A chat with Pete Yorn, Pete Yorn interview, Back and Forth, Scarlett Johansson
Pete Yorn

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It may seem like a while since we last heard from Pete Yorn, but the man has kept himself extremely busy. He’s on the road for the first time in two years – opening for Coldplay, no less, before starting a solo tour – and has not one but two new albums: Back and Fourth, his first album since 2006, and Break Up, a duets record with the lovely Scarlett Johansson, set for release in September. Bullz-Eye caught up with Yorn to talk about Scarlett’s smoky voice, working with Mr. “Welcome to the Boomtown,” and how he only recently came to appreciate one of New Order’s most popular songs.

Bullz-Eye: I realize that looking at your tour schedule, I am interrupting one of your days off, so I appreciate that.

Pete Yorn: There are no real days off. There’s always something happening.

BE: True, true. How is this tour going?

PY: Great so far. You know, it’s early going, I think we just played our fifth show last night. But it has been really great.

BE: I was wondering, one of the things that I was thinking about was with your new album, when you put it out on iTunes originally and you sent out, I think it was a Facebook message that I saw, that basically said this was your “Letting Go”. So I was just wondering if you care to elaborate on what you meant by that and what this album Back and Fourth meant to you.

PY: Probably a few things. In one way, just lyrically these are like the most straight-up lyrics I have ever written, I think. And I purposely did that just because I was in a place where I was just curious how my songs would be if I just kind of laid stuff out there in a very straightforward way. Because I don’t know if you know my older stuff but it’s pretty cryptic sometimes.

BE: Definitely.

"I woke up after having what seemed like a dream but more just like a shot of adrenaline, like ‘Oh my god, I left the oven on’ or ‘I’m late for school.’ Instead it was ‘Oh, I’ve got to make a duets record.’"

PY: Yeah, so this was just a place in my life that I purposely did that. I wanted to see what it would be like. And I kind of was feeling like, if I’m really straightforward about certain things I’m feeling and I feel a certain way, I’m curious if other people will respond to that or feel that way as well. I figured that they would, to some regard. Another aspect I think was the way I made the record. I’m usually so hands-on with the production and all the instrumentation. This was a big departure from being there. I brought in other players to play. And even though that was also something I set out to do purposely, it was still hard for me when I was actually doing it. I was like, “Oh shit, I miss playing some of the stuff.” So it was an exercise for me in that regard. It was kind of a stretch for me, but it was an interesting experiment, you know?

BE: You talked about normally you want to play things and you are much more hands-on, yet you seem to collaborate quite a bit. Everything from the upcoming Scarlett Johansson album to what you did on Nightcrawler especially, where you collaborated with a lot of folks. Do you reach out to others to collaborate, or do they come to you?

PY: It depends. Obviously I reached out to Scarlett. Well, maybe not obviously, I don’t know, I reached out to Scarlett. Sometimes people will suggest a producer or something. Or someone I want to work with, you know, I’ll reach out to. Yeah, as far as that stuff, usually I’ll just kind of have my eye on somebody and reach out to them.

BE: On Nightcrawler, the song “Alive” was credited to you and Baerwald. Is that David Baerwald?

Pete YornPY: Yeah.

BE: I really enjoyed that.

PY: Yeah. I was driving with Christy, who just connected us on the phone. She was driving me to Anaheim, to our show there the other night. And somewhere in her car, like in the side pocket of her door, she had the David & David CD. Me and my friend were like, “What the hell are you doing with this?” She loves that record.

BE: Yeah, I still own it on vinyl, back in the day. That’s a great album.

PY: Yeah, he’s an interesting cat, that guy David Baerwald. He was fun to work with, we had a good time. A lot of good conversation.

BE: I’ve read in places that for Nightcrawler, you recorded something like 50 songs. And you recorded the album with Scarlett three years ago. It’s been a while since you’ve been on tour, correct?

PY: Yeah, before I started with Coldplay in May I hadn’t toured since 2007. September of [2007] was my last show at Austin City Limits Festival.

BE: Do you find that like being on tour actually inspires creativity and inspires your songwriting? Or is it more about just perfecting the show and that kind of thing?

Pete YornPY: In the past…right now, this new touring experience is new for me so I’m still feeling it out. I have a different approach to it. But in the old days, traditionally, I wouldn’t really write much on tour. I would come up with a few ideas here and there but it would be that kind of…also, when I’d come home and everything would come to a grinding halt, and then I would start to get really restless and freaked out. That’s when I’d start writing the songs. So yeah, usually when I’m on the road I’m just moving too fast. And I’m taking it all in and I’m focusing on the shows. I think when I get a chance to slow down is when it all starts coming.

BE: You said this tour experience is new for you. How is it new?

PY: Well I’ve got a great new band, and I’m really loving the freshness of that. You know, playing with them every night. And my head is just a lot clearer these days, I’m just more focused and not missing the road as it’s going by. I’m able to take it all in and be present. I’m curious to see if it does end up affecting my writing, where I do start writing on the road.

BE: What, to you, makes a good touring experience? What makes a good show? I mean sure, the crowd being into it, but what do you look for to say, “Yeah, that was successful”?

PY: You know, I think you’ve got to be prepared to an extent, obviously. And that helps me feel better about going into it. And you need sparks, you know? I think that this band has a good balance of players who are just excellent technical players, but they have a really raw energy to them where we feed of each other and we’re able to almost ride off the rails without riding off the rails. So so far, I feel like the shows have had this kind of loose intensity that is bringing a really good dynamic to the overall live environment that we have. Which I don’t know if I’ve had. I think this is the best band I have ever toured with. I think they are amazing.

"In the old days, I wouldn’t really write much on tour. I’d come home and everything would come to a grinding halt, and then I would start to get really restless and freaked out. That’s when I’d start writing the songs.”

BE: I don’t know actually who is touring with you. Who is in your band?

PY: One guy who has been with me since the beginning is Joe Kennedy, he plays piano. On guitar and playing a lot of mandolin too is Jonny Polonsky, who also came to Omaha and played on the record. The drummer is this guy Scott Seiver, who is amazing. The other guitar player is this guy Mark Noseworthy and the bass player is Zak Schaffer, who has actually played with me in the studio in the past a little bit. He played on the studio version of “Ice Age” and “The Man,” also from Nightcrawler.

BE: Yeah. “Ice Age” is definitely one of my favorites.

PY: Cool.

BE: So you didn’t have much time between the Coldplay tour and this tour, did you?

PY: Let’s see, that wrapped up June 5, I think, something like that. And then this started July 9th. But in between that I had a little break, but I had two weeks of promo when the record came out, in New York and L.A. So we were pretty busy through that middle June period.

Pete Yorn

BE: So are you happy with the album? I’ve read in the past that sometimes you don’t go back and listen to your old albums.

PY: I think it came out well. A lot of it is a mood thing for me, so sometimes I’m in the mood to listen to one thing and other times I’m in the mood to listen to something else. So there could be a morning where something from Back and Fourth will come on my shuffle and I’m like “Eh,” skip and I want to hear something else. Then sometimes the same song will come on and I’m like “Oh, this sounds great today.” You can view that as not being into…maybe I didn’t like it or something like that. And then I realized some of my favorite Guided by Voices songs, or Smiths songs, or Springsteen songs will come on and some days I feel like skipping them, too. So I’ve got to put it in perspective for myself. For me, it’s the process. You know, the process was a learning experience and once it’s done, it’s out there. I’ll tell you one thing, I really enjoy playing the songs live, so I think that’s a good gauge.

BE: A number of the songs seem to refer to somebody specifically, or maybe multiple somebodys. Is there somebody specific that you were thinking of?

PY: Yeah, certainly, these are very personal songs. [Note: we were hoping Yorn might elaborate just a tad more than this. Not to be.]

BE: You probably have had questions in the past about what you consider your first three albums and the trilogy. But if you look back on those now, and you reflect on what you were doing with your original work and where you are going now, how could you sum up what your first three studio albums were about, and how is that shifting now?

"’Bizarre Love Triangle” was never even one of my favorite New Order songs. It might have been too popular for me. Then I read the lyrics and I was like, ‘Holy shit, these are great.’"

PY: It’s always hard to know when you are in the moment, exactly what’s going on. Some people might be keener at figuring that out than me, I don’t know. But yeah, in hindsight it’s easier to see what was going on. Like with the first record, you only have that once, the first time. There are no outside expectations going into it other than what you want to do yourself. I remember making the first record and I see a parallel with that, kind of the freedom of making that first record and just the natural, really good flow that that had, the process. I see a parallel with that and making the Break Up record that I made. That is coming out in September. Those two, for some reason, stick out in my head as the most enjoyable records that I made, process-wise. I’m not sure why, I just think those were where I was in a state where I just…I don’t know. I just kind of was keeping it closed, I wasn’t really sharing it until it was almost done. I don’t know, they were good experiences. But I’m sorry, I cut you off.

BE: That’s quite all right. When you say you were keeping it close and not sharing it, were you talking about the first album or later? Or the Break Up album?

PY: The Break Up record, for certain. The Break Up record was the first one I made where I recorded it from beginning to end, and didn’t play it for anybody outside of me and Sunny [Levine, the album’s producer] and Max, my cousin who was there making it with me, and Scarlett, until it was completely finished. I just didn’t want anything from the outside influencing me on it. I had fallen susceptible to that, for some reason. I wanted to just take it all back, I remember, when I made that record, and just see what would happen.

BE: “Relator” is a phenomenal song. You wrote all the songs for it?

PY: Yeah, I wrote all the songs expect for there is one cover on there. It was a Chris Bell song called “I Am the Cosmos.”

BE: And you reached out to Scarlett. How did that happen?

Pete YornPY: I texted her. I knew her from since she was, like, 17. I hadn’t seen her in a few years at that point, but I don’t know if you read about it…I woke up after having kind of a weird, what seemed like a dream but more just like a shot of adrenaline. I just kind of woke up with a start, like “Oh my god, I left the oven on” or “Oh my god, I’ve got to take out the garbage” or “I’m late for school.”Instead it was “Oh, I’ve got to make a duets record,” it was like that type of thing, just in my head. I thought Scarlett would be good. At the time, it was awhile ago and it was before she made her record. I didn’t know if she could sing or anything. But for some reason I just thought of Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot, not that I even knew much of their music at the time, but I just…I don’t know, it was just in my brain. When I thought of Brigitte, I just thought of Scarlett. And it was this big chain reaction of boom, boom, boom. Next thing I know I texted Scarlett and said we’ve got to make a record. She texted me back and said all right, let’s do it.

BE: Her voice has a smoky, almost bluegrass-y at times sound to at least the one song I have heard. It makes me want to go pick up her own album.

PY: She sings a little differently on her record. It’s kind of playing a different part. But I think on this record, we were just kind of doing something that worked with both our voices together. And so I think it kind of just naturally evolved into something with a slightly different flavor.

BE: Are you two thinking of doing any live shows?

PY: We’re hoping to do some stuff. Yeah, definitely hoping to do a few things. You know, I wouldn’t expect any crazy, marathon tour or something like that. But yeah, hopefully we’ll get together. It was cool, like the record just sat in my closet for a long time and then I started sharing it and it was sounding good. And we talked about it and I hadn’t seen her probably in the two years since we made the record. So we got together with just my acoustic guitar just to hang out and sing and see what it felt like, and it was just right in there. She sounds exactly like she sounds on the record naturally. When I listened to the record after awhile, I was like, “What was that effect we put on her voice?” And there is really no effect on her voice, she just sounds like that naturally. She sounds like she is singing out of an old microphone.

BE: I was going to ask that later, if you did an effect. And you didn’t, that’s amazing.

PY: Yeah. It’s real. She just sounds like that. She’s got like a vintage voice box or something. It’s funny.

BE: Looking through your set list, you’ve done a number of interesting covers. How did the cover of “Bizarre Love Triangle” come up?

PY: Somehow, that was never even one of my favorite New Order songs. Even though I love New Order and I liked the song, but that was a cool song but it might have been too popular for me. I don’t know what the deal was with me. Then I read the lyrics. They somehow were in front of me a few months ago and I read the lyrics and I was just like, “Holy shit, these are great”. And they just kind of…they really resonated with me so I started singing the song. That’s usually…it usually will be the lyrics.

BE: Well thank you very much. I really appreciate your time here. And good luck on the tour and I will hopefully see you soon.

PY: All right, take it easy, man. Thank you.

BE: Thanks Pete, very much.

PY: Bye-bye.

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