We have certain expectations of pop stars, even ones not yet fully in the spotlight. If you're a lead singer, signed to a major label with a first album about to come out, it's a safe bet that your look falls into one of three digestible categories: over-sexualized infant (see Ariana Grande), modern '50s housewife (see Taylor Swift) or angry hippie with an edge (see Haim).
Kelly Zutrau, lead singer and chief songwriter of Wet, defies the stereotypes. She's developed a distinct personal style in the act of trying to avoid having one at all. "I'm not super interested in looking like a girl in a band," she told me over coffee before the band's recent Australian tour with London Grammar. "People have suggested, 'Throw on a leather jacket and put some makeup on and wear a short dress.' And that looks fine on other people. It would just really freak me out."
On Wednesday, Columbia Records released the first song, "Deadwater," off of Wet's upcoming album for download online (the song started streaming on Tuesday). It's the first release from the trio since they posted a surprisingly successful EP of powerful breakup songs at the end of 2013. The New Yorker's Sasha Frere Jones listed their track "Don't Wanna Be Your Girl" as one of the best songs of 2014 — actually, he said it might be his "favorite song of the year." Fader described their sound as "pure, unhurried, produced-but-not-overproduced beauty that sounds like it was made in the city but would sound good while driving to the country, to get a little space to breathe and reflect." Wet's music defies characterization, but its melodies have that pop accessibility. Last winter Zutrau and bandmates Joe Valle and Marty Sulkow quit their day jobs. (Zutrau has a master's degree in painting and teaching but was working as a nanny in Brooklyn while the band started to take off.) Suddenly the college friends found themselves with several label offers on the table. After a lot of debate, they went with Columbia.
The complex nature of Wet's music stands in contrast to Zutrau's extremely simple style. "There was another black t-shirt just like this one that I wore every day," she said, referring to the shirt she wore to our interview. "Sometimes I'll wear a white t-shirt. That's pretty much it." As Wet gained momentum, fans took notice of her refusal to make a statement with her clothes — always in black and white loose layers, always in pants. "People will say to me after the show, 'I love that you're just wearing your pajamas and you still look good.' Maybe that's just my thing."
After the group signed with Columbia, Zutrau elevated her staples, trading in her Hanes shirts for "$30 nice black t-shirts," a black turtleneck sweatshirt from Acne ("really expensive but perfect"), black jeans from J Brand and Frame Denim, and off-white platform canvas shoes from Opening Ceremony. But that's still basically it.
"I have really bad stage fright," she said by way of explanation. "I try to keep as many things the same as possible. To know that I'm going to have the same black shirt on every night, that's really comforting to me." She explained that her anxiety sometimes translates into fidgeting and bad posture on stage, so she chooses loose layers to give herself "a little more room." She is actively trying to combat the anxiety and recently sought the help of a hypnotherapist.
"I always have these plans, thinking, 'I want this show tonight to be special, I should wear a pattern, I should really try to wear a fucking pattern,'" she said. "I'll talk myself up. But as I'm about to get onstage, I just can't for some reason. At one show I wore a sort of plaid patterned loose shirt and that was fun, but I saw the pictures and I thought, 'That's not it, that's not what I usually look like.' I feel like being consistent is actually better."
Given her predilection for consistency, I was surprised when she named Rihanna as one of her musical style icons. "She looks the best out of anyone right now," she said. "When we've worked with stylists and they've said, 'Send me references,' I've even tried to send Rihanna as a reference. They're like, 'Awesome!' and then they ignore it," she said laughing. It comes back to Zutrau's desire to be more free on stage in front of her audience. "There's a part of me that would love to wear bolder, nakeder things. I'm always very covered up and that's one thing I would like to work on, showing my body more, showing my skin more."
What Zutrau doesn't seem to realize is that the style that she finds incomplete is actually unlike anyone else's in her field. Her solid sweatshirts and makeup-free face are refreshing: it's a blank canvas on which she experiences all the emotions of Wet's music. "I really never know what I want to look like so I go with the most neutral option because I don't want to commit," she said. "We are a band that doesn't feel super bandy. I don't want to be a caricature of a New York band, that's important. People keep saying, 'You have such a distinct style,' and I'm like, 'Okay, cool.'" Where she sees stage fright and style indecision, the audience is seeing something quite different. We hope she sees it, too, before the limelight gets too bright.
Listen to Wet's new single, "Deadwater," below.