His fifth solo studio effort and Vagrant Records debut, Pete Yorn sees the Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter peeling away the baroque orchestrations of his critically acclaimed previous work to expose a beating rock ‘n’ roll heart. Much of the eponymous album’s remarkable raw power comes courtesy of producer Frank Black, who in 2008 invited Yorn up to a Salem, Oregon studio for some spontaneous sessions. The result is exuberant and edgy, with songs like “The Chase” and the album-opening “Precious Stone” ringing out loud and strong with chiming guitars, soaring harmonies, and Yorn’s soul-wrenchingly wrecked vocals.
“It just makes me want to put my fist in the air,” Yorn says of the new album. “There’s something about it that’s really empowering.”
The album’s genesis came after a chance encounter with one of Yorn’s former A&R representative Nanci Walker. Upon hearing some rough demos, Walker suggested the once-and-future Pixie as a potential producer. Yorn – who thrives on collaboration, knowing that each new connection leads to fresh ideas – was certainly game.
“I was like, yeah, I’d love to do some songs with Frank Black,” he recalls. “She said, ‘Well, let me see what I can do’ and that was the last we talked about it. A couple of weeks later I got an e-mail from him, basically saying ‘Let’s rock.’”
One minor hitch: the missive arrived mere weeks before Yorn was due in Omaha for sessions with producer Mike Mogis that would ultimately become 2009’s Back & Fourth. Nevertheless, the offer was just too tempting to pass up.
“ Frank Black is one of my heroes,” Yorn says, “I grew up a big fan of his work, so I was like, ‘Well, I’ve gotta do that.’ I just felt there was no way I could not take advantage of the opportunity.”
And so, two weeks later, Yorn “snuck up to Oregon and made this little record.”
“I wasn’t concerned with the outcome,” he says. “It was more about the experience. I knew that I could go up there and possibly get nothing out of it, but I just thought it would be cool to go work with someone I really respect and see what I could learn from him.”
Having had little personal interaction other than a few calls and e-mails, the two musicians met up in Yorn’s hotel room to discuss material and aesthetics. Black’s idea was to strip Yorn’s atmospheric pop sound down to its bare bones, to create something more plainspoken than the carefully orchestrated arrangements of his prior work.
“I usually like to add a lot of layers, production-wise, and he wanted none of it,” Yorn says. “He was like, ‘No. I just want your voice out there, fucked up and raw. I don’t want a bunch of overdubs sucking away from your personality.’ He really believed that was the best way to present me.”
With a backing band comprised largely of Black’s own crack combo, Yorn cranked the record out quickly, laying it all down in a short, sharp five days. His voice in ruins from a poorly timed case of flu, the singer/songwriter gave one of the most powerfully emotive vocal performances of his career. But between the bad bug and Black’s new approach to recording, Yorn admits to feeling somewhat out of his comfort zone.
“At first, it was kinda hard,” Yorn says. “I always hear so many different musical parts in my head. But in hindsight, I remember listening to it on the flight home and thinking, wow, all the stuff that I was nervous about became my favorite things about it. It’s filled with imperfections, but I like that, it just seems more natural that way.”
Songs like “Future Life” and “Rock Crowd” are striking in their electric ebullience, especially in contrast to the darker songcraft featured on the haunting Back & Fourth. Yorn suggests that while the character singing the “somber” songs on that album is “coming from a more remorseful, nostalgic place, the person singing the songs on this record is in a way better place. He’s more empowered, he’s not worried about the past, he’s looking forward and he’s like, ‘Let’s go.’ It’s a totally different stance.”
That forward-looking approach could well define Yorn’s own recent prolificacy. Pete Yorn marks his third release in just over a year, following his two acclaimed 2009 releases, Back & Fourth and Break Up, a musical alliance with Scarlett Johansson inspired by the classic duet recordings of Serge Gainsbourg & Brigitte Bardot (which was, in fact, recorded way back in 2006). But the triumphant rock ‘n’ roll of Pete Yorn stands as the clearest distillation thus far of a restless creative spirit that simply can’t be contained. Where Pete Yorn goes from here is anyone’s guess, least of all his own.
“My attention to something runs high and then all of a sudden I’m into something else,” he says. “That’s part of why I put out three records in a year and they’re all so different sounding. I have to mix it up to stay inspired.”