Pete Yorn Breaks Down His Latest Album ‘Caretakers’
It was nearly two decades ago when every MTV commercial break had an ad effusively praising Pete Yorn’s debut album “musicforthemorningafter.” The snippets of songs struck a chord still resounding, and assumed plenty variations along the way to guarantee a slew of engaging, heartfelt albums consistently free of gimmick, but abounding with well-versed rock references from the last few decades, elegantly meshed, and presented with classic cool.
After last year’s “Apart,” a second collaboration with none other than actress Scarlett Johansson, Yorn has just released his first solo album in three years, “Caretakers,” this time teaming up with Jackson Phillips of indie act Day Wave. The new set of songs will surely register with old fans, but add a new dimension, with the always satisfyingly-crafted guitar work now amplified, and the indulgent addition of synths. Lyrically, the songs tackle various relatable issues, and gravitate toward a zen-like composure. It’s an album that rings as novel, while still classic and familiar, and conveys the spirit of an artist both seasoned and spirited.
Yorn spoke with Entertainment Voice to expand on the new ideas, inspirations, sounds, and sentiments. He delved into the fortuitous circumstances, lyrical sources, recording dynamics, and artistic inclinations behind the latest music and upcoming shows.
For your new album “Caretakers,” you teamed up with Day Wave’s Jackson Phillips, whose dream pop and lo-fi stylings seep into the music in a way that sounds like a natural, but novel spin on your sound, despite the stylistic differences. What led to this collaboration and direction?
We actually met at a birthday party for a very good friend from Malibu, California. It was kind of late in the night. He was with his manager, and I guess they were familiar with my stuff. The manager’s mom used to crank my stuff when he was much younger, and sit in the car. And coincidentally, I had heard of Jackson’s Day Wave project because – it’s so random, like social media stuff — I was on Twitter months before, and the bass player from Ride, Andy Bell, had tweeted something about a girl named Hazel English, who’s another singer, and I was like, “Oh this sounds really cool,” and it was this ‘90s jangle pop, produced by Day Wave, and I remember enjoying it and thinking of it, but that was that. It was months before.
And then one of my side bands, the Olms, was on Harvest Records, so I had been following Harvest Records on Instagram, and then all of a sudden I see “Harvest Records New Record: Day Wave,” and I’m like “Here’s that guy again!” So it was on my radar, and I liked it, and it was kind of like this shoegaze-y stuff that I always loved and didn’t hear too often anymore. I remember DIIV was doing it a little while, but I’m at the party, and all of a sudden, it’s Day Wave in front of me. I didn’t even know what he looked like, but we started talking, and I was like, “You’re that guy, you’re that guy,” so it was funny. I think he was like, “Yeah, I’ve got a studio. We should do something,” and we were like,”Totally, yeah,” but it was one of those late, blurry nights at that point. Months went by, and nothing happened, and then we got reconnected by management, which was awesome. They were like, “Yo, Pete and Jackson should get together. It could be cool.” So I went to his house out in Echo Park, and we just hit it off right away. We just had a nice vibe, and he was very welcoming, and we just hatched a plan to maybe make an EP of like 5 songs. And then we started recording songs everyday for a bit, and before we knew, we had a bunch more than an EP, and we were enjoying working together, and it felt like a natural flow, so we just kept going. That’s the short of it.
What are some ways in which the experience of recording this record differed from that of last year’s strikingly different “Apart” EP with Scartlett Johansson.
I mean the biggest difference is that we didn’t have Scarlett in the room, you know (laughs). Not that different, I will say, because both records are the sound of basically two people playing everything, so with this it’s me and Jackson. But with “Apart,” it was me and Walt Vincent, my longtime producer from “Music For the Morning After” and “Day I Forgot” and “ArrangingTime,” my old bro. And then Scarlett would just come in and sing, but for the most part, we’d develop track by track, and just try to create a real atmosphere, and that’s the way I love to work, probably my most favorite. Sometimes it’s cool to record live with a band, which I’ve done for a few records. But for the most part, I like to move quick and take step-by-step inspiration as it comes up, and create parts that way. It’s really fun for me.
The new set of songs begins with “Calm Down,” and ends with “Try,” both of which have choruses of optimistic consolation. Share a little about the mindset that led to such lyrics.
Sometimes, within my songs, there are different voices singing, from the verse to the chorus to the bridge. And oftentimes, the chorus is kind of the higher voice, responding to the nerves that the verse are singing — and then those places get moved. But “Calm Down,” I remember when I first put it out, some people were like, “Please, no, you can’t tell anyone to calm down. They know to calm down.” It’s something for just myself to calm down, or anyone listening to it. A reminder, maybe, to not get too bogged down in the world, even though life is full of lots of awful stuff — it’s inevitably filled with pain and heartache and loss — but at the end of the day, the last thing I say in the song is “I wouldn’t change a thing.” A lot of the record deals with stuff like that. But the song “Try” being the last song on the record, [is becuase] I like to go out on a hopeful note, and even though things get hard, and you might want to give up, it’s kind of the cliché of “Don’t give up.” Keep trying to help the people love, and try to keep being the change you want to see in the world.
It’s been three years since your last solo album, and aside from the work with Johansen, you took a break to take care of your daughter, who partly inspires your new song “I Wanna Be the One.” Do you think becoming a father has shaped your music at all?
I do. It’s funny, right when we had the baby or before, people were asking me because I did the promo for “ArrangingTime,” and they were asking me back then, and I’m like “I don’t know, it’s too early. It’s just happened. I have no idea.” But yeah, I think it just gives me a new perspective of the world and reminds me of things I’ve maybe lost touch with, being around her and seeing the way she sees the world. It’s impossible for it to not seep in, in places, for sure.
Another recurrent theme of the new album is patience in frustration with the limits of interpersonal relationships. You tackle stubborn personal differences on “Can’t Stop You,” the burden of interpersonal responsibility on “Caretakers,” and the relative futility of dealing with a mentally ill friend on “ECT.” How did this become a theme?
Welcome to my life. That’s what I deal with. I often don’t choose the songs I’m going to write. I feel like they choose me, in a funny way, you know (laughs). They come out, and I’m like, “Oh, I don’t know what that’s about,” and at first I’ll be like, “Hmm… where’s this going,” and then I catch the tail of it and I realize where this is all leading, and then my life circumstances will just dictate that, and I try to make sense of it in the song.
Your song “Friends” has an interesting story, written during a break up with the woman you would eventually reconcile with and marry, and originally recorded by French singer Judith Godrèche. How do you think your recording the song recently, in happier circumstances, might have shaped the sound differently from her version?
It was a song that always resonated deeply with me, and even if it wasn’t my current state, it still hit home for me, and reminded me of — you know, some of those songs that maybe were very specific about a time in my life — when I move past that, they remind me that you can get through pain, and you get through hard heartache and stuff like that, so they’re kind of hopeful to me when I hear them now. There is almost a weird hopefulness in it.
There’s a weird story about that song. A girl named Soko came to visit the studio one day, and she’s actually the co-writer on “Calm Down,” and before we got into that, Jackson and I had just finished recording “Friends,” and so he was all excited about it, so he played it. And Soko is from France. She’s an actress and a musician as well. We played it for her, and when it finished, I said, “Oh, I had forgotten that you had just recorded. I wasn’t on my radar really,” and I was like “Oh yeah, the French singer/actress Judith Godrèche recorded it, and she had done it years ago,” and then she goes, “Really? I’m going out with her tonight!” It was such a crazy, happenstance coincidence, I couldn’t believe it.
In “Opal,” you sing to someone a bit troubled and preoccupied, and encourage them, “The color of your hair, you can change it.” Why did you pick this example, out of all things?
(Laughs) It seems to be a feeling of — when you’re stuck or uninspired, or I want to mix things up — it’s one thing you can control, easily, like “Oh, I’ll get a new haircut, or I’m going to get bangs, or I’m going to dye my hair purple,” and it just seemed like one of those everyday sort of references that just fit into the song for me. And truth is I’ve never done that for myself. It’s just a metaphor for something you can do to make a change. And you have that background that goes “Make a Change.” All those words though, sound like I was singing to somebody else, but at some point, I was probably singing to myself. That was my life at one point. I was so scared of love, and afraid of what kind of change that would bring, and walking around overthinking things. That’s the shit I battle with all the time.
The new album is full of guitar work that tastefully avoids flash, instead keeping things engaging with creative voicings, overlays, etc. What are some guitar inspirations that made their way into the album?
For me, I’m always into Johnny Marr and the Cure, and I feel like Jackson’s into that stuff as well, but he’s even a little more stylized about it than I’ve been. I feel like I put that stuff in my song, but it ends up sounding like something a little different, but Jackson has a really great tonality when he plays guitar, and he comes up with really intricate, rhythmic, arpeggiated parts. And, his synth playing also was a big sound of the record. We’d have this Juno ‘60s synth, and we always would get to a point when we were recording, when we were like “Okay, Jackson, time for you to come up with your synth part,” and he would amaze me everytime. He would come up with this part that I wasn’t hearing at all that was awesome and just elevated the whole thing. So he was such a great partner in that way. I think we just both brought different things to the table.
Which song on the new album thrills or satisfies you most, and why?
I don’t know. They’ve all take on a different life at different times. One of my favorite things is when we create something new, and I’m in that phase when I really listen to it, and I’m able to enjoy it and be kind of wowed by it, but you’re just kind of looking at it as a cool creation. That’s one of my favorite things about making the album, for sure.
“Opal” was one of those. I remember it was one of the earliest songs we did, and I remember being really excited about that song, as far as how it made me feel… I love music just because it makes me feel certain ways, so when we’re able to capture something in a recording, and it does that, I feel satisfied for a little while.
Having just released your seventh album after a career of nearly two decades, how would you summarize the trajectory of your musical output, as well as what you anticipate in the future?
I feel absolutely blessed to create music that anyone cares to listen to, and that affects people in a way. It starts with me, but then it comes back to me, in a way. I love singing the songs. I’ve been playing acoustic tours for the last four years on and off, and to go out there and sing these songs with everybody, it feels alive. It feels like it’s satisfying for everybody, so it’s nothing I take for granted.
This is just the first installment of what Jackson and I have done. There’s a lot more music (laughs). I want to give this time to breathe, of course, but there’s a lot of stuff, still, that I’m excited about, and probably more that we’ll create. And I’m going on an acoustic tour October 9th through the 19th. And I’m hoping to put together a band tour as well as that.