Youth Lagoon: “I’m actually not shy at all”

Posted January 9

The name of Boise, Idaho, native Trevor Powers’ band might be “Youth Lagoon.” And he might be just two steps into adulthood, but one thing the artist isn’t, according to the man himself, is naive. His stunning first album, The Year of Hibernation, supports that assertion — because although it’s dreamy and backward-looking, it is rife with a kind of tension and darkness that can only be achieved by the process of growing up. That powerful debut also managed to earn him a spot on a number of Best of 2011 lists, as well as MTV’s Music Meter.

In the tradition of modern-day web-born artists, Powers’ music started gaining stream online, with tracks like “July” (which just got a dark, Rebel Without A Cause-esque music video) turning up on music blogs in the spring and subsequently garnering the young man a contract with Fat Possum Records. His album came out at the end of September, and things haven’t slowed down since.

We caught up with Powers right before the start of the New Year to chat about the record, his perceived naivete and how everyone is a “bedroom artist.” Check out our interview below:

So, are you getting all excited for New Year’s? Or is that just not a big thing in Idaho? [NB: This interview took place the day before New Year's Eve]
Yeah, I’m really excited. Every year it’s a little bit different, like it switches off at people’s houses. So we’re just figuring out the party plans kind of late, but, yeah, it will be a cool New Year’s. I’m excited. I love New Year’s.

Really? A lot of people don’t like New Year’s. You know, because of the pressure.
Well, definitely I would say that Christmas is my favorite holiday. Just because I like the memories attached to it and stuff, and this year wasn’t a white Christmas or anything, but when it snows it makes it a little more, I don’t know… But New Year’s… I like New Year’s. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite holiday, but it’s always a lot of fun.

Do you do resolutions?
Yeah, when I was younger I tried to have some smaller resolutions — I don’t really remember what they were. But it was always like such a short-term fix, you know? I would maybe not do that thing or whatever in January, but then come February it was basically like over. So I don’t know if it’s just like I’m awful at resolutions. Maybe I’m just a realist. But, yeah, not so much anymore. Do you?

I guess vaguely. But I don’t like making big promises, because then you beat yourself up for not keeping them.
Yeah, that’s exactly it. There’s different things — like sometimes you just want want to change and then you change — but oftentimes with resolutions you dig really deep for things that you want to change so it’s almost forced, you know? So, yeah, that makes sense.

So it must be kind of cool, going into New Year’s and looking back. This has been a pretty big year for you.
Yeah, it is. It’s crazy. It’s weird because things have been so fast-paced and stuff, but it’s only just the beginning because right after the New Year touring is going to start again and all this kind of stuff.

And you’re going to Europe and all over the place.
Yeah, in February there’s going to be a few Australia dates. And some Tokyo dates — there’s a small two-day festival in Tokyo. And then some Europe dates. And then March will be more U.S. dates. So I’m pretty excited. I’m nervous, though, because the only other place I’ve been out of the country has been Canada. And so it will be like a whole new thing. But I’m excited.

Do you speak any other languages? Or will you have translators?
There will be translators. The only language that I even attempted is Spanish. But it was in high school. I took Spanish for two years, but the Spanish teacher was so bad that every day she only gave out crossword puzzles. And they didn’t even have anything to do with Spanish. It was just because she was an awful teacher. So basically I took two years, and at the time I thought it was cool because we didn’t have any homework. But then she got fired and then there I was two years later and I didn’t even know how to say one sentence in Spanish.

Oh, public school. I think there was a lot of Bingo in my high school french classes. So, are there any countries that you’re excited to see?
Honestly this sounds like a typical answer, but I guess all of them. I haven’t seen much else other than the U.S., you know? Australia I’m super excited about. Europe, Japan… It almost doesn’t matter, I’m just excited to go to all these different places, because I’ve never been.

Well, I guess it makes sense that you haven’t been around the world. You’re pretty young — 22, right?
Yes. 22, I’ll be 23 in March.

It’s interesting, the interviews I’ve read with you, the writers always cast you as super young and kind of wide-eyed — a kid from Idaho who wrote songs in his bedroom. Is that accurate? Are you comfortable with being characterized that way?
I don’t know. People love labeling things — labeling people. I’m just a completely normal 22-year-old, you know. I feel like that, too. Especially the whole Idaho thing. People almost want to take it as, ‘This kid is oblivious to the rest of the world.’ Which I guess I semi-am, since I haven’t been to a lot of places. But I feel like I’m decently cultured and I’m not sheltered or whatever.

And so I think people like that whole aspect, like maybe thinking I’m like a really shy kid or something — just based on the way the record sounds. I’m actually not shy at all. So I don’t know, I guess there’s a lot of people that put these labels on things. They don’t really know who I am at all.

Where do you think they get that? The sound of your record and a couple of identifying details?
Yeah, I think it’s from the record — just by the way it sounds, I guess. Probably especially the vocals, because the vocals are kind of buried in the mix. And so I think it kind of comes off that way. And there still is truth to that. I wrote the songs in my bedroom.

But at the end of the day I think most people do. Even artists that have been out a long time — I bet you a lot of them write songs in their bedrooms and they’re not considered ‘bedroom artists.’ So I don’t really know what most of these people are talking about, but I don’t really care [laughs].

And you’ve been in bands since you were a kid, right? It’s not just something you started doing in college or this year.
Yeah, I started music when I was about six. I started taking piano lessons and then when I got to be about 12 I started teaching myself guitar and then in high school I was jamming with friends and in and out of different high school bands. So it’s not like all of a sudden I was just woke up and was like, ‘Oh, I want to play music.’

What was your first band like?
I don’t know if I want to divulge… Eighth grade and I think it was called 23 Skidoo. And it was kind of like typical eighth grade rock. It was kind of punk. I would say like pop punk — pretty funny.

Did you write music then?
I wrote some music, but actually my older brother was the singer for a while. We didn’t really play many shows or whatever, but my older brother was the singer and I was on guitar. So me and my friends wrote a lot of music and my brother was the singer. He doesn’t really sing at all, so that’s what’s kind of humorous about it.

What kinds of songs did you write back then? Were they similar to what you’re writing now?
It’s completely different. I was actually cleaning out my room the other day and I found this old notebook with songs that I was writing in eighth grade and it’s crazy how much things change over just that period of time. Right now my music is a lot more personal and back then it was just writing about things like girls and moving to a new city, trying to meet girls [laughs]. The songs — everything has changed drastically from when I was a kid.

When did you feel more comfortable with writing more personal songs?
I don’t know, I would say it was a couple of years ago when I had just started experimenting with my own music. I just wanted to write something that just meant a little more to me, rather than just doing music because I wanted to.

There were all these kinds of things that I had going on in my head and around my life in general, so it turned into this process where I would just filter out all this stuff that was going around me — filter it through music.

So there wasn’t really a specific incident or anything that caused that. Just kind of over time, a couple years ago I started experimenting with more personal writing and things like that. It’s still not the only thing that I write. This record is a really personal record, but there’s all kinds of things going on in my head and I’ll try to turn those into music, too. So not all of them are as personal. But the majority of my music stems from a very inward place — self-examination and things like that.

Another common thing that people ask you — and it’s not that surprising considering that it’s mentioned in your label’s description of you — is about your anxiety. To me that’s really interesting because it seems like all musicians have anxiety. What do you think of the fact that everyone focuses on that about you?
It was kind of weird at first because I wasn’t expecting the record to get out there as much as it did. I was mainly just planning on releasing the record for free online. Ever since I was younger — I agree with you that most people out there, especially artistic people, struggle with some form of anxiety. But for me, it’s been a really big struggle in my life. Extreme anxiety. Almost like OCD, really bad OCD, but mentally.

I’ll have different random thoughts that pop in my head and then I obsess over them to the point of writing different things down to remind myself that this thought isn’t real. It plagued me ever since I was a kid. I remember my senior year of high school it got the worst it has ever been. My worries got really, really dark and weird and took me over. And after that, I started getting a little better. At the time I recorded the record I was seeing a couple different counselors for it, which helped a little bit. But it’s this on-going struggle. It’s always there, but it’s learning how to control it.

So as far as people focusing on that, obviously when something like that is a struggle in your life, it will come out in your art. And so that’s not the only thing that influences my art, but it’s definitely one of the factors.

For you, is your anxiety something that makes you create? Or does it freeze you up somehow?
It depends on what my worry is at that time. Because usually the way it works is there can only really be one really bad anxiety on my mind at a time. And each day it might be something different. Or maybe the same one for a really long period of time.

Usually it does help me create more. But sometimes it can be something that really, really holds me back. I have different people now that I’m a little more open about it that I talk to. My older brother, I’ll call him up sometimes and tell him things and usually that will help — just talking about it. But usually it’s not something that hinders any kind of musical creation, but sometimes it can be a little more paralyzing. It would never completely — I have enough of a hold on it now where it would never just like destroy me, because there’s enough people to talk to. But it is kind of difficult sometimes.

So now that you’re talking to people and it’s more out there, has your music changed at all?
Yeah, it’s hard to tell as far as the music changing — it’s hard to tell if some of it’s just me being at a different point in my life right now. Or me being more open about things.

But I’ve been writing since I’ve been home and there’s a lot of different factors that are still in the same vein as what I was working on before. But then there’s all kinds of new ideas I have for different things where I don’t know exactly were they’re coming from, but I think it’s just from constantly evolving.

You see new things and you’re with new people and things like that. So there’s going to be a constant evolution in what you’re creating. So I’m not sure exactly what that stems from.

How do you feel working on new music when your first album is on everyone’s Best of 2011 lists?
Honestly, the best thing that I can do for myself — and what I have been doing — is just kind of zone everything out and write how I was before. For myself. And not for anyone else. Not for any critics. Not for anyone. I feel like with music, if an artist records something or writes something that he or she is proud of, I feel like that’s the thing that people can relate to. You can hear it, like, ‘This artist really did what they wanted to do on this record.’ I feel like that’s the most important factor — always keeping that in mind.

By Brenna Ehrlich