Jen Wilson’s theatrical, versatile synth-pop comes into focus on a debut album, “The Problem Of Other Minds.”
The Problem Of Other Minds, the recently released debut album from Spy The Night, simmers with restraint and patience. Singer and producer Jen Wilson combines her love of shadowy electronic pop with a range of disparate elements in this project. The influence of vocal jazz and musical theater only add to the project’s cinematic flair. She had to wait a long time to do it.
Wilson became captivated with music as a pre-teen living in Phoenix when she discovered an all-ages New Wave club. “I was immediately like, ‘Oh, my God, I want to be involved in this in some way,'” Wilson says. “But it just never really happened.” She sang in her high-school choir, and tried out for a few bands in college but decided to put that aside and focus on finishing her degree. After that, she got married and ended up living in the UK for 10 years. She found a little time to play music with a coworker, but again, that didn’t last long.
“We only did one gig, with me singing backup, in a small club in South London,” Wilson recalls. “We used to rehearse in the park after work. I mean, it was that minimal.” She had children and the music part of her life went “kind of dormant” again.
When Wilson and her family moved back to Madison, she started going to the much-missed North Side club Inferno. That closed in 2015. A few years later, Crucible opened on the East Side, becoming a new home for the industrial/goth/darkwave community that Inferno fostered for so many years. It was at this point, with the kids grown and a lot more time on her hands generally, that the act of making music finally started to come into focus. The community she found at Crucible, including a few veteran electronic musicians, proved not just welcoming but deeply supportive.
“When Crucible opened, I slowly started to get to know some of the musicians and DJs there. And I always credit Matt Fanale of Caustic and Klack with getting the idea in my head that I could actually do it,” Wilson says. “I pulled him aside one night when I was there when he was DJing and basically started asking, ‘How do I get started?'” Eric Oehler of Klack and Null Device and John Freriks of darkwave outfit Sensuous Enemy also provided advice and feedback, as Wilson started getting familiar with recording software. “Basically, I just never really had a proper chance or push, and then finally it started happening,” Wilson says.
After years of having little time for music, she was exploring the essentially limitless access that music software provides to synthesizer sounds, drum samples, and vocal production flourishes. And then even more time to get immersed in all that, as the Covid pandemic arrived. “Especially during the deepest, darkest lockdown, I spent a couple of months just experimenting with sounds and just having fun with it,” Wilson recalls.
From all the potentially limitless options, Spy The Night emerged with an ominous hush and a slow build. Wilson released her first single (and now the album’s second track), “Ghost Light,” in February 2021. It feels wrong to call it synth-pop, exactly. Wilson creates a ton of eerie space in less than three minutes here. Her spectral but commanding vocals set the scene over deliberate, droning figures, before the song ramps up with a pulsating synth line and prickly drum samples. The lyrics are brief, too—about 20 words—yet manage to capture the absence and upheaval of the time.
“I kept having this image of the ghost light in every theater that had been turned on and left on, because nobody was performing,” Wilson recalls. She also ties this to the hollowness of American politics under the Trump administration, the decline of a nation, and the embarrassment she often felt as an American living abroad. “Ghost light / How long can you / Shine / Fall off world stage / Running faster towards your grave,” she sings, hinting at several thematic layers in very few words. (Wilson teaches English as a second language at UW-Madison, and is working on writing some yet-to-be-published fiction, both experiences that serve her well in the lyrics.) A second single, “No Bliss,” followed later that year and kept expanding on the slow-burn approach. This time, Wilson applied her vocals to a more assertive hook: “Ignorance is no bliss,” she sings on the chorus, her delivery at once cool, withering, and laced with righteous rage. The synths on this track have as much to do with crackling, percussive texture as they do with melody, and Wilson manages to bring in a big, punchy snare drum sound without boxing out the central driving force of the vocals.
The Problem Of Other Minds collects these and four other original songs, bookending them between two covers: “Willkommen,” from the musical Cabaret, and Depeche Mode’s “Waiting For The Night.” This unusual choice for a debut album gives the listener a frame for Wilson’s varied influences, and for the unsettling yet welcoming atmosphere she creates. “Waiting For The Night” makes for a powerful closer, taking one of Depeche Mode’s most understated tracks and giving it an even more haunted, meditative spin. “That song in particular has always made me feel seen, because I love it when it gets dark, literally,” Wilson says. “I love darker things in life and trying to show the beauty of those things. For me, it was a nice one to finish it on, and also a little way of thanking them or acknowledging them as being such a huge influence.”
In between, Wilson gives us a lot of variety without ever piling up too many elements at once. The deliciously creepy-crawly groove of “The Lighthouse” (which uses samples from Robert Eggers’ 2019 film of the same title) balances industrial music and more theatrical or jazz-vocal reference points. A gorgeous, enveloping sadness crashes into harsh bursts of noise on “Then Fall,” Wilson’s vocals maintaining a stately presence amid the tumult. “Raise Me” plays like a killer throwback doom-metal track rearranged with synths, pitching the album’s most dramatic vocal performance over a sinister shuffle. Wilson cranks up the menace on “Mother’s Unimpressed,” while proclaiming “It’ll be such great fun.”
Oehler ended up mixing and mastering the album, and provided feedback as Wilson learned her way around the software and home recording. “The tendency I’ve had is to kind of put too much in and sometimes Eric especially is pretty good at being like, ‘OK, maybe soften it, or maybe not put quite so many layers over your voice,’ or things like that.” Of course, the process of dialing in on just what Spy The Night should sound like came down to Wilson, and it’s clear that she’s made a lot of incisive production choices here to present a clear vision.
Another factor behind the sonic variety of the album is that Wilson also keeps up with younger generations of artists who are refreshingly willing to leap across genre boundaries. Her current favorites include VOWWS, Pixel Grip, Chelsea Wolfe, Zola Jesus, and IAMX. Combined with all manner of older artists Wilson loves—from David Bowie to Ella Fitzgerald to Hans Zimmer—these reference points give the project an invigorating sense of possibility.
“I have way too many genre labels on my Bandcamp page, because I can’t decide what it is exactly,” Wilson laughs. “I’ve been really inspired by younger artists in that way. The artists that I follow and that I see on tour now, the younger generation of Darkwave artists, there’s so many people doing that just grabbing, like, five genres and just mixing it all up. It’s incredibly rich and varied. That’s really helped me to realize, ‘OK, I can do that.'”
Going forward, there’s plenty more to explore in the welcoming darkness Spy The Night has created. Wilson has been learning bass and guitar, thinking about what a live version of the project might look like, and reflecting on “finding your musical voice later in life.”
“It’s funny, though, I’m in a weird spiral, starting out at this point in my life,” she says. “It’s very strange. Because it’s not like I’m under any illusions that a lot of things will happen with this. But I do want to keep doing it.”