Interview: Pete Yorn
The Singer/Songwriter Embarks on His First-Ever Solo Tour
Six solo albums and 13 years in, Pete Yorn, believe it or not, has never taken to the road alone, but this week marks the singer/songwriter’s first-ever solo acoustic tour. “I felt like I really needed to do it, and I wanted to do it,” he said as he strolled through his Santa Monica neighborhood last week. “I’m excited for it, but I’m also nervous as shit.”
Looking back on his catalog, one can’t help but call Yorn prolific. Soft-spoken and self-assured, he writes folk-inspired songs that are easily digested but, upon close listen, tough to swallow, filled with ruminations on love, loss, and the human condition. Since 2001’s musicforthemorningafter, Yorn has offered up countless live EPs, written for myriad television and movie projects, and collaborated with everyone from Scarlett Johansson (for 2009’s Break Up) to Frank Black (on 2010’s Pete Yorn) to J.D. King (as The Olms). This Saturday, he’ll make a stop at Velvet Jones to play a weighted mix of older cuts and newer, unreleased songs. Below, we chat about collaboration, process, and what comes next.
You’ve managed to stay busy over the course of a decade. Are you a pretty disciplined songwriter? No. [Laughs.] You hear about these people who get up everyday and make themselves write, but I never really approached it workman-like. I always felt like, I’m not going to force it. For a long time, I just wrote when I felt it, and that was it. A lot of people have this romantic idea of what songwriting is like; there’s a typewriter and candles, and you’re alone on a beach. For me, it’s never like that; it’s in the shower, in the bathroom, random moments in the car. I still don’t write everyday, even though people tell me I should. But I do keep an acoustic guitar sitting around in every room of my house, and sometimes when I walk by I dare myself to stop whatever I’m doing and write a song. I throw down the challenge, and pretty much every time I do, I’ll come up with something. Maybe it’s not the greatest thing of all time, but sometimes I surprise myself. And I’ve never not been able to write a song. If I go weeks without writing a thing, I don’t bug out about it. Instead, I tell myself, “Good, I hope you never write a song again,” and something always follows. I just fuck with my head with a little bit.[TK]
Do you believe in writer’s block? I don’t believe in it. I think it’s a head game, and I’ve developed cognitive tricks to push through perceived writer’s block. Someone made this analogy to me recently: They said it’s kind of like picking a scab, where at first there’s just pus coming out, but eventually the good juicy blood starts flowing. That’s what it is; you just need to sit down, fight through the boredom and the judgmental moments, and all of sudden you’ll get in the flow, and good stuff starts to come out. I think if you just learn to get out of your own way there should be no such thing as writer’s block.
A lot of musicians struggle with this idea that good art comes out of emotional turmoil. Do you subscribe to that school of thought? I go back and forth on that. I’ve written some of my greatest songs, for me, when nothing’s really on my mind. They just come out, and you’re like, “Great!” And then there are other times where someone rubs you the wrong way and you’re seething over it, or something’s really bothering you, and you put it down on paper. And sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s more of an exercise for you to vent, and no one ever sees it or knows about it. I think it works both ways. There are miserable people who are terrible songwriters, and there are people who face horrible adversity and can’t paint a picture to save their lives. Sometimes you can struggle and turn pain into something beautiful, and that’s an inspiring thing to do, and other times something just comes out of you, and it’s channeled through you.
Do you have creative outlets outside of music? I’m really interested in other people and the way they move through adversity. I feel like that’s a great life skill and kind of an art form, and the people who are great at it are very artful in the way they do it, like an amazing comedian or singer or painter. Music, call it what it is, it’s kind of my main thing, and it’s always been my main thing by default. I don’t pretend to be a jack of all trades. [Laughs.]
If you had put aside music tomorrow, what do you think you’d do? Shrivel up and die. [Laughs.] But no, if I didn’t have music, I’d probably be some kind of therapist or life coach, and I’d continue to spend a lot of time with my family while I can.
You’re also working on a new record. Do you want to talk a bit about the songs or the direction it’s taking? Really, I like to let the music speak for itself. I will say that the guy I’m working with [is] an old friend named R. Walt Vincent, and he produced my first two records, musicforthemorningafter and The Day I Forgot. We hadn’t worked together since then, and so this has been a reunion of sorts. Maybe it’s a bit of the old razzle-dazzle mixed with where I’m at now. It has that kind of sound.
Pete Yorn plays Velvet Jones (423 State St.) on Saturday, May 31 at 8 p.m. Call (805) 965-8676 or visit velvet-jones.com for tickets and info.