The past couple of decades have seen the inimitable Yoni Wolf lead his project WHY? through a myriad of albums. From Greenthink's experimental landscapes to Wolf's sentimental work with ex-girlfriend Anna Stewart on Divorcee, to his latest pursuit of tackling anxieties and bad nostalgia on this year's "visual album" AOKOHIO, Wolf cites the "normal progression of life" as the main influence on the varying tones in his discography. Wolfe ascribes the shifts in character to "just different ways of working, working with different people, just depending on who I collaborate with, that certainly affects the outcome a great deal."
With AOKOHIO, Wolf and his collaborators in WHY? have created a visual album that includes photo and video footage from the songwriter's personal family archives. Wolf's strategy for making the time- and labor-intensive project differed from his previous approaches to recording albums. As a detail-oriented person prone to obsession, Wolf gave himself deadlines on AOKOHIO: "I just wanted to sort of complete something, and then move on to the next thing, just to try a different way of working."
While Wolf's lyrics and delivery are always fresh and bursting with evocative imagery, AOKOHIO invites you to consider his innermost thoughts by way of its visual component, directed by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte and James Siewert. In other parts of the album, Wolf collaborated with musicians Lillie West of Lala Lala, and Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath of Slyvan Esso.
Returning to his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, after a stint in the Bay area, Wolf now resides close to his parents, and amongst his own family and band.
"I still think about the desire to be in other places. It's all right. It's OK," says Wolf. "It's wonderful to be around so much family and people I love."
Anxieties and bad nostalgia, major themes of the album, are familiar concepts to Wolf, who's listed everything from an interest in epigenetics ("I've been shaking off a shadow all my life") to daily silent meditation, yoga, walks, and sitting in a hot tub as approaches to understanding his anxiety and attempting to reach an equilibrium. Though he no longer frequently engages in the same self-care strategies of his past, he recognizes music as a type of ongoing therapy: "I was feeling really, really anxious maybe a week ago, and really stressed out, and up against the wall. One of my musical heroes just passed away, and I didn't know what to do, and I was already stressed out before that."
Processing his own grief over Silver Jews' leading light David Berman's untimely passing, Wolf slowed everything down and focused his attention to working on a cover of Berman's song "We Are Real."
"I started doing that, and you know what? It made me feel a lot better just to sit down and focus in the flow state and work on something that I felt was honoring the guy's life and his work," reflects Wolf.
In many ways, AOKOHIO exists as a self-acknowledgement of Wolf's life. Despite being short in length – just over thirty minutes – the album is a beautiful reflection on Wolf's past, and a pioneering creative effort for the band, as their first multimedia body of songs. Wolf's lyrics are riddled with literary devices (alliteration, rhyme, consonance, assonance, onomatopoeia), yet the songwriter is not conscious of it, giving all the credit to trial and error - "It works or it doesn't work," Wolf shrugs - in consideration of AOKOHIO, it definitely works.
– This story is from the Aug. 28, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.