Winston Yellen and co. have been through these parts before, performing at last year’s installment of Pygmalion Music Festival. But many things have changed. They know where they’re going in many ways, and they’ve been through C-U, so they know what they’re dealing with. With the release of Night Beds‘ debut record, Country Sleep, the band has hit a chord with listeners and broken through with some positive visibility. They’re touring, performing on BBC, and still figuring everything out as the days pass.
Yellen gave us a few minutes of his time to discuss some tracks on the new record, finding where “home” is, and how living in Johnny Cash’s old house wasn’t intentional.
Smile Politely: Finding “home” is a theme that emerges on the record — home in both people and in places. I understand that this record kind of emerged after you had kind of bounced around between Colorado and Nashville a few times … I’ve also read about this Civil War era house, but how important is place to your work as a songwriter? Are their roots in each of these places — do those roots reveal themselves in your muisc?
Winston Yellen: Probably in the lack thereof. Outside of my family, I don’t really have roots to a place. I tend to enjoy places for a limited amount of time. For some reason I find myself almost stuck in the South, I guess. I keep coming back, no matter how long I leave. But, uh, I don’t know. It’s a good question for someone like me. I feel like I’m kind of a weed in someone’s yard. I don’t really have any roots down and I don’t see that happening any time soon. I’d like that to be different, but right now, I’m definitely more of a potted plant.
I’ve bounced around — I went to school on a scholarship for soccer and I wasn’t very good. Don’t let that fool you; I played at this all-Christian school (I just went where the money was). I didn’t really like it and left after a year and went to music — studied literature, history — I had like nine majors; I studied everything you can study in the arts — I pretty much studied creative writing. Being a dropout, I’ve kind of graduated academia. I know it’s not for me. It’s left me a little bit aimless but, um, it helps. It’s become a shield in some way. I try not to get to heavy about it…
Roots. Huh. I like being where I can drink six beers and go to bed and watch cable, knowing I can drive to a studio the next day. Nashville is a pretty good place for that.
SP: The record also seems to trace a search for this notion of “home” in people. I read or heard somewhere that the band was started with an old friend … ?
Yellen: Yeah — we did that Night Beds on and off for a few years and then we parted ways and I kept the name and started recording songs on my own time, recording songs at a studio when I had enough money from the jobs I was working. I just kept going — not really haphazard, because this was the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do — but I never really had a premeditated thing to start a band and take over the world … like other bands have and done successfully. I never really had that option because I didn’t really ever have the people to ever make that band, nor did I ever want that. I just wanted the freedom to create on my own terms.
SP: Can you talk for a minute about your band and about others — musical mentors, teachers, friends — that have helped you mature as a songwriter and how people were involved in that process? Who are the people in the background of who you’ve become musically.
Yellen: Well, I think you’d have to separate influence from creativity. There have been artists I’ve discovered that meant a great deal to me personally and artistically and have motivated me creatively, and then outside of that there are a few people — the people in your corner — who want you to keep going even though you might feel like you’re not doing anything worthwhile and you don’t feel like doing it anymore … as anybody might feel when they are working hard at something. Those people, and they sometimes don’t have anything to do with music; they’ve been good to me and have kept me going. I’ve needed that encouragement and a little bit of backbone.
SP: It seems like, from what you said earlier, that you’ve had to tread a lot of that ground alone, though.
Yellen: Yeah. I mean, I don’t really have any musical background; I’m not, like, a good musician. I don’t really consider myself a songwriter. I’m just a guy who writes songs. I think there’s a difference, especially here in Nashville where you have really well-manicured songs that you hear on the radio. And this is a city of musicians: people that wake up and have a bowl of cheerios and write really great pop or country songs. There are thousands of studios here. And for me, I never really fit that mold. And didn’t really care to. I knew that I didn’t really have that gift. I just kind of stumbled into it and failed a lot and had to work through it on my own and figure it out with a lot of failure and a lot of shitty songs. So, yeah, it was a lot of trial and error, and eventually there were a few songs that I liked.
I still feel like I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I just keep showing up. It’s like showing up for football practice and being eighty pounds and getting the shit kicked out of you by linemen. This is how I feel about music — I don’t ever feel like I know what I’m doing, or that I have a formula or influence that makes me feel like I can just do this. I just kind of keep trying and keep pulling up my face… Everybody has to do this, though — to kind of smack your shins in the dark. But there is something pleasurable about it and there are rewards to be had that come every once in a while.
SP: There’s a lyric in “Cherry Blossoms” about simple songs that you can sing along to. Night Beds strikes me as a band like that. Can you talk for a minute about your experience with “simple songs”? There is something about simplicity that allows the audience to connect with a musician. Do you have a memory of a first favorite song that you could sing along to — or maybe a concert where you have experienced this kind of musical connection?
Yellen: There are a number of things — a number of times when simple things have done it for me. In a musical context, there are bands that I admire who don’t have a very high aesthetic or intellectual approach, but they transcend. There are a lot of times when I’m trying to reach that and it’s part of the challenge of being an artist. For this record it was very intentional to get myself to write something that was very minimal in its approach. Like, ‘What can I do to try to limit?’ I didn’t want to do anything other than pick up a guitar and create something intense. It was easier said than done. You listen to something like, Page France’s Hello, Dear Wind (Michael Nau, now of Cotton Jones) or Sufjan [Stevens], where there are only two or three instruments or even just like three chords, and something amazing is produced. I always wanted to do that but was afraid to, I guess. I came to the point … well, I was just like, well, if I’m going to fail, I want to fail this way. I tried to be very instinctual and very guttural about it.
Trying to tap into that is a challenge and trying to get something out that doesn’t sound contrived and also doesn’t just sound like I’m just shitting out things emotionally is difficult. I wanted to portray something that was authentic and intimate. This is what old country or blues music is all about. There’s really not a lot going on on the surface, but the music has been refined in a way that really makes it … I think that is what I was interested in.
SP: Storytelling is another way that connection can be made. The record was produced in a old pre-Civil War house, a cabin, that used to be owned by Johnny Cash. This narrative comes up a lot in interviews and I’m interested in the ways that a story like this one helps to create a kind of mythology around a band — a mythos that can make a band seem more authentic or recognizable to an audience. Since Bon Iver’s cabin-in-the-woods narrative became so well known, I’ve wondered if other bands see this kind of background narrative as a way of helping (and forgive me for this) brand recognition. Was your cabin an intentional move toward this kind of promotion?
Yellen: Ha! No. I’ve not been premeditative about my own folklore. When I moved into the house, I had no idea that Johnny Cash had ever owned the property. I just found it on Craigslist because I needed a place to live. I’d been living on my ex-girlfriend’s futon so it was more of a necessary logistical move than a carefully plotted backstory. I’m not trying to add or construct anything. I’m just happy to have fallen into something that was a really cool thing. I was grateful to be a part of it for a short time. I wasn’t rubbing my hands together by my pre-Civil War fireplace thinking, “Ooh, this is gonna be a great moment in folk history.” I mean, I didn’t really give a shit. I just wanted to get away from all the people in Nashville. I searched Craigslist for houses that were about thirty minutes outside of Nashville and ended up living in a remote location that happened to be part of Johnny Cash’s estate. It was all completely happenstance. I don’t really think about it too much. I can’t think about that stuff too much or I’ll just end up filling up with complete shit. But, I wouldn’t have made the record I did if I wasn’t there. It was remote. It was like time traveling for me. It was something that was very special to me in a way that I could have never planned or anticipated. I get [the narrative thing] though. I’m into other people’s stories. I’m just not into mine.
SP: “Wanted You In August” has a little bit different flavor than the others on the record — it’s not overtly a folk/country song. Is this indicative at all of the future sound of the band? What is next for Night Beds?
Yellen: Yeah … so that song is, well, it isn’t really a fallback because the twangy pedal steel stuff on the record was completely new for me. I moved into it while we were recording because I had been obsessed by old country and blues. And then I started listening to Bill Evans and stuff like that, and so started writing jazz-influenced chords as we were recording. So, maybe “Wanted You In August” is a kind of stepping stone from that to the next thing. Sonically and musically, it’s completely different. I’m glad that song’s there to let people know that we’re not just a folk/country band. I’m pretty sure we’ve been pigeonholed as that already, which is fine; we made a country record and it’s what I wanted to do from the outset. Doing something like “Wanted You” was good for me as a representation of something a bit more dense that has a little more going on. I’m drawn to that. It’s what I usually do. So I’m glad it’s there. That one song is an air hole for me — a place to breathe. The move to country was something completely new, so the song was a kind of safety pin.
Night Beds perform at Mike ‘N Molly’s tonight with Jenny O. and Finer Feelings as a part of Pygmalion Music Festival‘s Summer Show Series. Show starts at 10 p.m. and tickets are $8.