Indie Folk Artist & Puppeteer Isaac Fosl-Van Wyke Talks New Album ‘Underneath’, The Nuances Of Songwriting, & More

Isaac Fosl-van Wyke continues to perfect his unique brand of passionate, rootsy folk-rock on his debut full-length album, Underneath

Underneath, along with Wyke’s EP, Possibilitarian Smile, released earlier this past May, were recorded with Jim Marlowe (End of An Ear Studios) throughout the fall of 2020 during the pandemic. While Wyke tends to lean toward a more folk-oriented sound on his EP, both of his releases contain elements of rock, bluegrass, country, and Americana.

The Louisville, Kentucky, based songwriter and puppeteer’s new 7-track album features Wyke’s powerful, sometimes quivering, David Bowie-esque vocal stylings accompanied by his powerful and gripping songwriting, which he laces with vivid, compelling imagery and storytelling. On the record, Wyke explores themes such as our relationship with nature, cultural genocide, global warming, industrial capitalism, and a wealth of other relevant and culturally-pressing themes.

His single, “Every Body Knows,” is a social commentary on “white silence” during a time when racially-driven police brutality has gripped the nation. His other single, “Darling,” on the other hand, is a haunting story sung from the point of view of a twin lost during childbirth. 

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In 2019, Wyke decided to move back to Louisville with the hope of further developing songs he had written while living in Upstate New York and the Painted Desert of the Navajo nation. Shortly after his move, he pursued multiple musical interests, including co-founding a choir which focused on music of the Caucasus and Balkan regions, as well as joining a local songwriting collective called the Pineapple Playground, who met online every week to share songs during the pandemic.

With the release of his EP and Underneath under his belt, Isaac plans to tour around the east coast and Midwest during the upcoming winter. 

We had the chance to ask Wyke some questions about the album and much more.

I was hoping you could talk about your new album, Underneath. What’s the inspiration and influence behind it? Any overarching themes or motifs?

I’m inspired by the challenge of touching the heart while also confronting ugly realities we barely allow ourselves to think about. That’s been my task as a songwriter for now, so you could say a lot of Underneath feels politically heavy as a result. I tried to tackle Big American Ghosts of racism, imperialism, and environmental collapse, but always ground it in my own voice. I’m an animal like everyone else, and yet by being born white and male and in the so-called USA, I happen to be the beneficiary of legacies of violence and plunder. But there’s plenty room on the album for the mythological — stuff way bigger and way smaller than politics or history. It’s my first record, so I tried to say a lot but not too much, and always leave a door cracked for some light to come in.

What does a day in the life of your songwriting process look like? And what influences your songwriting?

My challenge with writing a whole damn song is balancing urgency against patience while finding what the song wants to say. Once that’s discovered, songs will often write themselves, in a way. I sometimes wish I was like, “I had this feeling, so I wrote a song about it” — but it’s usually much more indirect. So far, I’ve always written melodies and chords first, then I have to get out of the way in order to get the hook in the fish, lyrically. (The process is still different every time!) But accountability is the only thing that makes it work for me, hands down. I had the great fortune to meet weekly with a circle of Louisville songwriters throughout the pandemic, swapping prompts and sharing the results every week. Relying on each other built enormous trust and strength among very different kinds of artists, and served as a springboard for me recording the album.

While it may be like picking a favorite child, which song or two from the album might mean the most to you or were you most excited for the public to hear?

Among the angry/wordy ones, I’m excited for folks to hear “Coming of Age.” It’s a long, liquid song that calls you to sink in and feel it unravel. I’m also excited for people to respond to “Darling” — it’s very short and vulnerable, and feels to me like the heart at the center of the album.

Other than obvious pandemic reasons, what was the most challenging part about writing or recording this record?

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Because it was my first record, it was really difficult to stay patient in the face of so many reasons I couldn’t or shouldn’t just push the thing out the birth canal to where people could hear it.

How do you know when a song is finished? Do you find yourself wanting to keep tinkering and re-recording tracks etc.?

There’s a real alchemical magic for me in writing a song down, recording any kind of demo, and then having it be heard by someone besides me… it quickly takes on that “finished” feeling, or at least points the way towards it. That’s why the group of  careful listeners has felt so important.

What does success as a musician and songwriter mean to you?

Success to me looks like capturing the attention of creative people I respect — people I already know about, and plenty of people I don’t. It’s been humbling already to have brilliant musicians lend their magic to songs I wrote. Success is an ever-unfolding path of people with whom to build a better world — musically, sure, but in the broad realm of creative life-force, which I believe encompasses all worthwhile things humans do.

What are one or two pinnacle moments for you as an artist?

A few weeks ago I got to play at the Jalopy Theater in NYC, which is a watering hole for many great artists and thoughtful lovers of music. I’m also just releasing a video for “The Crimson Bride,” involving thousands of frames all hand-painted by my friend Rakel Stammer. I’m really grateful for all the swirls of collaboration these songs have spun so far (as well as all the inward soul-sculpting) — and I’ve got my eyes on the horizon for plenty more!

What might you have in store to close out the year? Light touring, more writing, hunkering down, etc.?

I have dozens more songs I’ve been ignoring as I’ve ushered this album towards the big sea of eardrums. So I’m excited to keep creating — activate lessons from this first round of recording. I’ll play a few shows around the south and Midwest, but probably no full-blown touring. I run a puppetry company in Louisville, so I’m excited to keep spreading roots out into the creative scene here, working with more musicians and also blending art forms together. I hope people can keep gathering safely and stay grateful for the time we have in-person!

Photo by Valerie Magnuson

Featured photo by Guillermo Sollano

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