(Today we begin our new series The Class of 2011, in which we profile up-and-coming artists through interviews, concert rundowns, record reviews, and more. Check back throughout the Summer and Fall to learn about and listen to the year’s most exciting new bands.)
Boise, Idaho songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Trevor Powers, who performs under the nom de pop Youth Lagoon, has been getting a lot of attention lately. Despite having only a handful of songs to his name, he has already established himself as one of the potential breakout stars of 2011. His music has been shortlisted by a number of prominent publications, and his upcoming full-length debut, The Year of Hibernation, is likely to be lauded by the indie music press. Trevor took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss the record, his songwriting process, and his experience as a musician in Boise with Frontier Psychiatrist last weekend.
Frontier Psychiatrist: Your debut full-length is titled The Year of Hibernation. How did you decide upon that title?
Youth Lagoon: I decided on that title because much of my life during that time was spent in a sense of hibernation. The year when I was writing those songs, I had a lot of stuff going on in my mind and my life, and so throughout the whole writing process I was, in a sense, hibernating in my bedroom.
FP: How long had you been working on the record?
YL: I probably spent about six months to a year writing for the record. It’s always difficult to tell exactly how long something takes because I’m constantly writing or working out things in my mind. It’s definitely always a long process.
FP: I’ve noticed that, increasingly, solo artists like yourself seem inclined to perform under a stage name rather than their own names. How To Dress Well, Twin Shadow, and Glasser all come to mind. Why do you think this is, and how did you come by the name Youth Lagoon?
YL: I like separating my art from myself in a sense. I think it has to do with the overall sensation that I want my art to bring. Sometimes there can be a little more substance to a stage name rather than a real human name. I’m not quite sure why that is other than just the feelings that certain names can bring. Sometimes I think in images, and when I was thinking of what to call my project, I thought of this scene of all these kids around a remote waterhole. And there were a lot of feelings in that image … feelings of nostalgia and all kinds of things. So I decided to name it Youth Lagoon.
FP: Most of your songs eschew the typical “verse-chorus-verse” structure, instead gradually layering instruments and melodies as they progress. Can you talk a little bit about your songwriting process?
YL: I usually just sit down at a piano and try to play my thoughts the best I can. Usually, if I don’t know how to fully express them, I just cross out that idea and start on a different one. It’s really trial and error, but what I’m really trying to attain is just getting all this stuff I have in my mind out and transform it into some kind of song of sorts.
Youth Lagoon – “Cannons”
FP: When I listen to the songs on the record, I’m often left with the impression that I’m overhearing songs played from a neighbor’s radio rather than hearing my own stereo. They seem just out of reach. It’s a sound invented I think by 80’s bands like Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins. Is this sort of distant quality something you aim for, or just a consequence of a lo-fi recording style?
YL: It definitely was a sound I was aiming for on this record. But purely because I wanted these songs recorded the way I heard them in my mind. When you hear something in your mind, it doesn’t sound like it’s from Hollywood, at least my thoughts don’t, so I wanted it to sound as close to real as possible. I just like how a sense of fuzziness in sound quality or distance can add a different sort of emotion to the music as a whole.
FP: Do you play all of the parts on your recordings?
YL: I definitely did most of it but had a couple buddies help out. My friend Erik Eastman did guitar work on the album, and another friend, Trevor Schultz, layered some real bass over my synth bass. And the engineer/producer I worked with is a friend of mine also … his name is Jeremy Park and he is probably the most under-rated engineer I know. I had all kinds of stuff in my mind and he really aided me in achieving it.
FP: How does your live show differ from the recordings?
YL: I think it’s actually a little bigger than some people expect. Of course it all depends on who is mixing the sound and if they know what they are doing (laughs) but when everything is good, the sound is pretty thick. I trigger my beats with a foot pedal and do bass boosts on my synthesizer. And I usually play with a live guitarist.
FP: At this point you probably have only eight or so songs available to the best internet sleuth, and yet your music has already been featured prominently on sites like Pitchfork, Fader, and Altered Zones. Are you surprised at how quickly you’ve started to garner attention?
YL: Yeah … there’s only supposed to be three tracks online. But what can you do? Some people don’t know how to wait. The date for the album’s official release is still pending. But yeah, I’m really surprised how fast the tracks have garnered attention. Really stoked about it!
FP: As reviews of the record start to emerge, I’m guessing we’re going to see the term “bedroom pop” arise frequently. I read a lot of record reviews, but I still don’t know what this means. It’s associated with a wide range of artists, from Wild Nothing to Julian Lynch, none of whom particularly sound like you. I’m wondering if the term means anything to you, and if so, whether you would apply it to yourself.
YL: I work on all these songs in my bedroom so I really don’t have much of a problem with it.
FP: One of the artists I’ve seen you most frequently compared to is Perfume Genius, whose debut we ranked as the 11th best record of 2010. Are you familiar with his work, and do the comparisons seem apt to you?
YL: I definitely dig Perfume Genius. I really don’t think my stuff is too similar, other than the emotion behind it and the fact he plays piano, but I’m glad people can relate to it.
FP: My sense is that the comparisons are based largely on the song “Montana,” which begins (like most of PG’s work) with a distant, lonely piano figure. Both of you write songs that bring to mind words like “nostalgia” and “longing.” But while his songs tend to remain insular and personal, yours swells into something more grand and ambitious. Do you see Youth Lagoon as a more personal project or something that will grow in size and scope?
YL: I would just like to keep Youth Lagoon as continuing as a means to get the thoughts I have in my mind and turn them into music. For my next record, I’m not going to try to “out-do” this one. A record should be what an artist was feeling or going through during the time it was written and recorded. It shouldn’t be something that is “out-done.” I just want my next record to be what I’m feeling and going through now.
Youth Lagoon – “Montana”
FP: You’re a self-identified resident of Boise, ID. When most Americans think of Boise, they probably think of potatoes and blue football fields. Few know that Boise has long had a thriving music scene; in the mid-1990s, it was something like Seattle’s shy little sister. Can you comment a bit being a musician in Boise?
YL: I can definitely say Boise’s music scene is growing fast! For a while, it was slow moving. But yeah, there’s more and more bands that I actually enjoy rather than just liking them because they’re my friends (laughs).
FP: When I think of Boise music, the first band that comes to mind is Built To Spill (one of the cornerstones of my college days). Do you feel that you’re part of a musical tradition in Boise, or is the connection not that strong?
YL: I don’t know if I’m part of a musical tradition in Boise, I just live here. I love it here but I don’t think I’m part of any tradition.
FP: Some of your songs, most specifically “Cannons” and “July,” bring to mind not to Built To Spill, but rather one of their most successful disciples: Death Cab For Cutie. In fact, those songs would have fit comfortably beside the best work on Transatlantacism. Who are some of the artists that have influenced you most directly?
YL: It’s always so hard to tell what artists have directly influenced my work, but I really respect and love bands like Cocteau Twins who were way ahead of their time. You actually mentioned them earlier, and everything from their recording techniques to just how they captured their sound is really magnificent.
Youth Lagoon – “July”
FP: Will you be embarking on a tour after the official release of The Year of Hibernation?
FP: Who is your ideal tour partner?
YL: If they like Taco Bell, we will probably get along.
FP: Do you ever see yourself leaving Boise to work and record in a larger city?
YL: I definitely can if the door opens and it’s apparent I should walk through it. But I love being in Boise. It’s a great place that is blooming with a lot of wonderful people.
FP: Thanks for talking with us!
You can download a two-song EP from Youth Lagoon here. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.