The Boy from Boise: Youth Lagoon Comes Out of Hibernation
Red state, blue turf, potatoes, Sun Valley: that’s pretty much the sum total of what most of us coastal types know of Idaho. But there’s a fledgling music scene in the state capital of Boise, and a gifted singer-songwriter involved in it is quietly growing into one of the more buzzed-about new artists of the year. Trevor Powers has had his share of standard-issue growing pains in recent years—relationships, breakups, make-ups, career uncertainty—plus more than his share of chronic anxiety, at times serious.
Powers picked up a Casio and turned those experiences and more into a sweet, layered, hazy debut album called The Year of Hibernation, and which he’ll release tomorrow under the name Youth Lagoon. A self-described musical “journal” of moments, images, and conversations from Powers’ past, those memories are often blurry, the vocals that convey them not always crystal clear, but that makes them no less moving. Certainly blogland seems to agree. They began to pick up on Youth Lagoon tracks “July” and “Cannons” back in the spring, a Pitchfork Best New Track designation sparked label interest, and an album that Powers at first planned to offer online for free ended up landing a release by indie rock heavyweight Fat Possum. For Powers, that’s meant goodbye Boise State, hello to a future that’s looking increasingly bright, with lots of exciting firsts—including, recently, his first-ever trip to New York. We caught up with him as that was unfolding.
JOHN NORRIS: It’s pretty remarkable, all of this interest in you and the response to the music, with the album not even out yet. I guess it really began with Pitchfork giving your song “July” “Best New Track” status in the spring? Was that a big turning point in terms of awareness?
TREVOR POWERS: Yeah, I feel like there were smaller blogs that were posting, and then bigger blogs were posting stuff, just “July” and “Cannons.” And then after that, my e-mail inbox just got crazy with people. So that was a big turning point, yeah.
NORRIS: And as I understand it, the original plan was to put it up on line and just see what the response was, right?
POWERS: Yeah, yeah.
NORRIS: And then there was a plan to release it on a smaller label earlier in the summer right, but that all changed once Fat Possum got involved?
POWERS: Yeah—because the record had been done, I recorded it over my Christmas break when I was going to Boise State, and we were going to release it for free download, and then I ended up just posting one or two tracks. I think I posted “July” first. And it was online for a week or two, and then I posted “Cannons,” and then it all just started happening, and then I thought well, maybe, I shouldn’t release it for free.
NORRIS: That was probably a good idea.
NORRIS: There are eight songs on the record, and you’ve said before that you know some people may feel like it’s kind of thin. Did you ever feel like you needed to add two or three more tracks before releasing the album?
POWERS: Well, the biggest thing is how they were recorded. A lot of people think I recorded it myself, in my bedroom, but I really just wrote the songs in my bedroom. And there’s a friend of mine who has a home studio, so I was at his house like every day over my Christmas break just working on the record. We did just one track at a time, that’s how it was done. And it was really just all by feel. Like vocals, for instance, I recorded vocals dry. And then we thought it would be cool to play them in these little speakers in one of his in-laws’ garage? His in-laws were out of town, and so we set up these speakers in their garage, and just played my vocals completely dry, and recorded the reverb from in the garage. So even down to like mic placement, and things like that, I felt like that all that couldn’t be completely reproduced. At that point, when the record was done, and things started to grow, I felt like it was too late to add more tracks, because I didn’t want to take away from the sound that it had, that we had achieved, you know? I probably could have come close, but I feel like it would have been forcing it too much.
NORRIS: You’re not at Boise State at the moment, but I know you were an English major. Were you envisioning a writing career? Teaching?
POWERS: That was the thing, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Because writing is something I don’t mind, so I thought about going into journalism and stuff. It wasn’t something that I really wanted, but I thought, well, maybe I will do that.
NORRIS: It’s a really lucrative profession these days. You can make out like a bandit.
NORRIS: You have likened the songs from this album to a journal. And the titles would seem to suggest that: “Afternoon,” “17,” “July.” Can you look to each track and say this moment in time, or one particular experience, or event gave rise to that song? Or are they more of a mix?
POWERS: It kind of depends. Some songs I can, and others I can’t, because they were written over a period of time, thinking about different things, and one by one bringing those things together and creating a song from it, you know? But then there are some, like “The Hunt.” At Boise State, there’s this practice room for music majors, and I would always sneak in there even though I’m not a music major, and I would sit down at the piano there and write. And “The Hunt,” I wrote in there. It’s one of those songs that, when I play it, I still am taken back to that time, playing in that music room by myself. So, some songs were like that and others were written over a period of time.
NORRIS: And “July,” which was for many people was the first they ever heard from you, I know was written about a very specific time and place, right? A Fourth of July on a rooftop?
POWERS: Yeah it was July of last year, of 2010, and it was just this magical evening with friends, you know? And the song is basically a comparison between that and a Fourth of July from like five years prior to that, and I was like going through a lot of stuff mentally. You know, I had lost my girlfriend back then in high school, five years ago, in July, so it was just contrasting both of those Julys.
NORRIS: I have to ask you about the importance of the lyrics, because the lyrics are not always that discernible. On the one hand, you have said that honesty is important in your lyrics, and making a record that is honest to your own experience. On the other hand, if the listener can’t make out a lot of the words, then why does it matter?
POWERS: I hear what you’re saying. But I guess the big thing for me is that I didn’t want to make vocals front and center because, first off, it’s how I heard the songs in my head. I talk a lot about me having anxiety, and when I first heard the stuff in my head, like thinking, “I want to write a song about this, because I need to get this out of my system,” it sounds fuzzy to me, in my head, so that’s kind of the way I wanted to portray it. Instead of presenting like a crystal-clear picture, I wanted to present it like how it sounds in my head. And also, I want people to be able to take what they want from it too. Instead of like slapping on a certain meaning, I like the idea of people pulling what they want from it.
NORRIS: Because in some songs, they are almost there, and you can make out words here and there, bits and pieces. And at least for me, it makes me say, I want to hear that again because I really want to hear what exactly he’s saying.
POWERS: I think I kind of like that though. I don’t know exactly why, but I like the idea of people being able to wrestle with it, instead of being like, “Oh, this is what it says.” You know what I mean? There’s a certain mystery to it.
NORRIS: So then “Montana,” which is the current single and video, is not necessarily about a trip to Big Sky Country?
POWERS: It’s actually about a conversation. I won’t be too specific, but I had a conversation with someone, and they were wearing a sweatshirt that said “Montana” on it. And it’s basically about that conversation.
NORRIS: A meaningful conversation, I imagine?
POWERS: It was difficult. It’s weird talking about my music because I feel like there’s some things I can’t divulge, or really go into. But that’s the basis of it.
NORRIS: One thing that you have gone into, and which you alluded to before, are these bouts with anxiety. Has it been overblown somewhat, or is it something you still deal with?
POWERS: I’m open about it. But I feel like with some people, they want to focus just on that.
NORRIS: People like drama.
POWERS: Yeah, I guess that’s why. But it’s definitely something I have dealt with since I was a kid. So no matter what I think, it influences the music that I write. So I guess it’ll always be a topic.
NORRIS: Has all this attention of the last few months, this acclaim, being on the road—all of these new experiences, has it added to the anxiety, or has it helped it?
POWERS: It’s actually helped it. Because I am able to focus on things now. I was seeing a counselor and that helped too, so I’m doing a lot better. It’s still a daily thing that I deal with, and that’s why I’m open about it, because I now there’s other people that have anxiety. So I’m open about it, but it’s definitely helped to be busy.
THE ORIGINAL COVER FOR THE YEAR OF HIBERNATION (LEFT); THE FINAL COVER (RIGHT).
NORRIS: I know it’s called The Year of Hibernation—but you didn’t actually hibernate, withdraw from people to work on it, did you?
POWERS: When I was writing the songs, I did. It really had to do, again with my anxiety. And right as I began working on those songs, it really got super bad and I ended up just writing in my room. As for the title, I was just thinking about how to put that into words. I mean I was still hanging out with buddies, it wasn’t like I was just a recluse. But I was trying to put into words just the mental state I was in and then when I was in my room writing songs about things I was dealing with in my past, different memories. And I felt like The Year of Hibernation was a very appropriate title for that. And the cool thing is the cover of the album, it was originally gonna be something else. In fact, you can still see it online, there was a photo that I took when I was a little kid, and it’s kind of blurry, and that was gonna be the cover. A lot of people think the cover changed because of the label or that type of thing, but actually my family went on a vacation to Hawaii. And the cover now [a tropical-looking photo, with a rainbow, above left], that’s a picture that I took in Hawaii. And I felt it was a good title, because it’s almost like it was the year of hibernation coming to an end. You know? And so that was kind of the last stamp on it. There is the cover. And it was that trip to Hawaii, right when I got back, I know it sounds cliché but, that’s when I started working things out with my girlfriend again, and the album was done, and it was kind of like, that year of hibernation—it’s done.
YOUTH LAGOON’S THE YEAR OF HIBERNATION IS OUT TOMORROW. YOU CAN SEE VIDEO OF JOHN NORRIS’ INTERVIEW WITH TREVOR POWERS AT NOISEVOX.