Interview: Youth Lagoon on Staying True to His Songs, First Impressions of NYC, and Tattoos

11/15/2011 1:03 PM |

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Under his Youth Lagoon alias, Trevor Powers has all the markings of the hype cycle’s next victim: a college-aged kid with a fledgling bedroom-penned project that went from Bandcamp page to record deal in two months this summer. You’d think there would’ve been a sizable backlash by August. But as the year comes to a close, it stands to reason that he’ll emerge from the “best of 2011″ listings ringer as the hype cycle’s verifiable win. The distorted synths and torched organs on his debut album, The Year of Hibernation, are taut with anxiety — “sometimes [I] feel like I’m literally being eaten up inside,” a press release quotes — but there are also moments of release, where songs sear and surge upwards, to heart-racing heights. In town tonight for the second of two sold-out shows at Mercury Lounge, we talked to Powers via e-mail about life on the road, staying genuine to his songs, and the really important stuff, like tattoos.

The album, of course, is deeply personal, full of stories that you seem hesitant to fully divulge in interviews. Is it frightening to think how many people are listening to your music now?

Most of all it’s kind of a bizarre feeling to have written this album with no idea that people would actually be hearing it. These were all songs that I was mostly just writing for myself and because music is my creative outlet. I don’t know how to create much else except for this. I think initially there was a lot of stress tied to it because all of a sudden there were more eyes on what I was doing, but I’ve grown to realize that doesn’t change a thing. The whole reason I started writing music was for myself and to express what goes on inside me mentally or to those around me. That mind-set isn’t going to change.

Does it bother you to think someone might interpret one of your songs to mean something completely different than you had intended?

I don’t think that can be helped. Everyone is raised differently. Everyone comes from a different background, different cities, with different people. Therefore art, of any sort, will never be able to be interpreted the same way. And I don’t think it should. I think that’s the beauty of it. The one thing that has always bothered me though is when people are confident that their interpretations of what someone has created is the interpretation that the author of the creation meant all along. I experienced that a lot while going to college. People would analyze a poem and start saying things like, “The author intended this animal to represent all of human life and the trees to represent a human’s goals.” Those people have absolutely no idea what the author meant by placing animals or trees in a poem. But if people say what they got out of something personally, that is different.

Not to pry too much, but I’m wondering if the girls in your songs (“July,” “Montana,” etc.) know that they’re written about them? I think everyone who listens to the album finds themselves rooting for you… Are you in contact with them still?

I’ll just say this: One of them does know and one of them doesn’t. I haven’t been in contact with one of them for many years now, and the other I’m still very much in contact with. (laughs)

One of the things that struck me about your show at Glasslands last month is how genuinely emotional the performance felt. Now that you’re suddenly playing night in and night out, is it a struggle to keep the songs sincere rather than just going through the motions?

As soon as I start playing them, I’m taken back to that place and time when I wrote the music. I can see though that when you play songs so many times, that some of that genuine emotion can be tainted, but only if [you're] playing the songs for other people. I recognize that everyone goes to shows to watch, but I think it’s important to first play music for yourself. If that’s done, then it will be genuine.

You tweeted the other day that you were trying out a new piece of gear at your show in Nashville. How’d it go?

Absolutely awful. (laughs) I bought a Fender Rhodes Seventy-Three a few days before that show at a small music shop in Austin, Texas. I found it for a good deal, and after playing it in the store I thought for sure that I wanted it. But the show in Nashville was the first show where I actually tried it out with the set, and it didn’t fit at all. Something about it just didn’t work with the music. It’s a gorgeous keyboard, but it goes to show that nice equipment doesn’t always translate into fitting with the music. At least in this case it didn’t.

Have you ever considered expanding the two-piece live setup to include a drummer?

I have one live musician, a guitarist, playing with me right now whose name is Logan Hyde. I do have a vision for hiring more live musicians when it seems a little more appropriate, but I think I will know when that time is right. I want to take things slow. But especially in the future, once I’m done recording the second album, there are some different elements I would love to throw into the live performance.

What would you say are the best and worst things about being on the road?

There are so many good things about the road. One of which is just traveling. I grew up in routines and always hated them. I think no matter what you do though, you can never fully avoid routines and still be able to function. On tour there’s still a lot of routine, but you’re never waking up in the same place, so the routine of waking up and traveling to the next stop is always somewhat different. Playing shows just feels right. It’s what I need to do. It can be difficult to be away from home, but it just makes the time at home even more special.

I’ve heard/read/seen you mention how excited you’ve been to come to New York. What were your first impressions of the city?

I don’t think I can even fully explain New York. Driving into this city and seeing the lights and the water and the towering buildings and the myriads of different people is such a beautiful experience. I’ve heard it has a heartbeat that is different than any other city in the world. It’s so massive and overwhelming.

In a recent photo from a show, I spotted the outline of Idaho tattooed on your arm. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think you had that when you played at Glasslands. It’s new, yeah? What was the reason behind getting it?

I actually did have it when I played Glasslands. I got it right before leaving on the first tour in September. I know a lot of people get their state tattooed on them, but for me it was really something special. It represents my home. No matter where I go, there is part of my home that is still with me.

Don’t want to harp on the anxiety thing too much — I know you get roped into talking about that a lot — but at what point did you realize your anxiety wasn’t on the same level as most people’s? Did someone call it to your attention or is it something you figured out pretty quickly on your own?

I think even as a kid I recognized that my anxiety went quite a bit deeper than what most people deal with. But as I got older, it started entering an entirely different realm. I wasn’t really sure who to talk to about it, but I ended up being honest with a few different people who were close to me and encouraged me to seek out a counselor. It’s mainly something that stems from obsessing over things that are completely unrealistic. Through all my years of dealing with it, I’ve found that the best way of dealing with it is just to remind myself that I’m not defined by my thoughts, but that I’m defined by my actions.

I’m surprised more people don’t compare your lyrics to Conor Oberst’s, what with their narrative structures and attention to detail. Who are some songwriters you look up to?

I’ve been getting really into Townes Van Zandt and listening to his records a lot, especially late at night. It’s folk music, but there’s something different about it. Truly beautiful. Also, as far as more modern songwriters, I really respect Bradford Cox. I think he is one of the great artists of this generation. I can’t think of anyone who sounds like [him] because he’s created something of his own.

Any idea what direction the next album will take?

I never want to aim to sound like anything, but just write. With that in mind, I’m not entirely sure how it will end up sounding. I just want to do what feels right.