Trevor Powers doesn’t really get it.
The musician — who performs under the moniker Youth Lagoon — caught the ink of critics back when his debut record, The Year in Hibernation, was released in late 2011. The album is a sprawling, introspective sonic and lyrical examination of crippling anxiety. Pitchfork gave it their esteemed Best New Music. Allmusic noted its “vulnerability and empathy.” And the AV Club called his songcraft “intimate-yet-epic.” Blogs and tweeters celebrated the immediacy of the music, and how emotional it was, and how all of that probably had to do with the fact that it was recorded in his bedroom after a break-up. Except now we’re back to what Trevor Powers doesn’t get — because, well, Hibernation actually wasn’t recorded in a bedroom.
“That’s a press fantasy or something,” the 23-year-old musician says. Like most things on the Internet these days, the story of Youth Lagoon seems to play a major role as to why people enjoy Youth Lagoon. But also like most things on the Internet these days, the story of Youth Lagoon has taken on a life of its own, being twisted, shaped, and pushed to fit whatever “Bon Iver cabin tale” is appropriate to tell at the time.
But aside from all that hoopla, the music is pretty good too. Powers just released the second Youth Lagoon LP, Wondrous Bughouse (Fat Possum), a bigger, swirling record of indie pop that feels like a natural next step. He recorded this one (also not in his bedroom) down in Georgia with Ben Allen, a producer known for his work with Cee Lo, Animal Collective, and Deerhunter, among others. It took two months to come together, and now the musician sets out on tour, and stops by the Bowery Ballroom tonight to play for a sold-out crowd. We talked with Powers over the phone while he sat on his front porch in Boise, sipping on a Dick Danger Ale (a name he can’t say without laughing), addressing his growth in popularity over the past year, the new album, and how Boise isn’t–believe it or not–in the middle of nowhere.
You’re prepping for SXSW. Last year was your first time. How are you preparing yourself for this year?
Yeah, SXSW is crazy but really fun. I’m taking it all with a grain of salt. I don’t ever feel like putting pressure on yourself is necessary. As soon as that happens, you set yourself up for failure, you know what I mean? I feel like at SXSW, it’s funny because there are all these press people that are expecting whatever and they will just tear bands apart because you get, like, two minutes to soundcheck, 20 minutes to play, and then rush all your gear off stage. It’s definitely one of those things that’s more fun than anything. You have to take it as it is.
Talking about critics, your first record was loved by many and blew up (as much as you can) in the indie world. Safe to say that took you by surprise?
It definitely did. My original plan was to release it for free.
What has your experience dealing with the press over the past year been like?
For the most part, I don’t read anything anymore. It goes back to taking everything as it is. I find it interesting because you put out a record and all these people are writing all this stuff. Everyone interprets things differently and they make you out to be someone and then other people who know you will read it and be like, “What the hell are they talking about?” I just find it humorous. You go on stage or you do interviews or whatever, but then sometimes when you see the end product you’re surprised. How did that get interpreted that way, you know?
Your new record is already getting positive reviews. How do you stay focused?It comes down to tuning it out. Going into making a record or even playing a show, you can’t try to see yourself through other people’s eyes. Like I said, the interpretation of others is so across the board so you would drive yourself crazy trying to present yourself in a certain way. You have to stay real to whatever you believe in. Whether or not people latch onto it, you have to believe in it. That’s the most important thing.
If you find yourself too involved in that stuff you can get brainwashed. You find yourself with some certain agenda or whatever. At first, when Year of Hibernation got press and people were attaching themselves to it, you know, from that point on whatever you create, at least some people will listen to it. To me, it’s a really beautiful thing. But your motives always have to stay–not selfish, but you really have to focus on why you’re doing it for yourself. Everything else is just a really big bonus.
What’s it like dealing with all of the normal stress and anxiety that comes with being your average twenty something — you know, figuring out how to be an Adult, not eat cereal for ever meal, that kind of thing — but then doing that on top of a swell in popularity as a musician?
The wildest thing is always how your relationships change. Not always in a bad way, but you have to adjust. When things get busy with touring and all that kind of stuff, when you actually have time to yourself, you figure out who you want to spend it with. Everyone has a clock on their head and the most precious thing you can give to someone is your time, so you just have less of it to give because you’re so busy doing other things. But it makes personal time and relaxation time all the more important.
The new record feels like the natural next step for you. Overall, how do you feel about it?
That’s the cool thing about when you really pursue something. I visualize the end product even before things are being written. You have this, not necessarily a goal, but idea of what the end product should be. And when it’s all said and done, there are no regrets.
Is the album that became Wondrous Bughouse the album you had envisioned in your head?
Definitely. It always shifts though. During the recording process, you have to keep an open mind on how you have certain ideas on where to take certain songs. But when you start tracking, things start to sound differently, so you have to keep an open mind as far as where the song wants to go. The song itself has its own life. Albums have their own life. You have to stay in tune with that. The way I do that is trying to zone things out and find that mental isolation. You can be around people, but you can feel isolated and trapped in your thoughts.
Was Wondrous Bughouse recorded in the same manner as Year of Hibernation? That was recorded in your bedroom, right?
Oh, really? Wow. I’m bad at my job.
Yeah. That’s all press fantasy or something. I don’t know where that came from. It’s insane, dude. That’s why I literally can’t read things anymore because they get so twisted. Every artist that’s ever existed, for the most part, they probably write in their house, you know what I mean? You come home from tour. You write in your house. So it’s the same as me. I recored Year of Hibernation at my friend’s house, but he’s a professional engineer so he has all sorts of equipment and that whole aesthetic–everything that was done on that record–was intentional. It wasn’t because of a lack of equipment, but getting across those feelings was done with purpose. You can have certain songs, but pending how the song is dressed, it could be a completely different song. It’s like you dress it in different outfits, and sometimes you experiment with different outfits, and it will fit better in different ways.
For Wondrous Bughouse, I went out to Georgia and worked with Ben Allen. It was a really cool experience to work with Ben because he’s easy to bounce ideas off of and he gravitates towards the artist’s vision rather than forcing anything. I communicate my vision, and he might go about it in a different route than I would, but it creates this healthy tension. So with this record, the biggest difference was doing it outside of Boise, and going somewhere else and being more isolated because you don’t have distractions in relationships or whatever.
Other than Ben Allen, what did removing yourself from Boise bring to the record?
I feel like Boise is so misunderstood because people talk about Boise like there’s nothing to do. I was talking to someone the other day and they were like, “What does it feel like to be somewhere so isolated?” And I was like, “Well, you do realize that Boise has over 200,000 people in it.” It’s not New York, but there’s always things to do.
I’m originally from Iowa, so I feel you. Our states often get confused.
Yeah, they do! They do, man. [Laughs.]
What do you think about the almost mythical story about how Year of Hibernation came from “this place in the middle of nowhere.” It’s like a music writer’s wet dream.
It’s weird. [Laughs.] It’s so funny. The thing about Boise, too, is that it’s easier to be isolated if that’s what you want because there are the mountains close by, so there are times where I’ll go with friends up to the mountains. There are some good bars in the middle of nowhere where you can just hangout. But Year of Hibernation wasn’t about any physical sense of hibernation. But just that mental isolation. I would think that a lot of people even experience that in really large cities because you’re around so many people, but at the same time, probably feel alone like an ant in a giant ant farm.
Did you have any lyrical themes you wanted to get across with the new record?
There was no kind of agenda. I write so sporadically. I’ll start a song and I’ll wrestle with it for like a month, but in the meantime, I’ll get distracted and start a different song. It ends up being a congruent piece because you work on it within a certain timeframe so your mentality is somewhat in the same space. It’d be different if I wrote a song and then finished it four years later, because I’d be in a completely different mental state. Every song on the record started coming out with its own life because it was written during that same time period.
What is it like to put lyrics out that are so personal and touch on such emotional subjects?
It can be weird to put a part of yourself out there for people to observe. Here’s a piece of me to analyze or do whatever you want to do with it. But it comes back to the interpretation thing. When I write, only I know what I mean. People can sense it to a certain degree, but it’s one of those things that, even when there are personal things put out there, it still remains personal because only I really know what it means, you know? It’s beautiful that people latch on to these songs or albums, even if it’s not the exact way it’s meant to be.