NEW YORK — On a recent Friday afternoon in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, surrounded by golden-leaved trees and numerous recreational sporting matches, a cluster of experimental musicians were gathered in a field to make improvised noise.
The guitarist and songwriter Wendy Eisenberg was third on the bill, performing in between a loud violinist and a free jazz trio.
Sitting on a folding chair, Eisenberg played quiet folk songs. One, from a breakup album titled “Dehiscence (2020)” and self-released in the early months of quarantine, was called “Yellow Hand.” “My baby sent a yellow hand, sent a yellow hand,” they sang in a lovely lilt, parsing the implications of emoji-based texting and heartache. Another song included the line, “I want to be purposeful.”
These simple tunes, which contain a beguiling vulnerability, are but a fraction of Eisenberg’s dynamic world of sound. The art-rock polyglot has become known in recent years for seething noise-punk (currently in the group Editrix) as well as harmoniously aslant bedroom pop recordings. The 28-year-old Maryland native also has a second musical life as a virtuoso jazz guitarist. In 2018, Eisenberg (who uses the pronouns they and them) released a remarkable debut as a solo improviser, “Its Shape Is Your Touch,” and that same year, was commissioned by the avant-rock icon John Zorn to record a raucous power-trio album for his Tzadik label. Eisenberg’s philosophy of music is one of thrilling openness.
Eisenberg’s latest album, October’s “Auto,” is where these coordinates meet. It’s an inquisitive collection of art-pop songs with elliptical lyrics, subtle electronics and complex, splintery guitar playing that blends the unvarnished voice of indie rock with the wonder of jazz. The atmospheric songs reflect on trauma and loss, but not explicitly; Eisenberg sings gracefully of solitude, intellectual pursuits and notions of success. The title “Auto” has several meanings — including the literary genre of autofiction, which blurs memoir and fiction (Eisenberg is partial to Rachel Cusk); driving, which can consume a touring musician; and automata, or the concept of becoming the machine that is their guitar. The combination of “Auto’s” jazz feeling, poetic songwriting and theme of solo car travel can often feel like a 2020 response to the Joni Mitchell classic “Hejira.”
Late this summer, Eisenberg moved to Brooklyn from Western Massachusetts — they had relocated to a small town there after studying at Boston’s New England Conservatory — and on an unusually blustery November afternoon, we discussed “Auto” at Red Hook’s Valentino Pier. We sat on a bench a few blocks from a waterfront parking lot where Eisenberg’s new New York community had been holding other small, socially distant concerts, and they said the pier was one of the first places in the city that felt like home.
“Auto” had been out for a couple of weeks. Eisenberg spent more time on it than any previous recording, and said it was their first release in many years that felt like it really belonged to them. “The way I feel intimate with the world is through songs,” Eisenberg said, and they hoped to tie the various threads of their work into “a summation.” They said their favorite band ever is the jazz fusion group the Tony Williams Lifetime. “I love fusion,” Eisenberg said. “You’re called upon to do a lot of things as a person.”
Owing to this penchant for multiplicity, Eisenberg said their main influences as a singer were “some ungodly hybrid” of the Brazilian jazz singer Astrud Gilberto and post-punk icon Green Gartside, and they spoke of interpreting jazz from the perspective of 1980s black metal, a genre where there’s “a lot of formal stuff going on, but they didn’t make the music all about that.” Eisenberg added: “If I were just playing improvised music or just writing songs, it would be so boring, and not very formally revolutionary. What I really care about is being musically subversive.”
Eisenberg’s move to New York was spurred, in part, by their acceptance into the performance studies program at New York University. They were largely inspired to apply to study with the celebrated cultural theorist and poet Fred Moten, who teaches there, and Eisenberg is taking his class “Languages of the Underground.” Befitting these studies, there’s a rigor to conversation with Eisenberg — which can coherently zig and zag from vaudeville to Marxist feminist Silvia Federici to the semiotics of the guitar. There is also a warm ease, a sense of humor, and an infectious enthusiasm for art and ideas. “Auto” functions similarly.
When I mentioned similarities between “Auto” and “Hejira,” Eisenberg called the 1976 Mitchell album their “favorite record of all time” and “so a part of my personal worldview.” But Eisenberg said a crucial difference between the two is that the Mitchell record was “more linear” — written on a road trip from one end of the country to the other. Eisenberg’s own driving, meanwhile, touring around the Northeast, has been more circuitous. It’s less about the open road and more about winding through memory. “I know certain highways in the Northeast unbearably intimately,” they said.
Accordingly, Eisenberg rarely writes in a straight line on “Auto.” They take an oblique approach to narrating childhood trauma, including sexual assault. In the song “Centreville,” a simple vocal melody floats over complicated, mathy riffing: “I’ve thought about that as some sort of dissociation,” they said. The song is informed by their experience of being assaulted by a fellow jazz musician at a session when they were 17.
Eisenberg’s abstract method also has to do with how PTSD can make it difficult for one to access their own memories. In conversation, describing an earlier experience as a 13-year-old, they were more direct: “I had a mentor, the first person I learned jazz from, and he violated my personal boundaries as a young person in a really abusive way,” Eisenberg said. “PTSD . . . dislodges you from the weird tyranny of linear time.”
Eisenberg grew up in the D.C. suburb of Gaithersburg, Md., with a mother who loved musicals and taught them guitar chords, and a hip father who introduced them to the lo-fi feminist indie rock of Liz Phair, which was formative. Eisenberg was drawn to jazz by Lisa Simpson — a cartoon icon who could often be seen wailing on her beloved baritone sax. “It’s interesting to see someone be presented as capable,” Eisenberg said of the Simpson family’s most cerebral member.
They practiced guitar ceaselessly through their teenage years, sometimes for eight hours a day — inspired, in part, by the endlessness of John Coltrane’s approach to rehearsing — which ultimately led to an injury, thoracic outlet syndrome, at age 19. Eisenberg considers this overwork a response to trauma. “I went so [hard] on practicing, and being a craftsman, because it gave me a very tangible sense of control over my immediate situation,” they said, “a control that was taken away from me.”
Eisenberg has often spoken of complexity as an ethos not just for music, but for living in a world geared toward the facile. They said studying jazz since childhood made them understand that complexity does not have to be for its own sake. “It led me to embrace complexity, and embrace challenges, and let that complexity inform the emotional tenor of the music,” Eisenberg said.
For all of this willful entanglement, “Auto” ends with two strikingly spare songs. The closer, “Hurt People,” is a clear-eyed meditation on finding a personal center in a world where it can seem that hard work never ends. Just before that on “Slow Down,” Eisenberg plays the four bottom strings of the guitar open, which they said is “what it sounds like when you put your guitar down.” Hypnotically, they intone, “You don’t have to join the race.” It sounds like relief.
Releasing an album into the havoc of 2020, considering where the music might land, Eisenberg said they’ve performed “Slow Down” alone often, as “a little weird lullaby.” “I have to hear it to remind myself I don’t have control over this,” they said. “The only thing I can do is play.”