Interview: Pete Yorn on lost weekends, Scarlett Johansson, and arriving at the dawn of Napster

 
 

There’s a case to be made that Pete Yorn is the most underrated songwriter in music today. His lyrics show his heart on his sleeve and there’s a smooth versatility to his sound — one song can sound like a Top 40 hit while the next is a raw guitar driven track straight out of a friend’s garage. Despite these positive qualities and an impressive career and catalogue, rarely is Yorn’s name mentioned when the masses converse on their favorite songwriter. It’s a bit weird, due to the fact that the songwriters you usually hear people praise can’t match the combination of talent and consistency Yorn has been exuding for over 15 years.

He’ll be performing at Royale within Boston’s theater district this Sunday on March 20 in support of his sixth studio album ArrangingTime, a still-fresh LP that was released just last week via Capitol Records. Ahead of the show, Vanyaland had a chat with Yorn about being from New Jersey and living Los Angeles, working with producer R. Walt Vincent for the first time in over a decade, collaborating with the likes of Scarlett Johansson and Black Francis, and starting out during a time in the music industry when a lot of things were changing.

Rob Duguay: After attending Syracuse University you moved to Los Angeles where your music career blossomed. Along the East Coast, L.A. has some negative connotations from people saying that the people over there are fake and disingenuous. As a person who grew up in the small town of Montville, New Jersey, what’s your opinion of L.A. and what keeps you there?

Pete Yorn: First and foremost, when I was at Syracuse I froze my ass off and after four years I couldn’t wait to get to California for the sun and for warm weather. Second, my oldest brother moved out there then my middle brother followed him and then I followed them. My dad tried to orchestrate the whole thing, he encouraged my oldest brother to move out first knowing that we’d all follow each other and he also convinced my mom to retire out in L.A. and that’s exactly what happened. For me, my family is in L.A. and California so I’d be anywhere my family was. If they lived in Wyoming, I would live in Wyoming.

I got one life to live and I like to be within reach of people that I’m very close with and I just like being near my family. I’m very family focused so that’s the biggest thing for me and L.A. has been good to me. It’s a fun town, a lot of my friends from Syracuse actually moved here around the time that I did as well and I can’t complain with the weather. There is that cliché that people are fake, it’s all Hollywood and all that shit, it’s the land of broken dreams and broken promises but there are some fake people back in Jersey, too. People are people anywhere you go and it’s just an ideal that people like to put labels on things. There are plenty of good people everywhere and there are plenty of douchebags everywhere and that’s the way I see it.

Wherever you go you’re always going to find some bad apples but it’s great that you moved out with your family so you’re in L.A. with your parents and siblings around you which must be pretty sweet. You just put out your sixth album ArrangingTime, and it was your first time working with producer R. Walt Vincent since 2003’s Day I Forgot. What made you want to work with him again over a decade later?

We’ve always had a good time working together, I think he’s a great creative partner for what I do. The only reason we stopped working together for a bit was because I wanted to try other things. When you do something a certain way for a bit you’re curious as an artist to try different ways of capturing your music and working with different people. I bumped into him and he was telling me that he set up a new studio in his loft in downtown Los Angeles. I went down and saw him there and we hung out. That’s what we do when we get together, we’ll just track a song and we started doing that. Before we knew it we had a lot of stuff brewing and it just organically happened.

From what I’ve listened so far the new album has a lot of variety. There are some rootsy tracks and some poppy material, one thing I checked out recently was the music video for “Lost Weekend”. It focuses on teenage angst and if you dealt with high school bullies you can relate to it. It shows the kid who’s the primary focus using music as a release and you’ve said about the video that it’s based off of true events. Is it about what you had to go through growing up in New Jersey or does it deal with someone else you know?

I think it’s a little bit of both with stuff that I experienced, stuff that I witnessed and stuff that I was on the wrong side of a couple times as a dumb kid. When I look at the video that gym looks exactly like the gym that was in my high school in Jersey and it was shot in a suburb near Los Angeles so it’s the same thing just different places. That kid who’s the lead in it with the long curly hair is the drummer, that kid looked like kids in my high school in 1990. He looks exactly like a bunch of those kids and I can’t believe we stumbled upon him. When I saw him I recognized something in that kid, I liked him a lot and I just thought it was a sweet story. It took the song in a different place and to make a video like that was a cool opportunity.

Over the course of your career, you’ve gotten to work with some very talented people. In 2009 you did the album Break Up with Scarlett Johansson and the following year you worked with Black Francis from the Pixies on your self-titled release. Is there anyone out there these days that you’d be down to collaborate with when it comes to either producing or making a record together?

I just keep an open mind. The album with Scarlett was an inspiration that came out of nowhere and once it came I was like, “Alright, this could be cool.” With Black Francis someone brought it to my attention that he was looking to produce some stuff so I figured that it would be interesting. I like to keep my options open because you never know where an interesting collaboration will come from so I’m down for any sort of musical experience or learning experience. Whether it works or not, I’ll try and it could be cool. I just have an open mind when it comes to that type of stuff.

It’s probably the best way to approach it, you never know what’s going to happen a year from now with your next project or whatever you want to work on. It could be someone completely different that no one thought you’d work with.

Yeah, absolutely.

You started out during a time in the music industry when a lot of things were changing back in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Mp3’s at the time were just becoming the consumer’s primary medium of choice when it came to listening to music. Nowadays there are numerous ways to stream music while vinyl has been making a comeback. With music being more accessible than ever before do you think it devalues recordings or does it increase it’s worth due to the numerous ways an average person can listen to it?

My first record came out in 2001 right when Napster and all that stuff was happening. I remember when I used to sit at my computer before my first record even came out logging on to Napster and sending private messages to people. I would look up people who were fans of Jeff Buckley and people who liked The Smiths and I would send the messages saying “Check out Pete Yorn’s ‘Strange Condition”. I would sit for hours by myself just doing my own grunt work on the computer trying to get the word out. I didn’t care that it was free, I just wanted people to hear it so I know when you’re a young artist you really want the exposure. You don’t really care too much as long as you can support yourself in some way and you’re not living on the street. You really want to get the word out to people so they can discover your music. As far as devaluing, I do feel that some people don’t understand that a lot of time, energy, emotion and actual cost goes into making a record on the standard that it’ll be released and get out there.

I do think it’s very cool that vinyl is making a comeback, I think it’s a reaction to how fast you can jump through a playlist on your phone. You’ll listen to half a song and then you want to hear something else, with vinyl you’ll sit down and have a side play while having an actual listening experience. In general, you can’t stop the way the world is going when there’s a tidal wave of technology. Everyone just has to figure out how to adapt, hopefully people can continue to monetize music for artists and make it a business that artists want to be in for the long haul.

Music is now more popular than ever and people need music and they love music and that’s the name of the game at the end of the day. It’s nice to see artists being able to make a living working very hard doing their stuff. It’s not just a person making music and here’s a post, it takes a lot of energy to get it on a big level.

PETE YORN :: Sunday, March 20 at Royale, 279 Tremont St. in Boston, MA :: 7 p.m., 18-plus, $31.50 :: Advance tickets :: Facebook event page :: Bowery Boston page

Pete Yorn Tour Dates