Photographer: Luke Abby
Styling: Yael Quint
Listening to Wet’s music can feel like peeking inside singer Kelly Zutrau’s diary; songs made for late summer night drives with no destination, the kind of atmospheric R&B-inflected pop that evokes youthful melancholy while acting as a salve.
It’s no wonder the band’s shows have consistently sold out; even over the phone, Zutrau radiates sincerity. Since the tumultuous lead up to the band’s most recent album, Still Run, the intimacy Zutrau nurtures with her audience has gone beyond the music. Other singers might tire of constant questions about band drama (just ask Stevie Nicks), but Zutrau is patient and open-hearted about the conflicts that plagued Wet after the release of their debut, Don’t You, in 2016.
The trio, which then included guitarist Marty Sulkow and producer Joe Valle, met in New York while Zutrau was a student at Cooper Union. “We had been old friends forever… Me and Joe needed a place to stay, so we just shared this teeny tiny room in Marty's apartment [laughs]. And then we started working on music because it's a fun thing to do.” The group never could have expected the project to take off so quickly. As they continued to garner hype—soundtracking Kardashian Instagrams and landing features in NPR, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, who dubbed them “The Future of Pop”—Zutrau began to feel uneasy about her role as frontwoman.
Eventually, behind-the-scenes conflict led the trio to go their separate ways. When Zutrau returned from an extended stay in LA—where she crashed in the guesthouse of indie pop heavyweight Rostam Batmanglij, who produced two highlights on Still Run—Wet was forced to reevaluate their dynamic as friends and collaborators. “We basically just tried to figure out a way to make everyone happy, and at the end of the day we couldn't get there.” In the end, Sulkow decided to leave the band.
Still Run, Zutrau and Valle’s first release as a duo, often feels like a breath of fresh air in comparison to the downtempo, heartbroken ballads that made up Don’t You. Though upbeat tracks like “You’re Not Wrong” no doubt reflect Zutrau’s newfound creative and personal freedom, resolving their issues wasn’t simply a matter of switching the lineup. As Zutrau takes a moment to decompress amidst a worldwide tour, the singer reflects on the subtle power dynamics that threatened to tear the group apart.
AM: Tell me about the transition you went through as a band after Don’t You.
KZ: The band used to be three of us. We just sort of started making music for fun, and then it got some attention that we weren't expecting. I think in a lot of ways we just didn't know what was going on and we established certain ways of talking about the band that, after a while, started to feel disingenuous for me and started to make me feel like the amount of work and the amount of myself that I was putting into the project was different than that of what the boys were doing.
It was like, everything was democratic, but at the end of the day it felt like if it succeeded or failed a lot of it fell on me because I write the songs, you know? They're my words and my life and I'm the singer and the front person. And these days it feels more and more like the person is the brand. The person is what you're consuming, less even than the music.
AM: That feels even truer in pop music, where you’re expected to sell a persona.
KZ: Totally. A lot of people would refer to Wet as me. They'd be like, "Wet is a good singer.” We needed to make sure everyone was equally having a good time and equally creatively involved, but it can't always be that way. It just felt like roles were getting confusing. Conversations like that started to come up and that's an extremely difficult thing for anyone to deal with when they put their life into something. We all took space, and when we came back together it just ended up that me and Joe could work out how to work together, and it didn't come together for Marty. He decided to go do other stuff and everyone agreed that was best.
AM: Was there a specific moment or conversation with Joe where you realized you wanted to continue as Wet rather than going off on your own or was it more of a process?
KZ: It was a long process, and we’re still working it out. I definitely think we overthink it sometimes and we just have to try to remember to get back to where we started. If it works to work together, great, and if it doesn't, it's not the end of the world. We both realize that there's something very special about working together, partly just because we've known each other for so long. There's a lot of value in having someone who's on your side and really knows what your perspective is. But then there are times when we want totally different things. We're still working together, we've just taken the pressure off a little bit.
AM: Do you think the way the entertainment industry has recently been forced to reckon with its deep-rooted misogyny played a role in you making this move to take control of your voice?
KZ: Getting older and getting in touch with my identity politics I’m realizing, I'm a woman, I come from a very working class background, I didn't go to high school, neither of my parents have money, neither of my parents own houses. I was in over $100,000 of debt and my life was really out of control and Joe and Marty were not out of control in that way. All of a sudden I felt like we were trying to strive for “equality” but I was like, I started at such a different place, and I am putting so much more of myself on the line and I don't feel like it's being recognized. I think that's mainly because I'm a woman, and because of other really subtle ways that your class and all these things affect the way that people perceive your value and what you are deserving of. I don't think anyone meant to do that, but it's so deeply rooted in everyone. It's in me, I believe those things deep down too, that I'm not worth as much as a rich white man. Those things are so deep in you that you really have to work to undo that. No one is gonna do that work for you.
I was perceived as being really harsh and mean throughout this process, but it was extra important that I fight to be treated in a way that felt fair to me. As a role model to other women, and just for myself. It definitely happened as there was a general awareness coming to the world. To all industries, music and film in particular.
AM: It's so amazing how much attention is being paid finally to these stories that have existed since the beginning of these industries but at the same time it's still hard to navigate on an intimate, interpersonal level, with people you're really close with who maybe aren't aware of the way they've been socialized or the things they've been taught. It's sometimes harder than calling out blatant misogyny.
KZ: Yeah and that's what I felt like was the process of making [Still Run]. It was me constantly fighting against these things that were invisible to the people I was working with. I work with mostly men and I'm trying to change that, but a lot of those power dynamics, you call them out over and over again and everyone's like, "What are you talking about? That doesn't exist." Because they're not experiencing it. I think it takes a lot of empathy and a lot of work to see those things that aren't directly affecting you. It's really easy to ignore because they're put in place to benefit a certain group of people, and it's hard to let go of power.
I'd be in the studio with a producer and Joe, and even managers or label people, and I'd say something and no one would respond. I'd have to say my idea five or six times and get aggressive about it, and that's all they remembered. They don't remember those little things that led up to that moment, of them kind of dismissing or ignoring or not taking it seriously. That's what will drive you crazy, that subtle dismissal. And then you go fucking crazy and you start acting crazy and like, yeah, you seem like a crazy bitch [laughs].
AM: [Laughs] And then you probably start to think, "Wait, am I being a crazy bitch?"
KZ: Yeah! It's this loop of being like, I'm gonna be strong and say what I need to say, and then you try and tone it back and say it nicely. But people have a really hard time listening to women. It's insane [laughs]. I feel like when anyone does listen to women, that rare time, the results are brilliant. Women are really smart, you know?
AM: Is it ever hard to draw a line between your own experience and the way you connect with fans?
KZ: It's hard for me to remember other parts of my life that don't have anything to do with music. You can feel drained, like there's nothing left for me. I just put it all out there and people judged it really quickly. Some people hated it, some people liked it, and that's it. And like, is that all my existence is? That can be really dangerous because it's just scary to be so reliant on one thing. I'm going through that a little bit right now and wondering how I can build up a little more sense of myself that isn't so reliant on the project and what people think of it.
Hair and makeup: Karina Montoya
Kelly is represented by No Agency New York.