantly evolving and changing and the world keeps changing so much. And I mean, we’re already working on another record. I’m always writing, I always want to be writing. It’s something that I do to work through my experiences of the world. But I do feel like with some of the collaborators we worked with on this album and the fact that it was the three of us again, we’re gonna keep heading in that direction.
Letter Blue is out 10/22 via AWAL. Get it here.