“I’ve got new eyes,” says 36-year-old rock & roll songwriter Pete Yorn, looking back on the turbulent period that compelled him to write three albums in just over a year. “I’m at a place where I’m on the other end after walking through fire. It’s what everyone goes through in their life—like a rite of passage.”
Yorn wouldn’t detail his tribulations other than mentioning “loss” offhandedly. But on close listen, his most recent album, the 2010 release Pete Yorn, oozes lyrics dealing with uncertainty and fear of the unknown, as does 2009’s Back & Forth, produced by Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes. The former has more electric exuberance, the latter is dark and dwelling, while his third release during this time, the 2009 Break Up, is middle-of-the-road pop. Aside from musical versatility, what’s significant is his copious coping: writing.
“I’ve had a lot on my mind and I had the most prolific writing spurt since when I first started writing in high school,” Yorn says.
Ironically, he wasn’t trying to write songs at all. A friend suggested he just get everything out of his head, so he’d jot notes on his phone because it was handy. “When I’m at the grocery store and some shit hits me, I ain’t gonna rip out a pen and paper,” says Yorn in an unshakable New Jersey accent.
With piles of electronic prose, Yorn saw lyric-resembling wordbursts that fit together like a puzzle.
“This was a much more unconscious way of approaching lyrics than previously,” Yorn says. “As a songwriter, that’s something.” With previous efforts—from the 2001 debut Musicforthemorningafter onward—the melodies and chord progressions came first, which would coax the lyrics.
To date, Pete Yorn is his most personal and straightforward album. Rather than methodical orchestration and overdubbing, its simplistic rock & roll leanings are reminiscent of his high school music-making. “At that point, I didn’t know anything about layering in the studio. There’s a certain innocence to that. It’s crude.”
The technical shift came largely from producer Frank Black (of Pixies), who believed Yorn’s talent to be best shown through stripping it down to its bare bones.
“I remember I kept wanting to get that one extra part in whatever song we were doing, and Frank was like, ‘No! We’re sticking to the plan,’ ” Yorn says. “That’s endearing to me. Sometimes, you have to do that to get some perspective—like hitting the reset button.”
The album was recorded in five days in Seattle, and despite coming off a hard flu, Yorn’s loose-gravel belting came off as passionate as ever.
Words gushed forth from 2009 to 2010, which juxtaposed Yorn’s practice of restraint, as mentioned above and heard on Break Up, his collaboration with starlet Scarlett Johansson. The duo, with producer Sunny Levine, kept the project isolated by not allowing any outside influences. They also established a minimalist philosophy. Although it sounds multifaceted, the album was recorded on one Gretsch New Yorker guitar—albeit distorted widely—backed by Levine’s digital loops. “When we set rules, it makes us more creative. We stretch limitations to make something fresher. It’ll make you scrappier,” Yorn says.
Despite the abundant output, Yorn’s creative juices are far from dried up. For the past nine months, he’s been recording an album of cover songs with friends, a project that diverges from his recent soul searching.
“It’s a palate cleanser, and it gives us some enjoyment.”