Kelly Zutrau Brooklyn-based indie duo Wet walks briskly into Black Barn in New York’s Flatiron District, close to her label Columbia's fice. She apologies for being late, though she’s right on time, and traces her delay to the ever-problematic New York City subway system -- a commonly cited apology, though one that sounds surprising coming from an artist who has played festivals like Lollapalooza and Outside Lands, and is about to release a sophomore album. “People think we make a ton money because we’re on Columbia,” Zutrau tells Billboard while sipping a light beer. “I’m fucking broke.”
Today, Zutrau, 30, is still months away from the release Wet’s second LP, Still Run, out July 13. “This is the best it’s ever going to feel,” she says. “We just finished an album that was a real long journey. I’m happy with it -- it’s still ours for a little longer.”
In the past, “ours” referred to the trio Zutrau, multi-instrumentalist Joe Valle and guitarist Marty Sulkow. But, before starting work on the new project, Sulkow left the band as tensions mounted over artistic direction. In doing so, he cleared the way for Zutrau to steer herself and Valle, 29, down a new path.
“I had issues with the last album,” she says 2016 debut Don’t You, which debuted at No. 76 on the Billboard 200. “There were a lot voices, and it was unclear what we were making.” Valle adds, “The process putting out a debut album has so much more weight to it, it was nice to follow our own instincts a bit more with this one. “
On Still Run, their vision crystallized, opening their moody R&B sound to sunnier production with two tracks -- ”You’re Not Wrong” and “This Woman Loves You” -- courtesy Rostam Batmanglij (HAIM, Solange). Zutrau remembers staying with him in Los Angeles for a couple months “when I couldn’t work with the boys and had to leave New York because we couldn’t figure our shit out.” She says, “There were many moments in the process making the album that I was like, 'We’re not gonna get through this. I’m not gonna get through this. It’s too hard. It’s not worth it. I should do a different job. I should start over. This has gotten too messy, too chaotic.' And now, we’re done. We’re here, and everyone’s alive.”
Though contemplative with each response, Zutrau doesn’t shy away. She’s open about how hard it was to watch a founding member leave, and how in his absence she came out more vocal than ever. “The whole landscape this project changed, partly because I decided I was going to take control,” she says. “When a lot people are involved and you’re trying to please everyone, it can be confusing who the album is for. This time, it was very important for me that no matter who liked the album or didn’t, that I felt like I did my best work -- and I feel that way. I can’t tell you how many times I had to go against the voice that said, ‘Stay quiet. Compromise.’ It was hundreds moments being like, ‘People hate me. I’m making things difficult,’ to finally say, ‘I have to speak up.’"
She points to the tender track “Lately” as the example the shift, documenting the experience making this album and explores the importance reevaluating relationships. “Superficially, it seems like it’s about Joe and Marty because some lyrics, but it was about everyone in my life at the time,” she says. “The decisions that went along with making this album are some the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.”
And that’s not to say Zutrau has had it easy. The oldest five sisters, she was raised by her “tough” mother in Boston. She got a full-ride to a private arts school two hours away, but soon burned out. “I was smart, but I didn’t know how to do school on the level that these kids knew how to,” she recalls. “I struggled the whole time and got really depressed and alienated. I dropped out when I was 16 and had two the darkest years my life when I was 17 and 18. My mom kicked me out my house, I lived in a scary situation, worked a shitty retail job, did a lot drugs, drank a lot. That was the true lowest point my life. It really was because I couldn’t write. It came down to one 20-page paper and I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore, I quit.’ Talking about myself as a writer now] blows my mind still.”
On Still Run, Zutrau wrote the chords and lyrics, and says Valle “settled into an amazing support role.” But on “There’s A Reason,” the breezy first single from the album, the two were more collaborative than ever. Zutrau remembers completing it as a beautiful moment, because up until that point “it had been a shitty, difficult, kind like classic second album process.”
From so much strain came an uplifting album. Standout “Stens,” which Zutrau deemed the “emotional peak the album,” sees her sing the intersection between beauty and grief. An intersection that Zutrau and Valle unknowingly ended up in, and are finally moving out -- together. “It’s been a very dark couple years,” says Zutrau. “It felt like necessary to have this album feel good.”
A version this article originally appeared in the June 30 issue Billboard.