Wednesday, February 8, 2012

IN THE STILL OF THE HYPE: An interview with Trevor Powers aka Youth Lagoon

YOUTH LAGOON aka Trevor Powers talks anxiety, adulation and the creation of a critically acclaimed, partially therapeutic album recorded in a garage. ANDY HAZEL leans in a little closer.

“I still find it strange answering questions about my mind,” Trevor Powers says quietly down the line from his home in Boise, Idaho, snowfall almost audible in the background. “You do start to get used to it after a while. But, it’s strange to me mainly because I don’t know how to explain things, I’m better at singing than talking.” While he may doubt his ability with words, emails from empathetic fans around the world attest to the power of his lyrics. His gentle warmth and quiet enthusiasm throughout the interview seem slightly at odds with the fragile lost soul haunting the songs of his album The Year of Hibernation.

Most performers draw a line between writing music for personal reasons and seeking an audience for it, dividing what they feel comfortable expressing from what is off limits. For Powers, a singer who strongly identifies with the often overwhelming honesty of songwriter Daniel Johnston, drawing that line is a curious prospect. “I don’t know if I have decided yet!” he says laughing loudly. “I write songs about what I feel and ideas I want to express, I don’t really think about what I can or cannot say or should and shouldn’t say; I’m just writing. I haven’t been analysing it that much, not until someone asks me about it anyway,” he says with an audible grin.

Previously a student at Boise State University who wrote and recorded music in his spare time, in 2010 Powers was forced to choose between continuing to pay for counselling sessions that had been helping him to manage his chronic anxiety, or to record an album. Recorded over a bitter winter, The Year of Hibernation is the luxuriously woolly yet discomfortingly tight result.

“When I write, part of what is going on stems from personal experiences, but also from analysing what’s going on around me, and I’d say that process is partially therapeutic.” Though the album revels in its own intimate beauty, rich with poetic snapshots of times and places, Powers is still unsure whether the album was ‘successful’ in helping him deal with the issues that prompted its creation. “I think so, but I still have a weird mind,” he says with another, slightly defensive, laugh. “It's always therapeutic dealing with things, growing and learning, but I don’t think you put something on paper and it’s dealt with just like that. You’re constantly learning and growing and you just get better, or wiser, about managing," he pauses in contemplation. "Being busy helps. It helps to keep my mind on other things, when you’re put in different circumstances, you have different anxieties,” he says cautiously. “It’s always one of those things you’re dealing with, but a lot of people don’t talk about it so much, I actually think it’s really common, but isn’t spoken about very often.”

With intentions this raw and uniquely rendered, it's perhaps unsurprising his music has had similarly beneficial effects on other people dealing with anxiety, though he’s hesitant to take on the role of teacher or success story. “People do write to me and say: ‘I’ve heard you write stuff about anxiety and dealing with your mind’, but really people’s minds are structured so differently, it comes down to that person figuring out their own way. I don’t know how much help I can be directly, but I’m really glad that my music meant something to them.”

Playing his music live is something Powers has only recently considered. “For the most part I went into recording the album with the mindset of making exactly what I wanted to, without thinking about how I’d play it live. Once it was done I was like ‘now what? How do I make it happen?’” he pauses. “It was a big process for about four months as far as getting everything together and figuring things out. Like how to use my beat machine and make all the beats happen away from me on stage. I have one person playing with me live, Logan [Hyde] who does the guitar, so with just two people on stage we have to figure out ways to do things. It has a different feel than the album because that was made in such a specific environment.”

Fortunately, Powers finds that revisiting the songs so often doesn’t lessen their emotional impact, an impact that many live reviews find compelling. “That’s the only way I know how to play,” he says. “Music to me takes me back to certain places and events. As for when a show starts, it’s almost impossible for me not to think about when it was written and what was going on, it’s just as emotional if not more so. Playing them over and over, reliving that over and over, I don’t mind that. I don’t know why,” he pauses, “maybe it’s just because I really enjoy it but then…man I don’t know if there is even an answer to that question!” he laughs again.

Despite writing the album alone, and having spent very little time by himself since the glowing reviews arrived and incessant touring began, Powers has found inspiration to write a new batch of songs in his constantly shifting environment, “I’m just always writing and working on ideas. I can’t say if it’s more personal than what I’ve done, but the songs definitely act as time capsules. All my music is like that, especially now that I’m going on tour and working on songs in hotel rooms, they come across in a totally different way than if I’m writing at home, and these are times I want to remember.”

One environment that is a constant for him is his hometown of Boise, a place he mentions at every opportunity and the importance of which is underlined by a tattoo of Idaho on his arm, next to the words ‘Be still’. “I think Idaho is one of the most underrated places in the world,” he says keenly. “The other night I went for a drive into the mountains and…they’re always amazing to me. Some of the Sawtooth Mountains and parts of Idaho National Park are so beautiful, it’s very much a part of who I am.” Here’s hoping he doesn’t lose this connection anytime soon.

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